Hongjiang (洪江古商城) is a maze of narrow alleys interconnected via a series of cobble-stone stairs. This ancient town on the banks of the Yuan River (沅江) is one of the three major ancient town of Western Hunan. The now popular Fenghuang in the north acted as a military stronghold, the nearby town of Qiancheng was a regional political center and Hongjiang was a business town.
The town flourished into a regional business hub at the intersection of the five provinces of southwest China : Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Hunan. While getting lost in the town, you will stumble upon ancient guild halls, banks, auction houses, theatres, military headquarters, local official mansions and offices. But this ancient western China-style Manhattan would not be complete without Yujia Lane, an alley famous for its legal and illegal brothels (called qinglou 青楼), and for its opium houses where men indulged in the smoking of the drug smuggled from the coastal cities or grown on the hillside of Yunnan.
Hongjiang: the opium den
After drifting in the streets, I met in front of the Fuquan Apothecary (福全堂) one of these paid actors. He was dressed as a Qing merchant and was wearing a headset with microphone. After the usual ‘wow there is a white guy here’ reaction, he asked whether I spoke Chinese. Upon my positive response, he explained to me how this place, the Fuquan Apothecary, used to be a ‘disguised’ opium smuggling den, own by people from Guizhou.
In an attempt to limit the consequences of opium smoking on its population, the Qing Emperors decided to heavily tax the opium the British were importing into China. The Qing eventually proscribed opium.
To circumvent the tax and the then ban, Chinese businessmen were buying opium grown on the hillsides of Yunnan borderland. In Chinese language of Hongjiang merchants, ‘opium’ was not called ‘opium'(鸦片), but ‘earth medicine’ (土药) and legally sold in Fuquan Apothecary which is the first building you’ll see right after the main entrance.
How to visit Hongjiang
The town is taking advantage of the development of domestic tourism and Hongjiang is mainly visited by organised groups. They follow a local tour guide dressed up in silky Qing-era style costumes and visit the town’s landmark. Whether they stop at an ancient private bank, auction house or at the renowned ‘Shaoxing Ban’ (绍兴班), an upscale ‘pleasure quarter’ which catered to the elite and rich merchant of Hongjiang, visitors can enjoy a short performance by local actors in ancient costume.
Although visitors have to pay a 120 RMB entrance fee if they enter via the main entrance (which includes the tour which unfortunately to most foreigners is in Chinese language only), travellers also have the option of entering via one of the many non-descript access to the old town and enjoy the feeling of getting lost and discover the heart of the city.
Even though it is in theory still possible to enter the ancient town of Hongjiang without paying the entrance fee, I feel that, in the coming years, this is going to get more difficult and guards may be placed at strategic entry points.
A small percentage of the buildings have been refurbished for tourism purposes, many old courtyard mansions that belonged to wealthy merchants were converted into residential housing and are sometimes shared by several families, others ancient structures were locked and abandoned.
Hongjiang can be overwhelming at the beginning, specially if you decide to wander around by yourself, specially because of the narrow streets. I really felt I was entering a maze, but I had a great time getting lost in it.
There are a lot of architectural details to pay attention to. Specially bas-relief carved on abandoned temples. What I enjoyed the most was the patterns on the impressive doors. All the doors are 7 ft tall are made of rosewood,reinforced with a metal sheet covering on which big nails form auspicious patterns.
Definitely worth a visit
The ancient business town of Hongjiang is definitely worth a visit if you are travelling through western Hunan. If you are fast enough, you can visit both Hongjiang and Qianyang (only 30 km away) in one day.
Although tour groups are pouring in, specially on week-ends and during holidays, but otherwise it has not been over-commercialised and spoiled by mass-tourism like Fenghuang.You’re free not to partake in the guided visit and can enjoy the peaceful and quite lanes where you’ll meet the locals who will be surprised that you have gone off the beaten path.
About the entrance fee
The main entrance of Hongjiang ancient business town is located on Yuanjiang Road (沅江路). You can’t miss it. The entrance fee is quite expensive, but includes the tour with a guide and performances by actors. Unless you have a good level of Chinese, there is no point in buying a ticket.
Keeping walking straight on Yuanjiang Road (沅江路) and turn left in one of the next alleys and you will be in the ancient business town of Hongjiang. It is really a maze and depending on how much you like to get lost, you can easily spend a whole morning or a whole afternoon or even a whole day walking in the streets.
It seems however that there are sometimes guards on duty on the lanes leading to the old town on Yuanjiang Road. My guess is that it’s going to be more difficult to skip the entrance fee in the future.
Where to stay in Hongjiang
In Hongjiang, there are a few hotels on the main road, Xinmin Road (新民路). It seems the best option in town is the Wulingcheng Hotel (武陵城酒店) which has rooms from 250 RMB a night.
Book rooms at this number : 0745-7666717
How to get there
Hongjiang ancient business town is located in western Hunan province (湘西). The nearest town are Qianyang (黔阳) which is also called Qiancheng (黔城) – 30 minutes by local bus – and Huaihua (怀化) – 1.5 to 2 hours north. There are direct connections to Hongjiang from these two towns only. If you have time, do go to the village of Jingping where you can admire the impressive Pan clan ancestral hall.
From Huaihua you will have to go to the west station (西站) in the downtown area or to the south station (南站). Worse case scenario, take a ticket to Qianyang and then take a local bus at the intersection of Furong West Road (芙蓉西路) and Binjiang Road (滨江路). You will see buses with a big red sign on the windshield. Hongjiang is one of their first stop, you will see other townships names like Shawan (沙湾), Taiping (太平), or Anjiang(安江).
The highway Huaihua 怀化 – Tongdao 通道 was completed in December 2013. Travel time between the two cities is now cut in half.
From Hongjiang, there are also taxi you can rent. They charge 300 RMB for the car or 75 RMB per person. It’s faster than the bus, provided that the driver find enough people quickly.
Going south? Your itinerary
If you plan on heading south the Guangxi province, you will have take a bus from Qianyang to Tongdao (通道) and then change and take a bus for Sanjiang (三江). It’s mountain road all the way, the segment Qianyang to Tongdao is a 5 hours bus trip, but the highway will cut travel time in half. From Tongdao to Sanjiang, it takes 2 hours (only two buses a day).
If you are stuck in Tongdao (通道) because you missed the last bus, go and visit the Puxiu bridge, only 30 minutes outside of town. Hire a drive and go on a tour in the countryside to admire Wind and Rain bridges (风雨桥) and drum towers (鼓楼). Although it seems that the region of Tongdao is forbidden to foreigners, I went there twice and did not see anyone
In Sanjiang, go check the Dong hamlets of Chengyang and the Yongji Bridge on your way to the Longsheng terraces or Guilin / Yangshuo region (4 hours from Sangjiang).