Five Gates, Ten Streets and Twelve Alleys
According to local history, the town of Qianyang (黔阳), which is also called Qiancheng (黔城), was founded more than 2000 years ago on the banks of the River Wu (巫水) in southwest Hunan province. In 1080, during the Song dynasty (960-1279), Qianyang (黔阳) became a regional political center, just 30 km west from the business town of Hongjiang (洪江).
In spite of the town’s long history, the parts of the walls, the few city gates that are still standing and most of the cultural and historical landmarks that are disseminated in the narrow slab-stones alleys date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Of all the ancient towns I have visited in China, Qianyang was one of the least touristic and is very high on my list of favourite places. With its streets lined with more than twenty ancestral halls, a dozen of Taoist and Buddhist temples, and over ten courtyard residences of ancient local officials, Qianyang breathes of history. Everywhere I went, locals had set a bamboo chairs in front of their house and were chatting with their neighbours, here and there, I could hear women playing cards.
And with the red lanterns hanging in front of every household, I felt like I had ventured in another China. A rural China town, far away from the pollution, the crowds, the concrete, the stress and toxic pace of life people have in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Qianyang, in my mind, belongs to this type of places that fits the western collective imaginary of what a traditional Chinese towns should look like (or used to look like).
How to visit Qianyang
As I write this post, Qianyang, unlike most ancient towns in Hunan, is still free. There is no entrance fee to pay. However, you’ll probably find a ticket office sells a 48 RMB ticket that will grant you access to eight different temples and sites in the old town (including one of the old gate).
If you walk along the river, you will probably stumble upon the entrance to the Hibiscus tower or furong lou (芙蓉楼) in Chinese. It’s a famed landmark in town and you’ll have to pay 70 RMB to see what it looks like. I decided not to spend any money on entrance tickets that day.
In spite of its small size, Qianyang you can easily spend several hours walking and getting lost in the streets. Since the town is not commercialised, instead of stores selling the same trinkets to tourists all across China, there is a variety of interesting shops and workshops that cater to the local community.
Some of the ancient ancestral temples have been transformed into residential housing where several families live together. Others have been renovated, like the temple dedicated to the Kitchen God (灶王宫) which hosted a stone museum when I visited and like the Wanshou Palace (万寿宫), an ancient guild hall which stands by the river and is not open to the public.
If a handful of temples are still maintained and visited by the local community, a lot of temples and ancestral halls are closed. There are either owned by a family clan and cannot be visited or they have been abandoned.
Go before it changes
Last time I visited Qianyang, in April 2014, ahead of the travel rush of the May holiday, I saw very a few buses of Chinese tourists who follow their tour guide along a very determined path.
For the moment, the old town is still spared by mass-tourism and commercialisation like we see in Fenghuang (凤凰) or Dehang (德夯). Steeped in history, the old town retains a unique atmosphere that has vanished elsewhere.
However, I saw a few old buildings that were being renovated and a few slogans that were telling the locals to ‘build a charming Qiancheng and a strong town oriented towards the tourism industry (建设山水魅力黔城，构筑工贸旅游重镇).
The highway which links Huaihua (怀化) to Tongdao (通道) was completed in December 2013. This highway will be extended as far as Guilin in Guangxin province. So, I do feel that in the next five years, the face of Qianyang will change radically and its unique atmosphere of an ancient town stuck in time will be entangled with modernisation.
Where to stay
There are probably a few hotels you can stay at in the new town of Qianyang. Don’t expect too much though. You can also stay in Hongjiang, which is just a short bus ride away.
How to get there
Qianyang 黔阳 is also called Qiancheng 黔城 and is located in western Hunan province, just 30 km east of the ancient business town of Hongjiang （洪江古商城） and 50 km south of Huaihua 怀化, your gateway to Fenghuang old town. With the new Huai – Tong highway which passes 10 km west of Qianyang, travel time in the region has been cut in half.
Huihua 怀化 is the regional transportation hub. There should be a bus to Qianyang (also called Qiancheng 黔城) every 1h to 1h30 from Huaihua West bus station. It’s a 45 min to 1h from Huaihua. Direct buses to Qianyang will take the old road. Sometimes, they will put you on a bus to Tongdao (same direction). In this case, the bus will take the highway and drop you off at the toll gate.
The Qianyang toll gate is roughly 10 km from the old town. There are no transportation from to toll gate to town whatsoever. You’ll have to hitchhike. Same thing if you arrive from Tongdao.