Saturday, 28 October 2017

Phoenix Ancient Town (FengHuangCheng 凤凰城), Hunan

We joined HK based Wing On Travel for this Hunan trip. This is a tour with Cantonese speaking guides (i don't know if they have English-speaking tour or not. I've never used it. I'm quite certain that if they have English-speaking tours, it would naturally be more expensive).

This is the 1st stop in our HK's Wing On 6 Days Tour of Hunan.

Phoenix Ancient Town (鳳凰城 "Fenghuang" =  "phoenix") was newly "discovered" by tourists as late as 2000 because it was so well preserved. Many of the Ming and Qing, as well as Miao architectural styles can be seen here.

When the town was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List on 2008, tourist numbers soared like Phoenix over Phoenix Ancient / Old Town (either UNESCO's mention or a cameo appearance in Hollywood blockbuster would have the same effect of phoenix rising from the ashes).


 Bridge Walk 

Rainbow Hongqiao Bridge, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
 Rainbow Bridge (Hongqiao 虹橋).
This covered bridge is one of the entrance to the ancient town.
That's where we boldly go where millions have done so before.


Rainbow Hongqiao Bridge, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
When i photograph the bridge, this (Chinese tourist) lady seemed to pose for my photo. Don't mind if i do, dear.
D'oh! A dear, a female, dear...

Rainbow Hongqiao Bridge, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Closeup of the bridge's name plaque with lovely rainbow of lens flares.
Ray, a drop of golden sun...

Interior, Rainbow Hongqiao Bridge, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
What you may find inside this covered bridge: shops, itinerant vendors.

The town is an river valley or vale carved by Tuo River*. While its landscape reminiscent of the many towns with rivers and canals in the area of Jiangnan** with the most notable being Hangzhou and Suzhou cities. Many of these towns have been called "Venice of the East" or "Venice of the Orient". But this town is more picturesque because it situates in a dale while those in Jiangnan aren't. It's nsted within hills and greenery.

* Say "Tou River" or "The Toujiang" (沱江). Just don't say "Toujiang River" because "Jiang" = "River"). I know, Google map does this tautological redundancy (which i just did with "tautological redundancy" for illustration purposes only. Do as i say, not as i do. Okie dokie ?). But then people also say "PIN number" when "N" stands for "Number". Feel like pulling my hair out and donate it to Ashley and Martin. Why let my exuberant, oily hair go to waste?). Lonely Planet, on the other hand, does it better: the right way.

** "Jiang" = "River", again. "Nan" = "South".

If you like those old towns with meandering rivers run through it (who doesn't?), this place would be a sight for sore eyes or itchy fingers (for cameras).

View of town from Rainbow Hongqiao Bridge, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
A sneak preview of the walled town from outside the wall on Rainbow Bridge.
Tujiang winds like an emerald snake though the centre of town. Charming traditional rustic stilt houses jostle each other.
(Click photo to enlarge. Preferably on a PC or at least a tablet)

Rainbow Hongqiao Bridge, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
View of Rainbow Bridge from inside of the town and below the bridge

Wall gate, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
One of the gate into the wall

 Wall Walk 

It's a nice walk that you can look down at the shops inside/behind the wall like an aloof window shopper, and peek into people's houses just outside the wall like Peeping Tom.

Town wall, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
The wall and the houses that build right next to it.


Drum shop, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Lovely sales ladies drumming up for beeswax


Town wall, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Examples of houses that built right up to the wall. Their washing are within easy reach.
Town wall, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Town wall, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Ground level view of the wall and their close neighbour. This is China where living / private space is a luxury.


Street vendor at the Town wall, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
I don't recognize some of these fruits. They're so exotic that even our local guide hasn't tried it.


 Hall Walk 

We made a quick stop at the Yang's Family Ancestral Hall or Temple (杨家祠堂). The Yang's in Fenghuang County is the direct descendants of the legendary Generals of the Yang's (楊家將). There're more movies and TV series that are based on the Yang's than you can poke your movie camera / boom mic at.

Yang Family Ancestral Hall / Temple, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
The Yang's Family Ancestral Hall. In the 1920s, it turned into a government office. The star indicates this.
Today, it's a museum for tourists.

Yang Family Ancestral Hall / Temple, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
The writing says "Fenghuang County"


Yang Family Ancestral Hall / Temple, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Typical traditional Chinese courtyard house design (siheyuan 四合院) with a central open-air courtyard created by surrounding rooms / houses.

Opera stage, Yang Family Ancestral Hall / Temple, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Opera stage

Entrance, Yang Family Ancestral Hall / Temple, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Entrance to the hall

 Alley Walk 

The narrow alleyways of the medieval Chinese (or European) towns provide different experience for modern homo touristus.

Alley, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Alley, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Sweet little girl crying for ice-cream

Alley with umbrella, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China

Alley with umbrella, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China

Alley with umbrella, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China

Alley with umbrella, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China



Girls wearing flower tiaras, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
You'll come across a number of tourists wearing flower tiaras.
It seems to be a case of when in Rome, tourists do what the locals do (although Roman would wear laurels instead).

While this town has - like many touristy ones like Venice - has lost all inkling of local life, but the narrow alleys still provide a fleeting and vanishing glimpse of local life. Come quickly while life lasts (although it already has somewhat late for those who are hungered for authenticity. But better late than never).

Alleyway, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Little girl dancing on the street (just got an A+ in physics or gymnastics. Is there such a subject?)

Alleyway, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Hard yakka. not yet able to afford a motor.


Alleyway, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Locals playing Chinese chess on the street with the usual spectator crowd

 Street Walk 

Marker wall, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Culture Square.  The plaque with  the name "Phoenix Town" is a magnet for tourist posing for photos.

Marker wall, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China

Marker wall, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China

Roof decoration, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Roof decoration with stylized phoenix motif

Roof decoration, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Main street, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
The scene of "people mountain people sea" (人山人海) at Culture Square.
Actually, i would describe this more accurately as "people hill people pond".

The tourist crowd has been relatively low (by China or Europe standard). The scene above is due to tourists leaving about the same time. This relatively low crowd is because it's a low season and more importantly, it's only 2 weeks following 1 of the 3 Golden Weeks (Chinese major holidays that lasts a few days) in China. Avoid these golden weeks at all costs (unless you like to see people mountain people sea, which is quite a spectacle in itself). The best time is of course the lull just following it. In this case, the last golden week for the year 2017 is Oct 3th - 5th. We were there on the 28th Oct. It would be perfect - or if we could help it - arrive there on, say 10th Oct. But life isn't perfect.

This is Saturday. I imagine weekday is less (as it turned out to be the case in our next few days of visits of even more popular sights of Zhangjiajie 張家界). So weekdays soon after 1 of the China's golden weeks would be the best time to travel in China. Use weekends for rest. Go to church, or temple (probably busy).

The "mountain and see sea people" landscape is nice to look at if you're a bird flying over it. But if you're part of the landscape with Chinese tourists who have closer to zero personal space, it wouldn't be so spectacular. It's a matter of perspectives.

But you don't have to be a bird to have aerial view of the packed Chinese sardines tourists, you can fly a drone. I didn't have to wait long to see a drone taking photos / recording video overhead. As far as consumer (not military) drones, China drone maker like DJI is an industry leader. And they're quite affordable (about similar price to a mid-range DSLR like my camera Canon D70).

Drone, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Drone flying over the town.
(Click to enlarge)

Roof decoration, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China



 Square Walk 

A large sculpture of Phoenix in this town is in order, and this square is dedicated to this purpose.

Phoenix Square, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Phoenix Square - the town's main square.

Phoenix Square, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Phoenix Square, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China



 Tower Walk 

The East Gate Tower franks one side of Phoenix Square. I decided to climb up to this tower and have an elevated view of the Square and surrounding.

East Gate Tower, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
East Gate Tower

East Gate Tower, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Silhouette of East Gate Tower

East Gate Tower, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
This gate tower is guarded by dummy (albeit fashionable one).
Perhaps, the mannequin moonlights as security guard.

But, soft!  what light through yonder pavilion break ?
It's the east gate tower, and Juliet is the guard.

Aerial view, Phoenix Square, East Gate Tower, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Aerial view of the square from the tower.  Not at all crowdy.

Aerial view,  East Gate Tower, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Aerial view of town outside the gate

Aerial view,  East Gate Tower, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Houses that are built quite close to the city wall. These houses are behind, not outside the wall

Aerial view,  East Gate Tower, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
View towards the East Gate Tower

Children playpens, Aerial view,  East Gate Tower, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Children playpens just below he wall. Most likely a childcare centre.


 Riverside Walk 

Of course, of all the picturesque sights in this town, the riverside takes the prize.

Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
(Click to enlarge)

Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
4 ways of crossing the river, in a series of evolution from the stepping stones, to the boardwalk, to an elaborate 2-tiered bridge, to a modern bridge in a chronological order. It's like a textbook illustration of the evolution of river crossing method.

Stepping stones, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
I like to see people who try to cross in the other direction. Strictly one way traffic.
I see 1 such brave soul on the 2nd person from the right.

Stepping stones, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Traffic congestion at the stepping stones.
Don't stepping stoning when drunk. Although the river will wake you right up after your fall.

Footbridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
The boardwalk is slightly easier.

There's another more civilized, broad bridge just a little further down the river where you can cross in leisure and style. But that would deprive me from showing my moderately to slightly above-average cowardice by crossing this narrow footbridge instead. So i swaggered over it like the former U.S. president George W. Bush. I quickly found out it was a footbridge for staggering, not swaggering. So i staggered over it like tightrope walker over a teeth-chattering disastrous height of 1m over a meter of water. But if you're  holding a camera by your side,  then you may choose to walk like president Putin. So go ahead,  make your hair!

Footbridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


If you're early enough, you may see locals washing their laundry along the riverbanks before the tourist crowd arrives.

Tourists in ethnic costume, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Tourists in ethnic costume, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Miao and Tujia Costumes for hire

These are Han Chinese (or other ethnic Chinese) tourists who imitate the major minority in this area of Hunan (湖南. "Hu" = "Lake". "Nan" = "South", again. Very predictable. Easy peasy). The costume is more likely belonged to the Tujia ethnic minority. I don't feel like dressing up like a minority because i'm already a bona-fide minority in my previous 4 countries of residences. I prefer to wear costume  that are sold in Versace, Nike, or Gap stores (although i'm not wearing any of the clothes from those stores. Come to think of it, i never shopped in those stores. I'm too cheap for them, and would rather buy the companies, if anything. Wouldn't you prefer to be a shareholder than a customer?).

Tourists in ethnic costume, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Tourists in ethnic costume, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Left of photo shows North Gate Tower. The city wall is running along the river.


Two leveled bridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
An unusual 2-level footbridge Wind Rain Bridge

I believe that this extra elevated arched or "A" shaped walkway was built (in the same architectural style) on top of the existing bridge after the flood in 2014. This is based on my guess. I saw photo of this bridge without the upper arch walk, and i've heard about the high flood that inundated this town. So this must be built so that one can still cross the river when the water level has risen to just above the level of the lower bridge. This is a practical architectural solution to the flood problem.


Two leveled bridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Two leveled bridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Bridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
The relatively modern of the bridges: Phoenix Bridge (Fenghuangqiao)



Bridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Pagoda atop of each hill

Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China



Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Some of the more rustic Miao or Tujia architectural styles. You can see the stilts in some of the houses.

Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China



 Boating 

Wing On had arranged a brief boat ride down the river, which is a must-do and seeing the town from a different perspective.

Boating, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China

Boating, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Boating, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China



Boating, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Stilt houses, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Stilt houses by the river and the Rainbow Bridge.
These houses that are closest to the river's edge are built on stilts because of rising river level.
The different colors on the section of stilts indicate the water mark.



The boat trip was short, but sweet. Nice breezes and views.

Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China

Boating, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Boats moving under Rainbow Bridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China

The background of this triple arch covered bridge is the Rainbow Bridge, which we first entered into town. See the 1st photo at the top of this post.


Boats moving under Rainbow Bridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Boats moving below Rainbow Bridge



Boating, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Pagoda, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Wanmingta (萬名塔 = "Ten Thousand Name Pagoda"), 21m tall, hexagonal cross-section.
It's essentially a furnace for paper burnt offering that you often see in temple, but rarely this tall.



Pagoda, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China


Rainbow Bridge, Riverside, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Sunset behind Rainbow Bridge


 Epilogue 

It's not often that my index fingers got as much exercise as my flat feet. And i was lucky because the weather was perfect. Just look at my photos above.

When i heard about this town about early 2000's, i was nonplussed nonchalant non-reactive due to the lack of hard selling (which i hate) to me. Also, i was thinking another site/sight like the many in Jiangnan. But none of them have all of these features in 1 place: hillsides, river, waterwheels, pagoda, stepping stones, wooden footbridge, covered bridge, double-tiered bridge, stilt-houses, city wall and residents that built right next to it, city-gate tower, ethnic minority and their architectures. In fact, none of them have half of these features, and in such a small place. It's made for tourism.

How's that for a hard sell? Now, whom am i asking to pay me promotional fees? China Tourism Board? Wing On Travel Agency ?  Show me the money!

Wing On Travel badgeI had no intention of going there (because there're so many sights in China), and was only there because of this Wing On tour. I'm glad i've been there, done that.

My only complain with Wing On is that we were just given barely half a day there. It felt quite rushed. At least a full day would do this place a justice. But even that, it's only a grand tour. To do even slightly in-depth walk of the town's many alley ways, to scale the pagoda up the top of hill to get an aerial view of the town, and to sip coffee in Rainbow Bridge while watching the boats floating by, etc would take at least 2 full days. And longer if one wants to take it in a leisurely pace, and really soak up the place.

Ah yes, speaking of soaking up, the whole place is permeated with the smell of stinking tofu, which is like the French cheeses, the stinkier the better it tastes (yes, i tried them a few times before in various places from Taiwan to Singapore, and never so off-putting charcoal looking). You can't escape from it. It's the whole experience where you're assailed by all the senses. The whole package. If the experience is good, you can tell your good friends and children about it. If it's bad, tell it to your frienemies.

Stinky tofu, Phoenix Fenghuang County, Hunan, China
Stinky as well as ugly tofu

By the way, there's a Southern Great Wall of China that's  located less than 10km or some 15 mins drive from here. When tourists hear the name Great Wall of China, they think of the Northern Great Wall of China. This 390 km long Southern Great Wall of China is so close by that it would be foolish not to see it, unless you're in a tour. And i don't understand why Wing On doesn't include this site in the tour considering this town is out of the way from the rest of the sights we're going to visit. I say this is an oversight on Wing On's part.

This gives me an excuse to revisit this town in the future. One of these days. Perhaps in the dead of winter to see it in a different light (and even smaller crowd size).



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