One of the most gratifying things about your friends finally making it out to visit you in China is being able to show them first-hand, rather than trying to explain, the amazing but often bemusing country you live in. A recent trip to Hunan's Fenghuang, or "Phoenix Town", was one such occasion for me. We decided to tag a trip to Fenghuang onto the end of two days of exploring the incredible landscape of Zhangjiajie(otherwise known as Avatar Hallelujah Mountain, but more about that later), and found a colorful town largely populated Tujia and Miao minorities and lauded as one of "the most beautiful in China."
A very bumpy five-hour bus ride took us over 150 km of winding mountain roads--chalking up another first and unforgettable experience for our recently arrived China neophyte--before arriving around nightfall at the end of the line... a huge, dusty, noisy and neon-lit mass of concrete.
"This can't be Fenghuang, can it?" We asked, looking around in amazement as passengers began to crowd off the bus. Had we made a huge mistake? But Fenghuang it was, and with the help of a friendly fellow traveler from Macau (with her 80-year old mother in tow), we discovered the hotel we'd booked from Zhangjiajie was in fact in the midst of this seething, cacophonous melee of a new city--but we could hop in her taxi and try the riverside hotel that had been recommended to them, and breathing big sigh of relief, that is exactly what we did.
A few minutes, a lot of honking and some near misses later and the old town was in sight. Far from the tranquil waterside hamlet we'd been expecting (picture something akin to Hong Cun in Anhui and you'll be on the right track), this was something quite, quite different.
Straddling either side of the Tuo River was an unbroken chain of traditional-looking buildings, every possible inch of upturned flying eave and slate-tiled roof edged with fluorescent lighting and, atop each of the two majestic hillsides to the north and south, a laser-clad pagoda held court. Dance music blasted out from a group of bars clustered around the triple-arched Hong Bridge.
As it turned out, thankfully, further down river the music began to fade. Our hotel (Fu Feng Ke Zhan: 0743-322 2925; triple room RMB 150) was simple, the room clean and the owner friendly, and once we'd dumped our bags we set out to explore. Heading down the narrow lane that is the main artery of the town running parallel to the river, there's no chance of forgetting that tourism is the locals' bread and butter.
The streets were filled with music and restaurants whose wares spilled out onto the pavement in the form of live, caged chickens, smoked pigs heads and all manner fascinating foodstuffs.
Young Chinese men and women decked out in matching cowboy hats and crowns of fresh flowers mingled with old Miao women, their long hair rolled up and hidden within large, black headscarves, ears adorned with heavy silver earrings. A bizarre sense of carnival that hung thick in the air. As we passed by a nightclub housed in a crumbling Ming Dynasty building, a lone girl danced on a podium in a purple-lit and smoke-filled room, framed in the ancient stone doorway. "It's incredible," said my friend as she looked around in amazement. "... it's like spring break in the States!"
The next morning, with the volume turned down, the old town's original charm was far more apparent, though still only through the distorted lens of mass tourism and development. The flag-paved main street remained a swarming mass of sightseers purchasing trinkets and snapping photos while flashing peace signs as they made their way round the ticketed attractions. Giving those a miss, we opted instead for a lazy breakfast by the river: scrambled eggs with scallions and a plate of Tǔjiā làròu, (土家族腊肉), the deliciously smoky local bacon that makes for a fantastic start to the day. We sipped tea and declined the offers of every passing tout hawking rides on any of a small navy of boats afloat just off the river bank, jam-packed with domestic tourists who snapped our photos as much as the surrounding scenery.
In the maze of backstreets it is still possible to find some vestiges of day-to-day life, however, and if you're looking for old-timey authenticity, it's still there — though the hotels where bedsheets are still hand-washed in the river and hung out to dry may prove a bit too authentic for some!
And while wooden stilt houses, Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture and mist-shrouded hills make for some great photo ops, there's no question that tourism has taken the soul of the town. On the other hand, with Western travelers still few and far between, the pancake houses and cafes that rule the streets of other traveler hotspots like Yangshuo, Lijiang and Dali have not yet arrived en masse (though a vanguard have already begun to set up shop with Dali's Bingo Cafe and Yangshuo's Soul Cafe paving the way).
Back on the bus that afternoon we reflected on our Fenghuang experience as we bounced along the road bound for Zhangjiajie Airport. It may not have been quite what we were expecting, but it sure as hell was a real piece of China, tourists and all.