Stilt houses teeter over the winding river, boats are propelled by bamboo poles, stepping stones act as bridges, and the everyone is in a good mood in Fenghuang, China. Boasting a twelve-hundred-year old history with great Chinese leaders and artists claiming it as their home, Fenghuang is firmly on the Chinese tourist track (not the Western one, yet) but somehow all the giddy visitors didn’t make it feel mobbed, but rather alive, and definitely the place to be.
A City of Lights
As soon as our bus crossed the first bridge into town, every passenger gasped in unison. Bright lights lined every eave and awning on the riverfront and reflected back in the gentle water for a town so cute it felt fictional. This 300-year old bridge, seemingly floating on golden rings, is one of the river’s brightest stars.
Fenghuang is said to be most spectacular at night…so to not waste any time, we checked into the first guesthouses we saw, dropped our bags and went right back out on the town. There are tons of adorable restaurants and bars but we couldn’t pass up the night market’s endless row of food stalls. BBQ is the specialty of town with dozens of varieties of vegetables and meat laid out by the grill for our choosing. Chile-braised eggplant, three types of mushrooms, zucchini, sprouts, tofu and green onions over rice with a bottle of Tsingtao…perfection.
We walked late into the night, mesmerized by the lights and the sheer energy of Fenghuang. Impromptu concerts were sparking up under bridges, costume photo sessions were at every viewpoint, and the river stairs looked like a packed amphitheater. We zigzagged our way home over every bridge, wanting to take it in from every angle.
Life along the Tuojiang River
In daylight we realized what a lush place this was, with rolling hills and emerald green water. Walking on the river path, we got a closer look at the spindly stilts that support the houses and day-to-day life on the water. Scenes of women scrubbing laundry, men fishing waist-deep, and seaman mending their bamboo boats were as fascinating as the architecture.
As touristy as it is, Fenghuang still has its share of fascinating locals—from the Miao and Tujia minorities with their huge embroidered hats to traditional Chinese gents like this.
Bamboo Boat Rides
The thing to do by day is undoubtedly to take a bamboo-powered boat ride. Tourists line up by the hundreds to brave the one rapid in town and get closer to the curious houses.
Strolling the Flagstone Streets
Off the waterfront, the town was just as charming with flagstone streets, ancient bridges, fruit stalls, and cafes. Note the girls in floral headdresses…this is definitely the cool thing to wear about town.
Stepping Stone Bridge
Fenghuang’s stepping stone bridge was quite possibly our favorite part of the river. Two rows of stones with water gushing in between act as the narrowest and diciest footpath. Mortar and handrails be damned, this way is so much more fun.
As you can tell we got completely swept up in the charm of this town but this photo about sums it up. After watching everyone get gussied up in these costumes and getting approached by a million photo touts, we broke down and joined the kitschy fun. Though I’m not sure who got a better laugh out of this–us or the swarm of Chinese tourists giggling at the sight of these two gweilos in full garb.