The mountainous region of Hunan in southern China brings in many travelers and backpackers alike. They come to experience the unique landscapes of surging mountains and karst peaks. Hunan province, also known as “South of the Lake”, is situated south of Dongting Lake and connected with the Yangtze River. With enthralling hillside villages and quaint riverside towns, it features the natural homes for the people of Hunan.
One of the UNESCO World Heritage sites known for inspiring the movie Avatar is Wulingyuan. The Wulinguan Scenic Area is located 30km north of the Zhangjiajie city center. It also includes the areas of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, and Suoxi Valley Natural Resource Reserve. The area offers unique hills, unusual rocks and peaks, tranquil valleys, clear streams, plentiful flora and fauna, and a hospitable climate. Also, the Avatar depicted mountains known as “Hallelujah Mountains” resemble the floating islands in the movie with truly unique slender karsts.
The Suix Valley Nature Reserve offers 200 attraction spots and known for being a mountainous village with dense fog. Also, a noteworthy attraction here is The West Sea which is referred to as “Sea of Stone Forests.” The Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve offers unique peaks and rocks and is in constant cloud and fog as well. This nature reserve is also renowned for its four incredible spectacles being the cloud and mist, the night with shining moon, the winter snow, and the morning and evening rosy clouds.
Hunan Province: Shaoshan
The Village of Shaoshan is found in the southwest of the capital city of Hunan Province; Changsha. It was the early home and birthplace of Mao Zedong, the Communist leader. The village welcomes millions of visitors every year to see his mud-brick childhood house, the Mao Zedong Memorial Museum, the huge 6-meter statue of Mao Zedong, and Nan’an School.
Visiting the exhibits are free and make for an easy day trip for backpackers staying in Changsha. Also found in the village are the Dishui Caves regarded as a pearl of the landscape. These are located at the farthest end of the valley of Shaoshan where the rocks have been worn into caves by dripping water of a stream. As the water drips continuously all year creating the sound of a piano giving it the name Dishui which means to drip. Admission for the caves is nearly $5 and well worth the price.
Hunan Province: Yueyang
Known as one of the three famous towers in the south of the Yangtze River is the City of Yueyang. At 25.35 meters high, the Yueyang Tower stands on the shore of the Dongting Lake. The view of the tower from the bank of Dongting Lake is magnificent and grand with the lake in the backdrop with a collection of sailboats.
Also, the scenery attracted several famous poets of the Tang Dynasty like Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, and Li Shangyin. Poetry in regards to towers is widely read in many school districts throughout East Asia. The city itself is a prefecture-level city, famous for its Donging Lake silverfish dish found at many restaurants. Additionally, the Shiniuzhai Scenic Resort is a beautiful mountain area with cable cars, a glass bridge, and elevated walkways.
Also referred to as Heaven’s Gate Mountain is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world called the Tianmen Mountain. Located near Zhangjiajie city in central Hunan Province, the mountain offers stunning views of vertical cliffs, karst caves, and rare sub-tropical forests. People can explore the thrilling cliff-hanging walkways, the glass skywalks, the Tianmen Cave”, the Tianmen Temple, and 99 Bends which is a road with 99 sharp curves reaching the mountain peak.
The mountain features the world’s longest cable car ride with 98 cars covering a distance of 7,455 meters. The cable car runs up to Tianmen Shan from Zhangjiajie downtown offering exceptional views of the lush mountain peaks, the 99 Bends, and deep valleys. Additionally, the steepest section of the cable car ride reaches an angle of 38 degrees which is 7 degrees steeper than average.
Acrobats have been known to use the cable to perform wire-walk stunts. The Tianmen Cave, also known as “stairway to heaven,” is a 30 meters wide water eroded hole between two peaks appearing as a huge doorway inside of a cliff. This is the highest hole of this kind in the world.
Hunan Province: Yuelu Academy
Located on the east side of Yuelu Mountain in central Hunan Province is the Yuelu Academy. This academy is well known for several famous Confucian scholars who lectured at the academy. These scholars include Zhu Xi and Zhang Shi. It is one of the four most prestigious academies in China. The academy has also witnessed more than a thousand years of history becoming a famous institution of higher education. Along with academic learning, it is also a center of academic activities and cultures.
Additionally, it is only one of the ancient Chinese academies of Classical Learning which eventually converted into a modern institution of higher learning. In 1926 it was named the Hunan University listed among the key cultural relics under China’s state protection in 1988. The entrance fee is a reasonable $7 and easily reachable by bus from the Changsha city center.
The capital of the Hunan Province and the most populous city in China with a history dating back to the Zhou Dynasty is the city of Changsha. Although it is not as ancient as other Chinese cities like Beijing, Nanjing, or Xi’an, Changsha has rich historical heritages; old wall remains, religious temples, and ancient tomb sites. Additionally, the most astonishing tomb site is Mawangdui which includes a rare collection of excavated Western Han dynasty tombs. In saying that however, the most interesting historic relic is the well-preserved mummified remains of a woman from the Western Han Dynasty.
Additionally, thousands of relics have been uncovered. These relics include paintings, silk products, lacquer works, potteries, weapons and herbs, and bamboo slips used for writing are shown at the Hunan Provincial Museum. Changsha was home to several revolutionary Chinese leaders like Huyaobang, Liu Shaoqi, and former prime minister, Zhu Rongji.
Also, another museum you shouldn’t miss is the Changsha City Museum. It is especially popular for backpackers as the entrance is free. The museum is full of ceramics, jade, silver, and relics from ancient Chinese dynasties. The city prides itself on gourmet Chinese cuisine. Xiang Cuisine is one of the Eight Cuisines in China notable for having a hot & sour taste similar to the spicy food of Sichuan.
Fenghuang Old Town
In the western end of Hunan Province, nearly 210 km from Zhangjiajie is the old town of Fenghuang. The name means “flying phoenix” and was named after the nearby mountain that resembling a phoenix. The town features wooden stilt houses, stone pathways, curved bridges, and peaceful rivers. Taking a stroll in the old town you will see the old city wall, beautiful bridges, historic temples, and museums. Additionally, the environment enclosing the town is dominated by the color green. Everything has a green aura with green mountain slopes, green fields, and the river reflects green scenery.
Fenghuang ancient town was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008. It’s regarded as the most beautiful town in China. The southern portion of the Great Wall lies close to the town and a sight unique to Chinese culture. Also, the town contains 20 ancient streets, several ancient lanes, and over 200 ancient civil residences. This includes the Huangsiquiao Castle, Chaoyang Palace, Heavenly King Temple, and former home of celebrity Xiong Xiling.
This is a backpacker-friendly town with low-cost accommodations. Also, for backpackers’ convenience, accessible by many low-cost buses. Additionally, you can take cheap rowboats along the river to explore the city and get an up-close view of the stilt houses. Additionally, restaurants are incredibly affordable with average dishes ranging from $2-3 each.
Hunan Province: Hengshan
One of China’s national reserves which is one of five sacred mountains is Hengshan. Located 130 km south of Changsha, Hengshan has 72 peaks with charming waterfalls, lush pine forests, terraced fields, and legacies from ancient civilizations. These legacies have been relinquished by inscriptions and Taoist temples on mountain peaks. Mount Hengshan is also one of the more noteworthy sites. It’s where more than 1,200 kinds of plant species and over 150 kinds of rare trees are found. It includes many natural wonders with temples being Zhurong Peak, Water Curtain Cave, Fangguange Temple, and the Sutra Collection Hall.
Also, Buddhism and Taoism coincide in Mount Hengshan as the mountain was used as a blessing spot dating back to the East Han Dynasty (25AD-225AD). The mount has a long and profound history. It is said that the most legendary emperors in ancient China had a connection with Mount Hengshan. During the Song Dynasty, more than 20 academies were established in the area forming an academy culture of schooling.
The Huxiang School can be found in the hills of the mountain. Also, modern schools today were influenced by the philosophical thinking that emerged from these academies. Visiting Mount Hengshan also comes with a reasonable entrance fee of $10. Cheap accommodation can be found throughout the park making this a very friendly backpacker destination.