An itinerary on the road less traveled near Tongdao, Hunan

Protective Talisman on the walls of Yutou village near Tongdao, Hunan, China

Protective Talisman on the walls of Yutou village near Tongdao, Hunan

The Dong ethnic minority (侗族) live in the region delimited by southwest Hunan, southeast Guizhou and north Guangxi. This part of the country often called the  “Corridor of Dong culture”.

Some specific areas of the ‘Land of the Dong’ have been open to tourism (the cluster of hamlets of Chengyang 程阳 in north Guangxi and the village of Zhaoxing 肇兴 in Guizhou) and require entrance fee.

The countryside near Tongdao (通道) – which coincidentally means ‘passageway’ or ‘thoroughfare’ – is home to dozens of Dong ethnic villages. The region of Tongdao, virtually unknown to Westernand Chinese tourists is the right place for an off-the-beaten-path scenic drive through the Hunanese countryside which is dotted with ancient Dong drum towers (鼓楼) and centuries-old Wind and Rain bridges (风雨桥).

Here is an itinerary departing from Tongdao (通道) to these off-the-beaten path Dong villages.  I have enclosed a sktech map at the end of the post.

Yutou Zhai 芋头寨

The overhanging platform of Yutou village in Hunan

The overhanging platform of Yutou village in Hunan

Hidden deep in a valley, Yutou Zhai (‘zhai’ means ‘village), is home to an impressive overhanging wooden pavilion-shaped watchtower that dominates the paddy fields and the tea terraces.  Built during the 52nd year of the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing (1787), it is a protected historical site, which probably explains why there is a 40 RMB entrance fee to Yutou Village.

In spite of this interesting historical structure, Yutou village is a very common Dong ethnic village with the traditional drum towers and a Wind and Rain bridge-like structure at the entrance.

Puxiu Wind and Rain bridge of Huangdu 皇都寨的普修风雨桥

The Puxiu Wind and Rain bridge

The Puxiu Wind and Rain bridge

The next stop after Yutou Zhai is the village of Huangdu (皇都). The Puxiu bridge (普修桥), probably the most impressive Wind and Rain bridge (风雨桥) of the region with the Yongji bridge (永济桥) of the Dong village cluster of Chengyang (程阳).

Huangdu village is divided into two parts : the ‘new’ village (新寨) and the ‘old’ village (老寨). Although it’s nice to go for a stroll in the village, the beauty of the Puxiu bridge (普修桥) took all my attention. Built in 1865, the bridge connected north Guangxi, southwest Hunan and southeast Guizhou. In December 1934, the Red Army crossed the Puxiu bridge (普修桥) during the Long March. This episode in the Chinese Red Army is known as the “Tongdao Transfer” (通道转兵) and helped Mao Zedong get to Liping (黎平) for the Liping Meeting (黎平会议).

Huilong Bridge 廻龍桥

The Huilong Bridge near Tongdao, Hunan

The Huilong Bridge near Tongdao, Hunan

A few kilometers south of the Dong village of Hengling (横岭),  the Huilong Wind and Rain bridge (廻龍桥) stretches across the river and connect different hamlets to the main road. The interior of the bridge is not as richly decorated as the  Puxiu bridge.

On top on one shrine (most Wind and Rain bridges have shrines dedicated to the ancestors who founded the villages and other deities), faded white Chinese characters read “破坏迷信” which means “Destroy Superstition”. A legacy of the Cultural Revolution when Chinese theoreticians classified religion has ‘superstition’ and called for its destruction.

While most Wind and Rain bridges are straights, the Huilong bridge has a slight curve (the term ‘Huilong’ [廻龍] literally means ‘curvy dragon’) which makes it unique.

Pingtan village 坪坦

The Puji Wind and Rain bridge of Pingtan village

The Puji Wind and Rain bridge of Pingtan village

Although there is no entrance fee in Pingtan village (坪坦), it seems that it has been put on the map of Chinese tour groups. When I visited, there was an entire bus of Chinese tourists armed with giant cameras running around the village and taking pictures of a group a woman dancing and beating the drums.

Immediately across the Puji Wind and Rain bridge (普济桥) to which the temple of the village gods (城隍庙) is attached, there is an old well still used by the villagers (under the pavilion).

The village square is dominated by a drum tower (鼓楼). Its shape differs from other traditional Dong drum towers disseminated in the region. Indeed it looks like an elaborated pavilion-like wooden building rather than the customary pagoda-like structure. The Ping Tan village drum tower has a stone temple attached to it and a temple dedicated to Confucius (文庙) right next to it.

Jielong Bridge 接龙桥

The Jielong Wind and Rain bridge

The Jielong Wind and Rain bridge

A dozens of kilometers from Pingtan, the lonely Jielong bridge (接龙桥) is run-down and seems abandoned, but villagers still use it to get access to their rice paddies.

The wooden structure rest on stone piers and a stone arches and scenes depicting what seems to be local historical events have been painted on each side of the inner wooden corridor.

Zhongbu village 中步寨

Zhongbu village Buddhist Temple

Zhongbu village Buddhist Temple

One of the last stop on Tongdao’s countryside road is the village of Zhongbu (中步). Zhongbu’s Wenxing bridge (文星桥) is a unique type of Wind and Rain bridge which has two corridors : one for people as well as a lower and narrower one for horses and other domestic animals.

Immediately across the bridge, there is a Buddhist temple made of blue-stone. A shiny and brand new statue of Maitreya Buddha (the ‘smiling Buddha’ with the belly) throne before the sky-well and a small Arhat hall (‘arhats’ are Buddhist saints).

An off-the-beaten-path itinerary

Tongdao Map

The best way to visit the Dong countryside is to hire a driver in Tongdao. If you are on a budget, you can try buses from Tongdao old bus station in the southwest part of town, but it seems they run only when they are full. Buses run between Tongdao and Pingtan village.

My poorly sketched map is obviously not to scale and I have indicated a few villages only. If you hire a driver you can stop to as many villages as you want on the way. Count at least 4 to 5 hours to complete the tour, depending on how much time you spend in each place.

Another view of the Huilong Bridge

Another view of the Huilong Bridge

Where to stay

I tempted to stay at the Tongdao Bingguan (通道宾馆), but they are not opened to foreigners. There are a few hotels near the new bus station that have fairly clean but smoky rooms.

To and from Tongdao :

From Guilin 桂林 :  there is a regular bus service from Guilin (although, I am not sure of the frequency). Try Guilin Qintan bus station (琴潭汽车站) for better service. The journey last at least 5 hours.

From Sanjiang 三江 : if you decide to visit Chengyang, there are four buses to Tongdao from Sanjiang. The journey lasts two hours. From Hedong bus station (河东汽车站), buses leave at 7:30 AM and 12:30 PM and from Hexi bus station (河西汽车站) at 8:30 AM and 1:30 PM.

Leaving Tongdao :
Good news, the new Huaihua-Tongdao highway (通道高速公路) was opened on December 26th 2013. All buses heading north take the highway.
There is a regular bus service between Tongdao and Huaihua (one bus every 1h30 between 7 AM and 5 PM). You will have to change bus in Huaihua (怀化) if you are heading to Fenghuang or Zhangjiajie. Journey last 3 hours.

If you are planning on visiting the old town of Qianyang and the ancient business town of Hongjiang, you will have to take a Huaihua-bound bus. The driver will drop you off at the Qianyang toll gate. Even though they say there are taxis or buses going to Qianyang (10 – 15 km from the toll gate), there is nothing. You will have to hitch-hike your way to town.


More pictures about other Dong villages in the area

Land of the Dong Photography Banner

 

There are 12 comments

  1. Rachel

    Thank you so much for providing this itinerary, it was so helpful as our family — Mom, Dad, two young kids, followed this route on our February 2015 trip to the Huaihua / Tongdao area.
    On the second day of the Chinese New Year, from Huaihua we took a bus to Tongdao and stayed in the Tongdao Hotel (通道宾馆). It’s open to foreigners now. We hired a driver to explore the Pingtan River valley villages of Yutou, Huangdu, Hengling, Pingtan and Zhongbu. Your map and suggestions were very useful.
    After three days in the Tongdao area we took a bus en route to Huaihua, as there are no buses directly to Hongjiang City (洪江市). We simply asked the driver to let us off at the exit to what is now called Hongjiang City, and hitched a ride into town. Hongjiang City is the location of what you have called Qianyang (黔阳)but that ancient town in speech and signage is actually referred to as Qiancheng (黔城). Then we took another bus along the Yuan River (沅江)to what is now called Hongjiang District (洪江区), the home of the Ancient Commercial City. (古商城). From there we caught a bus directly back to Huaihua.

    Thank you again for your invaluable information.

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Rachel! Thank you very much for your comment. I’m glad to see that the travel information I put on this blog were useful to you and your family. Hope you had a great trip.

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Karol!
      Thank you very much for the link to your pictures! There are really nice!
      Also, thank you for commenting on my posts on Hunan.
      Hope you enjoyed your time in China!

  2. Shangha1

    Another great article. Regarding Tongdao, according to CIA declassified information, it seems that this used to be one of the areas where the ICBMs were stored or sited. Since they can be moved by road, maybe this area is still used today. Warheads were stored elsewhere.
    http://www.matthewaid.com/post/24608613986/the-chinese-icbm-force

    As for hotels not allowing foreigners, am I right in thinking that hotels need to have a different licence to hotels which only allow in Chinese people resident in China?

    1. Gaetan

      Thank you Francis! Very interesting link!
      I went to Tongdao region twice. The first time by mistake, I was trying to get from Sanjiang in north Guangxi to the Qianyang – Hongjiang area north of Tongdao. I hired a taxi driver to tour the countryside, and he told me that the army base had moved and that the region was now open to foreigners.
      It seems that some foreign travellers were kindly told by local police officiers that they could not stay in the region and were requested to leave the area. I never had this problem.

      Yes, it seems that hotels must have a licence to allow aliens in their hotel. I did stay in hotel which, it seemed, did not have such licence and did not really care either.

  3. Karol P.

    Great source of information. I would want to add some more practical details about this area. Today after arriving from 坪坦 (Ping tan) to Tong dao while walking on street my documents were checked by police and I was escorted to bus station and was told I have to leave the city because foreigners are not allowed to stay in Tongdao. They knew I stayed in Tongdao last night but they let me to stay because I arrived very late. There seems to be some sort of accommodation both in Pingtan and Huangdu. Buses to Pingtan leave Tongdao about every hour and it takes less then one hour to Pingtan (less then 30 minutes to Huangdu). There is no bus to Zhongdu from Pingtan. Pingtan to Huilong bridge is walking distance. And I would advice to continue walking from Huilong to Hengling which is interesting as well (about 10 minutes walk from Huilong bridge). BTW from Qianyang traveling to Tongdao one has to backtrack to Huaihua. I hope you don’t mind my post, I just thought this info might be useful for people traveling in this area as there is minimum info on web.

    1. Gaetan

      Hi Karol,
      Thank you very much for your valuable input to the Tongdao region. It’s great to have feed-back from readers!
      Well, I visited Tongdao area twice and was never checked by the police. Maybe because I arrived from Sanjiang from the morning bus and toured the countryside during the afternoon. The second time I went, I tried and checked at the Tongdao Binguan and was told that this hotel was not set up to host foreigners… which sometimes happen, but one of the hotel opposite the bus station had no problem with me staying …. logically, if the region is forbidden to foreigners, they shouldn’t be able stay in any hotel in town …
      One of the driver I hired to tour the countryside told me that there used to be an army base in the region, but it was moved somewhere else a couple of years ago and that foreigners are now able to travel in the region.
      The highway is due to link Tongdao to Sanjiang (where the highway from Guizhou and western Hunan will connect) and then to Guilin and Guangdong province.
      Beside your encounter with the police, what did you think of Tongdao and Qianyang? I would love to see your pictures.
      Thank you again Karol for your comment. It’s great. Happy travels in China.

      1. Karol Pastorek

        Gaetan, I m sorry for late reply. I am still traveling and I didn’t notice your reply. 黔陽 was nice but I definitely preferred 洪江。Maybe I was influenced by a fact that I stayed overnight in 洪江 but only spent few 2 hours in 黔陽。I liked the fact that 洪江 was completely deserted (no tourists at all), with only few people who still live in the old town. I found the buildings very imposing, and I liked the eerie atmosphere of the old city’s grey buildings in light drizzle. After 通道 I visited 程陽 area but although I liked 程陽, I still preferred 通道 as again there were no tourists and it was more adventurous as I didn’t know how I would get around and where I would end up staying. After 程陽 I was planing to go to 從江 but because of unfavorable weather forecast I ended up going to 黃姚 which I enjoyed as well. I ll send you link to my web page when I upload the pictures. Thanks again for sharing your experiences. I ll be consulting your blog again in April next year when I am planing to go back to China.

      2. Gaetan

        Good to hear from you Karol! Where else did you go in Hunan? Please, do send the link to your web page. I’m really looking forward to see your pictures and read what you have to say about the region.
        Happy travels!

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