Frozen In Time And Untouched By Modernization: Chinese Ancient Towns


Our trip continues. You have been introduced to China’s most important large cities and have encountered their modern lifestyles and rich history. Now it is time for something else, a journey back to the past and a world of ancient Chinese cities that have remained unchanged for centuries. These are towns that are located in remote areas and have not experienced rapid development and modernization. So we will board a train that will take us thousands of kilometers from Beijing, Shanghai, or Chengdu and will also take us back in time. The most interesting ancient towns that YT contributor Danilo Hinic, who has lived in China for 5 years, will introduce you to are Fenghuang and Lijiang.


The first one that I will introduce you to is Fenghuang town. You probably wonder what Fenghuang means – a literal translation is Phoenix. So Chinese people call it Phoenix Town. Now maybe you wonder why Phoenix? This legendary animal has an important place in Chinese mythology and is considered as compatible and opposite to another legendary animal – the Dragon. In yin yang, the Phoenix symbolizes yin and the dragon symbolizes yang. Peacocks were traditionally identified as phoenixes, but you won’t find a single peacock in Fenghuang. So the name of the town is a mystery.

Frozen in time 


After we step out of the train we need a few hours on a bus to arrive at the town. Before walking into town it is a good idea is to climb the closest hill and take in the view of a town hidden in fog and lying on the banks of an olive green river. The water flows, but the town doesn’t move not just physically but also you will see that it is frozen in time. Fenghuang hasn’t changed its appearance, shape, number of alleys, or type of architecture since the XIV century, when it was built. Even the wall and the four main gates that surround the town haven’t changed for centuries. When you get down the hill and enter one of two main alleys you will see many narrow streets on both sides. Most of the houses are made of stone. Fenghuang isn’t famous and isn’t overcrowded; mostly you will see locals here, often in traditional clothes and very friendly. There are many shops with souvenirs in the town where you can find anything from teapots to decorative figures. When you get to the river bank you will see many houses that are standing in the water on wooden beams. Many boats are along the shore. There are people who are devoted to traditional craft-fishing. Fishermen in old cotton clothes stand in wooden boats where they spend the whole day catching some fish to sell. Another traditional sight is women washing clothes in the river as they did centuries ago. Imagine it and you will feel the spirit and lifestyle of old China. Being situated on a river and between mountains may explain how Fenghuang has been preserved from change for centuries. Of course, modern technology can easily access any area in world and could change this city, but the Chinese government has put it under protection, and it is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. 


Old fisherman-Fenghuang

No war damage 

Fenghuang has never experienced war. That may be another reason why it remains in its original form. Although many civil wars have been fought between various dynasties not far from the town, no one has ever tried to invade it. Even the latest civil war (1927-1949) and the Japanese occupation (1937-1945) spared Fenghuang. No one went there or destroyed even one single brick of any house in the town.

Naxi boiled rice cake and other specialties

Local Specialties 

Cuisine in Fenghuang belongs to the Hunan tradition, and things that you should try include delicious cooked fish soup, grilled fish, amazing cake made from fresh pumpkin, lotus seeds with sugar, and stinky tofu. If you pick up aromas on the street that smell literally like excrement, don’t be concerned, it is a special kind of tofu cheese. If you are able to ignore the smell, try stinky tofu, it tastes good.

Vegetable washing- river is still very important for locals- Fenghuang

Accommodation tip

There are several hostels and hotels in town, but it is best to take a room on the river bank so at night you can sit on a wooden balcony and listen to the flow of the river and watch the dark, distant mountains.


Lively night atmosphere lijiang

Now we move further to the south of China, to beautiful and green Yunnan province. We are arriving now at a town called Lijiang, located on a large plateau that is 2000m above sea level. Despite the fact that snowy mountains lie nearby, the weather is very good here, and temperatures are optimal and vary between 25C and 29C degrees year round. The town is very ancient and romantic. Dating from the second century BC, Lijiang’s appearance has changed little since the XVIII century. Despite being on a remote plateau it can easily be reached by a seven hour bus ride from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Its appearance is unique, with narrow streets, old houses, and water supply canals passing under the town and appearing here and there on the surface. There are three things that make this town one of a kind.

Miao couple wedding

Colorful costumes and cultural diversity 

For centuries, several Chinese ethnic minorities have lived in Lijiang. In China there are 56 ethnicities, with the Han Chinese composing 90% of the whole population of the country. But in Lijiang there are several ethnicities that you have probably never heard of, above all the Naxi and Miao minorities, which have had the greatest cultural impact on Lijiang. This town is very different from other parts of China because each of the local minorities has its own traditions, customs, language, and cuisine. When you come to Lijiang you will observe Naxi and Miao minorities living visibly within very specific cultural norms.

Both minorities believe that everything in nature has a spirit, so they are very careful and respectful towards nature and worship it. Also Naxi and Miao people still practice shamanism, which is very rare in China. During celebrations they invite shamans to their houses to bring blessings and good health.

Naxi girl in traditional costume

The traditional costumes of the Naxi and Miao people are very colorful and unique and can be seen only in southern China. Also their music and dance are authentic, and unique to this region. The combination of colorful costumes and traditional music and dance is very special. You have photos here. But to really feel their traditional spirit and the charming atmosphere of local music and dance you must come here to experience it personally.

The cuisine of the Naxi and Miao minorities is also very authentic. Naxi households and restaurants can offer you local boiled rice cake. Also you must try their rice wine and sour soups. Miao cuisine offers you sweet potato and various cakes and noodles made from rice as well. They also offer grilled vegetables, and beef is their favorite meat.


Aside from its ethnic minorities, tea is what makes Lijiang famous. Yunnan province is famous for one of the best teas in China. Lijiang was the starting point of the Southern Tea Road, which was used to transport tea between Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet, and India. The tea that I can most recommend is Pu Erh tea – a green tea with the aroma of rice as during the process of brewing it, rice is added, too. It is my favorite Chinese tea. You can find it anywhere in Lijiang, but the best place to look is on the square in the town center.

Lijiang traditional teahouse

Romantic nights    

This town is so romantic. If you travel as a couple or on a honeymoon, don’t skip this destination and miss the calm and romantic nights of Lijiang. There are many traditional tea houses that are decorated with red and yellow lanterns. Sit outside to be served tea in colorful porcelain cups and enjoy tea and rice cakes. Watch the lanterns, the moon, and the thousands of stars in the sky and you will feel that you are in paradise with your loved one.

Tip: Don’t miss 

Just a little bit north of the town there is an amazing scenic spot known as Black Dragon Pool. It is a park located under mountains. There is a very clean lake and pavilions located next to it. Nearby is an XVIII century temple devoted to the Black Dragon, believed to be the God of Rain. In the past, people believed that he lived in the lake and when he wanted to bring rain he would fly high and spit lake water on the fields. Locals used to pray to him to bring rain so their seeds would sprout. Nature is very clean here, and the pools of water are drinkable and supply the whole town with water. The best time to come is in the spring to experience the combination of green leaves, blossoming flowers, pure water, and snowy mountains in the distance.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)