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(2014 - Winter Issue)


I hear excited noises. A man chatters to his wife in Mandarin and points at me. After several days here in Hunan province, in south central China, I’m used to this reaction.

People stare at me when I walk down the street. If I catch their eye, I greet them with a cheerful “Nee how!” (hello), which usually results in a surprised look, quickly morphing into a broad smile and a responding “Nee how!” Younger women and children giggle when I say hello, not quite believing such an alien-looking creature as I can actually speak.

However this time is different. The man grabs his child, runs over and stuffs the boy into my arms. A laughing crowd gathers to snap photos of the foreign woman holding a local child. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me to pose for a photo with them.

This is Hunan, China. Recently opened up to tourism, this province now wants to open its arms to the world and there’s plenty to see and experience.

It’s September and Hunan is lush and green. Tiered rice terraces overlook meandering rivers and rolling hills give way to mountainous terrain and craggy pillars. Throughout the province, pretty historical towns offer an intriguing blend of Chinese tourists and locals going about their everyday chores.

Bizarre Mountains

Hunan’s geological history has blessed it with a unique landscape. In fact, the karst and sandstone cliffs and towers inspired the look of Pandora, the world of the blue Na’vi people in James Cameron’s movie, Avatar.

Some of these vistas are accessible by gondola, such as the main Avatar site in Wulingyuan Scenic Area, near the city of Zhangjiajie. There’s even a photo opportunity awaiting if you climb on the back of the dragon-like ikran and pretend you’re a Na’vi about to soar away. But gondolas also mean denser crowds (though you’ll likely be the only foreign tourists there). Somehow the views seem much more spectacular once you’ve sweated your way up one or two thousand stone steps.

Langshan National Park, in the province’s southwest, is an ideal place to explore the heights. Start with Candle Peak. Suspended over floating clouds and green valleys, many of its paths and staircases hug the steep mountain walls. You may not see very many other hikers enjoying the beautiful views but expect big grins and requests for photos when you do.

If your calves aren’t aching yet, climb up to Tianyi Lane. The hike is a pretty one, however the highlight is the dramatic open-to-the-sky tunnel nicknamed “the first lane in the world.” Just 33 centimetres wide at its narrowest point, this 238-metre-long rock cleft was formed by water erosion. (The hundreds of stone steps within it were added later.) It gets quite humid in the tunnel, but the watermelon lady is waiting at the top to quench your thirst.

The most awesome views in Langshan are from the summit of Bajiaozhai Scenic Area, surprisingly best seen on a cloudy day when you can look down upon small peaks, and see them as they are advertised, appearing like whales swimming through a misty sea. While it is rewarding to climb the 1,708 steps to the top, you’ll look much more composed when you pose for photos if you take the cable car.

In the northwestern part of the province, near Zhangjiajie, there are more mountains to view. This area is popular with Chinese tourists, so there is an abundance of cable cars and buses available to see the sites.  

Wulingyuan Scenic Area (particularly Tianzi Mountain and Yuanjiajie) is recommended in all of the guidebooks. Unless you really must ride the tallest outdoor elevator in the world, which admittedly is pretty neat, and have your photo taken atop an Avatar dragon, I’d suggest avoiding it. It is simply too crowded though, in winter, it would be less busy and the frosty peaks and pillars would be stunning.

Still touristy, but in a charming way, is nearby Tianmen Mountain. Take a harrowing bus trip up a road with 99 bends or soar over it in a cable car. Even when shrouded in clouds, walking on the cliff-face pathways (some glass-bottomed) is beautiful. Don’t skip the Chinese tradition of buying a red ribbon, writing a wish on it and tying it to a tree.

Ancient Towns

After all this climbing, you’ll want to spend a few days on flat ground.

The ancient city of Phoenix (Fenghuang) welcomes few non-Chinese tourists, so again you can expect to be a bit of a tourist attraction yourself. This lovely river town is ideal for wandering across bridges to sample the many snacks for which it is famous. I highly recommend the locally made ginger candy and the spicy freshwater crabs on a stick.

The area is largely populated by people from the Miao ethnic minority, and in Phoenix, you can witness (even participate) in a Chinese tourism phenomenon. All day long, tourists play dress up in Miao costumes, posing prettily along the Tuo River. For once the cameras won’t be pointed at you—unless you choose to dress up too!

Near the city of Huaihua in western Hunan, two other ancient towns are well worth a visit. Qianyang’s twisting alleys are filled with history and picturesque red lanterns. In its prime, Hongjiang was popular for opium smoking and entertainment, including prostitution. The ancient town centres feature reasonably well-signed historic sites with local people living their everyday lives and both offer fascinating glimpses into past and present-day China.

Travel Planner

For more information, visit:
China National Tourist Office: tourismchina.org; 1-866-599-6636
Hunan Provincial Tourism Administration: hnt.gov.cn/english/about.htm

Sound Advice

Canadians must apply in advance and in person for a Chinese visa in Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary or Vancouver. No mail-in visa service exists; residents of other Canadian communities should work with a travel agent.

Hiring a car with an English-speaking driver and/or guide gives you maximum flexibility to tour the province plus you’ll have help if you don’t speak Mandarin.

Chinese currency is commonly called the yuan (officially the renminbi); $10 CDN will buy you about 55 CNY. You can use bank machines and credit cards in larger cities however, carry enough cash when visiting smaller cities and towns where your Canadian cards are unlikely to work.

Foreigners should drink bottled water. Your biggest danger in Hunan is probably the chili peppers found in the local food.

Don’t forget to take comfortable walking shoes (hiking boots are not needed), an umbrella, a rain jacket, sunscreen and sunglasses as the weather varies.

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