Mount Heng

Mount Heng 02

With its 72 peaks jutting majestically into the sky, Mount Heng[1] creates a striking tableau in the countryside of Hunan province. Its beauty has earned it the status of “Nanyue” or “South Mountain”, marking it as one of the Five Great Mountains of China. The mountain range itself stretches for a colossal 150 kilometres (93 mi), with Huiyan Peak at its southernmost point and Yuelu Mountain at its northern tip. At a staggering 1,300 metres (4,266 ft.) in height, Zhurong Peak is its highest elevation. Although its natural scenery and cultural significance has attracted a number of visitors, it is probably the least-visited of the Five Great Mountains and makes for an enjoyable hike if you want to escape the tourist crowds.

Many of the forests that blanket its peaks are primeval, with trees averaging at an age of 300 to 400 years and some that are over 1,000 years old. Bent-double and covered in lichen, they somewhat resemble elderly men hunched over from the pain of old age! From rolling clouds to meadows resplendent with colourful flowers, Mount Heng is full of stunning panoramic views. Its spectacular scenery during the four seasons is often described as the “four oceans”: an ocean of flowers, an ocean of trees, an ocean of clouds, and an ocean of snow.

Mount Heng 01The city of Hengyang acts as a gateway to the mountain, although the town at its base is eponymously named Nanyue. Since it is regarded as a sacred mountain, its expanse is littered with marvellous temple complexes and ancient inscriptions. Hidden among the dense pine forests and lush canyons, they have remained as a testament to mankind’s fascination with the mountain. Evidence suggests that scholars and members of the imperial family were visiting Mount Heng as early as 2,000 years ago, leaving stone inscriptions of poetry in their wake.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Taoism made its way to the mountain and Taoists designated various “blessed spots” where they would practice their faith. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), ten large Taoist temples and eight hundred bamboo houses had cropped up to accommodate the influx of Taoist priests. About 200 years after Taoism’s arrival, Buddhism was introduced to Mount Heng. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties Period (420-589), a large group of accomplished Buddhist monks settled there and gradually formed their own religious sects, the most influential of which was the Tiantai Sect. Many of the philosophies that these monks expounded ended up significantly affecting Buddhist religious practices not only in China, but also in Japan and Southeast Asia.

At the foot of the mountain, you’ll find the largest temple complex in southern China, the Grand Temple of Mount Heng. Although its founding year is technically unknown, records indicate that it was built in the year 725. Throughout the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, it suffered through six fires and underwent 16 large-scale renovations. In 1882, it had to be almost completely rebuilt after being burned down, and it was constructed following the layout of the Forbidden City in Beijing. This earned it the nickname “Little Palace in South China”. As a testimony to the mountain’s multi-religious nature, the temple’s eastern wing is made up of the Eight Temples of Taoism and its western wing hosts the Eight Temples of Buddhism.

However, the highlight of any trip to Mount Heng is undoubtedly seeing its Four Wonders: Zhurong Peak, Water Curtain Cave, Fangguang Temple, and the Sutra[2] Collection Hall. These are famed for their height, oddity, spiritual depth, and architectural elegance respectively. Three may be the magic number, but four is evidently the most wonderful!

 

[1] This is not to be confused with Mount Heng in Shanxi province, which is also one of China’s Five Great Mountains.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

Fenghuang Ancient Town

The rural county of Fenghuang can be roughly split into two districts: New Town and Old Town. While the new town is simply a residential area, the old town is something altogether more enchanting. Fenghuang Ancient Town was officially established during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), but its history can be traced back as far as the Spring and Autumn Period (c. 771-476 B.C.). Rising at the base of misty mountains and facing the rippling Tuo River, its location is known for its excellent feng shui 1.

The name “Fenghuang” literally translates to mean “Phoenix”, which in Chinese tradition is associated with good fortune and longevity. According to local legend, the town is so-named because, one day, two phoenixes were flying overhead when they paused to admire the town’s beauty and were reluctant to leave. If it’s enough to catch the attention of a mythical creature, it must be one magical place! For over 300 years, the ancient streets, alleyways, and houses of Fenghuang have been exquisitely preserved.

Its most unique feature is undoubtedly its wooden diaojiaolou 2, which perch delicately over the river. The incorporation of the river into the town’s layout demonstrates how important it is to the villagers to live in harmony with nature. It is not uncommon to see women washing clothes or men casting their fishing nets into its expanse, much like they have done for centuries. Boatmen wait by the banks, offering visitors the chance to enjoy a scenic cruise up and down the river.

The diaojiaolou are also the first hint towards the town’s multi-ethnicity. Unlike other cities and towns in China, which are predominantly populated by the Han Chinese ethnic group, the vast majority of Fenghuang’s population is made up of Miao and Tujia people. Miao traditions, architecture, and culture dominate the town, from their elegant traditional dress to their intricate handicrafts. Shimmering silver jewellery, vibrant batik 3 cloth, homemade tie-dye clothes, and numerous other local specialities are sold in Fenghuang’s local shops.

Yet the Miao weren’t always the peaceful villagers that you see today! Fenghuang was once the centre of numerous Miao rebellions, which were so fierce that it prompted the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to build the Southern Great Wall. This wall still stands on the outskirts of the town, and is now a popular tourist attraction. Other local attractions of note include: Huang Si Qiao Castle, one of the most well-preserved castles from the Tang Dynasty (618-907); Longevity Palace; Chao Yang Palace; and the Heavenly King Temple.

The former residence and tomb of the renowned Chinese writer Shen Congwen is arguably the most popular site in the town. In fact, his novel The Border Town, a romance written in 1934 and set in Fenghuang County, is believed to be what catapulted Fenghuang Ancient Town to national fame. It appears that Fenghuang’s residents were truly blessed with good fortune, as it was also the hometown of Xiong Xiling, who was once the premier (1913-1914) of the Republic of China (1912-1949) , and Huang Yongyu, a celebrated painter in the traditional Chinese style.

The playful bubbling of the river; the feel of flagstone steps worn smooth by thousands of feet; the sweet smell of freshly cooked food, dotted with locally grown chillies as red as rubies; these are the simple pleasures that this picturesque town has to offer. Surrounded by primeval forests and flanked by shadowy mountains, it is a place lost in time and resplendent in its timelessness.

1. Feng Shui: This theory is based on the premise that the specific placement of certain buildings or objects will bring good luck.

2. Diaojiaolou: These are two-storey wooden dwellings that are suspended on stilts, with the ground floor being used for storage and the upper floors being used as living spaces.

3. Batik: A cloth-dying process whereby a knife that has been dipped in hot wax is used to draw a pattern onto the cloth. The cloth is then boiled in dye, which melts the wax. Once the wax has melted off, the cloth is removed from the boiling dye. The rest of the cloth will be coloured by the dye but the pattern under the wax will have remained the original colour of the cloth.

Hunan Local Snacks

changsha-snacks

Prepare yourself for some sizzling snacks, because Hunan-style cuisine is notoriously spicy! It’s celebrated as one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking and reached a high standard as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), over 2,100 years ago. In that time, the province’s locals have managed to perfect the distinctly spicy and sour flavours that make their cuisine so unique. Since Hunan is an agriculturally rich province, its cuisine is able to employ a wide variety of fresh ingredients.

To accommodate this sumptuous diversity, the menu changes with the season. The hot and humid summers are met with cool or cold dishes full of chillies, which are designed to open up the pores and release any excess moisture in the body. Chillies are also employed during wet, chilly winters in order to dispel dampness, but dishes tend to be served hot so as to warm the body up. However, farm-fresh ingredients aren’t the only thing on the menu!

Since vinegar, like chillies, is associated with the warming and drying properties of “yang”, it is also a popular ingredient and pickled or fermented foods feature widely in Hunan cuisine. In particular, a type of chilli known as “duo lajiao” or “chopped chilli” is a staple feature of nearly all Hunan dishes, and is made by pickling red chilli peppers in vinegar and salt. It is this ingredient that largely imparts the spicy, sour flavours that have become emblematic of Hunan cuisine.

Spicy Crayfish (口味虾)

Spicy CrayfishThis deliciously simple dish is a staple of Hunan cuisine and is particularly popular in summer, when patrons sit outside and gorge on plates piled high with crayfish while sipping on ice cold beers. To make the dish, the chunky crayfish are first expertly cleaned, to rid them of any grit that may be trapped under their shells. Meanwhile, a tangy sauce is made by frying chopped ginger, spring onions, red chillies, orange peel, aniseed, and a number of other spices in hot oil.

Once the crayfish is cleaned and the sauce has become aromatic, the crayfish is placed in the pan and quickly stir-fried. Shaoxing rice wine and oyster sauce are then added to give the sauce a richer flavour. Finally, a dash of salt, sugar, and soy sauce is added before the crayfish is covered in chicken broth and left to boil. Flour is typically added to help thicken the sauce as it boils. When the crayfish is thoroughly cooked, the pan is taken off the boil and the dish is ready to serve. The juicy flesh of the crayfish is perfectly complemented by the sauce, which is richly sour and has a pleasantly spicy kick. You’d be cray-zy not to try it!

Changsha Stinky Tofu (长沙臭豆腐)

changsha-stinky-tofuYou might think that the name “stinky tofu” is a mistranslation, but you’d be sadly mistaken! This street snack has such a pungent odour that it’s said to smell worse than an open sewer. The smell derives from the fact that the tofu is fermented, sometimes for weeks or even months, in brine made from rotten vegetables, sour milk, mustard greens, bamboo shoots, and Chinese herbs. Although stinky tofu is served across the country, each region will have its own brine recipe and fermenting process, imparting a unique flavour and fragrance to its stinky tofu.

The stinky tofu served in Hunan’s provincial capital of Changsha is noted as one of the finest kinds in the country, and is recognisable for its charcoal black colouring. Not only that, but it is notorious for being one of the smelliest varieties of the snack! Since the tofu is typically deep-fried, the dark outer layer is delightfully crisp, while the inside is silky soft. It is normally served by street vendors along with a heaping helping of chopped chillies to add the characteristic Hunan heat. The result is a potent mixture of salty and spicy flavours that anyone with strong tastes is sure to love.

Changsha Noodles (长沙米粉)

changsha-noodlesMuch like Guilin Noodles in Guangxi, Changsha Noodles are made using “mifen” or “rice noodles”. This much-loved staple originated from the city of Guilin during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), but didn’t reach the peak of its popularity until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The process of making the noodles is extremely complex, and requires an expert hand. Rice is first rinsed and soaked in water, before being ground into a thick, semi-liquid paste. This unctuous goo is then steamed, pressed, and steamed again until it is thoroughly cooked. Once it has cooled and dried, it is cut into noodles that are satisfyingly thick and densely textured.

In the city of Changsha, rice noodles are usually eaten for breakfast and are thinner than their counterparts in Guilin. They are served in a steaming, meaty broth that is sure to get your mouth watering, along with flavourful toppings like sliced beef, pickled white radishes, pickled green beans, peanuts, and chopped chillies. Vendors normally keep bowls full of these toppings on a table nearby, so patrons are free to pile high their dish with as many tasty treats as they fancy. Just don’t forget about the noodles underneath!

 

Hunan Cuisine

xiang-cuisine

Hunan cuisine, also known as Xiang cuisine, is celebrated as one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking. It consists of three distinct styles: the Xiang River style, which predominates in Changsha, Xiangtan, and Hengyang; the Dongting Lake style, which is characteristic of Yueyang, Yiyang, and Changde; and the Western Hunan style, which can mainly be found in Zhangjiajie, Jishou, and Huaihua. Evidence suggests that this style of cuisine had already reached a high standard during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), over 2,100 years ago.

It is often compared to Sichuan-style cuisine thanks to its liberal use of chillies, but there’s much more to this complex cooking style than this simple comparison implies. Hunan cuisine is distinctly oilier than Sichuan cuisine, and uses a wider variety of fresh ingredients. While Sichuan-style cuisine is known to use Sichuan peppercorns that numb the mouth to spiciness, Hunan-style food utilises “chopped chillies” (剁辣椒) which have been pickled in vinegar and salt. These special chillies actually stimulate the taste-buds and make them more sensitive to spiciness, while also adding a sour tang to any dish. So, if you’re looking for a spicy kick, you might find Hunan food is actually hotter than Sichuan food!

Yet the spicy and sour flavours of Hunan cuisine aren’t simply there to delight the palate. Hunan province is known for its uncomfortably humid summers and chilly, wet winters. According to traditional Chinese medicine, both chillies and vinegar heat the body and are thus associated with “yang”, which means they will balance out an excess of “yin” caused by cold or dampness. Therefore many Hunan dishes are celebrated for their medicinal properties. When food tastes this good, you’ll be more than happy to take your medicine!

Dong’an Chicken (东安子鸡)

dongan-chickenDong’an Chicken is arguably Hunan province’s most famous poultry dish, and is known for its delicate mixture of subtle flavours. It is supposedly based on a dish known as “vinegar chicken”, which dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Although this may be true, a charming local legend recounts a very different origin story. Some say that it was invented by three old ladies who ran a modest, village restaurant. Late one evening, some merchants arrived at the restaurant and demanded to be served dinner. The women had used almost all of the ingredients in their pantry, so they were forced to improvise!

They quickly slaughtered a couple of chickens and rustled up a new dish using all of their leftover ingredients. The resulting dish was so delicious that the merchants spread word of it on their travels, and it eventually entered the canon as one of Hunan’s classic dishes. The dish is made by first parboiling a chicken with ginger and green onions, before allowing it to cool and cutting the carcass into bite-size pieces. Fresh chillies, dried chillies, ginger, and green onions are then sliced into slivers and fried in peanut oil until they start to smoke.

Finally, the chicken is added to the pan and is stir-fried along with a splash of Shaoxing rice wine, vinegar, and salt to taste. In some recipes, the chicken broth is also added to the mixture to keep the chicken tender and moist. Once the chicken is cooked through, it is left to simmer in the seasoned broth so that the flavours fully penetrate the meat. The result is a mildly spicy dish with a pleasant, sour tang that glances off the tongue.

Chairman Mao’s Red-Braised Pork (毛氏红烧肉)

chairman-maos-red-braised-porkMao Zedong, founding father of the People’s Republic of China, is a legendary figure in Chinese history. Since he was born and raised in Hunan, many of the province’s tourist attractions revolve around the Chairman. This dish was supposedly his favourite, so much so that it’s rumoured he ate it nearly every day! His nephew, Mao Anping, once extolled the dish by saying: “Men eat it to build their brains, and ladies to make themselves more beautiful”. Who knew that a simple pork dish could bestow such incredible gifts! In fact, this dish is so integral to the province’s history that the government actually issued official recipe guidelines to restaurants across the country. In order to be considered authentic, restaurants must use the meat of a rare breed of pig from Ningxiang County, which has been bred for over 1,000 years and is designated an “agricultural treasure”.

This is because the dish centres on sumptuous pork belly, which is flavoured with fragrant star anise, ginger, cinnamon, and chillies. The pork belly is quickly boiled before being left to cool and then cut into bite-size pieces. Meanwhile, oil and sugar are combined in a wok over a low heat until the sugar has turned a rich, caramel brown. The pork is then added to the caramelized sugar, along with a splash of Shaoxing rice wine. Finally, the ginger, star anise, chillies, and cinnamon are added to the pork, along with just enough water to barely cover the ingredients. This flavourful mixture is left to simmer for between 40 minutes to an hour. It is considered one of the mildest dishes in the Hunan canon, and the pork belly is said to literally melt in the mouth.

Steamed Fish with Chopped Chillies (剁椒鱼)

steamed-fish-with-chopped-chilliesThis dish was recently catapulted into the international spotlight thanks to an unusual new trend in Hunan where, instead of serving a whole fish, the dish is made using only the head of a bighead carp. So, if you think something might be a little fishy, be sure to ask the waiter exactly what you’re getting before you order! It’s said to date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when a famous mathematician named Huang Zongxian was travelling through Hunan. One night, he was staying with a local family and their son happened to catch a fish from a nearby pool.

The hostess steamed the fish with a mixture of chopped chillies before serving it to the guests. Huang found the dish so delicious that he immediately asked for the recipe, and brought it back home with him. The recipe spread far and wide, gaining favour across the country. It is one of the simplest Hunan dishes to prepare, but certainly no less flavourful! Green onions, ginger, Shaoxing rice wine, salt, chopped garlic, and chopped red chillies are stir-fried in a wok until they give off a rich, pleasant aroma. This mixture is then ladled on top of the fresh fish, which in turn is placed in a steamer and steamed for approximately 20 minutes. The tender flesh simply flakes off the bone, and is laden with just enough chillies to provide a kick without overwhelming the natural flavour of the fish.

Lovers’ Hot Pot (鸳鸯火锅)

lovers-hot-potHot pot is an exceedingly popular dish throughout China, particularly during the cold winter months, as it is believed to warm the blood. The basic dish consists of a seasoned broth, which is placed at the centre of the table and heated over a hot plate. Diners order a selection of raw ingredients and then add them to the bubbling broth as they please, picking them out and eating them once they are thoroughly cooked.

In Hunan, the locals have a marked preference for a style known as “yuanyang” or “lovers” hot pot. It is so-called because the pot is split into two sides, one with a spicy broth and one with a mild broth. In short, it is the veritable yin-yang of the hot pot world! The spicy broth is typically thick with chillies as red as rubies, while the mild broth uses ingredients like goji berries and star anise to soothe the taste-buds and prepare them for the next assault of spiciness. Most hot pot vendors keep their broth recipes a well-guarded secret, so you’ll find that each restaurant brings its own unique twist to this time-honoured dish!

 

 

The Wulingyuan Scenic Area

The towering sandstone pillars of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area are one of the most iconic sites in Hunan province. These stunning mountains are unique to China, and have acted as the inspiration for numerous Chinese paintings. More than 3,000 quartzite sandstone pillars and peaks, many over 200 metres (660 ft.) in height, can be found dotted throughout this colossal reserve. Alongside these lofty plinths, the area is crisscrossed with deep ravines, trickling streams, shimmering lakes, rushing waterfalls, lush rainforests, calcite caves, and two magnificent natural bridges. It is also home to a number of endangered plant and animal species, resulting in it being inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.

The scenic area itself is over 600 square kilometres (230 sq. mi) in size and is made up of four national parks: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, and Yangjiajie Scenic Area. The most famous of these is the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, which is located near to the city of Zhangjiajie. Its famous pillars may look similar to the Karst Mountains of southern China, but they are actually the result of physical rather than chemical erosion. Over time, expanding ice and plants growing on the cliff-face have caused intense weathering, which has resulted in the strange rock formations we see today.

While each of these mountains has its own unique charm, the park also boasts its very own movie star! The 1,080-metre (3,540 ft.) high Southern Sky Column was official renamed the “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” in 2010, after the blockbuster hit Avatar. According to park officials, it was photographs from Zhangjiajie that inspired the floating Hallelujah Mountains, which are a focal landscape in the film. Nowadays, this area of the park is the most heavily visited, and offers breath-taking panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. When eclipsed by fog, it may appear as though these mountains are hanging in mid-air, much like their cinematic counterparts!

zhangjiajie-glass-bridgeFor those of you looking to truly experience the height of the national park, its two natural bridges are a must-see. They are known as Xianren Bridge or “Bridge of the Immortals” and Tianxia Diyi Bridge or “First Bridge under Heaven”. While Xianren Bridge currently has no guard rails and is closed off to tourists for safety reasons, daring adventurers can cross Tianxia Diyi Bridge and marvel at the view of the deep chasm below. Yet this is just one of the many dizzying attractions the park has to offer!

At a staggering 1,051 metres (3,450 ft.) in height, Tianzi Mountain is the highest peak in the park and can be reached by cable car. Alternatively, visitors fancying a bit of exercise can brave the 3,878-step stairway to the top! Similarly, the spectacular Bailong or “Hundred Dragons” Elevator transports weary visitors up to the top of a 330 metre-tall (1,070 ft.) cliff in less than two minutes. It is the world’s tallest lift and is composed of three glass elevators, which can each carry up to 50 people at a time. Not to be outdone, the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge hangs approximately 300 metres (984 ft.) off the ground, and is the highest pedestrian glass bridge in the world. It’s the ideal place to take a leisurely walk and truly soak in the scenery. Just don’t look down!

Changsha

As the provincial capital, Changsha represents the historical and cultural heart of Hunan province. With a history that stretches back over a staggering 3,000 years, its pedigree is without question. Yet, at first glance, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that this glittering metropolis was once a crude Neolithic settlement! From 1935 to 1936, archaeologists excavated the area and found that Changsha was once an integral part of the Chu State, which ruled the region during the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC). However, this incredible discovery would prove to be just the tip of the iceberg!

During the 1970s, the celebrated Mawangdui Tombs of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) were unearthed. They were originally constructed between 186 and 165 BC, but were in phenomenally good condition for their age. In particular, the corpse of Lady Xin Zhui, who was interred in Tomb No. 1, made international headlines after it was revealed that her mummified body was so intact that doctors were able to perform an autopsy on her. The autopsy confirmed that she had died of a heart attack as a result of poor diet, proving that junk food was just as addictive 2,000 years ago as it is today!

The Yuelu AcademyAlongside the remains of Lady Xin Zhui, her husband Marquis Li Cang, and another man believed to be a relative, the tombs were brimming with historical artefacts of great significance, from silk garments and colourful paintings to manuscripts on astronomy, religion, and medicine. These relics gave historians an invaluable insight into life in ancient China, and many of them are now displayed at the Hunan Provincial Museum.

The museum itself is located about 11 kilometres (7 mi) away from one of Changsha’s major attractions: Mount Yuelu. This towering mountain rests on the western bank of the Xiangjiang River and is renowned for its picturesque scenery. Colourful azaleas blanket the area in spring, dense forests provide shade in summer, canopies turn a rich golden-orange in autumn, and in winter it is transformed into a snow-white wonderland. Its natural beauty is matched only by its cultural importance, as it was once the popular haunt of scholars, poets, and monks. The Yuelu Academy, Lushan Temple, Sarira Tower, Yunlu Palace, and Aiwan Pavilion can all be found within its vast expanse.

changsha02Resting at its eastern foot, the Yuelu Academy was built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and was considered one of the four most prestigious academies in China at the time. Numerous revolutionary scholars lectured or studied at this academy, including Zhu Xi, who is widely regarded as the father of Neo-Confucianism. In 1926, it was converted into a college for higher learning and is now the home of Hunan University. It seems the scenery on Mount Yuelu really did inspire revolutionary thought, since the Aiwan Pavilion was supposedly the place where Chairman Mao would relax with his friends while he was studying in the city.

On the luxurious Orange Isle, just 2 kilometres (1 mi) from the East Gate of Mount Yuelu, Chairman Mao has been immortalised in a rock carving known as the Youth Mao Zedong Statue. The island is so-named because of its abundant orange trees, which yield deliciously sweet oranges every year. Since it is the country’s largest inland island, it is sometimes nicknamed the “First Island in China”. With its own beach, park, fountain, fireworks show, swimming pool, and annual music festival, it should definitely be first on your list of places to visit in Changsha!

xiang-cuisineAfter exploring all of the exciting attractions the city has to offer, you’re sure to have worked up one serious appetite. Fortunately, Changsha is celebrated by gourmands as a hub of Xiang cuisine, one of the Eight Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cuisine. This style of cuisine originates from Hunan province, and is known for its perfect blend of spicy and sour flavours. Huangxing Pedestrian Street is the ideal place to get to grips with the local food, with numerous restaurants and street food stalls offering up an authentic taste of Changsha. From spicy shrimp to the city’s famous stinky tofu, you’re sure to find something to whet your appetite!

Hunan Province

Marvelled for its natural beauty and its historical significance, Hunan province remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. Its name literally translates to mean “south of the lake”, which is derived from its position south of the sparkling Lake Dongting. It might not be the most creative title, but it certainly demonstrates just how important nature is to this province. Even its abbreviated name, Xiang, is based on the Xiang River, which winds its way through the province. From towering karst mountains and obscure danxia landforms to thick bamboo groves and surging rivers, you’ll never be too far away from the majesty of Mother Earth!

Hunan’s landlocked south-central location means it’s bounded by numerous provinces, with Hubei in the north, Jiangxi in the east, Guangdong in the southeast, Guangxi in the southwest, and Guizhou in the west. Yet it’s more than just a hub for passing travellers. With the ethereal Wulingyuan Scenic Area, picturesque Fenghuang Ancient Town, and sacred Mount Heng, Hunan boasts more must-see tourist attractions than many provinces combined!

In terms of weather, it’s served by a humid, subtropical climate, with the north experiencing more extreme weather conditions than the south. Temperatures average a mild 3 to 8 °C (37 to 46 °F) in winter, but can skyrocket to between 27 to 30 °C (81 to 86 °F) when summer hits. Large parts of the province lie in the path of wet monsoons, which pass from west to east along the Yangtze River basin. From April to June, the wet season lays claim to Hunan, drenching it in frequent downpours of heavy rain. July and August are considered uncomfortably humid, so the best time to visit the province is during autumn, as the temperature is cooler and the rainfall is lighter.

The heavy rainfall and humid climate may not be ideal holiday weather, but they’ve contributed to make Hunan the largest producer of rice in China! Along with this staple food, red and black tea is also grown in copious amounts on the foothills of the Xuefeng Mountains and Mount Mufu. Cities throughout Hunan are celebrated for their fine handicrafts, such as xiang embroidery in the provincial capital of Changsha, bamboo furniture in Yiyang, porcelain wares in Liling, and the world-renowned fireworks of Liuyang. Some of the pottery kilns in the cities of Yueyang and Xiangyin even date back as far as the Tang Dynasty (618–907)!

Yet this isn’t the province’s only historical claim to fame. The poet Qu Yuan was supposedly born somewhere in Hunan and drowned himself in the province’s Miluo River, which became the basis for the legend of the Dragon Boat Festival. Not only that, but the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong, was born in Shaoshan, and a number of other famous politicians also hail from cities throughout the province.

Although Hunan is largely dominated by the Han ethnic group, there are also significant constituencies of Miao, Tujia, Dong, and Yao people. This adds to the delicate tapestry of cultures that can be found throughout the province, from the vibrant silver jewellery of the Miao people to the wooden splendour of the many Dong drum towers. There is even a well-known smattering of Uyghur people living in Taoyuan County. They have become something of a national curiosity since, unlike other Uyghurs, they have embraced Han Chinese customs and regularly eat pork, which is in violation of their Muslim faith.

So what does Hunan province have to offer you? If you’re a firm nature lover, you won’t want to miss Dongting Lake, the second largest freshwater lake in China; Wulingyuan Scenic Area, the mountain range that served as the inspiration for the blockbuster movie Avatar; and Mount Heng, one of the Five Great Mountains of China.

For the history buff, there are plenty of ancient and modern sites to keep your curiosity at bay. The Mawangdui Tomb Complex, a collection of tombs dating back over 2,000 years ago, and the Confucian Yuelu Academy are arguably the most intriguing, while Fenghuang Ancient Town and Yueyang Tower are undoubtedly the most beautiful. However, any trip to Hunan simply wouldn’t be complete without visiting Shaoshan, the birthplace of Chairman Mao. Once your hunger for nature and history has been satisfied, be sure to indulge in a few of the province’s famous signature dishes. Hunan-style cuisine is listed as one of the Eight Great Culinary Traditions of Chinese Cooking. With its distinctive spiciness and sour tang, it’s sure to tickle your taste-buds and keep you wanting more!