Changsha is the provincial capital of Hunan Province, and a place where Mao Zedong spent loads of time. It’s in the center of the country, but has a fairly extensive military history, both ancient and modern. The most recent was the Japanese invasion during World War 2 (which began in 1937 for the Chinese). It was important strategically as it was on the river, but in fact, it lacked much of the infrastructure to make it a really worthwhile. For myriad reasons, Changsha still lacks some of this infrastructure as compared to other major Chinese cities, but appears it’s headed in a good direction as it already has a high speed rail station, two subway lines (with 5 more planned) and an intercity line planned with two nearby cities.
There are some cities, like Hangzhou that are amazing places without a doubt, yet I probably wouldn’t suggest someone to fly from America to China for. Hangzhou is absolutely incredible in oh so many ways, but for most I doesn’t have the pull of Shanghai or Beijing, so just go there. If Hangzhou isn’t a place I categorically recommend in that regard, Changsha sure as hell is not. It’s got some good eats and some neat spots and the river seems to be pretty, but doesn’t really have a draw beyond being a hub for the other beautiful spots in Hunan Province.
Wenxi Fire. One of the reasons there isn’t much here is because the city was burnt to the ground in World War 2, by the Chinese themselves (by the KMT, the party now in control of Taiwan’s Parliament). They reckon after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Stalingrad, this was the most ruined place from the war. As the Japanese pushed on into the center of the country, the generals decided that they might raze Changsha to the ground so the invaders couldn’t loot it for anything. And so, in 1938, essentially the whole city was ablaze and leveled.
This is particularly devastating on both humanitarian and historical grounds. The humanitarian ones are pretty obvious as hundreds of thousands were left homeless and in search of food. Historically, it was damaging as Changsha was one of the few ancient cities in China that hadn’t moved location in the slightest throughout its history, and as such all relics and valuables were – in 1937 – still present and intact. Even Beijing’s center has moved around over the millennia. Changsha housed 2,500 year old relics, but today? Gone. As someone who appreciates history, this made me rather sad, a la ISIS damaging Palmyra recently. Is historical preservation ever grounds for war? I think probably not, but it certainly is worth thinking about.
Food. One thing I’ll miss back home is the sheer diversity of Chinese food. You just don’t get the many, many variants you find here. Hunan food is incredibly delicious, as it’s laced with dried chili peppers creating a burning heat. China has other spicy cuisines, but again this flavor palette is just different. Sichuan has “mouth-numbing” heat, whereas Guizhou food combines sourness with spiciness. This type of burning is just different, and something you can’t readily get in the US.
Some of the dishes were “stinky tofu” which I had in Hangzhou but is actually from Hunan, in addition to boiled pig blood, various soups, fried flour and pork pits in a broth, special dumplings, and a special meat dish called sanxiaguo, which literally is “three down pot.”
The history of the dish is that during war centuries ago, the local generals didn’t have enough time to cook, so they took three different kinds of meat, threw it in the pot and voila! you have this dish. In the restaurants you get to pick which three you want (smoked pork, pig face, lamb innards, chicken innards, or just normal pork.) It was awesome eating the local version, because one of my favorite restaurants in Foshan was a Hunan restaurant, and the difference between the standardized, purified chain restaurants and homemade grub is a world apart.
Tangerine Island. There’s a place on the Xiang River that runs through the city called Juzizhou, where juzi means tangerine and zhou means sandbar. But I think “Tangerine Sandbar” sounds weird, so I took the liberty to translate it Tangerine Island. It was on this island that Mao Zedong, along with other leaders, liked to swim and write poetry. The people of Hunan worship him, as he’s from the area and the first leader of China as we know it. So on this little island is a huge bust of a young Mao, hair flowing in the wind. It’s a sweet statue, to be fair, and the river surrounding it was gorgeous, if not ruined by the downpour.
Hunan service sucks. I’ve always thought that service in Asia is pretty darn good. Some places have it better than others, but in general, China has quite decent service. You ask for something in the service industry and they will do it, rapidly and smiling. At a restaurant, you just scream for help and they come running. In the US, you ask for a glass of water and it’s carried out reluctantly or with disdain
But in Hunan, they are rude as all hell. If a customer is walking and a waitress is walking toward them, the waitress will bump you out of the way, even if there’s nothing in her hands. If you ask for a bowl or plate, they are upset you asked. We asked for a new spoon to mix a dish, and she came over, took a spoon from another one of our (sweet) dishes, dunked it in the other (spicy) one, and then put it back. Which made the sweet dish taste…disgusting, all because she didn’t wanna go get us a spoon. Taxi drivers didn’t ever wanna take us where we asked, waitresses were rude. It was pretty bizarre.
Rough place. Anddd last on Changsha. I’ve been to the center of China a few times I guess, but not quite to these parts. I’ve heard it’s a rougher place there, and I was not surprised to find that to be true. The aforementioned rudeness in the service industry. Cab drivers who spit out windows when the car is moving and the back window is open. And then do it again. And again. The general attitude and aggressiveness of the people. Our tour guide in Zhangjiajie, a national park, just being overlyforceful.
In fact, I’ve heard that this is home of pick-pocketing and that Hunan people will move to other cities to do their trade. I’ve heard that Hunan in general is rough. When Hong Kong was transferred over to the PRC by the UK in 1997, many of the triads (the gangs) where forced out or were rid of because of more aggressive government policy. A lot crossed the border to mainline China and ended up in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, which until recently retained a reputation as China’s Sin City.
I’ve read books about prostitution in China as a whole and, in the context of factory work in Dongguan some of the shadier dealings in the city. I’ve heard tales from businessmen who have been witness, shall we say, to the lust that the southern city encourages. CEOs taking their underlings out on a night on the town was a weekly occurrence. Every karaoke bar or barber shop was a front. Some of this remained in Guangdong Province, and some of the triads and shady business continued north to Hunan.
I had a friend who lived a small city (by Chinese standards) called Jishou in Hunan Province for about two years and dealt with gang members, often called “black society” or heishehui. 黑社会. He told me many had a black scorpion tattooed on their hands between the thumb and forefinger, and sure enough, Changsha was home to many gang members, either current or retired. I wanted to take a picture of their hands, but…ya know…gangs.
We stayed in Changsha for but a day, but it’s a pretty awesome little city – of 7 million people. It’s bustling with people, brimming with awesome food and bursting with personality unique to itself and nowhere else. It’s again a reminder of why living in China is amazing. It’s home to such diversity that you would never seek out from another continent. But living here, just a cheap high speed train ticket will send you on a rapid yet enlightening journey.
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