The FengHuang trip, part one: Miao trek 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — It took nearly a month of waiting, but I finally visited the historic city of FengHuang, which is only an hour’s bus ride from here.

Lack of travel papers, other commitments and bad weather prevented me from making the trip before, so when it seemed likely we would have decent weather, I made sure people knew I wanted to visit FengHuang, a town with a 1300-year history.

Since my senior guides were otherwise occupied with such trivialities as trying to graduate, they convinced a cadre of my sophomores — ten in all — to escort me. Since some are local girls, one had a boyfriend whose buddy ran a tour service of sorts, and another’s uncle and aunt owned a comfy guest house right on the Tuojiang River in FengHuang. Some had been to FengHuang before, but others, like me, were first-timers. So, all in all, we had a lot of fun.

A “FengHuang” is a Chinese phoenix, comprising both male (feng) and female (huang) aspects. The town of FengHuang developed from an earlier settlement that may have been a military encampment, to keep the troublesome Miao people at bay. The town moved to its present location on the Tuojiang River during the Ming Dynasty 700 years ago. At first, its population consisted primarily of Han soldiers, but eventually Miao moved out of their cave dwellings in the mountains to build characteristic wooden homes in FengHuang. That style of archtecture, with tiled roofs and upturned ornamentation on the roof corners, is still prevalent in the old town.

The 11 of us departed Jishou by bus around 8 am Saturday, zipping down a four-laner until the bus turned onto a (mostly) two-laner leading to FengHuang. The ride took about an hour. The bus station is outside town, so we then had to taxi to the Jiang Nan Dong Lu Hotel. I had a room overlooking the river, while the girls took rooms the floor below. (This hotel was spotless, though modest. For fancier and therefore pricier accommodations, there are “international” hotels catering to tour groups. I prefer the Jiang Nan Dong Lu, thank you.)

We dumped our bags, then headed toward another bus stop for a trip to a Miao village a half-hour away. Mary’s boyfriend’s buddy was the tour guide. While the bus was comfortable, the road was not. Chuckholes required our driver to go slowly, and even then the trip was pretty bouncy. The scenery was gorgeous, though, reminiscent of driving through the hills of eastern Kentucky or western North Carolina. Wherever there was the possibility of a flat space, you would see a farmhouse and a small farm. Many of the hills had terraced gardens as well.

[My photos are here, on Picasaweb. I’m starting to bump into my storage limit on my current host, so I have to cut back on hosting images here.]

The actual trek to the village was an adventure in itself, and I suspect some of the adventure was contrived for tourism’s sake. Whatever. It was fun.

Before the Ming dynasty, the Miao lived in caves, probably because the majority Han people forced them back into the mountains. There, the Miao acquired a reputation for banditry. Our trip to this village would take us through one of those bandit caves.

First leg: a short trip upriver on bamboo rafts. Modern flood control has apparently increased the depth of the Tuojiang; my students told me we were passing over the remains of an older town. Shades of the TVA!

Second leg: a walk up a stony pathway to a gate, where there is a convenient concrete-block pair of restrooms (with a Miao style roof, of course!). We passed a family’s home, then the dam, to stop on top of the dam to get a view of the lake. From there, we delved into the mountain, passing several waterfalls on the way. (It has been raining almost non-stop for two weeks, so the waterfalls and the Tuojiang were all very fast.)

We were required to pray to the local god and plant incense sticks in his shrine before entering the cave. Our guide pointed out where the Miao bandit king would have lived, on a ledge overlooking the entrance to the cave, and places along the waterway where archers would have stood to pick off intruders. The locals have built a wooden walkway above the water, hugging the cave’s wall. At times the walkway turned into stone steps, finally ending in a steep metal staircase leading to daylight. Candles lit the way. We passed a subterranean waterfall where the bandit queen supposedly would wash herself. Considering the temperature of the water, that woman was made of strong stuff!

Third leg
: another boat ride, this time in a craft resembling two canoes attached side-by-side. We proceeded along another stone path to the gate of the Miao village. There we were greeted by several young Miao girls in their traditional blue outfits.

The Miao (like the nearby Tujia) are accomplished singers. Song is an important part of their culture. So, their custom is to sing to visitors, who must sing back as part of the entry procedure. (We rehearsed on the bus. There is something about riding in a bus that brings out the song in you. We used to sing “Yellow Submarine” and “99 Bottles of Beer” when I was a kid on the school bus.) The Miao girls made us sing twice. Fortunately, we had two songs to offer.

The next part of the entry procedure is to quaff a bowl of the local rice wine in one gulp, or you will not be allowed into the village. [Note to the UN: I suggest doing away with worldwide passport control in favor of the Miao entrance custom. Sing a song, drink some wine, mellow out. Repeat as necessary.]

We were to witness a Miao dance-and-drumming performance before having lunch. Part of the festivities includes inviting a few audience members to come on stage and try on Miao women’s clothing (pants and tunic). My girls of course insisted I had to go. Thus dressed, the participants then have to imitate a Miao girl’s graceful dance moves. I’m not sure we five were graceful, but I and one of the girls ended up tied for first. As a tiebreaker, I had to dance again by myself. I think I won, by virtue of being the only westerner there. It certainly wasn’t because of my grace as a dancer.

We all received cattle-head pendants as prizes. I think cattle are important to the Miao. I’m guessing it may be why their roof corners have upturned ornamentation.

Then the entire audience joined in a circle dance with the Miao dancers, who suddenly rushed into the middle to smear charcoal on our faces. The charcoal is a good luck charm, so we were told not to remove it.

After a tasty lunch, we took a short walk through the village. The Miao here build their homes from flat stones stacked without mortar. The doorways have a threshold that are several inches tall (I saw the same feature in Zhangjiajie, a Tujia town). Visitors must step over the threshold, and never step on it, for it is bad luck. Our destination after lunch was the home of a 105-year-old Miao woman, who though in bed was very alert and talkative. She could tell there was something different about me, and wanted to know where I was from. The grandmother speaks only Miao, so her granddaughter translated into Mandarin, and my girls translated into English. I was the first westerner the woman had ever met, and she wanted her picture taken with me. We held hands (hers were surprisingly soft) and she stroked my beard, saying, “ho, ho, ho!” (That rascally Santa gets around, I’ll tell ya!)

After saying our goodbyes, we walked back to the village gate, where our bus was waiting to take us back to FengHuang. Some of the other tourists (who were about my age and may have passed up the boat and cave tour) were on the bus, too, so we took turns singing songs, encouraged by a Miao girl riding into town. I sang “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” which seemed apropos somehow.

We were back in FengHuang by 4:30, in time for some shopping, food, and a rest, before attending the bonfire party performance later that night.

NEXT: Shopping in the ancient city, the bonfire party and some thoughts on the universality of tourist traps.

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One comment on “The FengHuang trip, part one: Miao trek

  1. Reply Darcy Nov 10,2008 6:56 pm

    So you really ARE Santa! I knew it.

    Your weekend sounds like it was really great!! I’m jealous of your scenery, but only because it’s something so different from what I’ve ever seen before.

    I’ll have to check out your pics now!!

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