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Exploring Hunan, China, From the Big City to Rural Areas

Alessio enjoys traveling and discovering new cultures and food traditions.

Visiting Hunan, China

Visiting Hunan, China

A Country Full of Diversity

China is very diverse, and each province has its own distinct attractions and gastronomic specialities. In any region of the country, you can find prominent and futuristic skyscrapers as well as relaxing rural areas where time seems to pass slowly.

Exploring Hunan, the Province Famous for Spicy Food

One province that I've explored is Hunan, starting from its capital and ending with the countryside. This region is famous, similar to Sichuan, for spicy food. Changsha, the capital, is also known for a particularly smelly but delicious local street food, particularly stinky tofu—a fermented soybean preparation.

Let's get ready to discover a less popular travel destination in China, where you can experience the beauty of spending a holiday immersing yourself in the traditions of the place and living an authentic Chinese experience.

Visiting Changsha

My journey started by visiting Changsha, the capital of Hunan. The city is not as big as Shanghai or Beijing, yet it can compete with some metropolitan areas in Europe and the US. Its central urban population is about six million residents.

By day, Changsha is a busy metropolis, and in the evening, the city becomes a center of nightlife. Nothing is better than taking a night tour of Changsha with local friends. The thing that will surely impress tourists on their first visit to Changsha is the strong smell in every corner of the city center because of the high presence of food kiosks selling stinky tofu. Though initially, you might resist trying the tofu due to its overwhelming presence, once you decide to taste this iconic snack, you won't be able to do without it.

 A bucket of stinky tofu.

A bucket of stinky tofu.

Huangxing Road

One of the most famous walking streets in Changsha is Huangxing Road. The first time you see it, it may remind you of the prominent Chinatown districts you'd find in big cities throughout Europe or the United States. The only difference is that you are not in a Chinatown, but instead, in one of the most vibrant commercial streets in a province in China itself!

Here you can find street food, shops, attractions, and everything you need to enjoy the nightlife in Changsha. The photos below show off the street's neon lights, marquees, and some of the food and boba tea shops.

The Xiang River and Orange Isle

The Xiang is a Chinese river over 800 kilometers long. Before the railway's construction, it was Hunan's main communication route. The river also crosses the capital before flowing into Dongting Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in China; I'll go there on the second part of this trip.

Changsha is connected with an isle located on the river, Orange Isle. On the isle, you can enjoy a unique view of the city skyline. The area also features shops, statues of notable people—including the famous Young Mao Zedong statue— and pavilions. The island is a main domestic tourist attraction in China.

The Mao Zedong statue was completed in 2009 and symbolizes the leader and his connection to the city. It is 83 meters long to symbolize how old he was at his death, 41 meters wide to represent how long he ruled the Communist Party after the Zunyi Conference, and 32 meters high to represent his age when he wrote a poem dedicated to Changsha.

Hunan Museum

The Hunan Museum is one of the main attractions in Changsha. Inside it, there is a vast collection of more than 180.000 objects. Yet, the place is most famous for the presence of Xin Zhui's preserved body, the oldest mummy ever found in China. The museum is the most important cultural site that holds the historical heritage of the Hunan civilization and has become one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting the province.

HB Town: A Little Italy in Changsha

HB Town is a theme park located in a suburb of Changsha. Here you can experience games, escape rooms, and small exhibitions all related to Italy and its history. The park entrance is a faithful reproduction of an Italian railway station. Once inside the park, you will find yourself in a perfect copy of the city of Venice.

If I'd decided to take a selfie and post it on social media, many would have believed I was not in China but the famous lagoon city. As an Italian, I thought that nothing was left to chance in the organization of the park. Visiting this place offers an authentic vision of the many aspects that make Italy famous worldwide, with only one exception, food. In the restaurant areas of the park, I found only Chinese food, not Italian.

The outdoor area of ​​the park is a faithful reproduction of the city of Venice.

The outdoor area of ​​the park is a faithful reproduction of the city of Venice.

Dongting Lake

After being in Changsha, my next stop was in the rural areas of ​​the province. Here, you can admire a part of Dongting Lake, the second largest in China. The destination is Yueyang, a city of over five million inhabitants. Yueyang comprises several districts, including the rural areas bordering Dongting Lake.

Hunan East Dongting Lake National Nature Reserve

The Dongting Lake Nature Reserve is a wetland of international importance. Chinese scientific research has long focused on this area, documenting more than 300 species of birds and several species of fish and wild plants. In the Junshan District, Yueyang, it is worth visiting the Dongting Lake Station for Wetland Ecosystem Research. Inside, you can find a small museum with multimedia materials, stuffed animals, and information panels that illustrate the great wealth of biodiversity of the nature reserve.

Places Visited in Hunan

Food in Hunan

Those used to eating typical Chinese cuisine will easily appreciate Hunan's food. The main characteristic of the food in this province is the strong predominance of spicy flavors. People who love eating spicy food at levels much higher than what can be expected in Western cuisine will easily be able to appreciate Hunan's take on spice. A plant widely used in local cuisine is the lotus, also because it grows in Dongting Lake, and its root is widely consumed by the locals and Chinese people in general.

Paying With Credit Cards in Hunan

In the large Chinese cities famous among international tourists (like Shanghai) it is usually possible to pay with cards belonging to international circuits such as Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. Yet, the domestic UnionPay payment circuit is much more widespread in China. In general, most Chinese people pay in stores with two smartphone applications: WeChat and Alipay.

When traveling in medium-sized cities and rural areas, like those you find in Hunan, you may risk not being able to pay in shops with your international credit or debit card. For this reason, it is essential to bring cash during the trip! Otherwise, you can download Alipay, register your phone number, and activate the TourPass service, which allows you to use the app by connecting your international payment card.

You can use the links below to download the app onto your smartphone in advance.

I hope you enjoy your time in Hunan and the surrounding areas as much as I did. And again, make sure you try the stinky tofu!

© 2022 Alessio Ganci