Hunan “湖南” is located in central-southern China, south of Dongting Lake (China’s second largest freshwater lake). In fact, the name Hunan, which literally means “south of the lake”, comes from its geographic location. To the south, east, and west Hunan is surrounded by mountains and to the north by the Yangtze River.
It has a population of about 65 millions, grouped in 41 different ethnic groups (the most representative ethnic minorities are the Miao and the Tujia).
Throughout history, the region’s economy has been centered on agriculture (mainly rice, tea, and oranges). At the political level, Hunan remained fairly stable until 1927, during the uprisings of the then emerging communist movement led by Mao Tse-Tung, a native of the area. As the birthplace of China’s most acclaimed modern leader, Hunan has continuously supported the revolution. In fact, various places still display traces of propaganda graffiti drawn on the walls of its buildings (the ancient city of Fenghuang preserves several of them).
Hunan is known in the rest of the country for its spicy food, indeed one of my favorite ever, but locals are mostly proud of its status as Mao Zedong’s birthplace and as the cradle of the Chinese Communist Revolution.
Nature in Hunan is truly spectacular and is one of the reasons why I decided to visit this province.
Here is my Hunan itinerary and travel guide:
The scenic area of Wulingyuan-Zhangjiajie 武陵源 – 张家界 is the flagship of Hunan tourist sites. UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, it is internationally known as the place which inspired James Cameron for the creation of the Avatar characters.
Where to sleep in Wulingyuan:
The best place to find a hotel is near the park entrance. Personally, I stayed in Wulingyuan. My hotel was a two-minute walk from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, near the Wulingyuan ticket station.
If you want to visit the whole park, I recommend that you spend at least 2-3 days in the area.
Bring comfortable clothes and trekking shoes as you’ll walk a lot inside the park.
Bring also a jacket because at night it can get cold.
How to get there:
I flew to Zhangjiajie from Shanghai and then took a cab to Wulingyuan (there are also buses running from the airport to Wulingyuan). However, you can also reach Zhangjiajie by train; just do not forget to book your ticket in advance as train tickets to Zhangjiajie sell out quickly.
Visit Tianmen Mountain and the Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge
These two attractions are a must-see in Hunan and they are both not too far from Zhangjiajie Park.
Tianmen Mountain, which literally means “Heavenly Gate Mountain”, is located within Tianmen Mountain National Park in Zhangjiajie.
You can reach Tianmen Mountain two ways, by bus or by cable car. I opted for the latter (the climb is quite fast, just over 15 minutes). For tickets, go early because this attraction is quite popular among Chinese tourists.
Once at the top, the trail unwinds into a ring-shaped loop; if you follow the path to the left, you will get to the chairlift used to descend to the top the famous 999-step staircase leading to Tianmen Cave, literally a natural hole in the mountain. I actually did take the steps back down to the parking lot; once there, you can take a bus all the way to the bottom.
Do not forget to stop at the mountain temple: alone it is worth the trip. From the outside, it is not very impressive but once you enter, you will find a serene and peaceful oasis and, with a little bit of luck, you will be able to actually enjoy it in complete solitude! In fact, I never understood why the Chinese ignore this wonder! Better this way anyhow.
The Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge extends above the Wulingyuan area. The bridge, which was built as a tourist attraction, has a transparent glass bottom. When it opened to the public on August 20, 2016, it became the longest and tallest glass-bottom bridge in the world. It measures 430 meters in total length and 6 meters in width, and is suspended about 260 meters above the ground.
Adrenaline lovers will soon be able to bungee jump from the world’s highest glass bridge. In fact while I was there, I saw some bungee jumping experts trying themselves. Needless to say, that was super exciting and I dreamed of doing it as well. Unfortunately it wasn’t open to the public!
Fenghuang 凤凰, which literally means “Phoenix”, is a small town located on the western border of the Hunan province. The ancient city, dating back more than 1,300 years, is very well preserved and retains the charm of the Chinese imperial era. The narrow streets, where horse dealers once used to conduct their business, are now the meeting point of the Miao and Tujia ethnic groups.
Shaoshan (韶山) is a small town south of Changsha (the capital of Hunan). I decided to put this city in my “Hunan Itinerary and Travel Guide” because, since Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, was born and lived here for some time, Shaoshan has become a place of worship and pilgrimage for the Chinese people.
In fact, it is an essential part of the so-called “red itinerary” of tourism, an initiative promoted by the Chinese government that, starting in 2005, has been encouraging its people to visit places historically linked to communism in China. This important initiative fulfills the dual purpose of revitalizing the weakening feeling of class struggle among Chinese citizens and of promoting the economy of the local areas, most of them with fewer resources than the richer provinces located on the eastern coast.
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