Mighty mountain ranges rising out of the mists, a spicy local cuisine that’s out of this world and smiling faces wherever I turned, a week exploring Hunan province proved a wonderful introduction to China, the land where my father was born.
An invitation to China
Last month a long-held dream of mine came true. I travelled to the country where my father was born, some ninety years ago almost to the day. He lived with my grandparents in China until he was nine years old when war forced them to return to England in 1938.
As a little girl, I loved listening to my Grandmother’s stories about their life in Shanghai. Her house was full of ornaments and furniture with scenes from this exotic land carved in wood, painted on plates and inlaid in vases. They fuelled my wanderlust and ever since I’ve felt a connection with China and longed to see it for myself.
You can imagine my delight when I was invited to attend the Hunan International Culture and Tourism Festival, as part of a one-week trip exploring this inland province. While I wouldn’t have the chance to visit Shanghai, where my grandparents and father lived, I was over the moon to be visiting at all.
A little research told me that Hunan was the homeland of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China which celebrates its 70th birthday this month. Hunan cuisine is reputedly one of the best in China, and one of its mountainous parks is said to be the inspiration behind the floating pillars of Pandora from the film Avatar. To say I was excited falls short of reality.
As my day of departure grew nearer, my excitement grew. I didn’t have much time to organise my visa, and for a while, my visit seemed in doubt. But, with just a couple of days to spare, everything fell into place. As I checked in at Heathrow Airport for my flight to Changsha, my emotions got the better of me, and I felt a little tearful. Finally, after over fifty years of waiting, I was on my way to China!
My overnight flight with Hainan Airlines went smoothly. I’d be happy to fly with them again; the crew were excellent. As we came into land, I noticed how green China is, with woodlands interspersed with yellow-green rice paddies. Immigration took a little while, but soon enough we were on a super sleek bullet train on our way to Yizhang in the far south of the province, the setting for the festival’s opening ceremony.
The 2019 Hunan International Culture and Tourism Festival Opening Ceremony
On a beautiful sunny day, under a clear blue sky, we sat in the village of Yong’an with delegates from around the world.
What a show they put on! Dancers and singers in beautiful, colourful costumes entertained us while a young lady drifted up into the sky, hovering above the stage scattering petals into the air! In between the entertainment, we heard about the dreams and aspirations for Hunan as a thriving tourist destination.
To clarify, this isn’t a festival for tourists; it’s a trade festival. I was tagging along with a couple of other travel writers with a group of businesspeople here to foster relationships with Hunan.
A magnificent welcome to China, wouldn’t you agree?
Highlights of Hunan Province, China
Having had one of the most fascinating weeks of my life, I’m eager to share with you my first impressions of this vast country, the oldest civilisation in the world.
Yizhang’s wild beauty and the Mangshan National Forest Park
After the ceremony, we explored the forest trails of Mangshan National Forest Park. Covering 6,000 hectares, this ancient subtropical forest is home to animals such as sika deer, pythons and the elusive Asian golden cat, not to mention over 1,700 species of plants.
The scenery is stunning, and I had my first taste of feeling like a minor celebrity! I had heard that some people visiting the park may rarely have, if ever, seen a westerner in person before and that I may be asked to pose for photos. I was, and I loved it. It was an excellent opportunity to talk to people even when we didn’t speak each other’s languages. I didn’t even mind when I caught people photographing or videoing me surreptitiously. I flashed them a big smile and waved, sometimes calling out “Nǐ hǎo!” (hello). When we travel, we are ambassadors for our own country, after all.
The city of Changsha
Founded over 3,000 years ago, which is quite young in Chinese terms, Changsha is now the largest and most populous city in Hunan. Mao Zedong studied here as a young man and a vast sculpture of him in his youth can be found in the park on Orange Island.
We also visited the Yuelu Academy, one of the four most important academies in China, dating back to 976. And we tucked into fabulous street food along Taiping Street and saw a spectacular laser, fountain and illuminated drone display. There will be more on Changsha in a future post.
Above and below: The fabulous street food of Changsha from tentacles on skewers to stinky tofu with chilli, ginger and parsley — it’s delicious!
Mao Zedong’s home in the village of Shaoshan
Near Xiangtan, we visited Mao Zedong’s birthplace and childhood home in the farming village of Shaoshan, now a place of pilgrimage with thousands visiting every day. Nearby the Shaoshan Mao Zedong Memorial Museum is full of artefacts from Mao’s life.
And there’s one dish above all others that you must try when visiting Hunan, Chairman Mao’s Red-braised Pork — it was his favourite thing to eat.
Find a hotel in Shaoshan via Booking.com
The gardens of Xiangtan
In Xiangtan, we explored the beautiful Paragon Gardens. With numerous gardens, each one dedicated to a different plant or flower including orchids, roses, bonsai trees and more, this must be a garden lover’s delight! What’s more, there a theme park here, as well as shops and restaurants and some lovely accommodation options.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and Tianmen Mountain
In the nature reserves of Zhangjiajie, thousands of soaring sandstone pinnacles reach up into the sky. Below them winding waterways flow. These are home to a curious newt, the endangered Chinese Giant Salamander. At up to a metre and a half long making it’s the largest amphibian in the world. While we didn’t see any newts, the spectacular mountain scenery took our breath away. I could easily imagine myself on the planet of Pandora!
Above: The pinnacles of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park are said to have inspired the floating mountains of Pandora in the film Avatar.
Below: Red is a symbol of good luck in China and tying a wish written on a red ribbon to a tree, such as those found on Tianmen Mountain, will make the wish come true.
In an impressive open-air theatre at the foot of Tianmen Mountain, the Tianmen Fox Fairy Show, just a short drive from our hotel in Zhangjiajie, is a spectacular musical extravaganza.
Where to stay in Hunan
We stayed in three different hotels during our visit. All the rooms were extremely spacious, and the bathrooms included a bath as well as a powerful shower, hairdryers and an excellent range of toiletries including toothbrushes and razors. Tea and coffee making facilities were also provided. Each of the three hotels also laid on an excellent breakfast spread with a great variety of dishes to choose from.
Book the Changsha Huatian Hotel via Agoda
Huatian Hotel, Zhangjiajie
Hollyear Hotel, Yizhang
My favourite of the three was the Hollyear Hotel, a smart modern hotel in the centre of Yizhang. My room was spacious and elegant, with an impressive selection of fruit and cakes awaiting me. The staff were lovely and, of course, always greeted me with a smile. Frustratingly they don’t seem to have a website or be on any hotel booking sites. Do shout if you know otherwise, please and I’ll update the post.
The bathroom was modern and clean with a fabulous walk-in shower as well as a large bath, and plenty of fluffy white towels.
In the morning, there was a fantastic choice of dishes for breakfast. While the roast chicken which included a chicken’s head didn’t particularly appeal, a couple of fried eggs with some local noodles hit the spot. I was a little surprised to see red wine served at breakfast, but it was very welcome when we tucked into the tasty buffet dinner that evening. But I’m saving the details of the fabulous food I discovered in Hunan for another day. Watch this space; just make sure you’re not hungry next time you pop by ‘Travel With Kat’.
Map of Hunan
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