Wednesday, January 21: We arrive in Jishou on our overnight train at about 6:30 a.m. and immediately are accosted by numerous taxi drivers trying to charge us unreasonable sums to take us to the bus station, where we need to catch an hour-long bus to Fenghuang. One honest fellow points us down the street to the bus station, which is only a block away! The station is barely a hole in the wall and we almost miss it as we walk down the street. It’s the chaos pouring out onto the street and the large board listing the bus times that alert us to its location. We try to buy a ticket for the bus but are sent out to the back, where we board a bus bound for Fenghuang. A few moments after we’ve loaded our luggage under the bus, someone instructs us to get off that bus and onto another bus which is nearly full. Buses don’t leave the station until full, so we’re lucky to be moved to the other bus, otherwise we would have had to wait awhile. We drag our luggage out and move it to the new bus. As we’re the last passengers to board, the bus immediately takes off.
In Fenghuang, there is no bus “station,” only a big parking lot. There a solitary taxi driver is waiting and wants 20 yuan to take us to the Ancient Town. In Nanning, I pay a taxi driver about 15 yuan to take me through the congested city traffic from the Railway Station to the campus, and as I know Fenghuang is a small town, I tell the driver we’ll pay 15 yuan. Of course when I say “tell,” I mean he’s showing me a 20 yuan bill, and I’m showing him a ten and a five. He refuses, so we in turn refuse his offer and walk toward the street, which is some distance from the parking lot. I can see it will be a battle of wills. He keeps following us and flailing his 20 yuan in our faces, and I keep shaking my head, insisting on only 15 yuan, and telling Mike that we’ll just pull our suitcases to the street. This goes on, the hard-headed taxi driver, and hard-headed me, playing cat and mouse and refusing each other’s offers until finally the taxi driver relents and agrees to take us for 15 yuan. Just as I imagined, it isn’t far and it certainly isn’t even worth paying 15 yuan for the ride. He drops us along the bank of the Tuo Jiang River, and points vaguely in a direction across the river and north. Mike and I struggle down a steep muddy bank with our suitcases. Fenghuang is a walking town, so the driver can’t drive us to the door of our hotel.
We cross a bridge over the river to the Ancient Town, which is spread out all along the river. We have no idea how we will find our hotel, the Fenghuang Melody Inn. Finally, we show the name in Chinese to a person walking along, and we are pointed in the right direction. The hotel is right along the river. Here’s our room with the view.
It’s early and we’re hungry, so we go out into the town immediately in search of breakfast and coffee. We find a cute coffee shop but it doesn’t serve food, so we move on to another one.
We find another coffee shop. Neither does it serve food, but we stop anyway for a cup of coffee.
We had earlier passed a friendly lady serving up boiled eggs and dumplings, so after our coffee, we make our way back to her little hole-in-the-wall cafe. We pass this enticing set on stairs on the way.
The smiling lady invites us into her cute little breakfast spot. We order up some pork dumplings and boiled eggs and she gives us a paper bowl full of chopped green chilies. We also put some soy sauce into another cup. This is a surprisingly tasty breakfast.
After breakfast, we take a leisurely walk back to our hotel to take showers since there was no chance for showers on the overnight train. Later, we go out to explore the town.
According to China Travel Guide: Phoenix Ancient Town (Fenghuang): ‘Fenghuang’ is Chinese for ‘Phoenix’, the mythical bird of good omen and longevity that is consumed by fire to be re-born again from the flames. Phoenix Ancient Town is so-called as legend has it that two of these fabulous birds flew over it and found the town so beautiful that they hovered there, reluctant to leave.
The town sits on the western boundary of Hunan Province and claims to being one of the two most beautiful towns in the whole of China; the other town is Chang Ting in Fujian Province.
The town has been modernized somewhat, with cute little businesses offering enticing goods for sale. I’m especially mesmerized by the colorful lanterns, but I’m not about to buy anything on the first day of our travels.
People in the town are hard at work from early morning until late in the evening. Most people carry things in baskets or on carts, as there is no room for cars on the cobbled streets. Some people do drive their motorbikes through the streets though, keeping us pedestrians on our toes.
The Miao ethnic minority is predominantly settled here. The Miao women dress in traditional blue garments set off with a white scarf. They love also their silver jewelry especially during festivals.
We pass this little restaurant along the way. In front are some ducks with signs on them in Chinese. There are also a lot of chickens and other animals in cages out front, including a porcupine. I guess if you want your meat fresh, you can get it here.
Some of my followers on Instagram tell me that the sign behind the ducks says “Japanese not welcome here.” I guess this is a common sentiment here in Fenghuang as we also see some other signs saying the same thing in English. It’s disturbing that the Chinese feel this way and state it so boldly on the fronts of their establishments.
Every time I see the shops with lanterns, I so want to stop and buy one, but I have no desire to carry one around for the next two weeks.
There are so many cute shops and restaurants that the town is quite charming and colorful.
I have no idea what this place is, but I find it intriguing that it says in English “Raise High the Roof Beam, Moses!”
We come across some kind of little temple but it has no sign in English telling what it is. It has a cute courtyard with a tree holding red ribbon wishes for longevity and prosperity. There are some images of who I believe to be Confucius. In one room there seems to be a Buddha image, which I wasn’t allowed to photograph.
Continuing down the street, we come to this building with colorful and elaborate woodwork.
And there are games of various types being played everywhere. Here is a game of Mahjong. As you can see, everyone is bundled up against the cold.
Fenghuang was home to the writer Shen Congwen (1902-88) who contributed greatly to modern Chinese literature. Venerated by the local residents, the one time home and tomb of this famous writer have become tourist attractions.
We stop in at the Museum of Ancient Town, where we see buildings with ancient architecture and woodwork and fancy beds and other furnishings.
Then we simply wander around the town, admiring the rooftops with their phoenixes curled up at the edges.
We happen upon some kind of celebration coming joyfully down the street.
After a lunch of green beans with pork and scrambled eggs with tomatoes, we go back to the room to rest a little before going back out for the evening. We walk along the Tuo Jiang River, which is very muddy and has a lot of construction and dredging going on due to severe flooding of the town in July 2014.
After we have a rest, we head to the Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot. We climb countless steps to reach the top, where we find delightful surprises, including views of the Ancient Town and the Tuo Jiang River. According to a sign at the Scenic Spot, it is “the first scenic spot in China to fully experience the Chinese Phoenix culture, with a history of 8,000 years. Original ancient buildings such as pavilions, terraces, palaces, columns, bridges and drums, which are full of elements of the Phoenix culture and theme locations, are embedded in it.
“The Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot has accurately captured the 18 deities of the god bird, Phoenix, with a view to vividly present the profundity, mystery and beauty of the Phoenix culture of our Chinese nation.”
Near the pavilion below, we find the following sign: No craving, no scarifying!
At the entry to the wooden swing bridge below, we find a sign with lots of instructions:
50 people limit. No Shaking!
Break Step, Avoid Covibration!
Row Wooden Path. Watch Your Step!
Jiujiu Heaven Steps are 99 steps in total. Again, according to a sign at the scenic spot: “Nine is the largest odd number, which represents the god Phoenix who lives high in the 9th heaven. The structure of the heaven steps is magnificent in order to present the stately atmosphere of being close to the heaven. The heaven steps are flanked by 18 towering nanmu totem columns which are hard to reach. Many species of 100 peculiar birds are popular in the Xiangchu Civil Society, 18 vivid birds with different forms are sculpted and are combined with classic Chines phoenix totems.”
The prototype of the 9.9 meter Phoenix Pedestal is “the Huzuolifeng (the tiger is seated with the Phoenix standing atop), an uncovered relic of the Chu State in the Warring States period. According to the ancient records, the people of the Chu Nation respected the Phoenix by performing the sacrificial ceremony and the Phoenix representing the god would rise and reach to the heaven. The copper sculpture of the Phoenix has a simple appearance and light weight, attempting to fly. The god — the Chinese ancient Phoenix — is a combination of three auspicious totems: tiger, Phoenix and deer.”
The Phoenix Fairy Tale is the “holy” Phoenix wish-making holy land. On a sign at the entrance to this charming and delightful area, I find the following: “One who has crossed the Wude Gate in Nanhua Shan has been purified by the five morals of Confucianism, namely Benevolence, Justice, Courtesy, Wisdom, and Trust, and is allowed to enter the forest to make wishes. The forest has five wish-making platforms surrounded by dozens of Chinese parasols used for hanging the Phoenix wish-making cards. After you clap your palms, close your eyes and purify your heart, the god Phoenix, together with the sun and moon, prays for the wishes of the common people.”
I am mesmerized by this magical area, with its parasols and woven straw bells containing wishes. While there, a Chinese girl randomly asks me to pose with her. She then asks Mike to do the same. I wish I could read some of the wishes written here, but of course they’re all in Chinese.
We leave the Phoenix Fairy Tale and retrace our steps back past the Phoenix Pedestal.
After descending the mountain from the Phoenix Cultural Scenic Spot, we take a leisurely walk along the opposite side of the river as the sun goes down. We stop in for beer and a pizza dinner at a cozy restaurant called Soul Too along the river.
After leaving the restaurant, it’s dark outside and the town is all lit up. It’s quite lovely with its reflections in the river. Because the river is so muddy due to all the dredging work, I find the town more beautiful at night than during the day.
Finally, we make a stop for another beer at Soul Cafe, where we hear a young Chinese lady singing some melodic and romantic Chinese folk tunes. It’s a lovely end to our first day in Fenghuang.