This article is a practical guide to traveling to the Hunan province. It contains a bit of history and general information on the region, the reasons why I think you should visit the Hunan province, as well as the most worthwhile places to include on your itinerary. I’ll tell you about my experience and the route that I took, as well as will give you some advice and recommendations for other alternative routes.
Basic information on the Hunan province
The Hunan “湖南” province is located in southern central China to the south of Dongting Lake (the second largest freshwater lake in China). That is where the name Hunan is derived from, literally meaning “to the south of the lake.” To the south, east, and west, it is surrounded by mountains, and to the north, it borders on the Yangtze River.
Despite the fact that the large majority of its territory is covered by mountain ranges as well as the fact that the entire province is only medium-sized, it will surprise you to learn that its population is around 65 million inhabitants, grouped into 41 different ethnic groups (with the Miao and Tujia being the most representative ethnic minorities).
Although a large number of these societies speak their own dialect, Xiang “湘” is common to them, which is a group of Chinese dialects that is broadly used in the province and some of the surrounding areas. The name Xiang is also used as an abbreviation for Hunan (for example, on car license plates) and originates from the river of the same name across the province.
Throughout its history, the region has based its economy on agriculture (rice, tea, and orange farming above all). On the political level, Hunan remained relatively stable until 1927, during the uprisings of the then emerging communist movement led by Mao, a native of the area. As the homeland of the most renowned modern leader in China, Hunan has continuously backed the revolution. In fact, in some neighborhoods, you can see the remains of propagandist graffiti written on the walls of alleyways (the ancient city of Fenghuang conserves some).
Propaganda graffiti in the ancient city of Fenghuang
Why visit Hunan
Hunan is famous in the rest of the country for its spicy food. Nonetheless, the locals are proud of it being the birthplace of Comrade Mao Zedong and the base of the country’s communist revolution. In my opinion, Hunan is one of the most beautiful provinces in all of China. Small towns with traditional architecture encrusted into green chains of mountains accented by fog turn the landscape into an ideal impression of rural China.
Despite being a necessary visit on the communism tourist route (the so-called “red route”), it’s definitely worthwhile to explore the area from a natural and cultural point of view. In this sense, I feel that the Chinese government has been successful in making the most of the resources in the region. With its strategic vision, it has improved transportation between key areas, has developed infrastructure, and has invested in the maintenance and promotion of the areas with the greatest tourism potential.
Nonetheless, Hunan is not as saturated by the construction sector as other provinces in China. This is mainly due to geographic limitations, considering that 80% of its surface area is occupied by mountains, rivers, and lakes. For this reason alone, I think it’s worthwhile to enjoy the natural wonders that it offers and to spend time with the locals, who are loyal representatives of their diverse cultural traditions.
However, what can be saddening for visitors is the visible exploitation of its exotic nature: charming towns sold wholesale to the cheap artisan goods trade and forced to dress in their traditional garments to give a music show in an improvised diner, and that’s not to mention the abusive prices for entry to certain places (not just for access to hiking routes or mountains but also to entire cities and towns).
Even so, after my experience of traveling through different regions in all of China, I can say that despite all this, Hunan doesn’t disappoint visitors. I assure you that you will be able to get a feel for the idiosyncrasy of rural life, although with a touch of modern Chinese reality.
It isn’t a typical international tourism destination, although it is a popular national destination. Therefore, most of all in high season (July, August, and national holidays), expect to find thousands and thousands of Chinese tourists hoarding around the most popular sites.
Men waiting for customers to transport on their palanquins
The most popular destinations in Hunan (how to get there, where to stay, and what to visit)
Hunan has various areas of interest to tourists. In this section, I’m going to talk about the most important ones as well as will give you practical information on lodging, transportation, and the price of tickets to these places.
The Wulingyuan-Zhangjiajie scenic area 武陵源-张家界 is the crown jewel of tourist sites in Hunan. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, it is internationally renowned for being the place that inspired James Cameron to set the backdrop to the characters in Avatar. In fact, the similarity of its quartzite crags with those in the movie is so striking that they have even placed statues of the movie’s main characters along some of the paths.
If you have visited other sites of this type in China (for example, Huangshan or the Yellow Mountain in Anhui, or Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan), you will see that the organization and structure of the area is very similar, and that the infrastructure constructed on top of the natural area is designed to get you as close as possible to the most beautiful views. In addition, they have made the extra effort to camouflage it to limit its contamination of the landscape while nonetheless always providing rather easy access.
Expect onslaughts of Chinese tourists running to get the best photo. Because of this, I recommend that you take care in choosing the places you’re going to visit. Figure out the number of days that you’re going to stay and organize your outings based on it. Although it’s possible to see the most interesting parts in just one day, the park has a lot more to offer. Remember that you benefit from the fact that the entry ticket includes a full week of visiting.
My recommendation is to spend two to three full days in the park. The best way to do this is to get up very early, because tons of Chinese tourists come to spend just one day, leaving from other destinations, and their transportation starts to arrive around 10:00-11:00 in the morning. Because of that, try to visit the most popular areas first thing in the morning so that you can avoid long lineups as well as being bowled over by packs of tourists.
Leave the least-visited areas (generally those farthest from the various entrances to the park) for the second half of the day. Use the buses that connect the different routes (tickets can be bought at the same box office at the entrance) and pay attention to the approximate duration of routes. This information appears on the park maps that you can obtain at your hotel.
During walks, you will find a handful of food vendors and souvenir stores. Even so, make sure you eat a good breakfast at your hotel or outside of the park, and take enough supplies, such as water, fruit, cookies, and dried fruits (or whatever you like), to eat during the day. The options in the park are expensive and poor quality. When you leave the park, you can get your energy back with a nice early dinner at one of the surrounding restaurants.
The price of entry (May 2016) was 245 Yuan (remember that it is valid for 7 days) and the bus ticket costs another 80 Yuan. In low season (from December to February), entrance to the park costs half-price (but not the bus).
If you want more information on how to get to Wulingyuan-Zhangjiajie and where to stay once you’re there, you can read this article. In it, you will also find recommendations on how to organize your excursions in the park.
Fenghuang 凤凰, literally “Phoenix,” is a small town in the western part of the Hunan province. It’s ancient city, which dates back more than 1,300 years, is well conserved and maintains the enchantment of Chinese imperial times. Its narrow alleyways, on which horseback vendors once circulated, are now a point of encounter for Miao and Tujia ethnicities.
The Tuo River crosses the city, still maintaining the vitality of the past. The indisputable star of the majority of the photos of Fenguhuang, it continues to receive washer women and fishermen during the day. A ramshackle series of houses suspended on large poles that delve into the river is in the foreground of the scene made up of bridges, gardens, pagodas, and towers (the majority of which are from the Ming and Qing dynasties).
Its backdrop is made up of the lush green mountains, which along with the morning fog, create this landscape that is so often represented in traditional Chinese paintings. In my opinion, it is well-deserving of being recognized as one of the most beautiful cities in China. Chinese mythology tells that two phoenixes took flight over Fenghuang and upon seeing that they had created such a beautiful city, soared over it eternally, unable to leave.
Although national tourism agencies sell it like a magnificent example of how cities were before the arrival of modernity, the reality is that this has become quite superficial. The majority of houses have turned into comfortable lodging with views of the river, or into restaurants, cafés, or bars with abusive prices. The locals take advantage of the long lines of tourists to offer typical photos, with the women dressed in traditional clothing and the men dressed as bandits.
Walking along the streets of Fenghuang also has a price. The ticket to enter the city is 180 Yuan. Box offices are camouflaged in bastions along the ancient wall, which you will have to find and go to if you don’t want to have to go through the hassle of being stopped on the street and discovered without a ticket.
The price includes a couple of days of free wandering along the streets of the ancient city as well as access to certain emblematic buildings, museums, and temples. Even so, I don’t recommend that you spend more than one or two days here, as you can see the most important things in one day and might get bored of the constant assault of tourist traps.
Where to stay
I stayed one night at the Rujia Hotel 如家客栈, a humble family hotel located in the far west of the ancient city of Fenghuang. For me, it’s an advantage that it’s not in the center of the action, as during the night, the noise from the people and music at the bars can interfere with your sleep. Its rooms are very basic and somewhat humid, but they are very clean and their decoration with a kitsch touch gives them a different feel. The staff only speaks Chinese and is very friendly.
If you prefer a more romantic option, you can look for a room at one of the house-hotels with river views. The Fenghuang West Inn has a lot of positive reviews and a good quality to price ratio.
To see more lodging options, click here.
How to get there
Even though the city of Fenghuang doesn’t have its own airport or train stations, it’s quite easy to get there. The closest airport, in the Tongren municipality (铜仁), is only 34 km away. The Jishou train station (吉首) is only 50 km away. Buses leave regularly from both places heading to Fenghuang.
Unless you have very little time, I don’t recommend taking a plane. There are very few connections and tickets are quite expensive. Nonetheless, Jishou is connected with other areas of the Hunan province as well as neighboring provinces. A bus from/to Jishou takes a little more than one hour and costs less than 20 Yuan.
Other, less frequent, buses link Fenghuang with Zhangjiajie (around 80 Yuan, 4.5-hour trip, 2 buses per day) or Changsha (150 Yuan, 8.5 hours, 2 buses per day).
Shaoshan (韶山) is a small town to the south of Changsha (长沙, the capital of Hunan). It is where Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China (the current China), was born and lived during certain parts of his life, therefore making it a place of homage and pilgrimage among Chinese people.
In fact, it is the must-see entryway to the so-called “red route” of tourism, an initiative of the Chinese government, which since 2005, has been encouraging Chinese nationals to visit places which are historically related to communism in China. This way, and for the purpose of rekindling their currently vague sense of class warfare, it is managing to drive the local economy of these places, the majority of which have less resources that other areas on the East Coast.
In Shaoshan, everything is oriented toward “red tourism.” The main attractions are:
The Mao Zedong Memorial Museum: This museum, which was built and opened in 1964, is the only museum in the country that systematically shows the entire life of Comrade Mao Zedong. The exposition combines the use of audiovisual technology with displays of relics and photographs from the time to praise the feats of Mao and his family in support of the communist revolution. It is free for everybody.
The bronze statue of Mao Zedong: Erected in a plaza, it was built to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the birth of Mao Zedong (1993). It is considered the heart of the cultural and tourist activity of Shaoshan as well as is a key place for remembering the leader.
The former house of Mao Zedong: Mao Zedong was born in the winter of 1893. He spent his childhood and teenage years in this house, the traditional house of a rural family in southern China. The complex is quite large. The east section contains the house where Mao’s family lived while the west section belonged to the neighbors, with whom they also shared the bathroom.
The house was destroyed in 1929 by the Kuomingtang (the party that controlled China before the establishment of the communist regime and which emigrated to Taiwan) and was then rebuilt in 1950 (one year following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China).
Water-Dripping Cave (Shanshan Di Shui Cave): During one of his visits to his hometown, Mao, with the idea of returning to Shaoshan to spend the rest of his life, had this complex built, in which he would live following his definitive return in 1966. This residence, located around 4 km from the Bronze Statue of Mao Zedong, is famous for being in an incomparably beautiful valley. The cost of entrance is around 60 Yuan.
Where to stay
There are very few options if you want to stay in Shaoshan itself. In addition, considering that all of the points of interest in the city can be visited in one day, I recommend that you stay in the neighboring city of Changsha or if you prefer, in an area within the municipality of Xiangtan (湘潭), to which Shaoshan also belongs. Here is a list with some options.
How to get there
The easiest way to get to Shaoshan is by taking a bus from nearby Changsha. Buses leave from the South Bus Station (汽车南站 in Changsha) every half an hour between 8:00 and 17:30. The ticket costs around 30 Yuan and takes around two hours to get to Shaoshan.
Mount Heng or Heng Shan (衡山), which is located in the south east of the Hunan province, is called the Mountain of the South (Nanyue 南岳) by Chinese people, and is one of the Five Great Mountains of China (五岳, there is one for each cardinal point).
Mount Heng is in reality a mountain range with 72 peaks, the highest of which is Mount Zhurong (Zhurong Feng) at around 1300 m altitude. The range is also known as the most elegant of the Five Great Mountains, and because of that, is a destination for thousands of tourists on the national level.
It has received recognition not only because of its natural beauty, which combines waterfalls, springs, and bushy vegetation, but rather also because of its significant cultural heritage, as the home of, among others, the largest temple in southern China, the Mount Heng Temple (Nanyue Damiao, 南岳大庙).
Mount Heng is the only mountain in the world where Buddhist monks and Taoists currently cohabitate. The interesting thing is that in addition to the natural area, they also share temples.
But if that isn’t enough, Mount Heng has a special importance for Chinese cosmology. Astronomy texts from the VI-VII centuries B.C. describe the star corresponding to the mountain as that which is responsible for providing life to humanity. Because of that, it is also known as “the Mountain of Eternal Life.”
Entrance to the park costs 120 Yuan in high season (May to October) and 80 Yuan in low season (November to April). Transportation within the park (there are gondolas connecting various points) costs extra and is around 80 Yuan.
Where to stay
The majority of tourists spend the night in the nearby Hengyang City (衡阳市), located 45 km to the south of the entrance to Mount Heng. It has a broad offering of lodging and places to eat, but you will have to get up very early if you want to be one of the first people into the complex. There are frequent buses that connect the city with the entrance to the park. If you decide to stay the night in Hengyang, I recommend this hostel.
Nonetheless, for me, it’s a better idea to spend the night on the mountainside, where you can also find good lodging options, only five minutes from the park entrance. Nanyue Hengshan OP International Youth Hostel has very good reviews.
How to get there
Hengyang Nanyue International Airport (衡阳南岳机场) links Mount Heng with other places of tourist interest such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Zhangjiajie. If you are traveling to other parts of the country and want to visit Mount Heng, getting there by plane would be the most comfortable way (and probably the most expensive way).
On the other hand, if you are following the route through Hunan or its neighboring provinces, Mount Henang is very well connected by land. The bus from Changsha (长沙) is the best way to get there. The ticket costs around 50 Yuan and takes between two and three hours to arrive (the last stop is close to Nanyue Temple).
There are also trains from Changsha which, despite being cheaper (they cost around 25 Yuan), are slower, and will leave you in the city of Hengyang. Therefore, if you are going to stay near the entrance to the park, you will have to take a minibus (around 5 Yuan), which will take you from the Hengyang train station to the slopes of Mount Heng.
While it is true that over the past years, the small town of Dehang (德夯) has become a tourist destination for Chinese nationals, it still maintains the calm and charm of the traditional life of rural China.
Here, the majority of the inhabitants are of the Miao ethnicity, who you can see wearing their traditional dress, plowing the fields, weaving silk, or extracting water from wells to water rice terraces and other crops.
Dehang means “beautiful valley” in the Miao language. For me, it is one of the most beautiful places that I have visited in China. I had the luck that I didn’t see very many tourists (I went there in mid-May) and that the weather, despite being rainy, covered the fields and the mountains with clouds, giving the landscape a magical feel.
Entry to the town costs 100 Yuan (May 2016), which you will pay at a ticket booth before arriving at the town by highway (the bus will deliberately stop). In addition to taking a pleasant walk along its streets, which are packed with “local artisan goods” stores (while there are things that are handmade by locals, others, on the other hand, are mass-produced), Dehang offers various hiking options to enjoy its natural beauty:
The Liusha Waterfall (流沙瀑布 Liusha Pubu): This beautiful waterfall, which is more than 200 m high, is a must-see attraction. It is only 1.5 km from Dehang, and you can get there by taking a very accessible path surrounded by mountains and rice terraces where you will run into locals about their daily chores. For me, the most impressive part is that you can get inside the waterfall by taking a stone path. From there, the sensation and views are really breathtaking.
Nine Dragons Waterfalls (九龙溪源头 Jiulong Xiyuantou): These are located halfway to the Liusha Waterfall and can be reached by a path (with a price, as access will cost you another 25 Yuan), which is not a good idea for people who aren’t adventurous. You will have to jump on slippery rocks and climb up steep steps beside a cliff. Even so, the views from the top are really worth it.
The ancient town of Aizhai: This town is located around 4 km from Dehang and can be reached by following the current of the river by way of an accessible stone path. When you get to the town of Aizhai (矮寨), you will walk under the imposing and colorful Aizhai Suspension Bridge (矮寨大桥), which is famous for being the largest and tallest tunnel in the world which opens up onto a suspension bridge. From the town of Aizhai, you can head back to the main highway and take a bus back to Dehang or Jishou.
Where to stay
In Dehang, there are basically two lodging options for foreigners. You will have to book them on the spot, as neither of them is online. They are the Jielong Qiao Inn and the Jielong Qiao Kedian (one is right after the other, and they are both beside the bridge of the same the name, the Jielong Bridge).
The owners don’t speak English, but are accustomed to receiving international tourists. You don’t have many other options, so you will have to accept what they offer you. Either of them is good for spending the night. They have Wi-Fi, hot water, air conditioning, and a restaurant. Rooms cost around 100 Yuan/night.
How to get there
The most practical way to get to Dehang is through Jishou (吉首) (only 24 km away). Buses leave from the parking lot of the Jishou train station, cost around 10 yuan, and take a little less than an hour to get to Dehang. They come every 20 minutes, but will leave earlier if they fill up.
Possible itineraries through the Hunan province
The route that I took lasted a total of 7 days, and I was able to peacefully visit three destinations: Zhangjiajie, the town of Dehang and Fenghuang. Below, I list the transportation that I took and the total number of days that I spent in each place.
Day 1: Arrive in Changsha (the capital of Hunan) by plane and bus to Zhangjiajie. I decided to fly to Changsha and not to Zhangjiajie directly because the flight was quite a bit cheaper. In Changsha, you can take a bus to Zhangjiajie from the East Bus Station. It cost a little more than 100 Yuan and takes around four hours to get to the park. You can also take the train, but they are a lot slower. Both the bus and the train will leave you in the city of Zhangjiajie, so if you want to sleep closer to the entrance to the park, you are going to have to take a shuttle bus or a taxi there. Night in Zhangjiajie.
Days 2 and 3: Visit to the Wulingyuan-Zhangjiajie Scenic Area. Night in Zhangjiajie.
Day 4: Zhangjiajie-town of Dehang. From the city of Zhangjiajie, I took the first morning train to Jishou (around two hours) and from Jishou, took a minibus to Dehang (approximately one hour). I got to Dehang around lunchtime. Night in Dehang.
Day 5: Town of Dehang-Fenghuang. After having lunch, I headed back to Jishou by minibus and transferred to another bus that took me, in around an hour, to the beautiful Fenghuang. Night in Fenghuang.
Day 6: Visit to Fenghuang and return trip Fenghuang-Changsha. I took a night train for this trip, which is a bit more than 10 hours long. Night on the train.
Day 7: Arrival in Changsha and return flight to Shanghai.
If you have more time, you can broaden the route to include Shaoshan and Mount Heng, for example. As both destinations are close to Changsha, one idea is that you can add one or two of these destinations to the one-week route. It could go something like this:
Day 1: Arrival in Changsha and one-day visit to Shaoshan. To do so, it’s essential that you arrive as early as possible in Changsha, whether by taking the first flight in the morning or a night train from another city. Return to Changsha during the day and spend the night there.
Days 2 to 8: The same as days 1 to 7 of the “one-week route.”
Day 9: Changsha-Mount Heng. Visit to Mount Heng and spend the night there.
Day 10: Mount Heng-Changsha and continuation of the trip to another province or end of the trip.
Other options without a time limit
Clearly, the Hunan province has a lot more to offer than what I summarize in this article. Nonetheless, transportation between some less-visited areas is not very convenient, so you will need a lot more time if you want to visit them. Below, I give a list of other points of interest that you can research:
- Yueyang Tower (岳阳楼) in Yueyang (岳阳).
- Changde (常德), a city on the shores of Dongting Lake (洞庭湖).
- Meishan Dragon Palace, a group of underground caves in the Xinhua municipality (新化县).
- Huaihua (怀化), an important railway center in the west of Hunan.
- Qianyang (黔阳), an ancient city located 50 km to the south of Huaihua and which has not yet received the mass arrival of tourists.
- Hongjiang (洪江古商城), one of the three main ancient cities in the Western Hunan. It is located on the banks of the Yuan River (沅江).
- Zhuzhou (株洲), an industrial city bordering on the Xiangjiang River (湘江), and which is considered one of the five most-visited railway centers in China.
Try to visit them and share your experience with us!
Photo Credits: Photos by Andrea Lasheras