The smell of noodles and fried food woke me up just before 7am. Climbing through the balcony, the life outside our bedroom was invading our sleep. My first thought was: where am I?! Slowly the memory of the day before returns. Fenghuang. A remote town located in the west-south province of Hunan, China.
As much as I love noodles, the whole combination of smells put me off breakfast. I am the kind a girl who is happy with a bowl of milk and cereal (or toast and hot-chocolate, or smoothie and pancakes or …………). Chinese breakfast is like lunch to me.
We arrived in Fenghuang the day before at midday, by bus.
A bus?! Ha! Not like any other bus I have ever taken. One with a Chinese woman speaking on a microphone for the entire 4 and a half hour journey. She was a mix of a tour guide, since occasionally she would point at the mountains and the passengers eyes would follow, and a vendor. She hardly stopped to catch her breath. My ear drums weren’t impressed though. Occasionally she would distribute samples of dry meat wrapped in plastic containers, or go around showing pictures of bedrooms, perhaps to rent out at our destination. She was indeed quite successful with her sales. I came to the conclusion that Mandarin sounds like a combination of vowels matched with different intonations and the sentences often ends with an “ah” half expelled through the nose. That was pretty much all I could grasp from her speech.
We didn’t book a bedroom. The hostels we found online were fully booked, at least the ones that had the website translated in English. So, when we arrived we had to hunt for one. We would enter the hotel, ask for the price, perhaps visit a bedroom and then decide if we wanted to take it or not. We said yes on our third attempt. Like in markets, there must be an art of bargaining for hotel bedrooms too, but culturally I wasn’t prepared to do it yet. So I do believe we were overcharged, or perhaps we could have just got cheaper somewhere else, but we liked the balcony anyway.
On our balcony we found shelter to recover from the bus journey and treated our ears to the sounds of life by the river. The rain was falling top heavy, topping up the river until it nearly overflowed.
If it wasn’t for the hunger emerging in our bellies, we would have stayed there longer.
So we made our way through heavy drops along the riverbank, we were getting wet, but it didn’t matter anymore, I was drowned by the ambience of Fenghuang. Here the river is the main attraction, heart and soul of this charming town.
The street vendors didn’t look disturbed by the rain either. A woman behind a table tried to get our attention by lifting one of the many colorful bracelets she sells. But my attention had already been caught by the way she was sitting on a wood stool halfway submersed in the water, with her feet up on a dry step. Bù, xiè – I said. This means – no, thank you – and I noticed that every time I said it, the vendors would smile back at me, perhaps amazed how I can say something so simple so wrongly, or maybe just happy that I actually learned something in mandarin instead of saying a dry NO.
Girls with crowns of flowers colored up the streets. Soap bubbles, blown by a child on the foot bridge, raced down along the river until they burst. Further along, people took off their shoes to cross the river by jumping stones. On the other side, women vigorously brush away the dirt of their laundry. Gondolas smoothly carry sightseers under the bridges.
The buildings are made of grey bricks, but mainly wood. The older ones are sitting on stilts or DiaoJiaoLou (literally means hanging feet building). These were built by a minority ethnic population to protect them from the vicious snakes and deadly scorpions.
When night fell in the city, the waters of the river became a mirror of the houses, so the lights duplicated and the city was more awakened than ever. Markets were louder and live music echoed from every other door. Chinese music played our way through town, until we found the way back to our sweet little balcony and sleepiness took over. Although this old town is quite touristy, we haven’t seen any westerners here. Perhaps because of its remote location, it is a hidden gem of China.
My alarm went off. Still lying on my bed, I wished I could go around Fenghuang once more, but it was time to say goodbye and this time I was leaving a bit of my heart behind. Because that was how much I loved the town of Fenghuang. Charming, rustic and trendy, a must visit if like me, you are into houses of stilts, old small streets, a river and rain, with Chinese culture behind it all.