Off China's Beaten Tourist Track

Issue 103

By Stuart Forster

Travel has the potential to both impress and help us reevaluate our understanding of the world. Spending six nights in China’s Hunan province made me realise how little I knew about the dynamic country that supplies most of the items I buy from Amazon and discover it offers much for travellers beyond Beijing’s Forbidden City.

At the turn of the year, finding Changsha on a map would have been beyond me. Hunan is in China’s southeast and, as I discovered during a six-day group tour, its provincial capital is home to more than 10 million people.

Mao Zedong, China’s leader from 1949 until his death in 1976, studied in Changsha. In 1925 he wrote the poem Changsha, which mentions standing alone on Orange Island looking at surrounding hills. Stretching for 3.7 miles in the Xiang River, the world’s longest inland river island bears a monumental sculpture of Mao which is illuminated at night.

A river cruise, which set sail from the island shortly after nightfall, proved a way of appreciating illuminated waterfront buildings. Impressively, LED lighting on high-rise facades was programmed to display colourful animations, including a cartoon train speeding along the riverside.

Accommodation in a stylish room on the 47th floor of the Meixi Lake Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Changsha, provided fine views of the surrounding area. Following an overnight flight to China, I woke at 5.30 am and decided on a pre-breakfast stroll to view and photograph the neighbouring culture and arts centre. Spaceship-like, the vast building was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and completed in 2019.

On the plaza in front of the arts centre, a group of tai chi enthusiasts began their morning ritual. They approved my non-verbal request to photograph and indicated I should join them. Doing so provided a gentle yet surprisingly thorough workout.

International breakfast options were available in my hotel but I decided to try local delicacies. After slurping a bowl of rice noodles topped with stir-fried pork and chilli, I gingerly tried a slice of the blackened dish known as ‘stinky tofu’. Surprisingly pleasant to eat – given a name that no international marketing agency would bestow today – I added a couple more pieces onto my plate.

That fuelled a visit to the Hunan Museum, which houses a Chinese archaeological find eclipsed only by the discovery of the Terracotta Army in Xian. Our guide explained that we would see the mummified remains of Lady Dai. Discovered during the construction of a hospital near Changsha, the contents of her and neighbouring tombs provide a wealth of insights into life more than 2,000 years ago.

We travelled to Zhangjiajie, approximately 200 miles northwest of the provincial capital, by bullet train. Displays within the cabin stated that we were speeding above paddy fields in excess of 240km/h (150mph). Zhangjiajie is the gateway to the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, whose pillar-like rocks and dense forestation provided film director James Cameron with inspiration for the scenery in Avatar.

Travelling as part of a tour group with priority access to the Bailong Elevator, a cliffside glassfronted lift that runs for 326 metres (almost 1,070ft), meant avoiding queuing for more than two hours. Any tinge of guilt evaporated on viewing the rugged landscape from scenic lookouts.

The area is also home to the world’s highest glass bridge. I was pleased simply to nervously shuffle across while gawping at Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon 260 metres (853ft) below. Four of my travelling companions enjoyed the buzz of bungee jumping.

Riding China’s longest cable car the 30 minutes towards Tianmen Shan, whose name means Heaven’s Gate Mountain in English, how could any traveller feel anything other than blessed while appreciating the region’s remarkable natural beauty?

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