Story and photos by Sharon King Hoge

Hunan World Heritage quartzite-sandstone forest


Heaven’s Gate and the Stone Pillar Supporting Heaven are only two sites in China’s Hunan province that guarantee a “heavenly” visit.  While there are no actual “pearly gates,” the entire province, nestled into a horseshoe of mountains west of Shanghai, below China’s second largest lake, offers a wealth of wondrous and worthy destinations.  

Hunan The stone pillar supporting heaven was renamed Avatar Hallelujah Mountain

Starting at the provincial capital, a two hour flight west from Shanghai, Changsha on the Xiang River is one of China’s modest large cities (population merely 7-8 million!!!) a green and clean metropolis where Mao both studied and taught. Tangerine Island, stretching down the Xiang River in the middle of town, is a landscaped park of amusements and greenery crowned with a colossal granite bust of the leader who used to swim over from his school.  A recreation of that Hunan County No. 1 Teachers’ Training School, open to visitors, shows classrooms where the Great Leader studied, taught, and held political meetings. 

Besides Changsha’s popular pedestrian streets lined with food stalls and shops, a notable site is the marvelous Hunan Provincial Museum.  Besides tracing history of the Hunan people, it houses artifacts from the remarkably well preserved Han Dynasty tombs of the Marquis of Dai and his wife Mawangdui.  Preserved almost intact 2,000 years after they were discovered and excavated, urns, military figures, a piece of fabric printed with figures depicting the queen’s daily exercises are shown in a multi-level “representation” of the tomb.  Visitors can look down and envision where the multi-layered coffins of the queen once were placed several stories below.

Hunan View from Tangerine Island across the Xiang River to Changsha

Traveling west by car or high-speed train, travelers reach the mountains at Zhangjiajie.  A seven kilometer cableway gondola, said to be the longest in the world, ascends past vistas and views to the top of Tianmen mountain.  No need to walk down.  After admiring the views from a glass walkway around the perimeter, visitors descend on a series of eight impeccable speedy escalators to walk through the Gate of Heaven, the highest naturally formed arch in the world, a hole so large that stunt pilots have flown through it.

Further descending, six more escalators speed riders down to a huge outdoor Xiangxi amphitheater where nightly over a hundred actors and dancers present mammoth spectacles (with English subtitles), stories of heroes and princesses performed in villages, structures and rivers that stretch across the natural scenery. 

Hunan Gate of Heaven opening in Tianmen Mountain

Among several multi-star hotels in Zhangjiajie Village, the Pullman offers five-star accommodations in rooms with a contemporary Southeast Asian design.  Near its spacious Lobby Bar, the VCafe offers international cuisine. Cantonese fare is served in Feng Chinese Restaurant and local Xiang and Tujia dishes are served in VNoodles.  A spa, business center, massage salon, and spa offer alternatives to sightseeing. 

Hunan Pool at the Pullman Hotel

But there is much more to see in the region including excursions to the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and the Grand Canyon.  A UNESCO National Heritage Site, the park covers acres crowded with unique quartz-sandstone pillars rising like a forest of stalactites amid dense growth, an otherworldly vista which inspired the setting of the movie “Avatar.”  Winding walkways culminate in a view of the 3500-foot freestanding “stone pillar supporting heaven,” which has been officially renamed “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.”

Also nearby is one of the world’s longest and tallest glass-bottom bridges stretching 1500 feet between two Grand Canyon cliffs.  Visitors strolling across the span peer through the transparent surface to admire “heavenly” views down to the river almost 1000 feet below. 

Hunan glass footbridge crosses the Grand Canyon

This is only a sampling of Hunan offerings.  Further north there are excursions on Dongting Lake.  Riverside Fenghuang/ Phoenix City is a charming village of stilt houses supported on tree poles strung along the Tuo River.  In Liling, a renowned porcelain center, the entire factory complex, including a museum displaying wondrous ceramics, is a fanciful campus of tall buildings shaped like vases, urns, and other vessels.  For travelers sampling China, Beijing and Shanghai are important first-trip destinations, but for subsequent visits, Hunan proves that heaven isn’t out of reach.




© November 2018 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.


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