I’d never heard of Fenghuang prior to this trip, which combined with the stunning photos of the rickety old town on Google, was a perfect reason to escape to this peaceful village in the countryside, especially having spent a week in the metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai.
The old buildings with their curved tiled roofs are packed up against the river that bisects the town, all overhanging the water and supported by wooden beams that would fail all structural calculations known to man.
The river itself can only be described as British racing green, usually only seen on Jaguars or Aston Martins in the UK (they like these cars in varying shades of neon in China), which is a perfect contrast to the brown and maroon houses hanging over it.
We got lost in the town’s narrow alleyways. Everyone gets lost. It’s no bad thing though, because these cobblestoned streets lined with the traditional red lanterns are just as atmospheric as they sound. Then the sun set.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the Tarantino film “From Dusk till Dawn”, but Fenghuang is like that. An hour into this slow burning Western film, Salma Hayek finishes dancing with the giant snake, and then out of nowhere the entire cast turns into vampires and starts trying to kill each other. Sorry if I’ve just ruined that for you, but it’s a perfect metaphor for what happens to this quaint little village.
The entire river is lined with bars and their accompanying neon lights, promo girls, god awful karaoke, and the entire population of China comes out to play.
If you sat in one of these racist bars (“no dogs, no Japanese”, as the signs so clearly tell you) you couldn’t hear the band in front of you due to the noise of the seven surrounding bars that are also blaring out music next door. Every bar has a local band that plays in front of exactly one table of punters (employees), who have a load of empty beers on their table to make it look like they are on one almighty bender. Considering the entire population of China was there, every bar was completely empty. I don’t understand what market they think there is that justifies so many tacky bars, because they are not making the most of the billions of tourist’s cash.
To make it worse, not only are your ears assaulted by the horrific Chinese dance music that no-one is dancing to, Fenghuang also attacks your other senses too. The entire town is illuminated in garish neon, making it look more like Disneyland at night. The bars also smell of sticky vomit covered freshers club floors, which means we were pretty much out of senses that were yet be abused, so every night we made a hasty retreat to the roof terrace of our hostel, which was the spot of relative calm we found.
Long story short, it is beautiful, but it is a classic case of tourism being a double edged sword. People come and spend money in their bucket loads, but the detrimental effect the tourists have on the town is massive, perhaps the biggest shame of any place I've ever visited. I know we are these very people I am criticising, but you can't both explore the world and hope nowhere ever changes because of it.
Do go, but just be prepared. If you like the sound of the first half of this article, then head to nearby Zhenyuan in Guizhou province. It is everything I had hoped Fenghuang would be.
The jokes on us though, I am writing this on the train from Kunming to Lijiang, which by all accounts is even more extreme than Fenghuang for everything that is bad about tourism. We’re not into forced suffering or anything, but our visa expires next week, and we need to use their visa extension office. I promise I won’t bore you with another visa application post though.