Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Where Phoenix hovers…

If I were to describe something orally I used to say “Ah! I don’t have any words to explain how beautiful it is”, but now since I’m supposed to convey my experiences to others, I struggled hard to find the right words.

Serene, picturesque and unique are the adjectives I feel are apt to describe Fenghuang. Known as Phoenix town to foreigners, never had I expected that I would spend my spring festival in this wonderland, which is described as China’s one of the two most beautiful towns. Fenghuang is located in the western part of Hunan province (Central China), south of Tujia and Miao prefectures.

How I got there?

We traveled to FengHuang by train from Shanghai. It is around 27 hours of journey, most of which I spent looking through the windowpane of the train. The best part of the journey was waiting for us – spring festival celebrations aboard the train that consisted of songs, dance, riddles – a fun packed hour during evening, though I understood nothing since they spoke in Chinese. We reached Huaihua by evening and the connecting train to Jishou was on the next morning. It takes nearly 2 hours by train to reach Jishou from Huaihua and another one hour to reach the final destination by bus.

Alternatively, if you have more money to shell out you can fly to Zhangjiajie and travel by bus to FengHuang, which is around 4 hours.

The town

The legend has that two phoenixes flew over this town and found it so beautiful that they were reluctant to leave the place. The town is surrounded by mountains and is along the river Tuo Jiang. The bridges are very traditional Chinese kinds and the houses are uniquely built over the river bund. And if good luck is something which you posses (which I lacked) then you may end up in an accommodation very next to the river treating your eyes with the mystique beauty of the town. I guess it’s quite difficult to find a room if you visit the town during Chinese vacation (first week of May and October)…

At this point let me divert a bit from the main topic which I can’t resist telling about – FOOD. For the people who do not like Chinese food, they must visit Hunan province to change their opinion. Known for its spicy and sumptuous food, this place has many good restaurants. Rice constitutes the main course usually accompanied by varieties of curries (mostly non-vegetarian). I liked noodles more than rice. One should be brave hearted to enter the restaurants since most of them will have varieties of animal corpses hanging down at the entrance (they are used for cooking). Knowing to use chopsticks is an added advantage.

…back to where I was

Must see parts of the town –

Southern Great Wall – a very ancient long wall built by the Ming dynasty for fortifying the town. This place is a good choice for shooting portraits since the backgrounds consist of artistic rooftops. Climbing the wall gives rise to a scene from the other side of the river from where one can see the stilted houses built on the river bund.

Huangsiqiao Bridge – a marvelously built closed-top bridge now houses numerous shops selling varieties of handicrafts, ornaments and books. It has three arches for the boats to sail across and the roof resembles any typical Chinese buildings with horn shaped edges.

Tuojiang River – considered as the “Mother river” of Fenghuang, it has nourished people for hundreds of years. You can take a boat ride along the river, which is quite an experience. This river also adds to the beauty of the town by reflecting the mountains around. Also I found many red lanterns along the river since I visited during spring celebrations.

Pubs and coffee houses - It’s not disappointing for beer guzzlers too. There are ample pubs with a western ambience serving the drink of your choice. Most of them are situated along the riverbank and it was a pleasing experience to gulp the cold beer on a sunny afternoon with your eyes seeing wonderful scenery. “Bingo” – a pub cum coffee house deserves a special mention. It has the best ambience and a retro style balcony, from where the view of the river is splendid. Here one could find some English magazines, Internet is available and a lovely Labrador dog for pass time. I savored a hot cappuccino on the balcony enjoying the serenity of the river.

Apart from the above-mentioned places, I enjoyed walking along the narrow streets with shops on both sides selling paintings, handicrafts and artwork. Never accompany people who like shopping along these streets for you may end up not seeing the rest of the town at all. Yeah it’s a paradise for shoppers. And if luck favors you, you may witness the well-known dragon and lion dances of China.

LaoDong village - The local tourism runs a bus to this village, around 2 hours from FengHuang and is dominated by the MIAO minority community. Believe me it’s a resplendent place embellished with natural beauty of the mountains, fields and the kind hearted MIAO people. They welcome their guest into their territory by singing a song, offering wine and playing drums (which the guests have to imitate). Their village consisted of narrow lanes made of juxtaposed stones and houses mostly made of stones and yellow bricks. All the houses were sparsely lit and had a fireplace over which there were dried pork corpses. We were treated with their traditional lunch (consisted mostly of rice and curries of pork, pumpkin & carrot) followed by a performance. Their performance included artistic drumming, bamboo dance, a wizard performing a ritual wherein he ate burning wood, men pounding rice and girls making rice cakes out of it. Ladies wore traditional blue dress, which was adorned with varieties of sundries and silver ornaments. The attractive headgear made of white metal enhanced their beauty.

Not to forget - Never ever dream of visiting this place without learning Chinese or without being accompanied by a person who can speak both Chinese and English. You cant expect English at its very basic level too, not even commonly used words. Carrying a Chinese-English dictionary is not a bad idea at all. It’s also advised to print the map of the town available on the Internet for easier navigation. Vegetarians suffer lack of food choice here, for almost all dishes contain meat in one or the other form. Carry warm clothes during winter if you don’t like shivering.

Conclusion – If you’re looking for some kind of a relaxation, break from your mundane activities then this is the place to be. Fenghuang offers the visitor, a view quite different from anything experienced in modern cities that are more widely known. I believe it was a great opportunity for me to visit this cute little town. The memories, I’ve saved for myself and photographs, for the others.

Quik facts:
Location: Central China (Northwest of Hunan province)
Distance from Shanghai: 1100Km
Nearest railway station: Jishou
Nearest airport: Zhangjiajie
Temperatures: 24 to 27 degree centigrade during Summer (July) and 1.7 to 4.3 degree centigrade during winter (January)
Nearby places worth visiting: Zhangjiajie Forest park, Heng mountain, Yueyang city.
Cost: Nearly Yuan 500 /couple for 3 days (bargaining works!!!) excluding travel
Language: Chinese (absolutely no English)
Food: Mostly non-vegetarians with very less options for vegetarians
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