I happened to have the opportunity to travel with my American friend and classmate, Lucy, to the ancient town of Fenghuang, during my last winter holiday. It turned out to be a wonderful decision. It helped Lucy and I decompress after a semester of intense study at university. Fenghuang County is located in Hunan Province, Xiangxi Prefecture. It is an exceptionally well-preserved ancient town harboring unique ethnic languages, customs, arts and many distinctive architectural remains of Ming and Qing dynasties. The two Chinese ethnic minority groups that live in Fenghuang County are Miao and Tujia. The town was built on a mountainside and a river flows at the base of mountain. The history of this town traces back to the warring states periods. (770 BC－221 BC).
The significance of Fenghuang town is not only that it is located near Zhangjiajie National Park; but also that is very small, yet contains government buildings, museums, shops, hotels, nightclubs, even a post office - the town of Fenghuang boasts all of these amenities (the only thing missing is a supermarket) and yet there is only one street crossing the entire town, from east to west. Branching off, the street shapes Fenghuang town into a rough triangle. There are no cars or bikes in sight. Deliveries are made by hand cart or on somebody's back - and all the paths are cobble stone! The ancient town of Fenghuang is a well-designed tourist destination; it only takes two days to visit all the attractions within the town and entrance fees to most places of interest in Fenghuang County are reasonably cheap. In our case, we visited 11 attractions including two attractions located outside of town and spent only 168 RMB each on passes. The attractions include the former residence of Shen Congwen, a famous writer; the former residence of the richest man in town; the former residence of Xiong Xining, the prime minister of Yuan Shikai's ruling period (1912-1916); the south wall; the Huang Yongyu Art Gallery; the east gate tower; punt boats (flat bottom boats for taking tourists sightseeing); the Rainbow Bridge; Yang's ancestral temple and the valley of the Miao minority group. Quite a lot of tourist attractions for such a small town, don't you agree?
The former residence of Shen Congwen - Shen Congwen (1902-1988), a professor of Peking University, was a famous writer. One of his most famous books is "Border Town," which you can find in most of the shops in FengHuang, or in the post office or almost every souvenir shop along the street. But the former residence itself is quite hard to find even if you have a map. It is a siheyuan - or, a compound with traditional Chinese houses made of grey bricks or wood built around a courtyard. In the center of the courtyard, you will see a big jar full of rain water. The jug is also full of money and coins thrown in by tourists making wishes for good fortune. Inside the rooms you can see antique furniture: old beds, tables, chairs, lamps, etc. on display. Family portraits and pictures hanging on the wall introduce Shen Congwen and his family.
The east gate tower - is located near the river. From atop the tower, you can look down onto the river at the boat men poling their punt boats along the river, taking tourists sightseeing. According to my friend, Lucy, the style of craftsmanship used in building punt boats is rare in foreign countries, making punt boats a sort of tourist attraction, too. When you gaze across the river you can also see several old wooden homes. Some of these houses have been converted into restaurants, shops and night clubs. Many, however, still serve as people's homes. These wooden houses are built on stilts above the river (a traditional style among Tujia ethnic minorities) between the mountain and the river, because there is very little land for building houses in Fenghuang County. Near the city wall, there are a handful of cafés and street performers entertaining crowds of onlookers. One performer is an old man dressed as a bandit and wearing makeup. He dances to children's songs blasting from loudspeakers on the east gate entrance. He dances with anyone who is willing to dance with him. It is a strange sight to behold, but entertaining nevertheless.
A busy market out of town - Approximately 40 minutes out of town on a crowded bus delivers you to a busy farmer's market. The market takes place every couple of days. The majority of traders and buyers are Miao and Tujia Minorities. The scene looked like something out of a fairy tale: cute piglets, wild ducks, giant rabbits in baskets, women wearing fabulous ethnic costumes with shiny silver accessories and high black hats. There are also many shops selling large, ladder-shaped coffins. These traditional coffins are chiseled, shaped and carved from complete tree trunks! The coffin lids are carved into a roundish shape; I noticed symbolic carvings on the sides and the lids of the coffins as well, though I did not know their significance and was too afraid to ask. These coffins frightened me and left a lasting impression. They were interesting to see, but I was more than happy to leave them behind. After three days of looking around the town, Lucy and I found an outdoor café near the river, and decided to relax. Nearby, was a band playing music and singing. It was a peaceful and comfortable place. While I sketched an old tree, Lucy wrote a text message to her friend: "Sitting here in the café with sunshine and beautiful scenery. It is the happiest moment since I came to China!"
Accommodations in Fenhghuang - There are youth hostels scattered all over Fenghuang, concentrated within the small, triangular shaped town. During winter, standard room prices start at 118 RMB per night, but prices rise in the summer to take advantage of Fenghuang's tourist season. Lucy and I stayed in Huxiangyi Phoenix-Huang International Youth Hostel, which is located in the middle of town. The staff speaks very good English and is also very kind. The rooms are lovely and ours had a balcony with a good view of the city. One annoying thing is that the hostel cuts off the hot water service at midnight and also at 10 am in the morning in order to keep room costs low. Not to worry. After we complained, the staff kindly left the hot water service on a little longer for us. A long, hot shower was a perfect end to a winter holiday.
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