Changsha

Get a taste of super-spicy Hunan cuisine in Mao Zedong’s hometown – a booming metropolis of seven million people.

Strategically located by the Xiang River, the capital of Hunan Province is best known as the homeland of Mao Zedong. Then there’s the super-spicy cuisine the locals love, and which visitors like to test their palates with.

As long ago as the 3rd century AD and the Han dynasty, Changsha was a fortified settlement under imperial control. For centuries, it changed so little that it was still a walled city in the 1920s. However, the combination of the Sino-Japanese war (1937–45) and a massive fire in 1938 destroyed almost all of old Changsha. Now, this city of around seven million people is a very modern metropolis.

Yet, Changsha and the nearby village of Shaoshan still see a huge amount of visitors on account of the connection with Mao Zedong, the founding father of modern China. Mao grew up in Shaoshan and later studied and taught in Changsha, while secretly running the local communist party branch. Millions of domestic tourists come each year to pay homage to him at various sites in the area.

Foodies can combine a revolutionary pilgrimage to Changsha with some of the most fiery dishes on the planet. Hunan cuisine, known as xiangcai, is eye-wateringly, tongue-numbingly hot and Changsha is the best place to experience it. Just make sure you have plenty of water or beer to hand to stop your mouth from over-heating.

 

When to go

April to May (spring) or September (the very brief autumn) is the best time to visit Changsha as these months are as hot and humid as summer. Expect some rain from April to June. It can get cold in the winter (November to January), although there are far fewer visitors around. 

Visa requirements

Singaporean citizens can visit China for a period of 15 days without a visa, while most other nationalities require a visa in advance. Ensure your passport is valid for at least six months and that you have a return or onward ticket.

Money

China's currency is the yuan (Y), also known as renminbi or colloquially as Kuai. There are ATM's and exchange counters at the airport. ATM's accepting foreign bank cards are plentiful across Changsha. Credit cards can be used at high-end hotels, shopping malls and restaurants. Everywhere else, cash is preferable.

Transport

Changsha's Huanghua International Airport is 26km (16 miles) east of downtown. Airport shuttles run to and from the Civil Aviation Hotel on Wuyi Dadao in central Changsha every 15 minutes from 5.30am to 10pm (tickets Y20). There are also shuttles to the west and south bus stations, every 30-40 minutes from 9am-6pm. A taxi from the airport to downtown Changsha costs Y70-80.

The first two of Changsha's long-awaited metro lines are scheduled to open in 2015. Local buses go everywhere in the city and cost Y1-2. Taxi are plentiful. Flagfall is Y6.

Health and safety tips

Changsha is a very safe city by international standards with violent crime against foreigners extremely rare. But pickpockets are active so keep an eye on your wallets or purse on buses and in crowded areas. Avoid using unlicensed taxis. Drink only boiled or bottled water.

Emergency details

The nearest Singapore Consulate is in Guangzhou (tel: (86) 21 3891 2345).

The main police station, known as the Public Security Bureau, is 19km (12 miles) south of the city centre at 1 Dianli Lu (tel: (86) 731 8589 5023).

Basic greetings
English Mandarin
Hello Ni hao
How are you? Ni hao ma?
Fine, thanks Hen hao, xie xie
Goodbye Zai jian
Excuse-me! (to get attention) Qing wen!
Thank you Xie xie
Yes Shi de
No Bu shi
OK Hao de
What's your name? Ni jiao shen me ming zi?
My name is… Wo jiao…
Nice to meet you Jian dao ni hen gao xing
Are you on Facebook/Twitter? Nin zai shi yong Facebook/Twitter ma?
Where’s an internet café? Wang ba zai na li?
Where can I get a taxi? Wo ke yi zai na li zhao dao chu zu che?
Where is the bus/train station? Qi che zhan/huo che zhan zai na li?
A one-way/return ticket to… Yi zhang dao…de dan cheng/shuang cheng piao
Do you have a room for one/two? You yi/liang ren de fang jian ma?
When's check out? Ji dian tui fang?
Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar? Ni neng tui jian yi jia hao can guan/jiu ba ma?
A table for two, please Qing gei wo liang ge ren de zhuo zi
A menu, please Qing gei wo cai dan
The bill, please Qing gei wo zhang dan
Where's the toilet? Xi shou jian zai na li?
Help! Jiu ming!

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Yuelu Academy

Lushan Nanlu

Dating back over 1,000 years to the Song dynasty, Yuelu Academy was once one of the four main seats of Chinese learning. Located at the base of Yuelu Mountain, which can be climbed or accessed by cable car for views over Changsha, it’s on the west side of Xiang River in the grounds of Hunan University. Make sure to check out the Hexi Pavilion by the entrance, which houses writing and poetry from some of China's greatest scholars.

Changsha Municipal Museum

538 Bayi Lu

The first thing that you'll see at the Changsha Municipal Museum is a giant statue of Chairman Mao. It's a hint that this museum is more about Changsha's most famous son than anything else, despite the paintings, jade and jewellery on display here. In the grounds of the museum is the house Mao and his first wife lived in from 1921 to 1923, while he was secretly running the local communist party branch. Admission is free, but bring photo ID.

Hunan County No 1 Teachers Training School

356 Shuyuan Lu

Mao studied at the Hunan County No 1 Teachers Training School between 1913 and 1918. He returned to teach here from 1920 to 1922. The school is still training local teachers and sometimes students keen to practise their English will offer to show you around. You can see the classrooms Mao taught and studied in, as well as the old well where he drew water to wash himself.

Tianxin Ge

3 Tianxin Lu

Tianxin Ge is the last remaining section of the walls that encircled Changsha until they were all but demolished in 1928. The walls were constructed first of earth and then stone. Tianxin Ge is now a popular public park and a good spot to meet and chat with the locals.

Shop

ID Mall

216 Pozi Jie

Changsha's teens and twentysomethings flock to the ID Mall, many spending the entire day here. It's packed with mid-range brands, accessories, cosmetics and electronics. There's a cinema and restaurants too.

Budget $$

Pinghetang Department Store

152 Zhongshan Beilu

The Pinghetang, or Peace Church, Department Store is a favourite with upmarket locals. Come here for high-end brands like Chanel, Gucci and Prada, as well as for luxury cosmetics from Japan and South Korea. Part of a larger mall complex, there are restaurants here too and the downtown location is convenient.

Budget $$$

Taiping Jie

Taiping Jie

Taiping Jie is one of Changsha's oldest streets and many of its buildings have been re-built in the traditional style. Cobbled and car-free, it's lined with little shops and boutiques, as well as bars, and is a fine place to search for souvenirs. Embroidery and carved stone animals are good buys. It's especially evocative at night and one of the most popular nightlife zones in Changsha.

Budget $

Wuyi Square Shopping Circle

Wuyi Dadao and Huangxing Lu

Right in the heart of Changsha, the Wuyi Square Shopping Circle encompasses a number of department stores and shopping malls scattered along Huangxing Lu and on the intersection with Wuyi Dadao. You can find everything from clothes to household items and it's a great place for people watching. The La Nova store is especially popular for mid-range brands like Zara and H&M.; When you're done shopping, there are plenty of bars and restaurants in the vicinity.

Budget $$



Dine

Fire Palace

507 Shaoshan Beilu

The name, Fire Palace, lets you know what to expect at this restaurant that sees far more locals than foreigners. Yes, it's xiangcai cuisine and the dishes are hot enough to blow your head off, but that's why you're here. This is the sort of place where the fish head soup, pig blood, chicken feet and pork knuckles go fast. But the stinky tofu is excellent as well. It's more pricey than most Changsha eateries and, in true mainland Chinese style, the service can be slow and slack.

Budget $$$

Huogongdian

127 Pozi Jie

Huogongdian is Changsha's most famous restaurant, dating back to 1747. Mao was a big fan of the stinky tofu here and the place is always packed, creating a fantastic buzz. You can order off the menu, including the braised pork that was the Chairman's favourite dish, or choose from the huge selection of dishes wheeled around on trolleys by cheerful ladies.

Budget $$

Sunriver Dumpling Restaurant

102 Wuyi Dadao

Sunriver Dumpling Restaurant is the place to come when you need a break from the chilli and spice assault that is Hunan cuisine. Specialising in the far milder dishes of the north, there's a good range of succulent dumplings on offer, including vegetarian options. A wide range of dishes, from noodles to Peking duck, also feature on the menu.

Budget $

Xinhua Lou

35 Wuyi Dadao

Great for travellers on a tight budget, Xinhua Lou is a long-standing Changsha institution. Superb noodles, or take your pick of xiangcai dishes pushed around by the harried crew of waitresses. There are also branches at Pozi Jie and 54 Sudong Zhonglu.

Budget $

Xi Hu Lou Jiu Jia

Jinma Food City

Xi Hu Lou Jiu Jia is the world's largest Chinese restaurant, and it has a plaque on the wall from the Guinness Book of Records to prove it. More like a restaurant mall than an individual eatery, it has enough rooms and banquet halls to house 5,000 diners. Five kitchens prepare almost every variety of Chinese cuisine, or you can opt for the lane of street food. Book ahead if you want a private room. The restaurant is six miles northeast of Changsha's city centre.

Budget $$


Stay

Changsha-Hunan International Youth Hostel

61 Gongshang Xiang

Changsha's best budget accommodation, the Changsha-Hunan International Youth Hostel scores highly thanks to its central, secluded location. Decent dorms and doubles are available, along with free Wi-fi and efficient, friendly staff. There's a garden area too. Another, newer, branch lies west of the Xiang River at 50 Xinmin Lushan Huaqiao Cun.

Budget $

Changsha Huatian Hotel

300 Jiefang Donglu

Huge and a little impersonal, the Changsha Huatian Hotel touts itself as a five-star option, although it wouldn't rate that many stars outside China. It's designed for domestic businessmen and high-end travellers, and they rave about the many dining options on offer here, while being less concerned about the quality of service. Very big rooms are a bonus, although some look a bit tired now. There's a pool and gym, while the location is perfect for restaurants and sights.

Budget $$$

Changsha Sheraton Hotel

478 Furong Zhonglu

The Changsha Sheraton has been around a while, but maintains its high standards. It's still a fine option for anyone looking for a little luxury in Changsha. Beds are big and comfortable, bathrooms top-notch. There's also a pool and a gym, while on-site Cantonese and Hunanese restaurants will ensure you don't go hungry. In low season, sizeable discounts are often available.

Budget $$$

Jinjiang Inn

1 Dongfeng Lu

Part of a nationwide chain, the Jinjiang Inn is anonymous, but offers excellent value for money. Rooms are modern and well-kept, with decent if small bathrooms, and there's free Wi-fi access. The location by pleasant Lieshi Park, a hot spot for locals to dance and exercise, is an added bonus.

Budget $$

Lotus Huatian Hotel

176 Wuyi Dadao

Don't be put off by the Lotus Huatian Hotel's ageing exterior. Inside is a very well-maintained hotel run by competent staff. The best rooms are on the refurbished 7th and 8th floors, but all are clean and spacious. Regular discounts of up to 20 percent add to the allure.

Budget $$


Chinese New Year

January/February

The highlight of New Year celebrations in Changsha is the firework displays by the Xiang River.


Dragon Boat Festival

May/June

Head to the Xiang River to watch the local dragon boat crews compete in races. Lots of zangzi (sticky rice dumplings), get eaten too.


Lantern Festival

February/March

Changsha marks the end of the Spring Festival in traditional fashion, with thousands of beautifully decorated lanterns lighting up the streets.


Mid-Autumn Festival

September/October

Also known as the Moon Festival, this is when Changsha's street vendors get busy making moon cakes, a sweet, rich mix of bean paste, egg and sugar.


Orange Isle Music Festival

September

This annual festival showcases some of the best bands from across China, as well as a few foreign ones. Held on Orange Isle in the Xiang River, the city's best park, it offers a rare chance to rock out in Changsha.



Culture

Changsha is home to a number of key sites where Mao Zedong once lived and studied, but for a true taste of what Mao still means to many Chinese, you have to join the three million people who make the pilgrimage every year to his home village of Shaoshan, a 1.5-hour bus ride southwest from Changsha.

 

Catch the bus to Shaoshan from the south bus station, where they depart every 30 minutes from 8am until 5.30pm (Y26). They return to Changsha until 5.30pm. A surprisingly pretty hamlet, Shaoshan is where Mao was born in 1893 and subsequently raised. 

 

Start by visiting Mao’s childhood home (open  8.30am–5pm). A modest mud-brick house, it contains photos of Mao’s parents and some original furnishings. A few steps away is Nan’an School, where you can see the classroom Mao sat in as a child.

 

By far the most informative site is the nearby Museum of Comrade Mao (open 9am–4.30pm). There are plenty of photos and exhibits following the timeline of his life. To the right of the museum is the Mao Family Ancestral Hall, which is sometimes closed to the public.

 

All the above sites are free and close to each other. If you want to visit Dripping Water Cave, where Mao retreated for 11 days in 1966 before unleashing the Cultural Revolution, or Shao Peak, which has stone tablets engraved with Mao’s poetry, you’ll need a motorbike taxi. Expect to pay around Y100 there and back.

Places to visit:
Shaoshan, Dripping Water Cave.

Foodie

Sampling Hunan’s legendary xiangcai cuisine is almost as much of a draw for visitors to Changsha as the chance to pay their respects to Chairman Mao. One of the eight schools of Han Chinese cooking, xiangcai takes its name from the Xiang River which cuts through Changsha. The dishes are just as spicy, sometimes more so, as the food of Sichuan Province, although they are generally lighter on the palate.

 

Rather than the flower pepper found in Sichuan food, Hunan cuisine employs far more chilli. That means the dishes are immediately fiery, with meat dishes especially marinated in chilli before cooking. The flavours are pungent and very sharp.

 

Xiangcai can be sampled all over town, but if you like to snack on the move then make tracks for the lanes off Huangxing Zhonglu. The street runs east–west close to the Xiang River in the centre of Changsha, and you’ll find any number of street food vendors here. It’s a fine place to try Hunan classics like stinky tofu and rice balls stuffed with meat, mushrooms and spring onion.

 

Zhaoyang Lu is another fine spot for street-snacking, as is Pozi Jie, which is a couple of roads south of Huangxing Zhonglu. In the summer, there are many outdoor restaurants around town. You’ll find the locals crowded round big bowls of crayfish seasoned with lots of chilli, or eating mala ziji, a chicken dish which uses a lot of capsicum, a key ingredient of xiangcai Wherever you are in Changsha, you’ll eat well.

Places to visit:
Huangxing Zhonglu, Zhaoyang Lu, Pozi Jie.