Much like Fenghuang (凤凰), the Miao village of Dehang (德夯) seemed to be this must-go place half-way between heaven and earth. After ten years of living in China, I usually prefer to stay away from touristy places, but some places sound too good to skip. In the same time, going to crowded popular tourist sites put the more remote, off-the-beaten path places in a new perspective.
Dehang, a small village of western Hunan (湘西), 30 minutes from Jishou (吉首) by bus, made it to the list of China’s traditional villages (中国传统村落推荐名单) worthy of visiting. In addition, descriptions I read of Dehang contributed to put it on my list. I realised that what I read about this village was too good to be true. In fact, Dehang is one of the most expensive villages in southwest China.
Here is my review of what you get for this price.
Finding (good) reasons to go
I cam to the conclusion that there are two main reasons to visit Dehang:
- You did not (and are not planning) to go to the ‘avatar-looking’ natural park of Zhangjiajie (张家界) also located in this part of Hunan known in Chinese as Xiangxi (湘西).
- You decided to skip the über-commercial town of Fenghuang (凤凰) and any other ethnic village in Hunan and even China.
The reality of Dehang
Some people think that if fairies existed, they would live in Dehang. Unfortunately, development of mass-tourism and commodification of local ethnic groups’ customs are taking their toll on this small Miao village of western Hunan province in southwest China.
There is a 100 RMB entrance fee to enter the village which lower part has been transformed into a small open-air where locals sell trinkets and other industrially “hand-made” stuff. So, if fairies did exist one day in Dehang, they have been replaced by money-hungry dwarfs.
The daily performances that take place in a round wooden arena at then entrance of the village are somehow interesting, but, and this is my personal opinion, they represent a commodification of ethnic groups customs. I admit, it’s great to see Miao women and men in traditional dress performing in front of an audience, but their songs and dances appeared out of context.
I arrived early morning from Jishou (吉首) in mid-March 2014 during the low-season. After watching the performance, I visited the village (which is really tiny). I notice that concrete was being poured on the river banks so as to make some kind of boardwalk along the small stream.
The only escape from Dehang was either a walk to the waterfall in the middle of the karst peaks (so as to make the 100 RMB entrance fee worth) or leave. However, if you go in fall, winter and early spring (like I did), you won’t see any waterfall because it’s the dry season.
Stop before the gates
With its old stone stairs, the village of Aizhai (矮寨) which is located at the bottom of the valley, right underneath the impressive highway bridge offers an interesting alternative to Dehang.
Both villages are very small and offer a stark contrast: Aizhai is untouched by tourism and people will invite you for a cup of tea whereas Dehang was transformed to meet the demands of mass-tourism and locals in traditional costumes ask you 10 RMB to take a picture of them 88 domino.
As a first time traveller and if you have time, Dehang is an interesting option. However, with a 100 RMB entrance fee, Dehang is one of the most expensive villages in southwest China. In addition, the price barely makes it for the performances (if you arrive on time), the amount of concrete poured and renovations that are taking place in the village. The hike to the waterfall (in summer only) barely justify the 100 RMB.
The landscape of Dehang was privatised, but after talking to a few villagers, none of the locals benefit from this privatisation.
While I had mixed feelings about Fenghuang (凤凰), I simply wished that I had skipped Dehang. I would have saved 100 RMB.