Fenghuang wasn’t on my radar last time I came to China; in fact, I wasn’t aware of it until I was looking for somewhere to stop between Zhangjiajie and Chengdu. I think in the end we chose Fenghuang because it looked pretty on Google and was not wanting in hostels.
The bus journey from Wulingyuan was uneventful. I spoke to the man next to me about a range of topics, from WeChat pay (like contactless or Apple Pay) to the recent US-North Korean summit. After a pit stop, one of the women who ran the coach stood up to talk. She didn’t stop for nigh on an hour, apparently all tips on Fenghuang. The guy next to me translated the bits he thought would be useful – such as getting up early to avoid the crowds.
It turns out that Fenghuang is considered among the prettiest Chinese towns (if not the prettiest itself), and as such comes highly recommended by the Chinese tourism board. This in turn comes with tsunamis of both domestic and international visitors, such as ourselves (albeit slightly before high season, thankfully).
The taxi driver refused to use the meter and overcharged us to my annoyance; even when the foreigner price is only a bit above what it should be, the principle is still grating. We followed our host’s directions to Nanhua bridge, then phoned the number provided. This arrangement did seem a little bit dodgy, not least because I received an email a few weeks after placing the hostel reservation informing me that the old hostel could no longer take foreigners, but we were welcome to stay at his new homestay/hostel instead. Although this did set off some alarm bells at the time, we decided to risk it on the basis that there were other options aplenty, and it was only one night.
Fenghuang Fleeting Night
Hostel Homestay did not, as it turned out, disappoint; quite the opposite. The owner was absolutely lovely and gave us a map detailing all the best attractions and places to eat. ‘Homestay’ seems a bit misleading – the place definitely had the feel of a (small) hostel to me.
We DEETed up to our eyeballs – literally – and headed out to see the riverside, lit up as it was for the night. I can imagine it being easy to get lost in Fenghuang, but despite the winding maze of alleyways, the Old Town is so small you’d find your way to the edge soon enough. We picked a riverside caff for tea, then walked along and across the river, anything but relaxing with the lights, bustling, and booming clubs across the water.
Fenghuang at night doesn’t photograph particularly well, so there was little to be done except soak it up and enjoy. It seems Kirsten and I didn’t give off the impression of enjoying it very much, but I rather enjoyed our debate and comparisons to Zhangjiajie, which displayed beauty of a much more natural variety.
An early night allowed us to follow the bus lady’s advice: we were out not long after 6am the next day, beaten to it by the dawn but well ahead of the crowds. The Culture Square of the Old Town was still booming with music – this time a variety of Zumba/aerobics/dance fit that seems to replace school morning exercise for many Chinese people. This and tai chi is very common in public places all over the country if you get up early enough.
The narrow streets were our playground, many of the shops not open yet, until we came to the river to find the misty hillsides beyond still steeped in morning fog. The water was almost motionless, and the reflections were stunning. By the time we worked our way along some of the riverfront and back, the tour groups were arriving, and we were hungry.
A small vendor just outside Old Town was selling large baozi (bready dumplings; like filled buns) for 1¥ a go, which we enjoyed by the Cultural Square as the morning dancers were starting to pack up. A brief stint to a viewpoint near our hostel later, and we were satisfied that we’d seen enough of Fenghuang.
Informed that we need not rush to check out, we decided to siesta until a late lunch in the early afternoon (beef noodle soup). From here we collected our bags and made our way to the bus station, to reach Tongren.
The bus departed later than expected, which had me nervous, but a kind Chinese girl found out for me when it would be leaving. In the end it dropped us right outside the train station in Tongren, leaving just a six hour wait for our train to Chengdu. The same girl and her mother were catching the train too, so we sat with them and chatted while we waited. We ought to know by now how quickly the crowd picks up once a train is announced, but it still caught us off guard, so the three of us never got to add her on WeChat as we were abruptly swept towards the platform.
Lights were already out once we boarded the train, so for me, clambering up to the top bunk (of three) was a fumbling affair. I always find the motion of trains strangely soothing, so falling asleep is not difficult. Our stop in Fenghuang was brief and occasionally slightly stressful, but I like the fact that we did not get to know the paths of the Old Town well enough for the magic to fade (think Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away). The memories are overwhelmingly positive, and that’s what really matters.