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Ancient Fenghuang: And a river runs through it

Also: The other Great Wall … and one wonderful wall of water

FENGHUANG, Hunan — Here’s something you should never say — or think — while traveling in rural China: “Oh good. Looks like we’ll have the bus to ourselves on this ride.” Because even if the bus is empty at 7:18 a.m. and your scheduled departure time is 7:20 a.m., other passengers will come. They always come. In bunches. All at once. Out of nowhere. Carrying roosters and crying babies and buckets filled with eggs.

Run out of seats? No problem. Put these plastic stools in the aisle. Run out of those? Stand right here. But please try not to step on the roosters, the crying babies or the buckets filled with eggs.

If the last-second rush doesn’t occur before your scheduled departure, it doesn’t really matter. Because the bus will wait for the rush. Could be 10 minutes, could be 20. The bus isn’t leaving until it’s well beyond full. Times printed on the tickets — if you are at the bus terminal that actually gives tickets — are only guidelines, suggestions, the way things would happen in a perfect world.

And this, my friends, is not a perfect world. This is western Hunan Province in southern China. This is the trip from Jishou to Fenghuang. And soon the teenage girl sitting in the seat in front of you will be puking out the window. And you’ll be breathing through your mouth, hoping that none of the vomit flying out of the bus finds a way to fly back in.

None did. The girl eventually stopped throwing up and wiped her face with the collar of her shirt. And I eventually arrived in the ancient river town of Fenghuang, along with my traveling companions Dana Huang and her friend Mr. Chen Bi Qiao, a producer at a Changsha television station.

Fenghuang is not featured in Lonely Planet, but it does have a rather strong following among tourists from southern China (we actually saw the Changsha mayor while we were there). These facts had me both hopeful (many of my favorite places in China are ignored by LP) and hesitant (my tastes tend to differ greatly from the average Chinese tourist).

And yes, Fenghuang can be tacky at times, from the tourists on the banks of the Tuojiang River posing for photos in “authentic” regional garb, to the tourists on the boats of the Tuojiang River wearing bright orange life vests and screaming along to “authentic” regional songs. But somehow the charm outshines any cheesiness. Fenghuang, and its more unexplored surrounding areas, won me over.

The town has a history of more than 1,300 years, and many of its structures date back hundreds of years to the Ming and Qing dynasties. Narrow flagstone alleyways weave through crowds of buildings with weathered walls, tiled roofs and upturned eaves. Along the river, stilted wooden structures line the banks, leaning on each other for support — you get the feeling if one falls, the rest will go, too. Visiting here is kind of like being plopped inside a painting of “old China.” But beyond the souvenir hawkers and snack shops, you are reminded that people live here, people work here. Old China. New China. The line between the two is broad and gray.

We arrived in Fenghuang before 9 a.m., groggy and sweaty, the weight of our 10-hour overnight train ride from Changsha to Jishou still tugging at our eyelids. The Fenghuang bus station is in the “modern” part of town, which looks like many small Chinese cities I’ve been to: ugly, dirty, falling apart. As we entered the old city, colorful and clean with a distinct sense of style, I wondered about the word progress. Hundreds of years from now, will tourists flock to “old cities” — well-preserved examples of late 20th and early 21st century Chinese cities and towns? Of course not. And even they wanted to, all that would be left would be a big pile of garbage.

Our first order of business was finding a place to stay. The river is lined with hotels — all of those rickety stilted buildings — and they look pretty much the same and offer the same basic amenities. The main difference is price, and that just depends on the salesperson’s mood … and your negotiating skills.

“Dan, could you …” Dana didn’t have to finish the sentence. I already knew it. “Walk around? Act like I don’t know you? Sure.” Step No. 1 in getting a favorable price on a place to stay is losing the big white guy. We are deal breakers, no matter how poor we actually are. The strategy worked — it almost always does — and we had a place with three beds and a shared bathroom for RMB 25 (about $3) per person.

Dana is a cute tour guide, constantly searching her electronic pocket translator for just the right English word to express what she wants to say. Sometimes the device actually gets it right.

“When in Fenghuang,” Dana warned me, “be sure not to” — pauses to check pocket translator — “step on or trample” — puts pocket translator away — “girls’ feet.”

“Um, OK. Why exactly?”

“You’ll have to marry them. It’s a tradition of the Miao people.”

The Miao minority makes up most of the non-tourist population of Fenghuang, a town that flows along at the slow pace of the river that runs through it. That water is a part of everyone’s everyday life. They wash their clothes in it, their vegetables, their hair, their bodies. Men fish the river with nets, naked children play in it, oxen sit and soak. Other men, lean and ripped, veins popping from their forearms, spend the day propelling tourist boats up and down the river, again and again using a long pole to push off from the rocky floor beneath the water.

Starting early in the morning, people line the banks of the Tuojiang and wash their dirty laundry. This is whitewater, Fenghuang style — kneading, twisting, swirling clothes in the soapy water. And then they take big wooden paddles, and whack the clothing clean. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! All day long, the sound reverberates throughout the valley.

(Or maybe that sound I heard was Mike Tyson getting the crap beat out of him. As I was wandering through town, I noticed a man watching a replay of the fight in the lobby of his hotel. He invited me in to watch. I accepted. And it was sad. There is something humbling about watching the sports heroes of your youth be humbled. Watching them get old is a stark reminder that you’re getting old, too.)

We ate lunch at Pan Chang Jiang Restaurant, famous in Fenghuang, partly because of its food, but mostly because the owner allegedly looks like — you guessed it! — Pan Chang Jiang, who I am told is a relatively famous Chinese comedian. Photos of the owner posing with other people who I was told are relatively famous in China hang on the wall. And yes, there is one photo of the owner with Pan Chang Jiang himself. I guess I kind of saw the resemblance, but — between you and me — I though the owner looked more like Quasimoto. (If you go, you’ll understand what I mean.)

The food was in the Miao style — sweet and sour … without the sweet. The chairs and tables were, too — imagine a Fisher Price dining room set fro 3-year-olds. My knees came up to my chest. The table came up to my shins. The Miao people are small, but not this small.

In the afternoon, we took a bumpy RMB 2 bus ride to the Great Wall … of South China. It’s confusing to me that more people don’t know about this place — I mean, the wall is 150 km long and runs the entire width of Fenghuang County. I admittedly haven’t seen many walls in my day — I will get to that other Great Wall in a few weeks — but this one seemed pretty damn big, pretty damn impressive. And it rises and falls through some rather picturesque countryside (you know, rice paddies and the like — stuff I am running out of original ways to describe).

The wall (Nan Fang Chang Cheng, in Chinese) was originally built in 1554 by the Mings in an effort to keep the Miaos out — doesn’t look like that worked too well — and it was later rebuilt by the Qing Dynasty emperor Jia Qing. I would imagine it’s been rebuilt a couple times since the Qing Dyansty, too. The wall, at least the section I walked, is in really good condition.

I haven’t talked about the heat in a while, so here it goes: It’s been hot, damn hot, everywhere I’ve gone. In a stroke of brilliance, I decided to travel in China’s hottest region — Changsha is famous for being one of the country’s “stoves” — during the hottest time of the year. So I sweat, constantly. And my limited supply of clothes — packed tightly together in my single bag — smells, constantly. Thankfully, at every stop on this trip, someone has insisted that I allow them to do my laundry. (Perhaps the smell was too much for them.) Even Dana’s aunt — the religious one who thinks I am going to hell — washed some of my clothing, obviously trying to soak out some of that sin. In Fenghuang, I paid to have my laundry done. Dana informed me that the people at the hotel agreed to wash my stuff — in the river, I’m sure — but there was one stipulation: “You have to wash your underwear yourself.”

If you tire of Fenghuang’s ancient city, there is plenty to do and see in the surrounding countryside. And you don’t have to wander far to find it. Step outside the old city wall and all sorts of people approach you, offering trips to this village and that village. They hold placards plastered with postcards from these places, all of which look equally appealing. We asked which place would likely have the smallest a number of tourists and then agreed upon a price: RMB 5 per person for the van ride and RMB 30 per person for the entry fee.

Thirty minutes and 3,000 potholes later, we were dropped off at a rocky roadside looking down upon the You Luo Jiang River Valley, home of the Lei Jia Zhai, or Lei Family Village, a farming community of 18 families, all with the surname Lei. The Leis are of the Tu Jia Zu minority and have inhabited the valley for more than 350 years.

Approximately 75 percent of Chinese people rely on the land to earn a living, but only 15 percent of China’s land is arable. So every possible plot of land — including mountainsides and mountaintops — is used for planting. This leads to some rather unnatural natural scenes. The walls of the You Luo Jiang Valley are carved up like one big vegetable garden. Mountains look like mosaics, each square a different crop, a different shade of green. And underneath, it’s all river, rocks and rice paddies. The order of everything makes the valley feel like some sort of pre-fabricated paradise.

As we hiked into the valley, Dana removed the translator from her pocket again.

“Watch out for” — she fumbled to find the right word — “bandits,” she said. “Yeah.”

Dana has a habit of adding “Yeah” or “Yes” to the end of her statements in English. Perhaps it’s for reassurance. Or perhaps she is prematurely answering the question that is sure to follow.

“Bandits? Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said. “Western Hunan is famous for bandits or” — more button pushing — “robbers. There have been movies about it.”

“OK. I will be careful.”

The You Luo Jiang Valley opened to tourism in May of this year and sees about 30 visitors a day. I wondered what the 18 Lei families thought about these strangers intruding on their land, their privacy.

“Are the locals happy their valley was opened to tourism?” I posed this question to Dana, assuming she would then relay the question to our guide, a 21-year-old girl — named Lei, of course — who has spent her entire life along the river. Instead, Dana answered herself with an emphatic “Of course!”

I was skeptical, but our guide, Lei Shu Lian, confirmed that sentiment while we ate lunch at her family’s home. “We all only had farming to rely on before,” she explained. “Our local economy is much better now. Life is better. And I get to talk to people from so many different places. It’s like being able to visit another world without leaving my home.”

Lei told me I was the first foreigner her family had ever had in their home. Earlier, I was informed that I was just the fourth foreigner in the valley since it opened May 1. Perhaps, I thought, this eagerness to welcome outsiders was partly due to the fact that everything was still new and exciting to the people of Lei Family Village. The day before, we went to another small village, Huang Si Qiao Gu Cheng, or Huang Si Bridge Ancient Village, which has been visited by tourists for several years now. And the old men there stared at me with eyes that seemed tired of tourists. I got the feeling they just wanted their village back.

The village in the valley doesn’t have any souvenir stands. There are no real restaurants. Not one person tried to sell me anything. We were just people passing through, and everybody — including the dogs, pigs, ducks, chickens, cows and goats — appeared to be going through the same daily routine they would have gone through prior to May 1. Adults worked. Small children played in the river. I hope it stays that way.

But I fear that it won’t. Lei told me that a group of local businessmen secured tourism rights to the valley — for 30 years — for an investment of only RMB 120,000, or $15,000. Lei said a nominal part of the profits go to help educate the school-age children of the village (who, by the way, must make a grueling one-hour, one-way hike — over a river and out of the valley — in order to attend school). But, other than that, the villagers receive none of the profits from tourism. They must create other methods of earning money from their visitors, like offering boat rides or cooking meals in their homes.

Lei works 28 days a month as a tour guide and earns around RMB 700, or $84. We were the first tourists to give her a tip. (She said she prefers giving tours to the work she would have to do at home. Working at home is too tiring, she said, making us all wonder what exactly she would have to do at home, because she did a hell of a lot of hiking with us.)

Lei’s family home was simple and set apart from the rest of the village. Part of the home was concrete and the rest made from the yellowish-brown clay bricks found on the rest of the homes in the valley. We sat in the dining room, where splashes of color brightened the white walls and gray floor. A huge pile of green leaves was pushed against the wall near the kitchen door. Pig food, I was told. Posters of Chinese pop stars — Coco Li Wen, Zhao Wei, Zhou Xun and Ren Xian Qi — hung on the walls, looking oddly out of place next to a straw hat and an old clock.

Lei lives with her parents and her brother. She also has an older sister who has lived in Changsha for the past seven years. I asked Lei if she ever thought about leaving the valley.

“I like it here,” she said. “Maybe I’ll go somewhere, someday. I don’t know. Right now, I’m happy here.”

And why not? Just 100 meters from Lei’s home — past a very small hydroelectric plant — is a wonderful waterfall. Fei Shui Dong Pubu, or Flying Water Cave Waterfall, stands more than 100 feet tall and throws a powerful ribbon of water into a small swimming hole. We spent about an hour playing around. This is where Lei grew up.

I sat in the pool and stared up into the mist. I loved it there. But part of me felt guilty for intruding.

The sun was on its way down as we hiked out of the valley. We left too late for our free ride home. So we walked down the rocky road, past farmers herding their oxen, until we ended up at the family-run ticket booth for the area. Someone called a car for us, and we waited. The family brought us watermelon and spring water, and we sat there until long after dark. That’s what all the locals seemed to be doing, too.

They set up some chairs and a mosquito coil for us in front of the corner’s sparsely stocked general store. Next door, another storefront opened, garage-door style, into somebody’s living room. A family sat on the couch and watched TV. Others stood on the porch, or the street, and watched, too. A typical weeknight in the countryside.

We got back to Fenghuang late, too late to head back to Jishou as was the original plan (I had a train to catch, heading to Yichang, early in the morning). So we — or, I should say, Dana — found another place along the river in the ancient town. This time we paid RMB 20 per person.

I was tired. I took off my shoes — soaked from stepping into the river back in the valley — and lay in my bed, which was perhaps the most comfortable bed I had had thus far in the trip.

Then Dana said, “Dan, would you mind if we changed hotels?”

The beds were too soft. And the hotel didn’t supply bamboo mats to place on top of the beds. Dana and Chen didn’t know how they would make it through the night.

Click here for photos.

08.10.2004, 6:07 PM · Hunan, The Trip


  1. Yeah! Scandalously biased refereeing and partisan spectators couldn’t save Tyson this time.

  2. I stumbled on your blog looking for something to read just in time for your big China journey. I count myself lucky to have stumbled your way. Your writing is fabulous and I feel like I am traveling alongside.

  3. Hi Dan, your blog entry about Fenghuang really took me back. I travelled there in 2002 and loved it. Did you happen to go to the temple with the fun house mirrors? It was just down the street on the left as you left the old city section. It was a nice peaceful temple with the usual statues of gods and food offerings, but off to one side there was a crumbling concrete building and when we walked in we realized that all of the walls were lined with old fun house mirrors. We examined ourselves in all the mirrors and revelled in the absurdity of the situation. One of my more surreal momemts in China. We taught in Changsha for two years and took the Fenghuang trip late in the second year. We really wished that we had ventured off into the Hunan countryside more instead of sticking to guidebook towns. Oh well maybe next time. Thanks again for the great post.

  4. you must took the bus in front of Jishou railway station! the buses in the bus station 10-min away from the railway station depart on time.

  5. Dear Dan,
    Thanks for your photos. My great-great aunt was a missionary there in the early twentieth century. You’ve given me a glimpse of her world. Cheers!

  6. I spent the last couple years in western Hunan, about 2.5 hours from Jishou, I miss that place.


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