Unforgettable Fenghuang Town in Xiangxi
Part two of a Travelogue in Water Colour : China
Making my decision to travel to Fenghuang Zhen was mainly inspired and influenced by a book titled Bian Cheng or Border Town, which I have read many years back by a famous Chinese writer, Shen Cong Wen. Set in Chadong and rhw Tuo-jiang River of Xiangxi, the story tells of a girl named Cui-Cui, her grandpa and a yellow dog living on a small boat.
It reminded me of a black and white movie produced in the 1960s, based on the same book, which starred Lin-Dai who played Cui-Cui, and Yan-Jun.
Coincidentally, New Zealand’s famous writer Rewi Alley described Fenghuang Zhen as one of the most beautiful ancient small town in China. The small picturesque city is surrounded by hills and streams.
So I invited two fellow watercolourists, Tan Leong Kheng and Pang Teng Khoon, and a former colleague, an amteur photographer Lydia Ong Tok Eng who share the same sentiments about Chadong and Fenghuang Zhen for a trip to Xiangxi.
Before leaving Singapore, we booked our rooms at a hotel named Lingling’s Inn. It is reportedly built on stilts and situated on the river bank of Tuo-jiang River and that is the main reason why we chose to stay there. The inn is named after its owner, Lingling, a warm and friendly Tu-jia tribal native who said she will personally pick us up at Ji-shou train station.
We flew from Singapore to Guangzhou, China. Taking the afternoon train, it took us 17 hours to reach Xiangxi. By the time we arrived at Ji-shou train station, it was around 11 am the next morning.
An alternative route to Fenghuang Zhen is via the Guangzhou-Huaihua route which takes about 8 hours by train and another 2 hours drive to Fenghuang Zhen.
Along the way, the train passed through 108 various sized tunnels. The scenery along the rail track is filled with scenes of rural farms and rivers. We also observed the lives of natives along the river banks. This provided us with plenty of ideas for our paintings, sketches and photography.
Lingling and her driver, Mr Zhang, were waiting for us at the train station when we arrived. Being familiar with our itinerary, Mr Zhang proposed that we visit Chadong before dropping us off at the inn. Our original itinerary was to visit Chadong the next day but Mr Zhang explained that doing so would result in us passing through Ji-shou again. Hence, we agreed to go along with his plan.
Long and winding through rough terrains
I was getting really excited about seeing Chadong so soon, hoping it will remain true to the magnificient description by Shen Cong Wen. I was eager to know how much of its heritage was left for us to explore. I reckoned the trip from Ji-shou to Chadong took 5 hours as we had to pass through many villages on rough terrains.
The road to Chadong is long and winding, which makes it uncomfortable for city slickers like us to travel. We passed Huadan and Aizhai roads which took us around the mountains. Along the way, we saw tombstones built in memory of road builders who lost their lives during the construction of the roads.
Soon, we were on our way ascending a mountain path after passing through several villages. Located in Sichuan, this mountain is believed to be a hiding place for Chiang Kai Shek, a Chinese Nationalist leader, during the Revolution. The road was dangerously close to the edge of the ridge but our driver maneuvered skillfully and we soon reached another village.
By 3 pm, our stomachs were rumbling. We checked out some of the food stalls at one stretch of the road but were unwilling to try the food due to hygiene reasons. Finally, we had our meals at a stall with seemingly better hygience standards. After filling our stomachs, we resumed our journey to Chadong with Lingling. Being our driver’s first visit to Chadong and our goal to reach there before nightfall, Lingling had to enquire for directions too.
I was told that the former Chinese Prime Minister Mr Zhu Rongji, was educated in Chadong, and he visited his alma mater sometime back. Hence, this explained the heavy construction of the roads.
At last we reached Chadong at 5 pm.
Many small towns along the river
We saw many small towns along the river with the hills of Xiangxi as its backdrop. Unmistakably, Chadong is indeed a beautiful place.
Chadong is situated at the cross roads of Xiangxi, Chongqing and Guixhou. It is situated close to the river where boats were moored at jetties on the outskirits of the small town. Many tourists like ourselves came to Chadong because of Bian Cheng and Cui Cui. Knowing the legend of Cui Cui beforehand makes the scenery us even more mesmerising. Most importantly, we yearned to learn more of Cui Cui’s story.
Looking out from the stone platform at the ferry terminal, you could appreciate the beautiful mountains of Sichuan. There was a small boat 3 metres from the shore but made a detour towards us when the boatman saw us. The boat was sailing along a cable which the boatman used to ferry his passengers to and fro. Indeed, this description was found in the book of Shen Cong Wen.
There’s a small bamboo pole laid across the boat with a metal rings hanging from the pole. Now, this is different from what was described in the book where instead of bamboo poles with metal rings, it should be a chain with bamboo rings.
We learned that a statute of Cui Cui and the yellow dog were erected and placed far away on a small island well covered by huge trees. Now the island is undergoing a makeover to turn it into a garden as a tourist attraction. We saw the word “Bian Cheng” carved on a cliff from afar; this could also becomes a landmark for tourists.
The named Chadong may be unknown to many people but for those who have read the description by Shen Cong Wen will yearn to visit this place. Chadong is not to be missed if you are in Fenghuang Zhen.
At the foot of Nanhua Mountain
The journey to Fenghuang Zhen was filled with joy and laughter and Lingling would occasionally sing for us as we traveled, feeling no exhaustion. After dinner, we continued our journey for another one and a half hour from Ji-shou to our inn in Fenghuang Zhen. We alighted at the entrance of the town and took a stroll to our inn.
Fenghuang Zhen is also an ancient small town of history and culture. This beautiful town is surrounded by mountains with a river flowing alongside the town wall. The town is situated next to the river bank of the Tuojiang River, at the foot of Nanhua Mountain. There are many pockets of Miao tribe villages, an ethnic minority and we were told that they are found in Delang located in Ji-shou, the Mengdong River in Yong-shun and Fan-zheng Mountain in Guizhou.
The next morning, we could see the Nanhua Mountain mirrored by the clear water of the Tuojiang River. The view includes the stopover for boats, sound of drums, cooking smoke rising from the houses on the top of the cliff, and laughter from ladies who ding their laundry by the river , offering a picturesque view on an otherwise mundane day.
We felt grateful to Shen Cong WEn who made Fenghuang Zhen stood out among other cities in China. His vivid description of this beautiful place in Xiangxi grew out of his utmost fondness for this place.
What captured oue eyes were the old houses built by a mixture of bricks and wood and the curving eaves which looked like a group of dragons and phoenixes coming to life , dancing and frolicking under the sky.
The dented bluestone pathway, the old village houses and forts leave traces of its past. The marks of bullets on the huge metal door of the town are the evidence of war. The stream of the Tuojiang River flowing just outside of the town is warm and crystal clear. Not far away from the streamn we saw a few boats in the river and women from the Miao tribe clubbing their clothes at the jetty while children were playing on the stone platform.
We came upon Zhongying Street where Shen Cong Wen used to live. In the courtyard, his handwritten couplet still hung on both side of the door. Prominent were aa collection of books he had written and the rattan chair he used to sit when he wrote his manuscripts. He wrote about the simplicity of life in Fenghuang Zhen, a beautiful culture of Xiangxi which he wanted to introduce to the world.
It’s pity we were unable to visit his tomb which is located further away at Ting-tao Shan.
Colourful and lively people
By noon, the streets of Fenghuang Zhen were filled with peddlers selling merchandise such as Mioa garments, souvenirs, Tu-jia jewelry, and a local delicacy made of ginger and sugar. Guesthouses could also be found along the narrow streets.
We passed by the building where the well-known Chinese artist, Huang Yong-yu used to live. This place was formerly used as an emplacement zone to resist the uprising from the Miaos and is now an art gallery of Huang Yong-yu’s works. We deduced that the people in Fenghuang ancient town are simple and honest.
Though many houses in the town retained their vintage look their backyards were furnished with modern facilities. We explored the small town from lane to lane, stopping at a teahouse furnished with Japanese Tatami mat facing the Tuojiang River for a break. We picked a side table by the window, all the chile enjoying the fabulous view as we sipped our tea. We wanted to capture the most beautiful side of this place with our pencil sketches and cameras.
Then, we continued along the market street lane, tried a Tu-jia restaurant next to Rainbow Bridge recommended by our driver. We were greeted by the friendly owners of the restaurant. We ordered a few dishes and snacks which cost us not more than two Singapore dollars equivalent. Another restaurant besides the river is recommended because the dishes are overpriced and of poor quality. We were also introduced to a prominent restaurant that serves hand-made cruller and soya bean drink that tasted heavenly.
The next day, we were woken up by the singing of women who were clubbing their clothes by the river. If not for their singing, we would have missed the chance to appreciate the beauty of Xiangxi landscape in the morning with the sun shimmering through thin mists, especially at the lower reaches of Tuojiang River. Overwhelmed by such a scenic morning, we hardly felt the passage of time.
Then, we made plans to visit the villages of Miao at Shan-jiang. There are many market places in Fenghuang, but Shan-jiang is the most popular and largest, opening once a week for their tribe gathering and trading. We read that the Miaos traveled great distances across mountains to trade at the Shan-jiang market fair.
When we reached the Miao village of Shan-jiang, a few Miao women came and greeted us when we alighted at the gate. We were told that as part of their custom, the rule for entering the village is to sing a duet with them accompanied by rice wine. I took a glass of strong rice wine and left the duet to my companions.
After harmonizing, came the rour. They led us on a tour to the functions of various units in the village. It was really an eye opener for all of us. I took out my pencil and try to capture as much as I could on paper.
We visited their museum which showcased some of their culture in terms of garments, photos of houses and religious artefacts. After that, we watched the traditional Miao dance, performed by a group of young people. The performance was just a few simple dance steps but their coordination was impeccable and that won them many rounds of applause.
When it was high noon, we were brought to a house by the village chief for another brief introduction. We were told that there are black and white tribes in the Miao tribe. The village chief then showed us their tribal attire dressing when in miao woman came along dressed in traditional Miao clothing with silver jewelry. Another shy but beautiful Miao woman came in show us another set of their traditional clothing with silver trimmings. The village chief then taught us how to put on their traditional costumes.
The, there was another performance waiting for us called the drum dance. Guests were invited to dance and sing along with the performers. We were invited by the village chief for lunch when the performance ended. The hospitality of the Miaos was an unforgettable experience for me.
After that, we made it in time for the last hour of the Shan-jiang market. People from all parts of the village flocked to the market with their goods for trade. Throngs of people packed this huge market and the ambience of the market was filled with the yelling of buying selling between traders and buyers. It was a very busy and vibrant marketplace.
Southeast of Guizhou
We wnt back to Fenghuang Zhen before setting off the next day for the Southeast of Guizhou. Hence, we engaged another driver eho had been to this part of Guizhou. For those who wish to travel on their own, you need to prepare travel passes and entry permits to ensure a smooth journey as entry requirements differ in various countries and provinces of China.
We traveled from Shan-jiang to Guizhou Tong-ren. There are other passages to take and these depends on which part of the Guizhou you are visiting. From Shan-jiang to Guizhou towards Kaili, this is the shortest route, and only transportation has to go through a thorough check at the custom.
Slightly less than 15 minutes after passing through the customs, we were met by a sudden spot check inspection point. According to the driver. These spot check inspection points are impromptu.There, we spend another 20 minutes arguing over the permit passes.
We then headed towards Kaili, the hub of transportation in the southeast of Guizhou. A new airport has been constructed in Tong-ren offewring flights to Guizhou twice weekly. The road passage is nicely decorated with trees but there are no forests or mountains in sight.
The wet weather in Guizhou all year round has caused the ground to turn muddy, thus making it difficult for our vehicle to drive through. We finally reached out hostel by nightfall for a good rest before resuming our journey the following day.
By five in the following evening, we were glad to see that despite being regarded as a small town. Kaili has modern buildings and the locals were very friendly and helpful. Public transportation is easily accessible with flexible fares.
The following morning, we looked for another Miao village in Lei-gong. It was drizzling throughout our journey and we could see some dwellings along the slope of the hill on the other side of the Pala River.
When we reached the Miao village, we did not see anyone at the gate except for a caretaker. We were told that we could not enter the village without informing them of our arrival beforehand, but luckily our driver who is Tujia native could speak Miao language
After the caretaker was told that we were tourists, he suggested that we joined another group of visitors for the village tour starting at around 1 pm. Soon, the visitors they were expecting arrived in their tour buses. Shortly after the caretaker announced the arrival of the visitors, a few old ladies dressed in grayish black and a mixture of blue with white hoods stepped out alongside some young Miao women beautifully dressed in their traditional clothing.
Again, drinks were displayed at the main entrance of the village to welcome their visitors. This is a common Miao welcome regardless of their location in China. The drinks were offered to the visitors who were asked to sing a duet with the host. The Miaos are very good drinkers and the women can sing really well. Then, we were invited to their performance with the other group of visitors. The host put up a lively performance and many guests joined in the dance and sing along with the performers. It was another enjoyable seesion for all.
Then, a Miao girl invited us to her three-storey house perched on the slope of the hill. Her house was large and had one living room and four spacious bedrooms. Although it is a village house, it is well furnished with electricity and strove which her family used for cooking and keeping warm.
We thanked for the hospitality and bid them farewell before leaving for Fenghuang Zhen via Rongjiang. We passed by Liping, and was captivated by the flat green fields and a small village hidden by the mist. Along the way, we saw some women from Miao making their way to the market in another village. A carriage packed with goods and passengers was heading in the opposite direction, back to the village. It was evening by the time we reached our inn at Fenghuang Zhen.
Dragon Boat Festival.
The following day, we did not realize the impending Dragon Boat Festival until we saw crowds from all parts of the town participating in the dragon boat competition.
From our inn, we could see contestants practicing diligently for the race. Sic long boats were splashing to the beats of drums. This festival, which commemorates the late patriot, Qu Yuan, has gradually lost its appeal among many Chinese . Most people will only remember the festival for its rice dumplings. Exciting as it is, many will not bother to watch the Dragon Boat Race as its significance has been forgotten.
Not so at Fenghuang Zhen. Regardless of your age or gender, they will invite you to join their teams.
The stmosphere at our inn in Fenghuang Zhen was akin to a festival. The air was filled with songs sung by some elders accompanied by their musical instruments. It was enjoyable and spontaneous. All in, it has been a beautiful and unforgettable trip to Xiangxi for all of us.
issue 38 WE Travel & Environment/2006NOV – scipt original
湘西凤凰镇 – 贵州黔东南之行
这美丽的小山城,山流不高秀雅,水不深秀而清水玲洌,楼掩映于群峰流水之间, 玲珑, 秀丽,如一幅含畜优秀的山水画.可以认谓凤凰可以列入一生必游之地.想去凤凰镇主
是于茶峒和凤凰沱江为主, 描写翠翠,爺爺和小黄狗, 相依为命在小蓬船上, 也因此很想去实景中去了鲜解及寻回旧日梦境. 同时它勾回我童年时代的回忆. 大约在60或70年由邵氏电影公司所在实景拍摄丽的黑白电影, 由林黛和严俊合演的翠翠,也正是沈从文笔下的”边城”. 这一直都很深根刻动印在我脑海中不断浮动起来.
因此约了两位画家陈隆庆和冯庭坤和爱摄影的王淑英. 大家都有共同点凤凰茶峒和贵州黔东南.一游一走一看一拍一画走入凤凰茶峒和贵州黔东南潇洒走一回. 这样我就着手计划和策划咱们的行程和路线. 我们就首先从新加坡直接向凤凰镇的玲玲客栈订客房日期时间. 选择玲玲客栈是由于从网上了解一些情况再加上玲玲栈属于沱江江畔吊脚楼旧屋我们很想体验和感受一下旧时生活的写照,再说客栈主人本身是土家族,名玲玲; 这个客栈就是于她的名为名; 天真活泼可爱又友善又开朗. 而且也到时也会亲身到吉首火车站接待我们, 这样好客就打动了我们的心, 真可称得上服务志上!
再经过一百零八个大小黑山洞, 隔天大约十一点左右低达吉首火车站. 也可以从广州到怀化只需八个小时到时再从怀化乘坐车两个小时半车程到凤凰.
非常热情的玲和司机张师父玲玲早己经在火车站等我们的到来, 上了车,司机建议我直接先到茶峒. 由于我的计划是于茶峒先提,心也正在心忐忐急要早一点看到茶峒,沈从文笔下的茶峒,它的变化有多少,还保甾旧又有多少让我们来寻根.从吉首到茶峒需要五个小时吧…路程(?)
凤凰 – 也首映入眼帘的就是那古朴的房屋建筑,属砖木混合结构,屋顶上飞檐翘角,雕龙画凤,远远望去,如一群苍龙金凤在空中飞舞嬉戏,张牙舞爪,栩栩如生.进入城中,清
春雨朦朦,凤凰在山水空朦中别具有韵味.久经磨砺的青石板路,两侧被烟熏黑的油漆木门,似乎在人们讲叙着过往的时光.街道两边琳琅满目的商品,小店里的艺人,T-恤衫上的彩画,蜡染的土布苗族服装,书局,当地有名的特产 — 姜糖,街边闲坐的苗族老人,还有一小群苗族妇女,销售纪念章,土家族银饰和银币,构成一幅美妙的动静态图 —凤凰古街风情图也.走迸湘西,感受凤凰,感受沱江的美丽和湘西的淳朴,感受那沉淀在凤凰骨髓里的人文精神,沈从文先生<边城>中描述的人物意境,感受苗家一切的一切…
吃钣是每天必须要做的.我们选择了一家虹桥上面旁边的老陈土家菜,这也是我们司机张师传堆荐.这里价格很实惠,味道也很地道,老板是本地人热情又好客.还可以选择吃凤凰的特色菜,血粑鹎,酸辣鱼,共六菜一汤,不妨一试本地风味.凤凰古城里还有许多小吃,比如冰凉粉,每碗一元;凉皮有一元或二元两种,可以凉拌吃或抄着吃,凉拌米豆腐每份一元;炒田螺五元 – 十元无价格较贵.大家用餐要注意,千万不要到江边大排店用餐,宰你砍你绝对没有商量,价格可是超级贵.
我们先往苗寨参观.到了山江苗寨前,早己在那儿迎接我们的几个漂亮又美丽大方的苗族姑娘.迸寨前,她们就向我们讲解迸寨规条,凡是来客都必须顿照规守 – 那必须对唱对喝三杯酒,这是她们苗族的礼节和风俗礼.我就一突起而然感觉到非常有趣味这一次自由行之旅.所谓入乡随俗,也包着一种豪奇与入乡随俗去了解苗族人的生活情况,也想尝试她们苗族的美酒,是如何的味道和滋味也不错.