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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|How are you?||Ni hao ma?|
|Fine, thanks||Hen hao, xie xie|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention)||Qing wen!|
|Thank you||Xie xie|
|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?|
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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
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
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 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.
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.
Shaoshan, Dripping Water Cave.
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.
Huangxing Zhonglu, Zhaoyang Lu, Pozi Jie.