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The best places to tour in China aren’t its sprawling futuristic megalopolis--no. Instead, some might tell you that China’s greatest travel destinations lie tucked away in remote parts of the country. So remote that you might look up and find yourself one of only a handful of foreign faces for hundreds of miles, and that’s even during the holidays.
And places like that aren’t a dime a dozen—they’re everywhere, characteristically oozing with unmistakably rich history, culture, traditions, art, cuisine, and natural and/or man-made architectural eye-candy that dwarfs in comparison to most popular tourist hubs presented on your average “Top Places to Visit in China” list. And well, all you need to do is … find them.
Take Fenghuang Ancient Town, also known as Phoenix Ancient Town, for instance. Not too many outsiders have ever even heard of it, but it’s undoubtedly the crème de la crème of China’s old water towns, and one of those top-bucket-list-type-of-places to discover if you’re bat-crazy about racking up a truly culturally immersive experience in the country.
Here’s what you need to know:
Tucked away in the XIangxi Autonomous Prefecture of Hunan province, Fenghuang is one of China’s most well preserved ancient water towns—built in 1704 and over 400 years old, actually—and boast of ancient streets, housing, and architecture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
It’s also home to 28 ethnic minorities—mostly comprised of Miao and Tujia cultures—and its extraordinary beauty and prestige has dubbed it a “National AAAA Tourist Attraction” in China and placed it on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List back in 2008. Incredible, ain’t it?
Here’s what you can expect:
If someone asked you to turn China into a wallpaper, this is the place you’d want to visit. Fenghuang is littered with historical Chinese-aesthetic buildings, bridges, pagodas, pathways, and waterfalls lining Toujiang River.
But that’s not all. Surrounding those buildings is an awe-inspiring backdrop of lush green mountains and rolling hills that serenade Fenghuang with a captivating sense of mysticism, Fengshui, and Zen—elements commonly depicted throughout the Orient.
Let’s just say that whoever built this place knew exactly what they were doing.
Cultural Displays & Decorations at Every Turn
Whether walking through the insane amount of narrow alleyways or catching a slow boat down Toujiang River, you can’t help but notice all the colorful and aesthetic decorations lining shops, restaurants, hostels, and residences.
From Chinese hanging lanterns to neon signs, red umbrellas to golden lights—everything isn’t just meant to look good, it’s meant to make you feel good too. Remember that Fengshui I mentioned?
A Heck of a Lot of Shops & Eateries & Hostels
Like any ancient water town in China, Fenghuang is loaded with shops, restaurants, hostels, and residences. You’ll find traditional Chinese cuisine, street snacks, and western food. You can buy jewelry and paintings or instruments and clothing. You can sleep in a tiny hostel or hotel, and even share rooms in a local abode.
So, wine and dine like a local, shop like a Westerner, and sleep like a pig! You’ve just got plenty of options.
a Top Notch Misty Rain Fenghuang-Biancheng Show
The Misty Rain Fenghuang-Biancheng Show—or, 边城 in Mandarin—just might be the best live show in China. Adapted from a famous Chinese novel, the story captures the spirit of folk dancing, singing, and customs belonging to Tujiao and Miao ethnic groups in ancient Hunan, and centers around an epic, fanciful love story renown across China.
Albeit, it’s entirely in Chinese, the production value of the show is off the charts and worthy of a ticket alone. There are large dance ensembles, melodies, elaborate sets, stage effects, and decorative costumes used to engage the audience and bring a classic local folklore tale to life through stimulating visuals.
Do not leave Fenghuang Ancient Town without checking the Misty Rain Fenghuang-Biancheng Show off your bucket list.
Find out more about the Misty Rain Fenghuang-Biancheng Miao and Tujia Minority Show here.
You Want to Party? No Problem.
During the day, Fenghuang is an epicenter of quiet, tranquil beauty and allure. At night, however, the ancient city transforms into an energetic arena for shopping, dining, nightlife, and, well, just hanging out.
Those idle restaurants, lounges, and bars that you’ll stumble in during the afternoon will become lively social entertainment hubs for food, drinks, music, and dancing by evening’s time. And if that’s not your style, you can join hundreds of other tourists roaming the alleyways or chilling out on the pavement and bridges along Toujiang River.
And what’s especially great is that Fenghuang remains just as picture-perfect at night as it is during the day. Its buildings, for instance, are blanketed in a soothing golden glow. Red, hanging lanterns are lit, and hundreds of small lights are triggered to move in synchronized patterns atop of shops and hostels.
It’s true—those remote areas of China party just as hard as the big cities!
There are "Slow-Boats"
China’s ancient towns are notorious for their winding canals and waterways. They’re also just as equally popular for the Chinese-style gondolas that slow-boat through them. You’ve seen those classic Chinese paintings of boats rolling through water towns, right? Yep, they’re everywhere.
Fenghuang Ancient Town has got boat rides atop of gondolas, too, only those trips are carried out across a river—Toujiang River, to be exact. You can ride them during the day or night, and they provide some of the best views of the town’s rich beauty.
Think of it as … poetry in motion.
Best Time to Visit? Dragon Boat Festival
The best time to visit Fenghuang Ancient Town might just be during China’s annual Dragonboat Festival holiday; after all, the ancient ceremonial tradition of Chinese dragonboat racing blends seamlessly against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the hosting ancient Chinese town.
See the pic above. Exactly. Whoa!
You’ll see local teams compete in a 400-meter race over 3 days, which will bring out thousands of spectators. It’s also free to the public and supplies enough Instagram, Wechat, and Youtube worthy photos and videos to make posts for a week straight.
Hey, it’s important to experience, but even better to share!
In the End ...
So, forget about skyscrapers, bars, and clubs--this is the type of cultural immersion you’ll want to experience in China, for the best adventures lie in those off-beaten paths waiting to be discovered, and Fenghuang Ancient Town is exactly what you probably haven’t been looking for.
Travel Blogger. ESL Teacher. Optimistic Millennial Adventurer! -->