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Fenghuang, Hunan

Located in China’s Hunan Province, Fenghuang means “phoenix” in Chinese, a name given to the town and county for the nearby Fenghuang Mountain, which resembles the mythical firebird.

The ancient town of Fenghuang sits at the foot of green mountains, with the Tuojiang River running through town. Much of life in Fenghuang is centered on the river, with traditional wooden houses constructed on stilts along the riverbank. These “diaojiaolou” (Chinese for “building with hanging legs”) remain safe above the changing water levels, and many have been converted into hotels, guesthouses and restaurants. On the Tuojiang River you’ll see fishermen with nets, women washing clothes, food being prepared on the banks, and boatmen ferrying visitors on sightseeing tours.

Fenghuang is divided into two districts: New Town and Ancient Town. The buildings in Ancient Town are from the Ming and Qing Dynasties and most have been well preserved. Huang Si Qiao Castle, built in 687, still stands, as well as Chao Yang Palace, Heavenly King Temple, and the Xiangzi Border Walls, considered part of China’s Southern Great Wall. The Miao people in Fenghuang retain their customs and culture from centuries ago; Miao women are often dressed in traditional blue garments with a white scarf, plus silver jewelry or batik cloths, which are made and sold in Fenghuang ancient town.

The food in Fenghuang is often spicy – pickled red peppers are a local delicacy – however, it’s the ginger candy that is the true specialty of Fenghuang. Made with ginger root and hot sugar, these candies are delicious and, according to local tradition, can ward off a cold or settle a stomach. New Town can be quite busy and full of tourist shops, and at night turns into a neon-lit arena of bars and discos. By visiting during the week or sticking to the ancient side of Fenghuang, you’ll get a true sense of the old town’s spirit, with locals playing checkers and quiet ancient alleys where you can wander past traditional shops, temples and ancestral homes. Visitors will also want to stop in to the childhood home of Shen Congwen, the famous Chinese novelist, before heading out.

Of note is the nearby Zhangjiajie National Park, a stunner of a scenic area, with incredible soaring limestone peaks and karst rock formations, flowing streams and rivers, caves, and the world’s longest and highest glass-bottom bridge. The area was even the inspiration for James Cameron’s movie “Avatar” thanks to the rock towers that appear to float in the mist and the breathtaking other-worldly scenery.