Why yes, I am arbitrarily changing the rules of this countdown in the middle (at the beginning) of it, and expanding it out to broader China. For one thing, I can do what I want. For another, I have not written a single thing about the places we’ve been in China, and now we’re riding the psychotic horse of time toward the burning stable of leaving this place, and only by fitting these journeys into this construct will I actually get around to telling you about them.
So this week, our friends Jeff and Allison were in town from New York, and in addition to showing them around Beijing and taking Jeff to every Mexican restaurant in Shanghai, we made a side trip to Hunan province. What do you know about Hunan? Anything? Perhaps just that the food is supposed to be spicy? Well, Hunan is Mao’s home province. It is also home to the Zhangjiajie park, which looks like the landscape in the movie Avatar, because the movie Avatar’s landscape was actually inspired by this park. (Was that sentence English?)
Were we to do this trip over, we would probably skip Changsha and head straight for Zhangjiajie, but that thought did not occur to us until long after we’d booked our tickets. Not that Changsha is a bad city. In fact, if you want a taste of a second-tier Chinese city, where millions of people in China live and work, Changsha is as good a place as any to experience. Possibly even better, because the food is quite strong, which we learned when we accidentally ordered an $80 lunchtime feast for three at the Fire Palace (Huo Guo Dian). The staff told each other to avoid our table so that we couldn’t order any more. I blame the dim sum-style service: I am unable to control myself when a woman with a cart is pushing spareribs and bacon on me.
Anyway, Changsha has an embroidery museum (where all the work is for sale, so I’m unclear on whether museum is the correct translation) and, probably more importantly, a giant statue of young Mao’s head. Because Mao was from Hunan. To get to young Mao’s head, you have to first go to the river island and then either take a tram or walk to the southern end of it. We are vital youngish adults, and the park is quite nice, so we chose to walk, which took about two hours. We all complained a lot about that, though — so this is my way of telling you it’s better to take the tram. On the plus side, we got to experience the three-star bathroom en route. I think that rating was a bit optimistic.
Anyway, look at those majestic flowing locks! Also, the super to-scale chin mole. Think he was mad about that? I think I might have told my sculpting team to photoshop that out. Young Mao’s Head is number 95 in this countdown.
We trammed out of the park, thankfully, and at the entrance to the subway, I finally seized my opportunity to try a snack that I’ve spied around Beijing a few times. Basically, these dudes drive little flatbed go-carts, onto which they strap humongous wheels of what looks like fruitcake. In Changsha, I learned that when you buy some of this fruitcake, the vendor makes you use a trowel to cut your
own slice, and then charges you by weight. Which is how I ended up with a $25 birthday cake-sized granola bar. Because that’s what this snack is. A glorified granola bar. (Lesson here: I have no spatial awareness, and, as my friends pointed when I failed to give a reasonable counter-offer to a swindling cab driver, I have the bargaining skills of Barack Obama.)
The good news is, the granola bar was delicious, and it fueled our hiking adventure in Zhangjiajie, so I’m giving the snack its own place on this countdown. Consider that number 94, just above Changsha itself.
Okay! Zhangjiajie! Number 93!
You’ve seen Avatar, right? Well, its scenery is based on Zhangjiajie, which looks to me like another planet, because I have no frame of reference for topography like this. Words don’t fail me often, but I think instead of me trying to describe the expanse of sandstone karsts that comprises this place, you should just look at a photo or several:
Because this is China, park-keepers have really capitalized on that Avatar connection, and you can have your photo taken with massive plastic statues of the Avatar aliens all over the place.
Also because this is China, you can ride up one of the karsts in a glass elevator.
When we rode it, a bunch of people complained that the foreigners were too tall (which is to say, us) and should have to move to the back. But before we could offer to switch, they said, “They don’t understand.” And so I pretended like that was true and enjoyed my window view in the front. (We weren’t actually blocking anyone’s view, which became evident when everyone collectively said, “oooooh” when we broke into daylight.)
The power move was to do some hiking, because most people bus around the park and never get too deep out onto the trails. The first day, we hiked up the mountain to Huangshi Village, arriving just as the fog settled so densely into the forest that we could see approximately nothing (a real shame, since signs all over the park proclaimed that he who goes to Zhangjiajie and does not see Huangshi Village may as well not have come at all.) The second (much more clear) day we took the bus up to the top of one of the mountains and hiked down, which was considerably less difficult.
I think the only thing to do here is add in some nature-porn, because I could write a lot of words about this spectacular place and never really capture it. Before that though, I’ll mention for fellow travel planners that we stayed at a place called Taitian Hotel, and while I have no basis for comparison, I think you’re kind of messing up if you don’t do the same.
A of all, it was quite nice, quite reasonably priced, and run by the nicest people in the world. B of all, it was situated about a five-minute walk from the least crowded entrance of the park, from which you could hop on a bus and cruise around for free all day. And C of all, it made some excellent food, which was lucky, because there was not one other restaurant located nearby. This was probably the best food we ate in Hunan, though — strips of salty bacon with green chilies, savory and substantial pork broth, crisp-edged soft potatoes, and fried kudzu root, which was like super savory gelatin.
It had a decidedly home-cooked flavor to it, which is a common thread in a lot of the best dishes we’ve had here.
Anyway, that nature porn:
And here’s us crammed onto a bus, just for fun: