When it comes to south China, the cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Changsha, attract the most visitors. But Fenghuang Ancient Town, a beautiful water town in under-appreciated Hunan province, offers adventurous travellers the chance to see something a little different.
The old streets of Fenghuang are not as commercialised as the cities mentioned above. What makes this hidden gem stand out is the way it gives visitors a taste of other great qualities of China, all within a short drive from the town.
Fenghuang means Phoenix in Chinese. Legend has it that two of these mythical sacred firebirds flew over the town and found it so beautiful that they hovered there, reluctant to leave.
About 10 kilometres away from the Fenghuang lies the entrance to the southernmost section of the Great Wall. Many Chinese themselves do not know that there is a southern section of the Great Wall so close by.
Fenghuang's section of the Great Wall may not be connected to the ones known and loved just outside of Beijing, but it is part of a 300-kilometre wall that extends east into Hunan province that protected the Ming Dynasty from the local Miao ethnic tribes more than 500 years ago.
Just 20 kilometres outside Fenghuang, there are gorges similar to the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. The town is surrounded by karst hills, flowing rivers and verdant greenery: A spot of excellent fengshui - which the Chinese still strongly believe in today.
All of the fun isn't outside town though. Back in the heart of Fenghuang, history and architecture buffs will love the time-warped, ancient town with dozens of alleys paved with flagstones, each showing wear caused by the feet of generations of local people who have used them when going about their daily businesses.
For visitors, these alleys are the way to see the typical high gabled wooden houses built on stilts along the banks of the Tuojiang River at close quarters. Called Diaojiaolou (building with hanging legs), the design keeps the buildings safe from spring floods.
Hongqiao or Rainbow Bridge, built in the Ming Dynasty over 600 years ago, is the ancient town's most well-known tourist spot.
A town wall built in 1715 during the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), stretches for about 400 metres along the south bank of the river.
Strolling along the riverside and the narrow streets early in the morning is one of the best moments to admire the real beauty of the ancient town.
You will see locals start their day by doing laundry and Miao women dressed in their traditional outfits carrying goods in bamboo baskets on their backs to the market.
It is fun and exciting to cross the Tuojiang River by walking along a series of stepping stones near the North Gate Pier. This used to be the town's only exit point, called 'Leaping Stones' by the local people.
The Miao ethnic minority is predominantly settled here and a visit to a Miao village is a must when going to Fenghuang. They are friendly and hospitable and like nothing more than to interact with visitors with a variety of traditional entertainments and activities.
Visitors will find a large array of hand-made items of silver ornaments for sale in the local shops. Home-made tie-dyes, printed and batik cloths are also popular items.
At night the streets in Fenghuang are full of street food vendors serving grilled meats, dumplings, fried potatoes, flat breads and grilled vegetables.
Ginger candy, a specialty and traditional snack in Fenghuang, has a history of more than a hundred years. Made by hand, it is sweet, crispy and spicy due to its main ingredients of brown sugar, white, ginger, sesame and tea oil.--Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin