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Fenghuang Ancient Town

Fenghuang (Phoenix) Ancient Town, famous for its stilt houses, folk culture and ethnic groups, was ever praised as "the most beautiful small town in China".

3-5 Days

stilted houses, miao village

Best Time of Year

All Year

Located on the western edge of Hunan Province next to Guizhou, Fenghuang Ancient Town, also known as Phoenix Ancient Town, is one of the most beautiful towns in China.

With a history of 1,300 years, the town features distinct residential buildings, elegant bridges plus several mysterious towers and pagodas. Upon entering the town, the visitor will immediately get a sense of the area's mystery, elegance and primitive simplicity. When an early morning mist sets in around the bridges over the water and stilted houses, the area simply becomes a mirror of traditional Chinese paintings.

Visiting a Miao village is a must when traveling in Fenghuang. Visitors will find a large array of silver ornaments, homemade tie-dyes, and unique local snacks there.

The town also has a reputation as the birthplace of Shen Congwen, a nationwide known writer of the “native soil” style of writing, where regional culture and identity plays a greater role than in classical chinese literature.

Admission:186 yuan ($29.47)/person

Related:Trip Story by Johanna Read 

There are many luxuries.  But one that is getting harder and harder to experience is the luxury of discovering something before any of your friends do.  Get yourself to the province of Hunan, China.  Your friends have not been here.  They won’t have even heard of the capital, the national parks, or the UNESCO heritage sites within the province.  Well … unless your friends are from China, of course!A must-see in Hunan is the ancient city of Fenghuang, or Phoenix.  Popular with domestic tourists, Phoenix is an opportunity for the international visitor to observe both ancient and modern Chinese cultures intersecting.

An Interplay of Old and New China

Early mornings here are timeless.  Stroll along the Tuo Jiang River and see local women (and a few men) crouched along the banks washing their laundry.  Even the elderly walk nimbly over the narrow pedestrian bridges which cross the river, though a bit more slowly on the one made of individual stepping stones placed almost a foot apart.  A man poles a boat along the bridges and damns, making sure that grasses don’t block the flow of water downriver.  The cloth door of a boat is drawn back as the sleeper inside starts his day.  Similar daily rituals have been practiced here since before the first brick house was built, over 450 years ago, and since the Miao people arrived thousands of years earlier.

A Gondola In Phoenix, Hunan Province, China

Later in the day Phoenix gets much busier, especially in the no-vehicle zone of the ancient town.  But this is when you can see modern and age-old China side-by-side.  Men pull taffy on hooks in shop-fronts, turning the golden ribbons into ginger candy, while Chinese tourists fill their Prada bags with sweet treats to bring home to friends in Beijing and Shanghai.  Female tourists of all ages walk through the twisting streets with crowns of flowers atop their heads, made the old way by women perched on stools observing passersby.  The tourists take the flowers off only to don traditional Miao costumes complete with silvery headdresses — modern women pretending to be old-fashioned girls, posing sweetly by the river for the entrepreneurial local photographers (plus snapping a few selfies with their iPhones).  Gondoliers take long boats of visitors along the riverside where cowpeas dry in the sun and laundry flaps from the balconies of the stilted houses.  Another Chinese tour group walks by, their leader holding a bright umbrella high in the air so her charges don’t mistakenly follow another guide.  You are wiser — you escape the fray by climbing a few steps and walk almost alone atop the ancient wall, with excellent views of the river and the street scenes below.

“If you see another westerner here, you’ll both be so surprised you’ll stop in your tracks.  But use this as an opportunity to share your advice on how to find the best chili-covered fresh water crabs on a stick, and they’ll tell you where the gelato shop is.  Congratulate each other on your aptitude for already being somewhere which will soon be on everyone else’s radar.”

When the meandering lanes and passageways get too busy, walk away from the river to the (slightly) more modern parts of town. Here you’ll still see a fascinating mix of the old and new.  A wrinkled grandpa squats on the sidewalk smoking what looks like an opium pipe.   A mother carries her toddler in a bamboo basket on her back while she buys three eggs and a whole chicken (complete with head and feet) from the street seller.  Teenage girls — a riot of colourful high heels, patterned tights and mini skirts — browse DVDs.  Duck into a few of the many shops selling one-of-a-kind designs.  Quality and prices are both excellent, and you’ll be a year ahead of fashion trends when you get home.

Night Time is the Right Time!

The ancient town is completely different at night, although not quite as calm as early morning riverside. Wander the alleyways again, testing yourself to see if you recognize any buildings from your earlier visit, now with red lanterns guiding your way.  Have a drink in one bar, dinner somewhere else, and a nightcap at a third place.  Each will be an experience.  Look for a dish featuring the cowpeas — a type of long bean — you saw drying by the river.  This local delicacy is delicious fermented and stir-fried with pork belly.

Chinese tourists like their big spectacles and Hunan province does not disappoint.

Save one night to see a show.  Chinese tourists like their big spectacles and Hunan province does not disappoint.  Sprinkled throughout the province are elaborate multi-level stages — some indoors, some out — complete with roaring waterfalls, moving platforms, and extravagant light shows.  The stage at Zhangjiajie incorporates an actual mountainside!  Shows feature hundreds of performers, singing and dancing in vivid costumes and recounting the trials and tribulations of historical loves and wars. You’ll follow the story even if you don’t speak Mandarin, and you’ll be treated to performances rivaling the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics.  The show in Phoenix is one of the most accessible to westerners, featuring the traditional dancing, music and costumes of the Miao ethnic minority.  The theatre’s river and waterfalls are a wonder.  Catch the show nightly behind the Phoenix Grand Hotel (the best in the city, though there are also some boutique options in the old city).  Arrive early to watch the aerobatic stunts outside.

UNESCO Designation Brings Popularity

There’s lots to see and do throughout the province of Hunan. Explore other historical towns like Hongjiang and Qianjiang.  Go underground to see rivers and waterfalls in the Yellow Dragon Cave.  Gawk at spectacular views atop the Scenic Areas of Wulingyuan (which inspired the movie Avatar) and Tianmen mountain.  Yes, you can ascend via cable car, plus descend from Wulingyuan in the world’s tallest outdoor elevator.  The Sunshine Hotel in Zhangjiajie is a luxe base.

Day and night, ancient and modern, Phoenix is unique.  But get here soon; Phoenix won’t remain unknown to international travellers for long. This city, called “the most beautiful town in China” by New Zealand-born China expert Rewi Alley, is on UNESCO’s tentative list for world heritage designation. The world will be here soon afterward.

Start and end your trip to Hunan province with some shopping and feasting in Shanghai.  Arrive via a direct 90 minute China Eastern flight to Zhangjiajie, or to the provincial capital of Changsha if you want to explore other parts of the province (such as the spectacular Lang Shan mountains).  Though there are frequent buses, book a car and English-speaking driver.



Silver Ornaments

Miao women usually use the fanciest silver ornaments, decorating themselves, head to toe with headwear and a large variety of silver ornaments for the face, neck, shoulder, waist, arm, feet and hands. On various occasions such as festivals and marriages, Miao people are immersed in a sea of silver ornaments.

Tiaohua Festival

Tiaohua Festival of the Miao ethnic group falls on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month every year. It is a grand event for Miao people where they worship and celebrate their ancestors. On this day, youth express love through elegant dances and affectionate songs. Therefore, the festival is also known as the Chinese Valentine's Day.

Floating River Lantern

On New Year's eve, the most interesting tradition is to float the river lantern. People gather on the Tuojiang River, put the paper-made lanterns on the water surface, light the candles and let the river takes the lanterns and the wishes of the people to wherever it flows.