Waterfalls? Caves? Traditional Chinese architecture? How about all three in the same scene? Furong Ancient Town, located in the northwestern part of Hunan Province, is undoubtedly one of China’s most unique historical towns. For whatever reason, though, it’s often overlooked by tourists – both international and domestic. And that’s all the more reason to come see Furong’s fairytale-like scenery for yourself.
Formerly known as Wangcun, the town has been inhabited for thousands of years. Its population is largely comprised of Tujia people, China’s eighth largest ethnic minority. As such, a visit to Furong is also a great opportunity to learn about Tujia customs, architecture and folk beliefs.
Furong was the setting for a 1986 film called Hibiscus Town. The film deals with the devastation caused by the Cultural Revolution of the ’60’s and ’70’s. And while Furong’s local culture doesn’t play a role in the story, the town’s scenic backdrop appears in a number of scenes. In 2007, over twenty years after the movie’s release, local officials decided to change the name to Furong, or ‘Hibiscus.’
Visiting Furong Ancient Town
Before my trip to Furong, all I’d seen were a few pictures online, which instantly sold me on the place. But what I couldn’t find was a detailed description on getting around the area, or a rundown of each individual attraction that tourists can visit.
That’s why, after paying the hefty ¥120 RMB fee for the ‘Ancient Town’ area, I headed straight for a large map I noticed in the middle of the public square. And, well….
At least they tried. Sort of. It looked like I would be on my own when it came to navigating the area. Fortunately, as I’d soon find out, Furong’s Ancient Town area is much smaller than that of nearby Fenghuang’s. All in all, it can be explored in a couple of hours, and there’s not much risk of getting lost.
I began my day by checking out the old wooden structures in the middle of the main plaza, or Chieftain Plaza. It seems to have been used for performances, speeches or public rituals. Like many structures in Furong Ancient Town, this one was built in the traditional style of the Tujia. But who, exactly, are the Tujia?
Who Are The Tujia?
The Tujia, China’s eighth largest ethnic minority, is a group consisting of around 8 million people. They can be found in Hunan as well as neighboring provinces like Hubei and Guizhou.
Tujia culture is closely linked with Nuo folk religion, an ancient tradition which fuses ancestor worship, shamanism and Taoism. Exorcism plays a role in many of their rituals which often employ colorful costumes and masks.
The Tujia have inhabited Hunan for thousands of years. Traditionally, they were ruled by local chieftains known as Tusi. These rulers played especially important roles during the Ming (1368 – 1644) and Qing (1644 – 1912) dynasties.
For example, the Tusi chieftains supplied the Ming dynasty with Tujia soldiers, and Tujia districts were largely left alone in return. This allowed Tujia culture to develop and thrive under imperial rule for centuries.
The Qing, on the other hand, replaced many of the local Tujia rulers with officials of their own. And they also tried to impose their customs and way of life on them. Nowadays, however, the Tujia are an officially recognized minority by the People’s Republic of China. And Tujia heritage sites like Furong are being promoted as tourism destinations.
At the opposite end of the main plaza, up a small flight of stairs, I encountered the Earth King Temple. Sadly, the temple was damaged in Mao’s Cultural Revolution but was rebuilt in the year 2000.
It’s unclear, though, if the ‘Earth King’ is an actual deity or just a mistranslation of ‘Chieftain.’ The deities inside look much like the Sanqing trio found in typical Taoist temples, though they may be different gods unique to local Tujia beliefs. In addition to Taoist deities, the Tujia also worship a complex pantheon of ancestral spirits.
There’s plenty of information pasted all along the interior walls, albeit only in Chinese. Visitors will also find some artifacts enclosed in glass cases, such as a horn instrument that was (and still is) used in traditional Nuo folk worship rituals.
The Bronze Pillar
I then moved on to the Bronz Pillar Park. In the 10th century, Furong was part of a state called Xi. At the time, a battle broke out between the Xi and neighboring Chu kingdoms. This was known as the Battle of Xizhou. The Xi came out victorious, with their chieftain, Peng Shi, going on to found a dynasty of local rulers that would last for 800 years.
Following a ceasefire, Peng Shi and neighboring ruler Maxi Fanli then erected a bronze pillar to mark the border between the two territories. A replica of the pillar, in addition to sculptures of the local officials, now stand at the spot to commemorate the historical event.
The Chieftan Bridge
Next, I walked across the Chieftain Bridge. It was named as such because over the centuries, the local chieftains would walk across this bridge to get to their palace. At the bridge’s entrance is a couplet in honor of Peng Shi, the legendary Tusi mentioned above.
But the real highlight of the bridge is the amazing views of the local Tujia buildings alongside the You River.
Passing the bridge, I found a staircase that would take me down to Furong’s lower level. But first I passed a small exhibition showcasing the tools that Tujia people have traditionally used for agriculture, cooking and craftsmanship. But as all the information was only in Chinese, I didn’t stick around for long.
The Tusi Summer Palace
Descending down the staircase, I caught a glimpse of Furong’s iconic waterfall. Not quite yet at the bottom level, the vantage point was provided by the ancient palace of the Tusi chieftains themselves. Rather than a single building, the summer palace is actually a complex of multiple buildings built right next to one another. I wouldn’t get the full picture of the place, however, until going back to the upper level and looking down from the opposite side.
Common among the Tujia and another nearby ethnicity, the Miao, the architectural style of the palace can be categorized as Diaojiaolou. And the defining characteristic of Diaojiaolou are their stilts.
Supposedly, Diaojiaolou first came into being in rural areas as a way to avoid venomous snakes and scorpions. But as seen in places like nearby Fenghuang, this style of building comes in handy over water as well.
Most Diaojiaolou buildings don’t even use any nails. This makes the Tusi palace all the more impressive considering its location on a cliffside. And let’s not forget the fact that it’s hundreds of years old!
The Cave Path
Rather than head straight for the waterfall, I noticed a cave in the opposite direction, and headed over to check it out. I then continued following a pathway that stretched along the side of the rock. I wasn’t sure where it would take me, but I enjoyed the new vantage points it provided along the way.
Ultimately, I ended up at a small plaza nearby a parking lot. The plaza offered even more excellent views of the town from a distance. And it was well away from all the other tourists – not that there are too many in Furong to begin with. After a few moments of appreciating the views, I headed back down toward the water.
Eventually, I arrived at the base of the waterfall. One of the special things about Furong is that visitors have the chance to walk inside of the waterfall itself. And opposite the falling water is yet another deep cavern.
This scenery would be quite something way out in the countryside. But the fact that this waterfall and cave were situated right in the center of a historical city made it all the more surreal.
Supposedly, entire communities of Tujia people used to live in these caverns during ancient times. There are now several bronze statues representing these ancient Tujia cavemen, though I think a simple informational plaque would’ve been enough.
Furong’s waterfall consists of two different streams, each of which is about 60 meters high and 40m wide. Though the waterfall looked fairly calm from a distance, its force becomes apparent once you get up close. Be careful, as you can easily get splashed if you’re not paying attention.
I continued walking past the waterfall, where I encountered a long traditional pavilion. Likely part of the original Tusi palace complex, the structure offers views of the river and pier. The town, in, fact, has been a trading port for over 2,000 years. The You River is a tributary of the Yuan River, connecting Furong with many other towns in Hunan, not to mention neighboring Guizhou Province.
Further along I came across Furong’s ancient town gate. Traditionally, local communities in the area would build these gates in front of the pier, making it the first thing those arriving by boat would see. While visitors can walk up to the upper terrace, the doors to get inside were unfortunately locked during my visit.
According to the English informational sign, the ancient gate represents “the gas of the king.” While I think the translators probably meant something like “the king’s might,” the original sentence is not too out of place considering Hunan spicy cuisine!
Just near the town gate and jetty, I came across the entrance to Wulichangjie, or ‘Wuli State Street.’ The steep, uphill stone road may be one of Furong Ancient Town’s most touristy areas, but it’s also one of the most interesting. Local vendors sell Tujia crafts and souvenirs, while there are plenty of opportunities to sample the local snacks such as rice tofu, a Furong specialty.
And the higher up you go, you’ll find even more new vantage points from which to view the town.
I passed by meat sellers, ancient temples and yes, ordinary locals going about their daily lives. The area was much less crowded and commercialized than what I’d later encounter in nearby Fenghuang. This makes Furong a nice alternative for those looking for a slightly more authentic experience.
Near the end of the road, I also came across an old traditional house that’s been preserved for tourists to step in and walk around. Being the only one inside at the time, I wandered around the old courtyard and bedrooms. There wasn’t any signage indicating to whom the house once belonged, but it was clearly of family of some status and wealth.
Before I knew it, I found myself back at the Bronze Pillar Monument. I continued walking around the upper area to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. And sure enough, I had. I came across a stone bridge which takes visitors back to the Tusi Palace area, which made for some great photo opportunities. Strangely enough, though, I never did come across a single Ancient Money Shop during my time in town!
I snapped some more photos, grabbed some lunch, and headed back to the bus station to make my return to Zhangjiajie. All in all, Furong was definitely one of the more unique places I’ve visited in China. If the town’s scenery looks intriguing to you, don’t let its relative obscurity dissuade you from going to see it in person.
If you’re coming by public transport, Furong is most easily reached by bus from Zhangjiajie City (the main bus station nearby Tianmen Mountain). The name of the city will not be displayed in English, but the name looks like this: 芙蓉镇. (Be sure to write this down to present to the person at the ticket counter, so they know exactly where you want to go).
The first bus of the morning leaves at 7:30. It costs ¥30 RMB and the ride lasts about an hour. If you miss the first bus, there should be buses running to Furong about every hour or so in between 7:30 and 17:00.
Visiting Furong from Zhangjiajie, I was unable to come across any English information in advance on how to reach the Ancient Town area from the bus station. (Like all ‘Ancient Towns’ in China, Furong also has a more bustling, modern city area that’s separate from its touristy historical district.)
Luckily, I didn’t have to put much effort into figuring things out. Arriving at the Furong bus station, I was immediately approached by a woman in uniform asking me if I was going to the Ancient Town area. I said yes and hopped in what seemed to be an official van run by the city.
Arriving at the Ancient Town area entrance, she asked for ¥10 RMB. I thought it seemed like a bit much, but I had no idea of how much it was supposed to cost, and so I handed the money over. Sure enough, when it was time to go back to the bus station, I found a different driver riding the same type of van who only asked for ¥2.
So when arriving in Furong by bus, remember that there’s official transport going between the bus station and the Ancient Town entrance, and that you shouldn’t pay more than a couple of yuan.
As I’ve only visited the country on a few occasions, I’m not an expert on bus travel in China. But from my experience, there seem to be 3 different types of buses in regards to how the ticket can be purchased.
- The first kind of ticket can be purchased in advance at the bus station ticket counter. It can be several days before departure or just before the bus leaves (assuming it’s not sold out). You will need to present your passport when buying the ticket.
- The second kind can only be purchased on the same day of departure. But you still need to line up at the ticket counter before the bus leaves and present your passport.
- The third kind can only be purchased on the bus itself. You just hop on and pay the driver or attendant when they ask. No ID necessary. This is fairly common for shorter journeys under a couple of hours.
When I traveled from Zhangjiajie City to Furong, the bus ride fell into the second category. I tried to purchase a ticket a day early but was told to come back and line up again on the morning of departure. But strangely enough, when returning to Zhangjiajie from Furong, I could not buy a ticket at the ticket counter! I could only pay on the bus.
Also note that buses from Zhangjiajie to Wulingyuan (the town near Zhangjiajie National Forest Park) falls into the third category. But if you’re going somewhere farther away, like Changsha or Fenghuang, you’ll be able to buy tickets in advance.
Zhangjiajie City makes for the best base from which to reach Furong by public transport. (But those with a private driver can stop there on the way to or from Fenghuang).
And the main attraction in Zhangjiajie City is Tianmen Mountain. For those wanting to visit the mountain, getting to the cable car station on time is key. Overall, the city is not that big, and the bus station area is still definitely walkable to and from the cable car station. But as there’s a hotel right in front of the cable car station, why not just stay there?
I stayed at Dingding Inn. Not only was the location perfect, but I had a comfortable and clean private room with my own shower.
It was also nearby some restaurants and a large supermarket which came in handy for buying snacks before the hike.
Zhangjiajie is accessible from Changsha by either bus (West Bus Terminal) or by train, and the journey lasts about 4 hours. It costs around ¥120.
Zhangjiajie is also reachable by (normal speed) train from many other major cities in China, but given the country’s size, it could be a very long trip. It’s best to take a high-speed train to Changsha first, spend a couple days there, and then head to the national parks from there.
The city is also home to the Zhangjiajie Hehua Airport, which has flights to many major cities throughout China.
As you may or may not be aware, a bunch of major web sites are completely blocked in China. This includes Google, YouTube and social media sites like Facebook. Not only can this be a huge annoyance, but not being able to access your Gmail account or use Google Maps could even cause major problems during your trip.
That is, unless, you have a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to access the internet via servers in a variety of international locations. Therefore, when traveling in China, you can access the internet through a server in Taiwan or Hong Kong (or anywhere, really) and suddenly start using Google and social media apps like normal again.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies over the course of multiple trips, and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
The actual use of VPN’s in China isn’t illegal in itself. However, the Chinese government will often make things difficult for certain VPN companies, and some services may stop working for you out of the blue. That’s why it’s important to go for the most reliable VPN, and ExpressVPN is widely regarded as the best to use in China.