Hunan Hijinks

The land of spice and birthplace of Mao Zedong: our neighboring landlocked province Hunan certainly has a few hot-spots worth visiting. Alix headed north-east before making his way through the region.

The small city Yueyang is located near the lake of Dongting from where Hunan gets its namesake. Having speared upwards through the capital of Changsha on the bullet train, I made it my prerogative to work my way southwards via the scenic route when business was done. I was fortunate enough to meet with a colleague already there whom had pre-arranged to give me a short tour of his province.

Of all Hunan’s history, one event stands out above all others that would shape China into what it has become today; the communist uprising in 1927 led by Mao Zedong. Operating with a guerilla army for some years, the troops began “the long march” north to bases in Shaanxi province during the mid-1930s, before the second world war would put inner political turmoil on hold. After the war, the communists resurged and forced the KMT nationalists to retreat southwards to Taiwan, until eventually seizing total control when Mao became the founding father of the PRC in 1949.

“Grandpa Mao” as he would later go on to be commonly known as, would eventually go on to rule China until his death in 1976, before being immortalized by his portrait and body preserved in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Having been and seen him in Beijing, I would have liked to have visited his ancestral home in Shaoshan, just north of Changsha, but alas my route back would take me directly west to the scenic city of Zhangjiajie. The UNESCO site and part of the Wulingyuan historic interest area truly is a spectacle like no other.

There is evidence that people were there around 10,000 years ago from pottery discovered and its majestic forest landscape was used in several scenes from the movie Avatar for its distinctive rock formations. It also possesses one of the world’s longest glass bridges, which given my vertigo, I declined to try. From there it was a lengthy drive down the west border to Fenghuang town. Named after the mythical phoenix, I was intrigued to see this ancient preserved walled city. With a shallow river running right through the center, the place was utterly buzzing with people. The area truly came alive at night when all the LEDs came on, accentuating the contours of the traditional buildings in the way only China seems to be able to do.

I must admit, I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to spicy food and had tried my best to avoid it as much as possible until this point, but it was inevitable, as my colleague seemingly reveled in ordering the hottest things he could find. “Xiang cuisine” as it is also known, is one of the eight traditional cuisines of China and I have to say I particularly enjoyed “Mao’s braised pork” and “beer duck.” The steamed fish head smothered in chili was pushing it a bit and I completely drew the line at the stinky tofu. Surviving the onslaught, I took a hop, skip and jump across the river stepping stones for a final little glimpse around the preserved buildings, before getting some much-needed rest for the day ahead.

A rustic log cabin halfway up a mountain was my abode for the night and the panorama that unfolded beneath me to the river and paddy fields below was simply breathtaking!

The next day involved skirting further down south for a well-deserved pitstop in my colleague’s hometown of Huaihua. These are the kinds of places where I feel I truly experience China. A rustic log cabin halfway up a mountain was my abode for the night and the panorama that unfolded beneath me to the river and paddy fields below was simply breathtaking! A delicious dinner consisting of wild boar and freshly caught fish from the river greeted us, after which I took a late-night amble. I always feel a sense of rejuvenation when out in the sticks. With being in one city or another for so long, it really felt good for the soul; so dark, so tranquil, without distraction to affect the mind and I found myself lost gazing at the stars in the clearly defined milky way above. The night gave way to an early start with a final gulp of fresh mountain air, before I was back on the long road to the home I now call Dongguan.

It is hard for me to advise fellow travelers of what to do in Hunan, as this trip was unique in the sense I basically had my own tour guide with a vehicle. That said, it is just a couple of hours away on the high-speed train, with a variety of different experiences to be had on a reasonable budget. Highly recommended.