Explore Fenghuang in Hunan | What you should know about China most famous ancient town

Fenghuang, Hunan

A view of Fenghuang, Hunan, China

Unavoidable

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.

Fenghuang, Hunan

Stilt houses hanging above the Tuo River in Fenghuang, Hunan, China

Entrance Fee

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.

Mixed feelings

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.

  • Uber-commercialization
    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.
  • Over-crowded
    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.
  • Noisy
    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.

Fenghuang, Hunan

Fenghuang

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).
  • Architecture
    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.
Fenghuang, Hunan

Fenghuang’s main covered bridge

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.

In the streets of Qianyang, south of Fenghuang

In the streets of Qianyang, south of Fenghuang

After Fenghuang

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.

At the southern tip of Hunan province, Wind & Rain bridges and Drum Towers of the Dong villages dot the landscape of Tongdao (通道) region.

Red lanterns in Yujia Lane, Hongjiang, south of Fenghuang

Red lanterns in Yujia Lane, Hongjiang, south of Fenghuang

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)
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Chinese tourists on the Tuo River in Fenghuang, Hunan, China

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.

 

Guizhou Guangxi Hunan map

 

There are 21 comments

  1. Austin

    Fenghuang actually eliminated their entrance fee as of April this year. The locals were unhappy with the fee as it could limit the desire of tourists to visit local shops. Individual tourist attractions may still have their own separate fees however.

  2. Steve Griffith

    En route from Fanjing Shan 梵净山just over the border in Guizhou(wonderful as 99% of tourists go be cable car ,lumbering up the 8000 steps you will pretty much have the place to yourself) I was heading for Zhijiang 芝江 home of the fascinating Flying Tigers museum(US airmen who help in the anti Japanese war. )
    I stopped at Huangsiqiao 黄丝桥 a walled village 45 mins west of Fenghuang. Mercifully tour group free and not restored well worth a visit . If you have paid the 148¥ to jostle with the crowds you can get in for free ,if not just walk in at one of the two other gateways. Takes bus at the end of bus route 2 in Fenghuang , you will see several restored parts of the Southern Great Wall en route , best viewed from the bus.
    It amazes me that even the latest LP guide talks about Fenghuang being an essential stop, seductive setting etc. Now I know why I stopped using them as a guide .

    The only good thing about Fenghuang is that it’s easy to get out of with excellent bus connections , there are direct buses to Tongren 同仁 where you get a bus to Fanjing Shan

  3. Steven

    Fenghuang is the worst place I’ve been in China and perhaps the most frustrating place I’ve ever traveled to. A parody of Chinese tourists on parade getting their picture taken in front of every trash can. The architecture is not original. Just feels like one of the not-so-bad urban shopping pedestrian districts in the big cities. The difference being that you don’t have to pay 148rmb to walk down those streets.

    The rediculous 148rmb entrance fee comes with no explanation, no map, no help. The locals drive and honk like crazy and the police use a bullhorn at entrances to herd people up or away from traffic. It’s like being in an airport and can really only be enjoyed for it’s absurdity at this point.

    1. Gaetan

      Dear Hungry Suitcase : Thank you for this comment. I cannot agree more with you. Several times, I took people to Fenghuang. They had very high expectations, planned to stay at least 2 days and after one afternoon spent in the madness they said me “ok, it was interesting, but we need to get out of here asap!”.

  4. Steve Griffith

    I can see no reason to visit Fenghuang unless you have the desire to observe the impact of mass Chinese tourism at close quarter. What was a beautiful ancient town has been ruined completely. The only peace I found was at the very simple Buddhist temple above Shen Congwen,s grave. Wandering around I must have had my ticket checked at least six times. A Chinese friend joked it was easier to get into the USA than Fenghuang without a ticket. One of the few good things about the place is there are buses to a huge range of destinations so easy to get out of..
    Re Lijiang I was lucky enough to visit in 1987 just dug out my faded b/w photos and a Naxi dictionary that I never used. ….. I remember travelling with some Chinese botany students learnt a lot….

    1. Gaetan

      I agree with you. Unfortunately, Fenghuang represents a trend in the development of domestic tourism in China : fenced off town, expensive entrance ticket, over-commercialization and too touristy.

  5. Rem

    Since what time the entrance to the old part of Fenghuang is chargeable? 148 RMB just to enter (even without 10 attractions)? I was there in 2011 for 3 days. I didn’t went to the “mysterious ten tourist attractions”. But I walked a lot around the lanes and along the river and I didn’t saw any ticket booth. I arrived from Tongren by a taxi.

      1. Rem

        Damned capitalists 🙂 In the same year 2011 it was necessary to buy a ticket for 100 RMB to enter Xijiang One Thousand Family Miao village (Guizhou province). China becomes quite expensive if during the trip you route lays through various tourist attraction places .

      2. Gaetan

        Haha! It’s not capitalism … it’s ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’.
        Seriously, it’s true that traveling in China is becoming quite expensive. Many old towns like Fenghuang have been fenced off and visitors have to pay a fee to enter. It’s highway robbery … I wrote a post about the 8 most expensive towns in Southwest China. Have you been to these places?

      3. Rem

        From these eight I have been only in Fenghuang and Xijiang. Also I read about Dehang and Zhaoxing. Other villages names I hear for the first time. On your website there are a lot of references to unknown for me interesting destination points (villages) . And I will use this very useful information while planning my next trip(s).

      4. Gaetan

        Glad to hear I did put some useful info to people on this blog 🙂
        You can definitely skip Dehang and Zhaoxing (my opinion). You can contact me directly if you need specific information.

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you for comment Pavel.
      I do hope I will have the time to go back to this part of Hunan to visit Furong and other ancient towns and minority villages. To be honest, I fear that many villages are going to become tourist traps (like Dehang) or are just going to be abandoned because all most people have left to work in nearby towns.
      Great website and breathtaking pictures by the way!

  6. pbrasser

    re Lijiang I should have mentioned we were there in 2009 and when there is one thing we learned on our China trips things change quickly in China!

  7. pbrasser

    2014, June 20
    Fenghuang is indeed very very touristic, we were here on Wednesday and will leave tomorrow Saturday the tour groups drive you crazy I found it very claustrophobic to be surrounded by various groups with bull horns and with whistles!! Never had that before!
    In the evening around the river, the mix of horrible karaoke songs mixed with god know what other attempt of music is horrendous, but as Gaetan said, Fenghuang is worth it.

    We have been here 3 days and you are right that the tour groups always take the same routes and you learn quickly how to avoid them, we also discover that if you do not have the budget to cover the entrée fee, it is still worth it, parts of the old town are available without ticket, including a big part of the river facing the old town.

    The side streets are heavens of peace and many courtyards to be seen, the place is beautiful we must have taken a hundred pictures or more so there is some serious weeding to be done.

    You need Lonely planet phrase book or an alternative, you will meet only by sheer luck English speakers. (we only met one)

    All in all if you have a change, go to Fenghuang

  8. Peter Brasser

    Thanks for the update, we survived Lijiang, Lijiang has lots of interesting backstreet, tourist lucky enough stick mainly to the main streets. So with the right timing and some getting lost in the place it will be still rewarding !

    1. Gaetan Green

      When it comes down to commercialization and mass tourism, Fenghuang and Lijiang are very similar.
      Don’t worry, there are plenty of back streets to get lost into.
      But I am sure I am not alone when I say that the entrance fee to Fenghuang is too expensive. At least Lijiang is free!

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