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Spice, Rice and all things Changsha

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Superficially there’s little remarkable about Changsha. The city suffered heavily from fighting in 1938 during the Sino-Japanese war and much of it had to be rebuilt. Today the capital of landlocked Hunan province is most readily associated with its most famous adopted son Mao Zedong. The Great Helmsman hailed from nearby Shaoshan but spent time in Changsha as a student from 1913 to 1918 and again from 1920 to 1922, this time as a teacher. The Mao-related sights are, indeed, of interest to anyone with glee for modern Chinese history. But Changsha’s story reaches way back before the tumult of the twentieth-century.

The city was part of the ancient State of Chu before becoming incorporated into the Celestial Empire under the Qin. By the Han dynasty Changsha was a significant imperial fiefdom, producing lacquerware and silk textiles. The findings at the Mangwangdui Tombs near Changsha are a testament to the city’s significance during the Western Han period. The Yuelu Academy, a Song Dynasty Confucian school, suggests that by the ninth century the city was already a significant center of learning and culture. Opened to foreign trade in 1903, some European villas on Tangerine Island remind us of Changsha’s brief colonial spell before war and revolution brought the province to the frontline of twentieth-century drama.

Nowadays, Changsha is a city rediscovering its footing in a China now very much open-for-business. The East is Red may ring out above Changsha’s old Railway Station, located in the city center, but it’s innovations like the high-speed railway line and the new metro system that are keeping the wheels turning in modern Hunan. Gleaming high-rise towers stand aside crumbling brick tenements, old streets have been revamped as foodie meccas and high-tech firms are jostling for space alongside traditional industries as Changsha merged with the neighboring cities of Zhuzhou and Xiangtan to create the Changzhutan Golden Triangle – a south-central Chinese metropolis.

Change is in the air but Changsha remains an unhurried city with a strong self-identity defined by the spicy food – the aroma of which imbues almost every street – as well as the fiery character of the locals. As such, it’s a great city to get lost in, wander the backstreets, sift through the wet markets and enjoy a chili pepper doused lunch. Nevertheless, if you have a Changsha bucket list, the following should be on it:

Yuelu Mountain

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Across the Xiang River that bisects the city (and from which we get the name Xiang people / cuisine) Yuelu Mountain casts its shadow over the city’s impressive and vibrant university district. Affording Changsha folk a pleasant hike, footpaths wind through the forest leading to remote pavilions, revolutionary memorial sites, and Buddhist temples. But it is the Yuelu academy, a one-thousand-year-old center of learning, which is the real highlight. Imbued in history, the academy’s achingly beautiful period architecture and classical gardens connect you with the world of elite scholars in ancient Hunan.

Mao’s Changsha

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Those interested in learning a little of Chairman Mao’s relationship with the provincial capital head automatically to the giant, Mozartesque statue on Juzi Island for a selfie with the helmsman. But Qingshuitan is probably more valuable from a historic standpoint. The memorial / exhibition site is preceded by lines of antique stores selling Mao-related memorabilia including badges, clocks and of course, the little red book. A large white marble statue of the helmsman greets you at the gate, after which you can visit a reconstructed of the room in which Mao and second wife Yang Kaihui lived after moving here from Beijing in 1921. Qingshuitan also marks the site of the first Changsha Communist Party offices. There’s an affiliate museum containing a collection of historical artifacts from Changsha’s ancient and modern past.

Red Hot Hunan

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When in Changsha it’s important not to skip a spice-heavy, fragrant feast. Notable dishes including Changsha stinky tofu, Dongan chicken, Mao’s braised pork and stir-fried blood duck. Restaurants abound, but the best can be found around San Wang Jie. There are also some great Red-themed eateries scattered about the city including The Red Army Kitchen just off Leifeng Boulevard and The People’s Dining Hall down a small alley off Huangxing Road.

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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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