Three peaks and just over a week into our Chinese hiking trip this summer, our energy levels were getting low, plus there was a definite need to slow down and relax for a day or two. According to the original plan, the next destination was Wuhan, in transit to Mount Wudang. Now Wuhan must be one of the least relaxed, least relaxing destinations in China, if not on the planet, so we suddenly had an urgent need to revise our plans or run the very real risk of driving each other crazy.
For all the adjectives that immediately spring to mind when discussing China, ‘relaxing’ isn’t one that comes up often, so leaving Zhangjiajie after an intense two-days’ hiking, it was pure luck that the enchanted Miao minority settlement of Dehang (得夯) was just a few hours away by bus.
There are an amazing fifty-five officially recognized groups of non-Han people living in China, and although they now live in tiny pockets or ‘islands’ scattered over a wide area, surrounded by huge areas by the majority Chinese population, it seems they’re allowed to adhere to at least some of their cultural traditions, if only because of the popular tourist draw they seem to have become in recent years. Wish they’d do the same in Tibet….
One of the largest groups is the Miao (苗), numbering around nine million, scattered around a wide area of southern China. The village of Dehang is set in breathtaking scenery in the far west of Hunan Province, just 3-4 hours (travelling time) from the incredible stone pillars of Zhangjiajie by bus, although the journey takes the whole morning or afternoon, including waits for connecting buses. I was glad we visited when we did, as the place is changing; it’s already becoming quite touristy during the day, and there’s quite a bit of new development getting underway , although so far this seems to be low-rise and designed to blend in with the wonderful traditional Miao architecture.
Dehang is changing, but so far it remains one of the most peaceful, relaxing places I’ve stayed in during all my China travels – it’s infinitely quieter and far lovelier even than China’s archetypal travellers’ hangout, Yangshuo in Guanxi Province.
During the daytime we got out of the village, leaving the locals to tend souvenir stores and eateries for the tourists, or take part in Miao Dance performances in the specially built performance area (thankfully grouped, along with most of the tourist resources, at the entrance to the village, away from its beautiful center, huddled beside a stream and a wonderful hump-backed bridge). By evening, the tour groups have all left, leaving just us and one or two other tourists staying in town (all foreigners). At this time of day the Miao get back to their real lives, sitting on their distinctive low Miao stools and chatting to friends, gathering water from the spring beside the arched stone bridge at the center of the settlement, or carrying great bundles of firewood home, wrapped in a cloth and hauled on the back. It’s magnificently soporific, almost film-set picturesque, and utterly relaxing.
Dehang is all about relaxation and a break from the sheer intensity of China travel, but it’s also about hiking! Although there’s nothing very challenging to do in the area, there are five excellent hikes (or rather three excellent ones and another two worth doing if there’s time) around the village and its extraordinary karst setting, beside a wide stream in a deep gorge surrounded by towering limestone pillars and pinnacles.
The most renowned walk is the 2-hour return walk (level almost all the way, so there’s no excuse to miss it!) to what’s described as China’s highest waterfall, the 216 meter-high Liusha Waterfall (流沙瀑布). Whether it’s actually the highest waterfall in the country is open to question: the amazing Big Dragon Pool Waterfall in the fabulous Yandang Shan Scenic Area in Zhejiang Province (I mentioned in another blog, here, near the bottom) is of similar height, and arguably more impressive.
On the way a tributary stream on the right is a great short adventure, and off the main tourist trail since it’s hot work and a bit precarious in places. You have to pay a few RMB to the man at the entrance, since he carved the trails and steps out of the rock, made the tiny bridges and ladders that give access upstream, and a few moments after a fine small waterfall plunges into a deep little pool. Steps climb round the side of the cliffs to the top of the waterfall, past a series of small cascades to the wonderful Water Curtain Cave (水簾洞) at the top, pouring over a thick tufa dam behind which is a large, shallow cavern. A rickety ladder ascends beside the waterfall, and at the top footholds cut into the extremely steep cliff climb up to further waterfalls and a cave (apparently) further up. The ladder itself is OK, but the footholds at the top are extremely precarious, and even the promise of further waterfalls above weren’t enough to make me risk life and limb (it’s quite simply dangerous) and climb more than half way up the terrifyingly exposed, slippery footholds.
For a slightly bigger workout, try the 2-3 hour return hike (like all the routes at Dehang, a there-and-back walk) to the beautiful viewpoint at Tienwen Platform (天問台). Starting, like the hike to the Liusha Waterfall, with a flat walk along a stream below the amazing limestone formations that line either side of the gorge, the path is later squeezed into a narrow gorge, passes Dehang’s second big waterfall, the lofty and delicate Jade Belt Waterfall (玉帶瀑布). The trail now climbs stiffly for about 15 minutes to reach the platform itself, a tall, flat-topped, roughly circular pillar of rock commanding a magnificent view over the gorge and the jagged peaks and formations towering over it. The trail climbs another 5 minutes or so to reach a parking area not far from a road, but it’s worth climbing up here to get the ‘classic’ view of the Tianwen Platform, nestling in its remarkable, wild setting.
The third ‘compulsory’ hike for visitors to Dehang is simply to follow the river from the village downstream all the way (an hour at leisurely pace) to Xinzhai (新寨), the next village on the road to Jieshou City. Be sure to bring your entrance ticket for Dehang – yes, you have to pay (once) to enter the village – as the ticket box will want to check it when you return.
Take the trail that follows the irrigation channel parallel to the river, and the scenery – tall limestone crags, clear water, terraced fields of the deepest emerald-green crops, is exceptionally lovely. Halfway to Xinzhai, a tiny village of traditional wooden Miao houses climbs to the slopes above the river, which is crossed by a small covered bridge. As we passes, late in the afternoon as the sun set and the air was refreshingly cool, a pair of buffalo – a calf and her mum, were wallowing in the river next to the bridge – an unforgettably pastoral scene. Xinzhai is dominated by the suspension bridge that spans the great gorge several hundred meters above. The (newly completed) bridge is a great source of local pride – it’s said to be the highest in eastern Asia or something similar – and you’ll almost certainly be offered a ride up to it at some point in your stay in Dehang. It’s no competition for the exceptional scenic beauty of the unspoilt gorge below though.
The fourth trail begins near the entrance to the village, and follows the Gorge of the Dexia Stream (得峽溪) for about 45 minutes through an attractive gorge to the rather bizarre Dehang Waterfalls, the waters of which emerge from holes (a couple of which look almost man-made) about two-thirds of the way down a huge vertical cliff. I went during a dry spell and all but one were completely dry; the remaining fall, just a trickle, had built up a tall tufa column, over which the water trickled, forming a pool at the foot of the cliff.
The fifth trail is a short and in places extremely steep little walk up steps starting at the hump-backed bridge in the center of the village, and climbing through the bamboo to the foot of the conspicuous limestone pinnacles above the village. It’s not worth the trouble though: it’s tortuously hot going in the height of summer, and there’s really nothing to be gained from going up there except perhaps sunstroke.
So there you go: there’s a lot to do in Dehang, and it can be as relaxing or as active as you want. We spent two days and three nights in this marvellous little hideaway, and could easily have spent an extra day or two if more challenging hikes didn’t beckon. One thing’s for sure though – I’ll be back if I’m ever in Hunan again!
Dehang is easily accessible from Zhangjiajie and elsewhere in Hunan via the city of Jishou (吉首). Minibuses from outside the station regularly make the trip (45 minutes or so) to Dehang, until about 6 pm. Once at Dehang, ignore the hotels on the main square, walk ahead to the stream, turn right and walk up beside the stream to the hump-backed stone bridge, the heart of the village, which has several very atmospheric places to stay – pretty basic but cheap and really nice.