As the birthplace of Mao Zedong, Communist Party cadres might wax lyrical about the sacred standing of Hunan (湖南; Húnán) in the annals of Chinese history, but it's the province's dramatic scenery that is the real draw. A magnificent landscape of isolated mountain ranges and jagged peaks envelops more than 80% of the province. The most astonishing example is found at the phantasmagorical Zhangjiajie, one of China's most surreal national parks. Here, as in other parts of the province, geological marvels thrust up majestically from green vales fed by tributaries in the fertile Yangzi River basin.
People have long made a home amid Hunan's natural wonders, taming the rocky slopes into terraces of lush fields, and their distinctive cultures live on in charming villages and towns, the most alluring being the historic riverside settlement of Fenghuang.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Hunan.
Among China’s crop of surreal landscapes, Zhangjiajie has got to be a contender for one of the most impressive. A forest of spectacularly weathered spires rises up out of a verdant valley that's filled with dripping moss, fragrant blossoms and acrobatic monkeys. Come dusk, the ensemble is serenaded by a chorus of chirping insects.
Seventy-two peaks spanning 400km comprise the Heng Shan range, but most visitors focus on Zhurong Peak, rising 1290m above sea level. The lung- and knee-busting 13km ascent up winding paths, steep staircases and, in places, a road busy with tourist shuttle buses, takes around four hours one way, although it can fill the best part of a day if you take in the many temples en route. Alternatively, a combination of bus and cable-car up and walking down can take as little as three hours.
If you've made it all the way to Hongjiang, don't overlook nearby Qianyang, another historic river town with a completely different architectural style. In contrast to Hongjiang's narrow alleys and high walls, Qianyang consists of wide-open flagstone streets, fronted by wooden clapboard buildings (most of which date back to the Qing, although there is also one Ming house) and grander yinziwu- style compounds that once belonged to noble families (characterised by a series of adjoining courtyards, high exterior walls and concave roofs).
This area is at the top of the plateau near the Wulingyuan entrance, and enjoys many of the park's more spectacular viewpoints. It can be reached directly by cable car (¥72), which makes the main lookouts quite crowded, but if you use the stairs instead – follow the monorail and keep going (figure three hours going up) – you'll eventually leave the crowds behind and have the fantastic scenery all to yourself.
The old town can be visited in half a day, and undulates in a delightful, higgledy-piggledy, often steep, maze of narrow stone-flagged alleys and lanes. English and Chinese signposts point the way to the more notable buildings, most of which have been fully restored, and there's a metal map on a board at the heart of town for you to consult.
Located on the backside of the park is this unexpectedly fun hike, which descends into a valley (beneath a cable car) before climbing back up a series of narrow crevices to reach an old Tujia courtyard home (乌龙寨, Wūlóng Zhài). From here is the best part – finish with a nervy via ferrata–like ascent to reach the summit of your very own spire (天波府, Tiānbō Fǔ, Tianbo Mansion), where magnificent panoramas await. Don't miss the trail that circles the spire just beneath the summit. Figure 1½ to two hours.
Located near the top of the Bailong Elevator (白龙天梯; Báilóng Tiāntī; one way ¥72), this scenic trail is a succession of one incredible panorama after another: best of all is the No 1 Highest Natural Bridge (天下第一桥, Tiānxiàdìyī Qiáo), a natural bridge spanning two spires, 357m above the canyon floor. Because of its location near the elevator it's quite crowded, but don't let that deter you – the views are simply awesome. You can also hike back down to the Golden Whip Stream from here.
If you speak some Chinese and want to get well off the beaten track, this staggeringly beautiful mountain valley and its caves, natural arches and vertiginous cliffs, 90 minutes by bus from town, makes for a sublime overnight expedition. You begin by descending through a beautiful flat valley called Moon Valley (月之谷, Yuè Zhi Gǔ), surrounded by cliffs, before climbing to a vast cave called Cathedral Gate (教堂们, Jiàotáng Mén), after which you thread through a bamboo forest to make your way towards a 1km-long subterranean cave.
Surrounded by lotus ponds and rice paddies, this modest mud-brick house is like millions of other country homes except that Mao was born here in 1893. By most accounts, his childhood was relatively normal, and he returned briefly in 1921 as a young revolutionary and firebrand. On view are some original furnishings, photos of Mao’s parents and a small barn. No photography or backpacks are allowed inside (lockers are provided). A passport is required to get the free ticket.