This place must have been beautiful before the attack of tourism. A calm green river flowing slowly through wooded hills; houses on stilts lining the river banks; a hotchpotch of steep narrow lanes, too narrow for traffic, radiating outwards; huge, grand entrance gates positioned at the four compass points; bridges spanning the water: a simple wooden crossing, an elaborate arched, covered thoroughfare, and
a series of stepping stones; while floating gently with the current, quaint, roofed bamboo boats, drifting past the temples and pagoda. Sounds gorgeous doesn't it? And, in a way it still is, but, alas, Fenghuang has become a victim of its own charm and domestic tourism has developed to the degree that I had the sense of being in a Disney theme park.
Sitting on the balcony of the super-cheap riverside hostel, I had a prime view up and down the waterfront and could look down on the lanes just below... lanes choked with tour groups, caps colour co-ordinated with the flag held aloft by their leaders who raced along maintaining a constant commentary via megaphone. The din was phenomenal. Looking down I could see many of the visitors wearing flower garlands in their hair (or over their group tour hat!), fashioned by the
tribeswomen who flock in from local villages to make a killing from the tourist wallets. They were the kind of garlands that would have looked gorgeous on a 'comely maiden' in some springtime ritual, but looked a little silly on the dumpy, ageing matrons I spied in the lanes. It wasn't just garlands for sale, though... there was barely room to move between the clustered stalls selling all manner of tourist junk from embroidered bags to cheap jewelery, name seals to
local spirit. Then there were the costume photographers, with their baskets of local tribal costumes in which the Chinese were delighted to dress up in order to be photographed, so the whole waterfront was peppered with girls in bright pink gowns and silver head-dresses posing with skirts spread wide and heads angled. I pondered the different approaches to getting the 'authentic picture' : the foreigners omitting anything modern, people included, while the Chinese simply adding to the 'reality' by donning local costumes and poses - we're at the same game, really, in our own different ways!
I looked above the crowds to the river itself but that was as bad... one boat after another chock full of singing visitors, garish in their orange life jackets against the green water. I decided to enjoy my balcony seat as a prime reading spot, with earplugs in place, and wait for the daytrippers to leave before I ventured out...but they didn't go!
They were all staying in town, it seemed, and as the pagoda and temples were illuminated at night and the red lanterns along the river were switched on, creating a magical view, so the bars in the quaint stilt houses on the opposite bank switched into night mode and summoned in revelers with the sounds of their thumping speakers. Ah, Fenghuang, how did you let this happen?!
It wasn't all bad, though. and I did go exploring, preferring the areas further up or down stream or back from the water, clearly outside the tour groups' route. And there I found people sitting outside their grey stone houses playing cards or mah jong, chilis and river weed hanging on walls to dry, old bent-backed men standing smoking and chatting on corners, and women scrubbing their laundry in the river. Real life... and it was even quiet... oh, yes
I had to venture into the tourist throng eventually though, at the prompting of my rumbling belly, and so I crossed the prettily lit covered bridge and headed for the street with all the cafes and food stalls. It wasn't a good idea to examine the restaurants' stocks too closely... I had become accustomed to seeing delights such as piles of fresh intestines and bloody organs which may have been hearts or livers or some such, while chickens' feet were fairly standard, as were big greasy pigs' trotters. But among of the specialities of Fenghuang's dried meats
was, not pigs feet
, but flattened pigs faces
, and there they were, hanging outside store fronts, like grotesque masks. I'm so
glad I'm a vegetarian! Many of the eateries had food so fresh it was still alive... though only just, I thought, observing the tiny cages housing the doomed rabbits, chickens, snakes and various other furry animals I didn't recognise, and noting the poor condition they appeared to be in. The water creatures fared little better: crammed into plastic boxes of water, with
barely room to wriggle, were fish, tiny crabs, eels, turtles... I turned away and perused the street stalls instead, happy to find fried tofu in chilli and even chilli-fried potatoes... oh those carnivores just don't know what they're missing!
Another overnight train followed by couple of hours on a bus and I arrived in the centuries-old riverside town of Fenghuang. Welcome to China a la Disney...