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5 highlights of Hunan Province in China

Hunan, a province located in central China is a brazen mix of opposites, old and new, clatter and calm, traditional and trendy. It is a region of mountains, rivers, lakes and urban areas. China’s most revered leader Chairman Mao was born here. The peaks of Zhangjiajie National Park provided an excellent setting for the film Avatar. In particular, the striking pillar, now known as Hallelujah Mountain, represented the floating mountains in this popular film. Changsha, its capital city, lies on the banks of the Xiang River, the largest river in this province. Many aspects of this lively province come together along Pozi Street in Changsha.

Walk along Pozi Street in Changsha

Pozi Street is a fusion of traditional China and trendy China. Walking along this street visitors can pass under a massive LED screen leading to a modern shopping mall in one direction. Or stroll pass typical Chinese architecture and into the busy courtyard in front of the ancient Fire Temple now occupied by the Fire Temple Restaurant. Dance groups entertain with cultural displays in this area.

The entire length of this street is peppered with small stalls laden with delicacies enjoyed by the local population including the cooked, flattened carcases of ducks a popular local delicacy. Branching off the main thoroughfare a shabby alley hung with red Chinese lanterns leads into a traditional Chinese food market. On display here are skewers of every insect imaginable from large scorpions to small mealy worms. If bugs are not appealing there is also a huge variety of skewered fresh vegetables including local favourites like sliced lotus root and baby Asian cucumbers.

Cruise along the Xiang River in Changsha

Changsha is the capital of the Hunan province in China sprawling along the banks of the Xiang River, sometimes referred to as the Xiangjiang River. This modern city has a skyline spiked with skyscraping buildings and hotels including the Meixi Lake Hotel that boasts fifty floors. At night the buildings along the river bank light up. Bright, constantly changing colours flow across these steeples of windows. Illuminated boats and the dark shadows of working boats travel up and down the watery expanse passing through the reflections of the multi-hued buildings beside them.

This cruise goes around Orange Island, a long, narrow island famous for producing good quality oranges. It is also renowned for the huge sculpted head of Chairman Mao Zedong as a young man. The shoulders of this statue are large enough to incorporate an exhibition centre beneath them.

Explore the Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie

Catch the high-speed bullet train from Changsha to Zhangjiajie to enjoy the spectacular scenery that surrounds the town including the Tianmen Mountain is part of the Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park, one of two national parks here. This huge, natural playground offers a day of entertainment starting with an ascent to its peak in the longest cable car in the world.

Walkways from the top of this mountain lead to the start of the glass walkway. It juts out from a sheer cliff face, nearly 1500 metres above the valley below. Prior to stepping on to the glass panes that offer wonderful views of the scenery below, visitors have to cover their shoes with the cloth slip-ons provided to protect the glass. This sturdy construction is a thrilling way to enjoy the spectacular scenery surrounding the Tianmen Mountain.

After navigating the glass walkway another series of footpaths lead to the plank road, a wooden walkway suspended on giant pillars skirting the cliff face. Walkers on the plank have a clear view of the Tianmen Academy. This building, on the holy site of the mountain, was constructed in 1352 to replace the original academy that was built in 1303.

The Heaven-Linking Avenue with 99 acute turns symbolizing the nine palaces of Heaven snakes across the valley below. Its zigzag turns are impressive and offer an alternative route to ascend the Tianmen mountain using the park’s shuttle bus service. But finally, all paths lead to the Tianmen Cave. But an easier alternative is a series of twelve escalators. At the bottom of the seventh escalator visitors can walk out on to the platform below the Heavenly Gate a large opening in the Tianmen Mountain. There are two alternative methods to descend to the square below – a steep stone staircase of 999 steps or the last five escalators.

Watch the Mount Tianmen Fox Fairy Show in Zhangjiajie

This gripping spectacular takes place in the foothills of the Tianmen Mountain in a huge set cleverly incorporating the natural elements of the area. The show re-enacts the legend surrounding the love of the Fox Fairy, a white vixen with 9 tails, for the local wood cutter. Although she is already betrothed to the Fox King, for a wood cutter she finds her true love when they meet by chance. It is a complicated tale but the audience are kept informed through comments on illuminated information boards. The strange translations are all part of the fun.

More impressive than the legend is the Tianmen Fox Fairy Grand Theatre itself. This natural stage features ancient trees and the rocky bed of the canyon in which it is situated. It is divided into two sections. On the left side a cluster of wooden stilted Tujia houses form a village that represents the human world. One of the houses moves centre stage when this world meets the fantasy kingdom of foxes based on the stones and caves to the left of this vast stage. The large cast includes a choir in traditional dress that provides some background singing as the story unfolds. An evening of entertainment not to be missed.

Junsheng Sandstone Painting Gallery features the work of local artist Li Junsheng and his students. Junsheng is the founder of the sandstone painting technique. He takes his inspiration from the landscapes surrounding Zhangjiajie where the gallery is based. He also uses the natural materials found in this area including sand, pebbles and plants to create works of art that closely resemble traditional Chinese art. On four levels, the ground floor is dedicated to the work of Junsheng and it is only by stepping closely to the pictures that it is possible to appreciate the intricacy of these 3D works of art. In this space there is also an impressive display of the colours he has developed from natural materials and a central feature created from the raw materials he incorporates in his pictures.

English speaking curators are on duty to explain the development of sandstone painting also referred to as “green painting” and “environmental painting”. Only they can open the heavy wooden doors that protect an exquisite scene representing the artist’s home town. Li Junsheng came from a poor family but managed to save enough money to attend the fine art school in Changsha. His desire to create art from natural materials was inspired by coloured stone decorations on the walls of houses to paint with coloured sand and stone. The popularity of these paintings inspired him to continue developing this technique, moving on from landscapes to portraits and abstract art. His techniques are taught at the Junsheng Art Academy and the Sandstone Painting Gallery opened in 2001. Visitors can take photos of the pictures displayed on the ground floor as a souvenir of their visit. Photography is not allowed on the upper floors but the art displayed here is for sale.

Getting there

Hainan Airlines operates direct flights to Changsha and there is a bullet train service from Changsha to Zhangjiajie. Wendy Wu Tours, the Asia specialists, incorporates the Hunan province in several of their wide range of tours to China.

Valery Collins

Valery started travelling nearly 30 years ago when, during a gap year, she discvoered the joys of travelling as a tour manager. Since then she has worked on copy for travel brochures, written 4 travel books, created her own website and written for 5 other travel websites. Her passion for travel covers all things related to travel from luxury safaris to sylish ski goggles.

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  1. Fascinating. Art is on we of my great loves and I’d never even heard of the sandstone painting technique.

  2. I’m surprised that we don’t see more of that picture of the Heaven-Linking Avenue it really is very spectacular. That must be one of the world’s most amazing walks.

  3. For me it was a very interesting read as I’ve never thought of China as a holiday destination and that’s mainly because I know so little about it. Thank you for enlightening me about Hunan Province. It would be nice to have some more coverage in A Luxury Travel Blog of Chinese regions so that I can build up a bigger picture of what I want to do in China when I finally get there.

    1. China is a country full of contrasts from the busy large cities like Beijing and Shanghai to the historic exhibition of the terracotta army in Xian and the natural beauty of Guillin. There are several highlights of China tours and in particular Wendy Wu, a specialist Asian tour operator offers a multitude of tours in China. Not cheap but includes everything.

    1. It does exactly that – the best of both worlds in one street. I could have wandered along that street for hours just watching and listening.

  4. I’ll miss out on the glass walk way if that’s alright. It terrifies me as I haven’t got a head for heights.

    1. Initially I felt the same way but the glass walkway is constructed of panes of glass with a solid edge so you can walk along the edge which is protected by a fence and enjoy the views beside you without looking down through the glass.

    1. That is exactly how I felt – can’t get my head around doing someting strictly forbidden as a toddler!

  5. There’s a part of me that knows it makes sense to try the insect skewers. I know that they are a source of protein with a low environmental impact. The trouble is that it would be a bold step going against everything I’ve ever thought about food.

  6. Hunan seems to be having something of a moment in the media limelight.

    This is the 3rd piece that I’ve read this week alone. They’ve all been very positive and tempting.

    1. Yes, there is often a flurry of articles about the same place as travel writers ‘discover’ a new destination. It was all positive from my point of view and I would love to go back and spend some more time there. It is a large regions with diverse attractions and a good infrstructure.

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