Qianyang | A hidden gem in Hunan province
In November 2013, the highway that is now linking western Hunan (湘西) province’s major towns was still under construction. It’s after a painful five-hour bus ride from Tongdao that I arrived in Qianyang (黔阳), a small town I had never heard of. Like every town in this remote part of a landlocked province, Qianyang (which is also called Qiancheng 黔城) did not look attractive at all.
Large avenues, loud honking, grey buildings and dusty shopping centres. However, just a few hundred meters from this unattractive concrete jungle, there was a hidden gem : the old town.
A feel of authenticity
Old towns like Lijiang in Yunnan province, Fenghuang in Hunan or Zhouzhuang near Shanghai have been developed and marketed as must-see travel destinations. If their centuries-old buildings are still intact, their streets are filled with trinket store, store fronts and the continuous flow of tourists has contributed to making places like Lijiang or Fenghuang unattractive to me.
Qianyang is different. It has not been transformed into a space of consumption for tourists. At least not yet. As a visitor, you won’t be able to buy any souvenir from a trinket store because all the shops cater to the locals only. There are no loudspeakers that blare techno music in front of store fronts like in Fenghuang, instead, you’ll hear the loud chatter of women playing cards in the streets in the afternoon. In Qianyang, people sit in the slab-stone streets on a bamboo chair. The rythme of life is slower in the old town.
The ancient architecture, the red lanterns hanging on the courtyard gates and the peaceful atmosphere that reign in the streets contribute to make of Qianyang (黔阳)a charming old town that fits the western collective imaginary of what a traditional Chinese towns should look like (or used to look like).
Five Gates, Ten Streets and Twelve Alleys
The curve made by the Wu river (巫水) embraces the old town of Qianyang (黔阳) which according to local history, was founded more than 2000 years ago. In 1080, during the Song dynasty (960-1279), the town was upgraded to a regional political center.
Today, most of the cultural landmarks disseminated in the ancient town date back from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Parts of the ancient walls that protected Qianyang (黔阳) are still standing. Beyond the five gates, the slab stone streets and alleys of Qianyang (黔阳) are lined with more than twenty ancestral and lineage halls, over ten courtyard residences of ancient local officials, a dozen of Taoist and Buddhist temples, as well as centuries-old residential housing and store fronts.
Some of these ancient temple have been recently renovated, others are crumbling away. A few of them have been secularised and transformed into residential housing.
At the entrance of the old town, a ticket office sells a 48 RMB ticket that will grant you access to eight different temples and sites in the old town. Some have been transformed into museums, like the palace of the kitchen god (灶王宫) which hosts a stone exhibition. You don’t need to buy this entrance ticket. Just go and visit the old town, wander aimlessly and feel the peacefulness of the town.
When I visited Qianyang in November 2013 and then again in April 2014, I felt that change was coming. First, the highway which links Huaihua, a major town and transportation hub in the region to Tongdao in the south of the province is now completed. This highway will eventually be extended as far as Guilin. Then, I saw a few ancient buildings that were being restored; in front of them, a huge billboard with a slogan that reads ‘Let’s build the charming town of Qianyang! Let’s make of Qianyang an important tourist destination!’.
I’m not surprised if, in the next five years, there will be a 100 RMB entrance fee to enter and if the locals have started selling trinkets to tourists, like it’s happening everywhere.
Hopefully, Qianyang wil be able to retain its unique old town feel, but in the meantime, do not waste time.
Hi! My name is Gaetan aka 高天. I studied, conducted academic research and worked in China for the past 10+ years. I have traveled extensively throughout this continent-size country and I’m passionate about ancient villages. My favourite region is the southwest which is home to most of China’s ethnic minorities.
My blog Travel Cathay.com is dedicated to these historical villages and alternative travel destinations in China.