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Travel: to Hunan, with love

The south-central province of China blossoms with culture and tradition. It’s a journey no one should miss. And if you are a film buff – this is where a large portion of Avatar was shot!

brunch Updated: Jan 05, 2014 11:35 IST
Shreya Sethuraman
Shreya Sethuraman
Hindustan Times

You’re going to China? Wow! It’s such a beautiful country!” “Oh, finally you’ll eat some ‘actual’ Chinese food, and not the Chinjabi doled out in our country!”

I was met with these statements when I told family and friends that I was visiting China. The week-long trip was fascinating, refreshing and a lesson in the rich culture of our neighbour.

As part of the Hunan Tourism Festival, we visited this province, situated in the south-central part of China, and known for its spicy food, a notch above the famous Schezwan cuisine. Being a relatively unexplored area, the idea was to see places that you may not have chosen on a visit to China. Shanghai and Beijing continue to be the most popular. Hunan was a revelation,to me,and as I hope my diary shows, to you too.

Day One: Changsha – Steeped In History
Situated in the north-eastern part of Hunan, the capital city of Changsha had sultry weather the day we visited. But it did nothing to hamper the beautiful inaugural celebration of the Hunan Festival at Orange Island. This is where the revered Mao Zedong is said to have visited often in his youth.

One thing that I found quite striking on the hour-long journey from our hotel to Orange Island was the number of people cycling to work. I also spotted many people on mopeds. But no bikes anywhere in Hunan. None at all!

At the event, three beautifully choreographed dance performances represented a different age of China and how the country progressed over the years. We visited the spot where Mao Zedong used to meditate, and where he wrote the famous poem Changsha, an examination of man’s actions and his destiny. It’s a poem that the people of China know by heart. There’s also a mini rock structure featuring Zedong’s visage. Think Mount Rushmore, with just one face.

Changsha is often referred to as the ‘Happy City’. This is because young couples prefer to buy property here and it lends itself to a very casual environment.

Our morning ended sooner than I thought, and we had the afternoon to ourselves. But a trip to China can be tiring, so I chose to spend it sleeping! After an early dinner (well, early by Indian standards) at 6.30pm, we headed for a cultural event of lights, music and dance. By the time this ended, it was time to bid the happy city goodbye.

How to get there
1. There are daily flights to Shanghai from Delhi and Mumbai. From Delhi, it’s a roughly six-hour journey and from Mumbai the journey takes around seven hours.
2. From Shanghai, you need to take a connecting hour-long flight to Changsha.
3. If you wish to travel within Hunan, your best bet is to use the wide (pothole-free) roads.

Day Two: Phoenix Town – Old World Charm

Our next destination was Phoenix Old Town, a tiny place six hours away from Changsha and on the western boundary of Hunan. The place is known for its quaint markets where you can buy anything from iPad covers and wall hangings to adorable little Chinese dolls (sometimes mistaken for voodoo dolls!). Forget English, for all bargaining purposes, use your fingers and use the same formula when you bargain in India: drop prices by half! Don’t forget to taste the widely available ginger candy made by pounding sugar and ginger into a gooey mass. It’s dried and cut into bite-sized pieces and is simply delicious. If you like, the karaoke bars are worth a visit too. Do try the local beer. It’s extremely light and one of the best beers I’ve ever had. And if you’re experimental, take a shot of the rice wine. It looks like water, but is extremely potent (some wines have almost 40 per cent alcohol content) and has an awful, awful taste.

Next morning, we visited the marketplace again, to watch some magic tricks (including a man walking on a gigantic sword) and a play that depicted the traditions of the Miaos – the minority community that inhabits Phoenix Old Town. As a rule, girls are carried on the backs of their brothers to the wedding venue and must cry at their weddings!

Soon after, we went on a four-hour journey to our final destination – Zhangjiajie – a large city in the north-western part of Hunan.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is where much of the James Cameron film Avatar was shot

Days Three And Four: Zhangjiajie – Of Timeless LoveOur days in scenic Zhangjiajie (which dates its history of human settlement back to the Stone Age)were filled with visiting caves and mountains. We climbed 1,000 and sometimes even 2,000 steps that left us gasping for breath.

We went for a cultural performance the first evening, the Tianmen Fox Fairy Show. It was a timeless tale of love and longing. Staged at the foot of Tianmen Mountain, this has to be on everyone’s bucket list.

The next morning, we headed back to Tianmen Mountain, where we had to get into a cable car to reach the imposing top. Here, we had our first tryst with ‘globalisation’. McDonald’s opened here in early 2013 and their chicken burger was very different from the versions we’re served in India. And another thing: there wasn’t a single vegetarian burger on the menu. If you are vegetarian and happen to be hungry at 1,200 metres above sea level, well, tough!

This mountain is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, which explains why it was extremely crowded the day we visited. It’s home to a bronze statue of Marshal He Long, a revolutionary soldier instrumental in the destruction of the salt tax office in the 1920s.

After that, we went to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, where much of the James Cameron film Avatar (2009) was shot. The green landscapes are even more stunning in real life. And we didn’t even need 3D glasses to appreciate them. This tiring day ended with a relaxing and (well-deserved) foot massage back at the hotel.

Mao Zedong visited Orange Island in his youth

Day Five: 2,000 Steps To A Cave And 100 Steps To A Lake

Our fifth day was supposed to be longer with visits to a cave and a lake. Our first stop was the Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) cave, known for its many natural rock formations. This cave has four floors that make for a hike of over 2,000 steps. Climbing four floors can surely take the wind out of you, and the humidity inside is of no help at all. But the upside is that there are tiny lakes inside the caves, which you can cross in little boats.

Having worked up quite an appetite, we headed for lunch to a small restaurant – a local favourite. Now the meal here was supposed to be special, since you wouldn’t have got it anywhere else.

First up, huge glasses of green tea followed by a big bucket of sticky rice. One thing you’ll notice on a visit to China that the main meal plate is actually a side plate. This is mainly for vegetables or meat. The soup bowl is to be filled with rice and of course, chopsticks are your trustworthy companion. In front of us were placed woks of super spicy duck, succulent beef, stir-fried pork, steamed fish and boiled vegetables. Easily the best meal I had in China.

After this, we headed to the Baofeng Lake, just a hill climb and 100-odd steps away (or a palanquin, if you’re lazy). Veteran climbers now, we went on foot and took a boat ride around the stunning lake surrounded by mountains.

On that one round, we passed by three houseboats, where local girls and guys were standing and singing songs. The story goes that if a girl or boy sings a song for you and you like her or him in return, you’re supposed to return the favour by singing another song to them!

Day Six: Looking Through A Glass Floor
Our last day at this scenic city called for a visit to the Glass Plank Bridge of the Zhangjiajie Tianmen Mountain. And this was exhilarating! Our footwear safely encased in shoe covers (to protect the glass from scratches), we took on the 60-metre long bridge hanging 1,400 metres above the ground. Just the sight of the ravine beneath your feet is adventurous enough. But walking over glass adds a layer of adventure you can never quite be prepared for. For the brave, it’s an Indiana Jones moment. For others, it’s probably a good time for a prayer (though the reinforced glass walkway is perfectly safe).

We came away awed enough to disregard the 30-minute bus ride down a steep hill. It led us to the Heaven’s Gate Mountain, so called because the entrance looks like you’re in heaven! Of course, you need to climb 1,000 steps to seek divine ‘blessings’. But the view from atop is so beautiful, those 1,000 steps don’t matter! All of Zhangjiajie is visible. There were 65-year-old women and 80-year-old men climbing the 1,000 steps – enough for anyone to be inspired.
It was a wonderful end to a wonderful trip, to a land rich in culture, tradition and beauty. In a week there, I saw that it’s ordinary to see masses of people bicycle to work, it’s as easy or difficult to bargain for something you like, and it’s very easy to fall in love.

And don’t be surprised if young schoolgirls come to you requesting a photo. After all, “Indoos” (Indians) are a fascinating lot to them!

Text and photos by Shreya Sethuraman

The writer was on a week-long visit to Hunan at the invitation of the China National Tourist Office

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From HT Brunch, January 5

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First Published: Jan 03, 2014 19:20 IST