Ancient towns of Hunan | The old business town of Hongjiang

Hongjiang's rooftops

Hongjiang’s rooftops

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.

Yujia Lane in Hongjiang

Yujia Lane in Hongjiang

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.

My favourite green sofa

My favourite green sofa

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.

The narrow lanes of the ancient business town

The narrow lanes of the ancient business town

Architectural details

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.

An open door

An open door

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.

Hongjiang, Hunan

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

Chilling out in the streets

Chilling out in the streets

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.

 

Door to

Door to Sheng Feng Private Bank

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).

There are 11 comments

  1. Steve Griffith

    Staying in March 16 I found a good guest house at one of the many entrances to the old town , the 佳佳兵官Jia Jia Hotel. When you walk up Xinmin Road 新民路from the bridge take the first entrance on the right turn right again and you will see it at the bottom of some steps into the ancient town . only 50¥ for a clean room. I much prefer staying in these family run places than some modern high rise. Owners husband will take you on one of his early morning 5 km walks around 嵩云山Songyun Shan a forest park with superb views.
    I find the ancient town wonderfully atmospheric early AM and at dusk still finding interesting things and have started to try and map it.
    I do find the people in Western Hunan some of the friendliest in China. On this trip I got in conversation with someone who remembered the British being here in the 1930’s. He said many of the best parts of the ancient town were destroyed in the 80’s.

  2. LEFEVRE MARIE JOSE

    I am surprised so many peole want to escxape paying a fee… I am more concerned by finding how to get there from Tongdao and how to go to Hongjiang then to Fenhuang without going back to Huaihua.
    Does anybody have suggestions ? Thanks in advance

  3. Steve Griffith

    There are only buses from. Huaihua south bus station
    Certainly on my recent visit the number of ticket police and checks has increased. Being followed by one of these I was helpfully hidden by a local in his house . He explained they don’t see any of the money which would be well spent on some of the dwellings which are really slums inside .
    Still after 5pm its free to wander round and before 8 am , the best times in my view .

    I was told an American had bought a house and renovated but was unable to locate it .

  4. Anthony Garea

    Just an update from August 2015, I found it particularly difficult to avoid paying the entry fee. I went down a back lane from the main street and was followed with demands of showing my ticket. I responded with “Wo Ting Bu Dong” as monotonal as possible and was eventually left alone but there was a genuine air of discontent for me not having a ticket at every building I walked past and was followed again on two other occasions. I eventually relented and bought the ticket a little unhappy that my funds will no doubt go towards building the Hongjiang cable car, roller coaster or shopping mall in the near future.
    The ticket does get you entry to a lot of buildings that I found more interesting than most that are typically renovated by the government and an attempt has been made here to use the original materials which is highly surprising. If you would pay 120RMB to have a town not like Fenghuang it’s a lot easier to deal with in your head.
    Other than that, another incredible ancient town with very minimal tourism. You get the feeling that change is just around the corner however. To get here from Qiancheng buses go from a smaller bus station located one street North of the road /bridge over the Wushui River close to Fu Rong West Road.

  5. Peci

    Went here as our last stop in Hunan last week, arrived in the evening and it was okay to enter from the side lanes, but we had problems the following morning. We got lost, which could easily happen there, found a way out, but when we wanted to enter from the other lanes, there were guards everywhere.
    We also met an older Chinese guy who asked me if he could take some pictures of me in front of some buildings. Later he told us that he is responsible for redesigning the ancient core, not really sure what he meant by that, but it might undergo some changes soon so go visit this city as soon as possible!
    I can recommend staying at 江景宾馆, very nice room with a river view balcony for 129 RMB, helpful staff and very close to the ancient core.

  6. olilibolili

    A great article. I found Hongjiang one of the best places to visit in Hunan cause it got less tourist developement than other attractions. I found it very easy to skip the entrance fee. Actually the locals were very helpful by explain how to avoid the cashier.

    There are around 20 or more possibilities to enter the old town and i can imageine that its hard to control them all (and probably not worth cause most people anyway come by tourgroups which are brought directly to the ticket booth).

    1. Gaetan

      Hi there. Thank you for stopping by.
      Yes, Hongjiang is a great place. I like it much better than Fenghuang.
      Yes, it is easy to skip the entrance. The second time I went there were a few guards at some other key entry lanes, but it’s true there are a lot of places to enter.
      Happy travels in China.

  7. Shangha1

    In your fascinating feature, you suggest when going to Hongjiang from Huaihua to go to the West Station (西站) but the HunanGov site suggests visitors can take a bus from Huaihua South Station to get there. Any comment?

    1. Gaetan

      I’m sure you can also take the bus from Huaihua South which is far away from the city downtown where the West Station and the train station are. With the new highway completed in Dec. 2013, it actually make more sense to start from South station.

Comments are closed.