It may have been the relaxing sound of flowing water from the Toujiang River, or the age-old edifices reminiscent of the Ming and Qing dynasties, or because of it’s people – friendly and simple – with its laid-back lifestyle, that convinced me that Feng Huang would be a place I would love to visit again and again.
How the city got its name
Feng Huang is said to be one of the most beautiful towns in China
Legend has it that long, long time ago, two phoenix birds happened upon a place so glorious that they were deeply enticed by its beauty, never wanting to leave. Now, the place is called Feng Huang, the Chinese word for phoenix, the mythical bird known to be a harbinger of good omens and possessing the power to rise from the ashes after being consumed by fire.
A county in China’s southern Hunan province, Feng Huang is said to be one of the most beautiful towns in China. It was first built on 1203 and was turned into a brick city by 1556. Decades after, in 1715, Feng Huang became a stone city. Until now, the original structures, especially those from the Ming and Qing dynasties, have been preserved, even with modern streets enveloping the old town.
the beauty of Feng Huang is a constant all-year round, regardless of season
Mountain dappled with winter fog met me and my friends when we arrived. It was an eight-hour train ride from Hunan’s capital Changsha to the town of Jishou, followed by a two-hour bus ride to Feng Huang. The foggy weather was not a good sign for travelers and villagers alike, for it meant that it could rain and snow anytime soon. I was told that the perfect time to visit Feng Huang was during summer, when one could enjoy the scenery sans the chilly weather. The entire Hunan province has no heating system to keep you warm, especially at night.
Even so, the beauty of Feng Huang is a constant all-year round, regardless of season. Wooden houses sit on stilts, restaurants and shops straddle along the banks of Tuojiang River while three bridges span across it. Also in sight were women washing clothes with wooden paddles or ladles in hand, and travelers doing any, if not all, of these three things: taking pictures of the Tuojiang River and its vicinity, dressing up like Miao villagers (for friends to take pictures), or taking a boat ride to see the entire river scenery in on sitting.
There were alleyways paved with large flagstones on Stone Street. Nearby were meandering passageways to rows and rows of shops, restaurants and street vendors. Art enthusiasts will enjoy the art shops along these rows. In several coffee shops, one can hang out with friends or simply read a book. My favorite dinner haunt is Yi Jiang Yue Bar, where I spent most of my time reading travelers’ notes and letters posted on its walls.
Dominated by Miao minority, Miao culture is prevalent in this small town and it is not a surprise for one to see a person with baskets on his back, slung like a knapsack; or women dressed in traditional Miao costume – head-dress glinting with lustrous silver, brightly-colored tunic and trousers, embroidered bodices mottled with color, all accented with silver jewelry.
Feng Huang by night
a city capable of transforming itself from a serene natural beauty by day to a vivacious charmer by night
At night, Feng Huang city vibrates with color. The sight of Wanshou Palace, Rainbow Bridge, the old pagoda and the edifices near the riverbanks dressed in lights with hues of red, orange, blue, green – speaks of a city capable of transforming itself from a serene natural beauty by day to a vivacious charmer by night.
Another interesting thing to do by the riverbank at night, besides taking pictures and bargaining at shops, is offering a prayer. Candles are placed on a paper plate with flower design and are available along the riverbanks. You may light a candle and let it float on the river while you say your prayers. It is believed that doing so will make your dreams come true and answer your prayers.
Beyond the city
I learned that the Miao minority has retained their spoken language, but not their written system
Beyond Feng Huang, an hour or so away, is the heart of the Miao villages. I learned that the Miao minority has retained their spoken language, but not their written system. A Miao gesture of hospitality includes offering rice wine to every visitor in the village. Along the way to the Miao performing hall, old folk greeted me while there were preparing to make silver jewelry. Several steps further, some folk sold batik cloths at a very reasonable price. Miao houses, though old and shabby, reflect inhabitant’s humble and unassuming lifestyle.
Another sight to see not from the Miao villages is the Southern Great Wall. This wall is different from the wall that lies in the northern part of China. It is 190-kilometers long with 848 perplexed blockhouses, a living testimony to the 400-year struggle and battles of the local townsmen.
Tianglongxia Canyon on the east of Feng Huang city, 24 kilometers away, is Feng Huang’s National Geopark. The canyon stretches 2.5 kilometers and is famous for its “dangerous and peculiar steep slopes”. Though a hike from the entrance of the park to the Qiansi spring is a challenge to travelers, it is both satisfying and breathtaking to be able to witness the grandeur of nature right before your eyes. One can see countless waterfalls, fantastic rock formations, ladder-like slopes, the Karst spring on a faulted cliff, and the Qiansi spring which sprays water in thousands of silver threads.
I thought of the mythical phoenix birds in the legend of long ago. In a way, they became alive in me…because like them, I was enchanted, never wanting to leave.
We left Feng Huang as the snow subsided. It was early morning, when the city was about to stir. I felt a sense of connection to it, maybe because in many ways the people’s attittude towards life touched me. The whole place’s beauty somehow felt like it was begging me to explore it more, and the Toujiang River, though cold in the winter weather, was like a friend encouraging me to flow on amidst life’s ever changing times.
As the sound of crisp snow beneath my every step told me that I was about to leave, I thought of the mythical phoenix birds in the legend of long ago. In a way, they became alive in me…because like them, I was enchanted, never wanting to leave.
Published: Sun.Star Cebu newspaper, February 07, 2008
Photography: Cathy Perez