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

Alessio enjoys traveling and discovering new cultures and food traditions.


A Country Full of Diversity

China is very diverse, and each province has its attractions and gastronomic specialties. In any region, you can find prominent futuristic skyscrapers and relaxing rural areas where time seems to pass slowly.

Exploring Hunan, the Province Famous for Spicy Food

One province that I have explored by starting from its capital and ending with the countryside is Hunan. This region is famous, like Sichuan, for spicy food. Changsha, the capital, is also known for a particularly smelly but delicious local street food: 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

The journey starts 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. 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 can impress a tourist on their first visit to Changsha is the strong smell in every corner of the city center due to the high presence of food kiosks selling stinky tofu. Only after winning the initial resistance, 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.

The Huangxing Road Walking Street

One of the most famous walking streets in Changsha is Huangxing Road. The first time you see it, it may remind you of a big Chinatown you would easily spot in any big city in Europe or the US. Here you can find street food, shops, attractions, and everything you need to enjoy your nightlife in Changsha. The only difference is that you are not in a Chinatown but one of the most vibrant commercial streets of a province in China.

The Xiang River and Orange Isle

The Xiang is a Chinese river that is over 800 km 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, where I will go in the second part of this trip. Changsha is connected with an isle located on the river: Orange Isle. There, you can enjoy a unique view of the city skyline. The area also features shops, statues of notable people, pavilions, and the Young Mao Zedong statue. The island is a main domestic tourist attraction in China.

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 is one of the most popular tourist destinations for those visiting the province.

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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 had 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 have found 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.

The Dongting Lake

After being in Changsha, the next stop is the rural area of ​​the province. Here, you can admire a part of Dongting Lake, the second largest lake in China. The destination is Yueyang, a city of over 5 million inhabitants. Yueyang comprises several districts, including the rural areas bordering Dongting Lake.

The 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 already used to eating typical Chinese cuisine will quickly appreciate Hunan food. The main characteristic of the food in this province is the strong predominance of spicy flavors. People who love to eat spicy at levels much higher than those expected in Western cuisine will easily be able to appreciate Hunan food. 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.

What You Need to Know Before Traveling to 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 addition, 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 can easily 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.

© 2022 Alessio Ganci

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