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Hunan in Five Railway Journeys


The landlocked province of Hunan in south China is synonymous with hot food and hot-tempered locals. Yet beyond the spicy stereotype, it’s a fantastically diverse place of beguiling red earth hills, misty waterways and prodigious lakes, the banks of which having nurtured some of China’s most celebrated sons and stories. Now the high-speed train is making travel easier than ever. To taste what the lands along the River Xiang have to offer, simply hop on and off the Harmony Express.


Not a well-known city per se, Zhuzhou is, however, an appropriate place to begin as it Hunan’s principle railway hub. Extraordinarily, a train passes through Zhuzhou every three minutes, giving credence to the old saying, “the north has Zhengzhou, the south has Zhuzhou” on account of their mutual significance railroad infrastructure.

Profiting as a place of transit for passengers and freight, modern Zhuzhou is a well-to-do city with a vibrant downtown area. But it’s the railway-themed public park on the banks of the Xiang that draws visitors. A wall plaque tells the global history of railways linking Zhuzhou into the grander locomotive narrative. There’s an old steam engine and a beautifully coloured East Wind diesel train. You can even grab a coffee in a high-speed train that has been converted into a café. And there’s a mock Zhuzhou Railway Station platform where you can shade from the sun and join locals drinking tea.


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Changsha and Zhuzhou, along with Xiangtan, comprise the Changzhutan Golden Triangle, an emerging megalopolis in the heart of Hunan. So it stands to reason that it doesn’t take longer than ten minutes to bullet from Zhuzhou to Changsha. The bus journey to and from the high-speed railway stations actually takes longer!

The provincial capital is a tad unremarkable when compared with other historically imbued Chinese cities. The Japanese razed the city during World War Two, erasing much of the past. However, Changsha remains a foodie mecca – the unrivalled centre of all things spice. Xiang Cuisine is one of the “Eight Culinary Cuisines of China” and is best sampled along Puzi Street and San Wang Street in the centre of town. The whole area has recently had a paint job to invoke something of the good old days. There are wooden window frames and red lanterns aplenty, but what sets it apart is the sizzling, pungent food. To this end you’re spoiled for choice as snack shops and delicacy venders hawking Changsha stinky tofu vie for space with sit-in restaurants. Of note Xin Hua Lou is multi-award winning Hunanese restaurant while nearby restaurant Huo Gong Dian hosts daily opera performances to accompany your meal.


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Once an obscure village, the birthplace of one Chairman Mao Zedong became a place of pilgrimage for zealous Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Its popularity waned in the 80s and 90s when Maoism fell out of vogue, but the consumer revolution (combined with some historical amnesia) has brought Shaoshan back from the brink.

Nowadays it’s less a place of homage than it is a holiday destination. As well as the once daily slow train, the high-speed line is delivering the masses to a veritable Red theme park with capital efficiency. History buffs needn’t bother with the paraphernalia, Mao’s family ancestral home is free to visit. However you view his legacy, there’s no doubt that the earthen cottage spawned one of the twentieth century’s most influential players.


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This gloomy, third-tier city is no place to stick around. It is however, the nearest railway station to a host of regional ancient towns that dot the countryside of Western Hunan. The most famous of these is Fenghuang, a river town of wooden-stilted houses and ethnic minority people that spawned the great writer Shen Congwen. Further afield Hongjiang is mottled Mao-era town that is also home to a marvellously preserved ancient merchant’s quarter, replete with opium den, brothel and various guildhalls. Hongjiang also administers Qianyang Ancient City, a walled town housing a labyrinth of wood and stone residences that date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties. The highlight there is the Lotus Tower. First built in 748 this classical pavilion was designed as a place to write, drink and host farewell dinners. 


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If you follow the tracks into northern Hunan, the prefecture level city of Zhangjiajie is home to the Wulingyuan Scenic area, a UNESCO world heritage site noted for over 3,000 sandstone pillars. Once you get past the touristy lowlands and hike the paths into this forest of stone towers, it's easy to get an idea of why much of Hunan was so difficult for Imperial China to placate. The locals are predominantly Tujia minority people, though it is Hollywood, not ethnic exoticism that has really put this place on the map. James Cameron is said to have used the scenery to inspire Pandora’s landscape in the movie Avatar. Regardless to say the local tourist bureau is keen to champion this accolade with life-sized Avatar models displayed amongst the beguiling shaft hills.


Coming full circle, Yueyang located on the rim of Dongting Lake in northeast Hunan, is a fine place to conclude your Hunan railway sojourn. During the Three Kingdoms period Yueyang was an important prefecture in the State of Wu. Its most famous site is Yueyang Tower, originally a military and trade inspection tower, dating back to the Three Kingdoms period, though it has been rebuilt several times since. The tower is so beautiful it has inspired more than a few odes in its time. During the Song Dynasty the city wall was built, a facsimile of which can be explored today. And from harbour boats ferry day-trippers to Junshan Island, a former Daoist retreat that is now a protect park free from pollution and home to yellow Junshan Tender Tea. You might even catch a glimpse of an endangered finless Porpoise on your way out there!                  

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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