Before travel we look at two optional routes to Fenghuang; one from Changsha and the other from Zhangjjiajie. In the end we opt for Zhangjiajie using it as a base for travel in the Hunan region and making the journey to Fenghuang an easier route. In Zhangjiajie we stay opposite the bus and trains stations which makes a convenient spot for exploring the area. Travelling from Zhangjiajie to Fenghuang by bus costs 75 Yuan, taking 4 hours, and our departure time is at 09:30pm. At Fenghuang we stay two nights in the historical area using a two-day pass which cost us 148 Yuan pp (during low season). Even in low season Fenghuang is busy and bustling with domestic tourism although western tourists are next to none and the same goes for English speaking. That being said, we get by fine.
The ancient city of Fenghuang is a separated district of a larger city and finding the entrance gates takes at least a few kilometers walk, which isn’t advisable when hauling along luggage. This was in fact the trickiest part of the journey and for it we suggest taking a taxi directly to the gates, this should cost no more than 10 Yuan. On arrival however, we decide to board the local bus (1A costing 1 Yuan) which leaves from the same bus station and goes on to circle the town. This is a local bus which means people will squash on and off at each stop and, given we were carrying two bags of luggage, we were constantly in people’s way. We also had no clue at which stop to exit and were forced to ask people on-board who knew next to no English. If you plan to take this route be sure to stay near a door to exit and get out at the ICBC Bank and the ‘South Gate’ entrance pictured below. Just past the south gate is the ticketing office.
For accommodation we stay on the nearside of the river in a hotel held up on stilts with a balcony view overlooking the river and central bridge. While it does sound idyllic given the views these areas are also the busiest and loudest at night. Don’t expect much sleep if staying here. Many of the hotels along the riverside are closer to guesthouses where traditional homes have been renovated by families to accommodate the influx of tourism to Fenghuang. This is no different to elsewhere in Fenghuang as each household brings their own trade and business, mostly targeted towards the tourist industry. The guestrooms we stay in are far from 5* but the views are hard to beat given you can put up with the music and rabble at night. Hotel prices are relatively cheap and our room, with ensuite bathroom and riverview balcony, costs 150 Yuan per night. Note, in higher and peak seasons it maybe best to book hotels in advance (hotel list here).
Even during low season Fenghuang is littered with domestic tourists and at nighttime the riverside area is lit up like a shiny discoball with karaoke, bars and nightclubs. The nighttime entertainment is no doubt brash for such a historical and sleepy looking backwater. However, Fenghuang does still look beautiful and despite being there when the river was emptied and being dredged we still manage to snap a few okay looking photos. During the day we do take follow some of the historical walls and buildings listed on the map which are beautiful despite the crowds. Be sure to carry your tickets when out exploring the ancient city as you will need it to enter many of the attractions in and around.
I personally preferred poking around, down backstreets of Fenghuang to find areas which give a better idea of how beautiful the ancient city would have been before the influx of mass tourism. Some of the better spots we find include Phoenix Park near the North Entrance where a rabble of old timers hang out and listen to classical Chinese music on their wireless. The small river which feeds into the centre is also cute with traditional housing and local life. Most tourists fail to leave the central areas so these lesser visited parts feel a lot more authentic and somewhat timeless.
There are a number of tour operators dotted through Fenghuang and it is easy to reserve bus tickets in advance for onward travel. We reserve tickets at 80 Yuan each for a return trip to Zhangjiajie and exchange the slip at the ticketing offices when arriving to the bus station. Note, there are two bus stations in Fenghuang and our return journey leaves the larger station, not the one which we arrive to. Again, I suggest taking a taxi to the bus station and again, this should cost no more than 10 Yuan. When leaving the tourist area of Ancient City we use a side gate, climbing up winding stairs to a bypassing bridge of the city. This is quicker than a trek back to the south gate.