Traveling to Wonderland Hunan

As I took 999 steps down the hill to reach the bus parking area, it seemed, out of nowhere, the heaven opened.
by Vivek Kumar
The opening “heavenly door” in the Tianmen Mountain on a foggy and rainy day.

Traveling is always the perfect combination of exploring the unknown and challenging your own limitations. China as my second home has always been my hunting ground for quenching this thirst. From the beautiful old city of Lijiang to the city of squares Dalian, from the wonder of Taishan Mountain to the steepest slope of Huashan Mountain, I have already traveled more than 40 cities in China, and my journey goes on.

This time, I took a trip to the eye-catching and picturesque places in Hunan Province. The name “Hunan” means the “southern side of the lake” in Chinese, so in the name itself, we can find this province has a connection with the water element. Most parts of Hunan sit to the south of Dongting Lake where the Yangtze River flows through and meets the major rivers of the province.

The Yuanjiajie scenic area in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is noted for jagged peaks, which provided the inspiration for the floating mountains in the movie Avatar.

On October 10, 2020, I took a night train from Guangzhou to Zhangjiajie, and arrived by the next early morning. I booked a hotel near the southern entry point of the Avatar Mountains in the Wulingyuan National Forest Park and a convenient bus took me directly there. The hotel owner was quite nice. She taught me how to tour around the Avatar Mountains, which were part of the national forest park designated a World Heritage site in 1992.

The area stretches around 26,400 hectares, so even to cover all the scenic spots, you need at least two to three days. But don’t worry. You don’t need to walk on foot for that. There are buses in the park that will take you to important scenic spots. On the first day, I went to the Ten-Mile Gallery and the Golden Whip Stream. The stream area is about seven kilometers long and it takes around three hours of walking to cover it. This place is worth visiting with all the small bridges, and you will have a chance to take pictures of the lurking macaque monkeys. The next day, I visited the Yuanjiajie scenic area to view the peaks used to shoot the movie Avatar and the famous natural stone bridge. Then I took the Bailong Elevator, the world’s highest outdoor elevator in the Guinness Book of World Records to go down the mountain.

The second place in my itinerary was the Tianmen Mountain. The bus ride from Wulingyuan to the Tianmen Mountain was just 40 minutes. The bus will drop you off at the entry point for the cableway, the ticket for which you need to book one day in advance. This is the world’s longest cableway and it takes almost 28 minutes to reach the top of the mountain. But that day, I seemed to run out of luck—it was raining heavily, so when I reached the top, nothing was really visible. The whole mountain was covered in a mystical fog. But as I took 999 steps down the hill to reach the bus parking area, it seemed, out of nowhere, that a door in the heaven opened. It was really mystical. Every other tourist around me was awestruck. We took tons of pictures of that particular moment. After photographing the “door” opening in the heaven, I took a bus ride of 99 twists and turns which felt like sliding down a dragon back. This mountain indeed has a mysterious spirit.

A picture of Vivek Kumar taken by a river in the ancient town of Fenghuang.

The next destination was the ancient town of Fenghuang. This beautiful town with a history of more than 400 years is settled around the Tuojiang River. Almost all the wooden houses there are so well preserved that you will find yourself lost in scenes from dynastic period films. I spent two nights in Fenghuang and booked an inn near the riverside, so I could enjoy the night view and hear the sound of the flowing river.

Beautiful places in the town to take pictures are the Snow Bridge, the Rainbow Bridge, the Wind Bridge, the Cloud Bridge, the Wanming Tower, and stilted buildings. The names of the bridges are colorful, but the really colorful aura appears at night.

The twinkling lights and the music coming out from the bars along the riverside filled the atmosphere around with joy. At night, the 400-year-old Fenghuang became a lively town with a touch of modern colorful twinkling lights and party crawlers filling up the bar area. In the daytime, I found some people fishing around the Tuojiang River and some people from the Miao ethnic group dressed in traditional costumes selling their handmade crafts. I also spent some time in a coffee house reading and writing poetry. I was surprised to find that the coffee place had a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection of poems. In this town, you can not only see its magnificence but also feel the exuberance of its poetic imprint.

I moved on to Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. I can never forget this city and will definitely come back. The reason is mostly the food. This city’s culinary items just took me back to India for a while because of mixtures of sweets and spicy snacks. Here the must-try foods include: tangyoubaba (a famous snack made of glutinous rice powder, oil and sugar), stinky tofu, sweet dumplings and shaomai (steamed meat dumpling).

In this city, you definitely should visit the Orange Isle and the Yuelu Mountain. The Orange Isle is the largest sandbank in the downstream area of the Xiangjiang River. The entire scenic area covers around 92 hectares where you can find lots of orange trees as well as bamboo trees.  

The Snow Bridge in the ancient town of Fenghuang.

After my trip to Hunan, I took a bullet train from Changsha to Shaoshan. Why Shaoshan? Shaoshan holds an important status in the modern history of China. Chairman Mao Zedong, the main founder of the People’s Republic of China, was born and brought up there. I toured around the school where he studied and the houses where he lived. In the Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, you will find lots of items and anecdotes related to him.

This 10-day trip left a huge mark in my memory: the dazzling lights of the ancient town of Fenghuang, the iconic mountain views in Zhangjiajie, the historical significance of Shaoshan… I would like to end this travel story with a few lines from the song I heard in a bar of Fenghuang:





There the lake is clean and clear.

Peace forever fills the air.

Moonlight falls across the ground

where your buried memories can be found.


The author is a travel enthusiast and poet who works in Guangzhou. He holds a master’s degree in Chinese Language and Culture from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.