The Ancient Business Town of Hongjiang | A Maze on the Yuan River Banks

Hongjiang (洪江古商城)  is a maze of narrow alleys interconnected via a series of cobble-stone stairs. This ancient town on the banks of the Yuan River (沅江) is one of the three major ancient town of Western Hunan. The now popular Fenghuang in the north acted as a military stronghold, the nearby town of Qiancheng was a regional political center and Hongjiang was a business town.

Lost in Yujia Lane, in the ancient business town of Hongjiang, Hunan.

Lost in Yujia Lane, in the ancient business town of Hongjiang, Hunan.

The town flourished into a regional business hub at the intersection of the five provinces of southwest China : Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Hunan. While getting lost in the town, you will stumble upon ancient guild halls, banks, auction houses, theatres, military headquarters, local official mansions and offices. But this ancient western China-style Manhattan would not be complete without Yujia Lane, an alley famous for its legal and illegal brothels (called qinglou 青楼), and for its opium houses where men indulged in the smoking of the drug smuggled from the coastal cities or grown on the hillside of Yunnan.

How to visit Hongjiang

Chilling out in the streets of Hongjiang, Hunan

Chilling out in the streets of Hongjiang, Hunan

The town is taking advantage of the development of domestic tourism and Hongjiang is mainly visited by organised groups. They follow a local tour guide dressed up in silky Qing-era style costumes and visit the town’s landmark. Whether they stop at an ancient private bank, auction house or at the renowned ‘Shaoxing Ban’ (绍兴班), an upscale ‘pleasure quarter’ which catered to the elite and rich merchant of Hongjiang, visitors can enjoy a short performance by local actors in ancient costume.

Although visitors have to pay a 120 RMB entrance fee if they enter via the main entrance (which includes the tour which unfortunately to most foreigners is in Chinese language only), travellers also have the option of entering via one of the many non-descript access to the old town and enjoy the feeling of getting lost and discover the heart of the city.

Even though it is in theory still possible to enter the ancient town of Hongjiang without paying the entrance fee, I feel that, in the coming years, this is going to get more difficult and guards may be placed at strategic entry points.

A small percentage of the buildings have been refurbished for tourism purposes, many old courtyard mansions that belonged to wealthy merchants were converted into residential housing and are sometimes shared by several families, others ancient structures were locked and abandoned.

Pay attention to details

The door was open

The door was open

Hongjiang can be overwhelming at the beginning, specially if you decide to wander around by yourself, specially because of the narrow streets. I really felt I was entering a maze, but I had a great time getting lost in it.

There are a lot of architectural details to pay attention to. Specially bas-relief carved on abandoned temples. What I enjoyed the most was the patterns on the impressive doors. All the doors are 7 ft tall are made of rosewood,reinforced with a metal sheet covering on which big nails form auspicious patterns.

Definitely worth a visit

Off the beaten tracks in the ancient business town of Hongjiang, Hunan

Off the beaten tracks in the ancient business town of Hongjiang, Hunan

The ancient business town of Hongjiang is definitely worth a visit if you are travelling through western Hunan. If you are fast enough, you can visit both Hongjiang and Qianyang (only 30 km away) in one day.

Although tour groups are pouring in, specially on week-ends and during holidays, but otherwise it has not been over-commercialised and spoiled by mass-tourism like Fenghuang.You’re free not to partake in the guided visit and can enjoy the peaceful and quite lanes where you’ll meet the locals who will be surprised that you have gone off the beaten path.

Hongjiang, Hunan

Gaetan Biopic
Author bio:

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.