Everybody knows the feeling when after seeing a picture you definitely know that you have to visit that place. It happened to me with a picture of Hibiscus Town, Furong village(芙蓉镇), a small ancient village proudly boasting on the top of a cliff with a huge waterfall flowing underneath – an amazing view. After seeing that picture, I immediately started to search for where it was.
Searching for Hibiscus Town
You can get there from Jishou City (吉首) in the Hunan Province. Jishou is the initial station for visiting many other ancient towns in Hunan. Furong Zhen is located about 70 km from there, so it is possible to take a bus. However, when I went for the first time, I got lost. Where was this beautiful town that I saw in the picture? The only thing I saw was an old, half-destroyed, large village, filled with gray concrete buildings. Ugly blocks of flats everywhere. Some were already built, some were being built, and many were crumbling. But first things first; I was super hungry after arriving there.
The waterfall had to wait. I sat in a small restaurant inside someone’s garage and I ordered some cold beer with the local spicy food (the cuisine in the Hunan province is one of the spiciest in China). With a full stomach everything goes more smoothly, and I suddenly noticed that same picture I saw before, hanging here on the wall. The beautiful village on the rock and the waterfall flowing beneath it. I asked the owner where it is, and she immediately sent her son to take me there.
It was not far, but ticket gates were waiting for me. The ticket is not cheap – 120RMB! This is quite a lot for ancient villages; it is probably even the most expensive village in China. But anyway, I decided to go inside. Through the village is a marked tourist route, which every visitor should take. Tourism is already present, but it is still the harmless kind of development, unlike the one in Phoenix town. There are no cafes, no bars … only locals who sell various specialties.
Most tourists usually pass through this town, so there are no big hotels, at least not in the old center. The surroundings have some new buildings already. The path through the old town follows the cliff; first it goes over a waterfall, then it gets down off the cliff, passes underneath the waterfall, up to the top and across the old city to get back to the ticket gate.
It takes a normal Chinese tourist about an hour and a half to finish this route. From ten in the morning until five in the afternoon, tours are flowing through quite often; they use this stop on the way to Fenghuang. Personally, I think it is worth it to come here late during the day and first go around to the surrounding streets that are not within designated tourist routes. These paths are in fact empty. Tourism in this place is very organized.
A classic of Chinese cinema
After the entry gates close, you go out and walk around the main paths. Browsing the streets in the late afternoon has a lovely atmosphere. Watch the sunset over the cliff and in the morning go check out the beautiful waterfall. I felt like I was in a movie. Not just in any movie but in one particular. The town is named after the film from 1986. It tells the story of Hibiscus Town girls selling rice tofu (they call it rice tofu in the movie, but there is no such a thing. I think it is niangao, food prepared from glutinous rice).
The story begins in 1963, at a time when the Cultural Revolution was soon to start. Because of jealousy, obsession and the craziness of the Party, Furong sister, as she was called, has lost everything. She lost her business, her home, her happiness, and ultimately her husband. The film is highly critical of the Cultural Revolution and of the Communist government during the era of Mao Zedong. Many movies like this were filmed during this period of time. But then the Tiananmen happened and freedom ended. Therefore, this is also one of the last films to be shot on this topic. A really beautiful, poetic movie, although a little long. The film ends well. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, people’s lives get back on track, including the life of Furong sister. Although at the end, the director makes a small statement about how many strange people stayed within the party and continued ruling.
I saw the movie after my visit – the DVD is sold everywhere there. The entire story of the movie takes place in the streets of the Furong village, so it felt very familiar when watching the film. At the end they even show the majestic image of the cliff on which the village stands.
Red stone forest
The Hibiscus Town is very close to the millions-of-years-old Red Stone Forest natural reservation. It is not as vast as the stone forest in the Yunnan province, but it is beautiful and without any tourists.
Admission is required, and it is also quite high. Inside the park there are still no shops, no vendors, no McDonald’s, but they were under construction, so go quickly.
If you want to see ancient villages without bars and beautiful geological parks without tourists, you must visit the Furong Zhen and Red Stone Forest as soon as possible. Despite a little disappointment in the beginning, without any hesitation I would go back. This place became one of my most favorite places in China. The image of an ancient village with a waterfall underneath is just breathtaking.
Pavel is an interpreter, guide, photographer and blogger. China and Chinese language are his passions since childhood, when he was fifteen years old he started to study Chinese, later he graduated Chinese studies from a University. He first came to China in 2009 and has been living with his Shanghaineese wife in Shanghai since 2012. He writes about China on his personal website www.bamboome.eu, where he also publishes his photography and short documentaries.