As a first timer to China, I was not only excited but also intrigued. I wanted to experience the (in)famous culture for myself, sample the cuisine and listen to their music. I wanted to explore every dank alleyway and every noisy bar. I wanted to see the real China, up close and personal. I was headed to Hunan, a central province famed for its spicy food and amazing natural wonders. It was provincial, just how I like it, and needless to say, as soon as I arrived, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Boarding a flight to Changsha from Chiang Mai International Airport with AirAsia is the best way to plunge yourself into the heart of China. Filled with Chinese nationals and a handful of Thais, mostly in their late 40s off on group tours the flight takes only three hours. Once we arrived, we were greeted by immigration and signs decorated with hammers and sickles – the first time I had seen them used in officially. It was oppressively refreshing.
A rosy cheeked guide introduced herself in impeccable Thai. I quickly realised that despite being someone who loves to travel on his own, a guide at my side was not only necessary but a welcome relief. The lack of English on even the most public of signs, such as bus stops and subways can most certainly cause problems for Chinese-illiterate travellers.
Changsha is huge; with over 7 million inhabitants, the city is well developed. The airport is almost as big as Suvarnabhumi, there is a sprawling underground system, bus and train links and cars and bikes darting both the right, and the wrong way over almost every road and highway. The stereotype was confirmed.
The organised chaos of this provincial metropolis was overwhelming but easy to get into the swing of. Ignominiously the birthplace of Chairman Mao Zedong’s philosophy, Changsha draws a lot of Mao lovers and history buffs. The Orange Island was where Mao first realised his communist dream, his musings solidified into what would become one of the greatest horrors of the 20th century, as he gazed over the Xiangjiang River. Now the island is adorned with beautiful gardens where tourists and locals alike walk, exercise, and enjoy the view — taking photos of the 38-metre high bust of a young, and still idealistic Mao, hair windswept and iconic mole still tiny in its infancy. Changsha is also home to a variety of other tourist attractions including the ancient Kaifu Temple that is over 1,000 years old and the Mawangdui — an archaeological site containing tombs from the Han Dynasty (206 BC — 9 AD), although most of the artefacts are now in the Hunan Provincial Museum which is free to visit. In true knock-off style, it is also home to the Window of the World theme park which has over 50 reproductions of some of the world’s most famous sights and attractions.
Lofty Zhangjiajie China is massive, so don’t be surprised by long bus journeys. Four hours away from Changsha is Zhangjiaje — a town found at the foot of one of the country’s most impressive and awe-inspiring natural wonders. Zhangjiajie National Park. This is when my adventure truly began. The mountains, jutting above the clouds, with sharp pinnacles, sheer cliff faces and pillar-like columns are awe inspiring. Tianmen Mountain looks over the city of Zhangjiajie, with the world famous Heaven’s Doorway, a 30 metre high hole or ‘doorway’ in the cliff face, which is clearly visible from the city below. At night it is lit up with glowing yellow lights, eerie and almost spiritual to behold. The cable car is the longest in the world, and has some of the most amazing views imaginable. Rocking not so gently in the wind, it slowly takes us up to height of over 1,400 metres at the summit, with vast drops below and gigantic peaks on either side. At the top, the temperature can drop by as much as 10 degrees, and the wind can be a little unnerving. Small pathways snake around the sheer cliffs, with nothing below for thousands of metres and a slim handrail at a mere waist height. The bustle of people and the constant chatter of vendors selling photos and ponchos is atmospheric but I couldn’t help but think that if there was some peace and quiet, with just the choir of whistling winds harmonising through the peaks and gaps of the mountain, it would have been even more breath taking. A glass walkway ends the perilous trip around the cliff edges, followed by an escalator ride down to the bottom of the Heaven’s Doorway. Once through, there is a bus you can take down the mountain road that has 99 turns with sheer drops on each side and, for us, a driver who drove a little too fast. But the most impressive views were yet to come. Just a bit further out of town is the Wulingyuan Scenic Area which is home to the newly-minted Avatar Hallelujah Mountains — gravity-defying towering pillars dwarfing the world around them, some reaching over 1,000 metres in height, yet at just 100 metres in width. As you can guess from the name, these were the very mountains that inspired parts of the planet in the film Avatar.
Most of the adventure happens on the top of these peaks, with roads and bridges spanning between two mountaintops and a network of paths crisscrossing the area that seem to defy logic. To get to the top of these peaks, board the Bailong Glass Elevator (the fastest elevator in the world, naturally), and follow a series of paths and bus connections to several key areas, each more awe-inspiring than the next. At one point, the clouds came in, and it felt as if we were floating in space, looking out at nothingness. On a clear day, it is even more overwhelming — with miles and miles of sheer peeks with vast empty space in-between. Some say that there is no other natural wonder so incredible. I think I may agree.
Although another long bus journey was in order to reach this town, along with horrendous toilet stops and bridges spanning two hills hundreds of metres high, wobbling perilously in the wind, I was glad to have made the journey.
This city, with its ancient architecture, bustling markets, incredible culture and people dressed in the local Hmong style traditional clothing, is the true China as seen in popular culture. Wailing singers with whitened faces float down rivers on boats singing a range of ancient love songs and locals getting down to business washing their clothes and their vegetables in the river. Although infected with tourists who flock out in their hundreds to shop the markets at night, the town still holds its charm.
Historical museums, tucked-away temples, dirty back alleys and ancient bridges, Fenghuang is a festival for the eyes, and even better for those who like the odd Instagram snap. At night, pretty lights spew from open windows, glitter from rooftops and glow from lanterns, smoke billows out from beneath pub doors, with wafts of aromatic heaven from some street vendors and rotting stench from the odd purveyor of the popular deep fried fermented tofu. In the early mornings, the town is quiet, picture perfect. Groups of locals Practicing Tai Chi, aerobics and other martial arts populate the squares and people get back to business, opening up shop and enjoying the fresh morning dew. Restaurants display wild animals such as rats, roosters, snakes and salamanders caught the day before, still alive in cages waiting to be chosen by the next hungry customer, while tourists, including me, get back onto a bus for a long drive to the nearest airport. Overall, China was phenomenal. Not once did I ever think I would have the chance to see remote, alien-like mountains, explore the alleys of small towns and experience the smells of once undiscovered — and hopefully never to be smelt again — street food. Sure, sometimes the people tested my expectations of the norm; babies pooping into rubbish bins and habitual queue jumping were common occurances, but that’s what makes China, well, China. In truth, our Chiang Mai based assumptions are more often than not, wrong. The amazing views, smells, experiences and the unique culture made this wonderful country a place I would most certainly choose to visit again. There is so much more left to say, but even if I had another ten pages [Ed. You don’t], it would not do it justice. For anyone yet to visit China, or even for those who have, make sure you get the chance to stand at the foot of vast mountain ranges and experience China’s provincial home — Hunan.