Fenghuang (凤凰) in Hunan (湖南) province is one of the most famous and the most picturesque ancient towns of China.
Everyone saw pictures of Fenghuang’s houses on stilts mysteriously hanging above the Tuo River (沱江) with a lush green forest imbued in the morning fog in the backdrop. Whoever sees these images of Fenghuangwill naturally be inclined to put it into their bucket-list of must-see destinations during their China trip.
Fenghuang belongs to this category of destination you want to see during your lifetime. So I went.
When I went, local authorities charged a 148 RMB (25 US$ or 18 €) entrance fee to gain access to the historical core zone of Fenghuang. The entrance fee was discontinued in April 2016, and tourists are now able to visit the heart of Fenghuang for free.
Fenghuang is insanely beautiful and, of course, incredibly popular among Chinese and foreign tourists. Although I thoroughly enjoy walking in the streets of this historical town, I left it with mixed feelings.
Change the architecture and you are in Lijiang. The main streets are lined with trinket stores, pubs and restaurants. Touts harass you to take a boat trip on the Tuo River. For that, Fenghuang looks like is an open-air mall with quaint ethnic architecture and centuries-old cobblestone streets.
Fenghuang does attract busloads of tourists. Chinese traditional holidays and week-ends are the worst periods to visit Fenghuang. Expect crowds of people in the cobble-stone alleys and loud speakers in front of shops.
A lot of store have huge speaker blaring loud music to attract customers. At dusk, the karaoke and bars along the Tuo River come to live and the entire town become a dance music party until 11 pm.
Before arriving to Fenghuang, I had visited Qianyang (黔阳), the ancient business town of Hongjiang (洪江) and the Pan clan ancestral of Jingping near Huaihua, which are off-the-beaten path travel destination just 2 hours south. I think that if I had flown directly from Guangzhou (or any overcrowded ocean of concrete in China), I would have had a different impression of the town.
The bright side of Fenghuang
In spite of being overcrowded, expensive, noisy and somehow disappointing, Fenghuang has its bright sides.
- Must-see ancient town
Even if the entrance fee is very high (the doubling of the entrance fees right before the 2013 Chinese New Year sparked controversy among Chinese tourists), Fenghuang is definitely a place to visit (if your travel budget allows).
Fenghuang has managed to preserve its architecture. Getting lost in the streets while trying to spot one of the ten attraction, there is an impressive amount of details to pay attention to, whether it is the shape of the roofs, the imposing doors and courtyard gates or the lattices work on windows and wooden window cover.
- Shop (and bargain)
Uber-commercialization has its upside. Travelers are able to select from a range of handmade souvenirs, local delicacies and trinkets found everywhere in China to bring back home.
If you are learning Chinese and a fan of Shen Congwen 沈从文, this is the place to stack on bilingual Chinese – English novel of the famed author.
- Behind the crowds
There is an escaping the crowds even during week-ends. Chinese tourists usually stay on the beaten path and beyond the main streets, Fenghuang is a maze of quiet street-alleys where one can feel the old town breathing.
Should you go or not?
While working as a freelance tour guide, I brought clients to Fenghuang. As we arrived in the old town, the plan was to stay two full days, but after one afternoon and one morning, they said they have had enough and that it was time to move on, earlier than scheduled.
In spite of the negative aspects, Fenghuang remains a beautiful place that should visit if you are planning a trip in the region to see Zhangjiajie national park (张家界) and if your budget allows it. Be aware it might be crowded and do not plan to stay more than 1.5 day.
There are plenty of places to visit in the region. First, the famous Zhangjiajie national park (张家界) , the village of Furong (芙蓉镇) also called Wangcun (王村) or even Dehang (德夯), for which I did not particularly care for …
South of Fenghuang, easily reachable by bus from Jishou (吉首) and Huaihua (怀化), I definitely recommend a visit to the Pan Clan Ancestral Hall of Jingping, the ancient business town of Hongjiang, and the old town of Qianyang which remains authentic and off the radar to main tourists.
Where to stay
Unless you plan to go to Fenghuang when China is on holiday, there is no need to book. You can stay either within or outside the historical core zone.
There is a plethora of guesthouses with view on the Tuo River. All these hostels are situated in front of bunch of bars / KTV that display loud Chinese-style techno/dance music from 5:30 PM to 11 PM.
- There is one quiet place I would recommend in the old town. The recently refurbished ‘Yours Hostel’ (柚子客栈) is nice boutique hotel that has single and double bedrooms between 160 and 300 RMB (price may change during the high season).
Address : Wujia Lane 16, Dongzheng Street 22 (吴家弄16号，东正街22号)
- The Fenghuang Old Town Youth Hostel (right next door to the ‘Yours Hostel’) is also a nice spot, sheltered from the madness of the town and the noisy evenings.
Address : Wujia Lane 20, Dongzheng Street 22 (吴家弄16号，东正街22号)
How to get there
By bus : Fenghuang is directly connected by bus to most cities of Hunan province including Changsha 长沙 (mostly from Changsha West bus station), Changde 常德, Wulingyuan 武陵源, Zhangjiajie (national park) 张家界, Huaihua 怀化 and Jishou 吉首.
There are also direct trans-provincial connections to Wuhan 武汉, Chongqing 重庆, Guiyang 贵阳 and Tongren 铜仁 in Guizhou province, Kunming 昆明, Guangzhou 广州, and Shenzhen 深圳.
Jishou (吉首) is the next main town, just 45 minutes from Fenghuang. There are better and more frequent bus connections.
By train : there is no train station in Fenghuang. You will have to transit through the nearby cities of Jishou 吉首 , Huaihua 怀化 or Tongren 铜仁 in Guizhou. Jishou 吉首 is the closest and it seems that most travelers arrived by train from Changsha, Zhangjiajie or Nanning.
With Huaihua 怀化 linked to China high-speed train network and is located on the Guiyang (capital of Guizhou) to Changsha (capital of Hunan). Check my article about high-speed train itinerary in southwest China (see the map below). It is very easy to include Fenghuang and other destinations in Hunan in your itinerary.
By air : the airport in Tongren 铜仁 is connected to Guangzhou (one flight on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) and Guiyang (one flight everyday). Do check flight schedules as they may change in the future
The airport in Zhangjiajie is further away, but have daily connection to and from Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Xi’an, Shenzhen, Changsha, Chengdu, Xiamen, Chongqing, Nanjing. The problem is that many of these connections arrive late at night and you probably have to spend the night in Zhangjiajie before heading to Fenghuang.