A Short Guide to the Phoenix Ancient Town
Fenghuang – the Phoenix Ancient Town is one of China’s most famous “Ancient Cities.” Stone streets meander under the peaked eves of the famous old houses that make up the core of the town. The broad Tuojiang River drifts placidly down the center of the historic district adding a kind of magic to what has become a busy, commercial tourist zone.
Early in the morning, a thick mists hang over the green hills that surround the town. The streets are quiet, the souvenir shops that sell bobbles and beads are all shut tight waiting to open until tourists wake. This is the best time to explore.
Fenghuang is a popular destination among Chinese tourists, but it is not as well set up for foreigners. While it is easy enough to find your way around, unless you do some prior research on the sights you will find yourself wandering through preserved historic houses with little idea of what you are looking at. The following guide, will help you understand a bit more of the history of the different sights.
or check out this slightly more official (but less trackable) one: chinatourmap.com
The Standard City (through) Ticket costs CNY 148 and may be purchased at any of the ticket windows outside the major attractions. It includes access to the Former Residence of Shen Congwen, Formal Residence of Xiong XiLing, Yang Family Memorial Temple, East Gate Tower, Boat ride on Tuojiang River, Longevity Palace, Chongde Hall, and Hongqiao bridge and Art building, The ticket is valid for two days. A visitor can enter each attraction once within the validity of the ticket. There is also a ticket that includes the Southern Great Wall and the Miao Village for an additional fee if you plan to spend more than two days in the region.
1. The Formal Residence of Xiong XiLing
Xiong XiLing was a scholar, reformer, and politician during in the early 20th Century. He was influential (rising to the post of Premier) in the New Republic in the early 20th Century. Although he was born in Fenghuang, he spent a good portion of his professional career in Shanghai and Hong Kong (where he died in 1937). Nevertheless, Fenghuang will always boast of him as a beloved native son.
As with many of the other historic houses on the through ticket, the residence of Xiong XiLing is a bit of a time capsule – still furnished with the ornate wood furniture of the late 19th century. The alleyway near the house provides an interesting glimpse at the boundary line between the preserved “ancient city” and the more modern city that surrounds it.
You can learn more about Xiong XiLing on thechinastory.org.
2. Yang Family Memorial Temple
Like many of the old homes in Fenghuang the two-story Yang Family Memorial Temple is a traditional Siheyuan – or “Courtyard-House”. This style of house has buildings that surround a rectangular or square central courtyard. Built in 1836, the Yang Family Memorial Temple lies just inside the city wall on the south bank of the Tuojiang River. It offers a glimpse into 19th Century life in Fenghuang.
3. East Gate Tower
Just a stone’s throw from the Yang Family Memorial Temple you will find the East Gate Tower or the Sheng Heng Gate. Built in 1715 the East Gate tower is one of two Qing Dynesty towers in Fenghuang. The second, the North Tower, stands near the center of the city’s northern wall. The North tower is less ornate than the East Tower but nevertheless exudes a kind of simple elegance.
4. Boat ride on Tuojiang River
I spent half an hour watching the groups of tourists crowd into the little flat-bottom boats, push out into the river, scream, gasp and sputter as they plunged over a small rapid and then disappear down the river. It looked fun, and since it was included in my City Ticket, I got in line for a ride.
The boats pick passengers up at the war near the North Gate and drop them off down stream near Wanmingta stone Pagoda. The whole trip takes about 15 minutes and aside from the small, thrilling drop at the beginning, the boat ride offers little more than a better look at the stilt part of the stilt houses.
5. Wanshou (Longevity) Palace and Fenghuang Folk Custom Museum
With displays dedicated to the clothes and cultural artifacts of the Miao and Tujia ethnic groups, the Wanshou (Longevity) Palace is the place to go to get your fix of local culture. Thrilling performances involving, music, dance and acrobatics take place several times each day in the courtyard making this one location in Fenghuang that should not be missed.
Performance times are usually posted outside the door of the halls that have performances. I happened to be passing just as a performance was beginning.
6. Chongde Hall
Though smaller than the Yang Family Ancestral Hall, Chongde Hall has the charm of being less visited, and therefore quieter and less altered from it’s original state. Pei Shoulu, an immigrant from Jiangxi Province built Chongde Hall in later part of the 19th century. The southern influence is most apparent in the courtyard garden. The chief attraction for Chinese visitors, however, are the more than 100 Steles presented by famous figures. These stele attract calligraphers from all over china.
To find it, walk 10m past the Yang Ancestoral Hall in the direction away from the East Gate, there is a small alley on the left. Head down the alley and look out for it on the left.
Chongde Hall is open daily from 9am to 5:30pm.
7. Former Residence of Shen Congwen
Shen Congwen is one of China’s greatest modern writers. Best known for his book Border Town Shen is considered a “native soil” writer – heavily incorporating local culture into his stories. Shen Congwen’s Grandfather built the Shen residence in 1866. Today it is largely a shrine to the author’s life. Photographs featuring different times throughout his life line the walls. The place where he was born, and the desk where he once wrote are both carefully protected and preserved.
The Shen Congwen Residence is open daily from 9am to 5pm.
8. Rainbow Bridge and Hongqiao Art Building
Fenghuang’s covered “Rainbow Bridge” was constructed during the Ming Dynasty. Local legend holds that the bridge was constructed to “cut off the Dragon’s head” when the emperor learned that an emperor would be born here to replace him.
Several souvenir and craft shops line the first floor of the bridge, and the second floor hosts a tea shop and an exhibition of calligraphy and art.
Where to Stay
There is no shortage of hotel rooms in Fenghuang and it should be easy enough to turn up and find a room even without a booking. Having said that, here are some hotel recommendations.
Fenghuang Yifangyan Inn is in the heart of the old town and right on the river. Rooms are large and comfortable and many have balconies overlooking the river. Book Fenghuang Yifangyan inn now and pay later at Booking.com!
Tujia Ethnic Minority River-View Hotel though on the expensive side (running between $80 and $100 per room), you are guaranteed a peaceful stay. This hotel is a short walk east of the old town along a quiet stretch of river. Book at Tujia Ethnic Minority Hotel.
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Some Useful links
travelchinaguide.com As always, Travel China Guide has exceptional information about the town and the practicalities of traveling to Fenghuang (including bus schedules from nearby cities).
China Daily has a fascinating array of stories and legends surrounding some of Fenghuang’s most famous sight.
My China Tours has more information about each of Fenghuang’s sights than almost any other sight and is a great place to get some context before you visit Fenghuang.
UNESCO has the most concise and yet comprehensive history of Fenghuang available on the internet.