My friend Anthony backpacked around China last summer when my trip was only a hope. I had the pleasure of reading his emails about the highs, lows, and amazing scenery that the Mainland brings to a person; they kept me entertained and inspired while I worked at a bookstore in my hometown trying to save up for my own excursion. There was one email filled with all kinds of hilarious misadventures; being stuck in a shady town, aggressive people on a bumpy bus ride to nowhere, having to poop in holes...you know the deal. (Or do you?!? If you don't, pack your bags and get oot there, there's so much to see and do!!!!!!) Anyway, at the end of the long rant Anthony ended the email with the sentence, "by the way the two most beautiful places in the world, Fenghuang and Dehang, are only 100 kilometres away from each other." Thank you Anthony, I will go to there.
So...about my second week in the Mainland I was relaxing at my hostel in Hangzhou (DON'T go to there) and skyping with my friend Jean. She sent me a link to a place called "Phoenix town", a beautiful water town she'd read about on a China travel website. Picturesque traditional houses elevated over a river in the mountains of Hunan province, mostly inhabited by the Miao people, one of the 50 something Chinese minorities. It was the place! It was Fenghuang! "I'm going there in a few weeks!" I told her. "I know, it looks absolutely stunning! Unique! A real gem! Yes, I'll take lots of pics! K bye, love you!"
My friends from Beijing, Maria and JP, had promised to meet me because they had a holiday coming up. We were trying to decide on a meeting place and I forwarded them the link to Phoenix town. They agreed! Absolutely stunning! Unique! A real gem! They booked their flight and I planned my route westward to Hunan and Fenghuang. Apparently one of the most beautiful towns in the world was in my near future. I was also super excited to see my friends after two and a half years. Win!
THE ROAD TO FENGHUANG: It was Maria and JP's holiday time, which meant that the other billion people in the country also had a break from work/school/whatever. Strike one. Lonely Planet warned it's readers that this beautiful place may go away soon from all the tourism. Strike two. But the pictures of the place were so pretty! Ball. The five hour bumpy bus ride with my Beijing buddies from Zhangjiajie to the Phoenix town was not the funnest, and the last hour and a half of it we were in a traffic jam with a (hundred!) other tourist buses. Strike three. We arrived just before dusk, by the time we checked in to our hostel and got some food the evening was upon us. A Saturday evening. It was a freakin' parade out there! A loud, ongoing menage a tour group! Imagine St Patrick's Day, but most people are sober and everyone's Chinese (minus us 3). All the Chinese twentysomethings were in straw hats with pink ribbons (female and male) and wrapped in the colourful pashminas that were sold by the millions (maybe billions) on the main road. There were families giving the peace sign (or "V" for victory, thanks Churchill) to their Canon cameras as they posed next to the bitter locals who were decked out in their Miao traditional garb. The thing was, we had to pass through the crowds to get to the other side, the one with the nice view (and even more tourists). Kind of like a terrifying right of passage, with pashminas. So by the time we got to the part we came for, that the internet, Anthony and Jean promised, we were ready to turn back around.
We still wandered the streets, laughing at the excessiveness of it all and rolling our eyes at the tacky souvenir shops. At this one shop I almost bought this cute embroidered...nevermind! Forget about it! There's two streets in Fenghuang that are exclusively for nightclubs (I'm pretty sure the Miao culture does not involve stumbling around to booming pop/trance hybrids). The promoters tried very hard to pull us into their establishments and we had to practically scream at each other to hear ourselves. And we were outside! By the river! Back at the hostel we practically begged for a bus ticket out to Dehang. Apparently there had been a road accident earlier that day and no buses were going to Dehang for a day or two. We accepted our fate and turned in for the night, hoping the next day would be better.
It wasn't. So Maria and I caught up over cocktails at a cafe as tucked away as we could find while JP braved the parade. I took like 3 pictures of the place. I figured enough of it's soul had already been stolen, I didn't want to add to it. The trip was still a win though; I got to spend time with some close friends. When I met up with them I'd been traveling for five weeks, and with the exception of Shanghai I'd only met a few backpackers in very brief passing. There were days when I exclusively spoke in my very broken and limited Chinese. You can't really put a price on some pleasant conversation, especially when lost on planet China.
Anyway, in my opinion Fenghuang's not the best place to go if your crossing the Mainland. The surrounding area and Hunan province however, I highly recommend. It's literally smack dab in the middle of the country so there's no excuse for avoiding it! It has one city that I referred to in a previous post, Changsha. It's not a popular destination at all but I still was able to fill a few days in that place, and if you put your mind to it you can too. From there explore the rest of Hunan, as your mouth explodes from all the spicy food and you max out your camera's memory card from all the stunning scenery. Just skip Fenghuang. Even if you still want to go I feel like there literally won't be any room for you. Go to Dehang and report back.
Alright, I've talked about it enough, I may as well show you a pic of the place. Here you go.
Labels: Fenghuang, lonelyplanet, miao, tourists