Hunan Province: Mao Central and Extraterrestrial Scenery

September 10th to 20th, 2015

By Jennifer & Steve

Heng Shan

Our experience in Xi’an had been amazing, and our subsequent experience in and around Changsa was not to disappoint either. Though it took 17 hours by train to get to Changsa, we were quick to head to Mt. Heng Shan the day after arriving…a 30 minute trip on the bullet train.  Though this speedy form of travel was a bit more expensive, it was amazing and seemed like an alternative universe to regular Chinese transportation. A universe featuring clean bathrooms, stewardesses, coffee, and a sense of calm not often encountered in China…  like Air Canada versus a greyhound bus.

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Steve hiking in front as “snakebait,” Heng Shan.

So we made it to Heng Shan, a touristy town where every single shop sells copious amounts of incense.  Mt Heng Shan itself is a holy mountain in a giant park recommended by the Lonely Planet guide, featuring a scenic 13km hike up the mountain past numerous Buddhist and Taost temples. We were initially quite surprised to find the trail as quiet as our trek up Hua Shan, only to later discovered that everyone was taking a bus up the mountain. That’s China! We began hiking with the loose goal of exploring, not necessarily climbing to the peak as we had all our camping gear, water, and bodies recovering from previous adventures. We slowly meandered our way up beautiful jungle paths, past streams, and waterfalls. We saw snakes (very small and fortunately happy to get out of our way… ), jumping fish, turtles, and a few adventurous Chinese tourists hiking.  It was very hot and humid, and the first hike of our Asia trip with some jungle to it.

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Heng Shan Lake

Eventually we made it to the base of the cable car, about half-way (7km) up the mountain, and from here the stairs – lots and lots of stairs- began.  Several hours of leg presses later it was time to call it a night.  There weren’t any flat spots for the tent (due to the steep mountain), but we managed to create a flat enough terrace with a little bit of digging. We made supper, and then crawled into the tent just as it was beginning to rain.

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And the stairs begin…
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We awoke around 5am to the sound of rain, wind, and hikers in noisy plastic ponchos shining flashlights on the tent on their way by. More hikers than you would ever expect at 5am on a trail in China.  The flow of hikers next to our tent was continued from 5 am onward, until got up around 6am to join them.  A few kilometers up the hill it it was crazy… at 7am in the morning, on a windy, rainy day (granted, it was a Saturday) there were thousands of Chinese tourists out to hike the last part of the mountain (the buses do not take you the final kilometer, though you can hire two men to carry you in a chair).  It was pouring rain, but this didn’t seem to stop anyone.  We saw no one with rain gear – no coats, pants, or hiking boots. Instead everyone was wearing normal city clothes and shoes with bright red, purple, yellow, blue, or green poncho tops, poncho pants, and even little ponchos for your shoes. Oh, and umbrellas. Walking among crowds of short folks carrying umbrellas who do not pay attention to those around them… eye protection should have been required. With our North Face and MEC rain gear and giant packs we definitely stood out from the crowd.  Two foreigners caught up in the Poncho Pilgrimage.

At the Taoist temple, temporary reprieve from both rain and fire. How many ponchos can you spot?

At the top there was a Taoist temple featuring a huge ‘incense offering’/bonfire on which people were throwing entire boxes of incense, firecrackers, and prayer sheets. These were burning and blowing all around the peak of the mountain from the crazy wind.  You had to dodge leaping flames and protect your eyes from blowing ash as you went up the last steps. This combined with the poncho army combined with pouring rain did not exactly make for a peaceful scene at the top of the mountain.

We couldn’t see anything from the top due to the weather, so we had a friendly poncho donned tourist take a picture of us, hiked the 14km down, ate lunch, bussed to the train station, took the bullet trian to Changsha, the metro to town, a taxi to our former hostel where our stuff was stored (taxi driver refused to turn on the meter and tried to overcharge us… so we tossed a  reasonable amount on the seat and made a run for it), grabbed our stored stuff, caught another taxi (metered) to our new hostel, and wandered the alleys for a half hour before finally getting to our new hostel. Whew…  The hiking and sightseeing part of traveling China isn’t nearly as tiring as the effort it takes to get from one place to another.

That evening we caught an amazing fireworks show on the river that the city puts on for free every Saturday. We spent the next day lazing around the hostel, stocking up on supplies, and doing a long run around the beautiful Orange Isle Park. This park features an enormous stone statue of young Chairman Mao’s head and torso, resembling the sphinx.

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A relaxed greeting committee member at the entrance to Zhangjiajie National Park

The following day, we set out bright and early for Zhangjiajie National Park and its giant otherworldly stone pillars.  We headed back to the train station, intending to catch a 4 hour bus… it turns out we should have been at a second station, across town, to do this. With the help of some friendly locals we got a great deal on some train tickets instead, and made our way to the nearby waiting room before realizing we ended up with the dreaded standing tickets for the 6 1/2 hour train ride.

This wasn’t our first Chinese train experience, so we knew to wait at the front of the line and elbow our way to the train as fast as possible to grab space for our packs places to stand.  It ended up being all right – the train was packed full at the start and our claimed spots standing next to the hot water supply could have been worse. There were plenty of people passing by/over/around us to get to the hot water and smoke next to us (between cars), but about halfway through the ride about half the people on the train got off at a stop and we were able to snag some unclaimed seats for the rest of the trip.

When we got to Zhangjiajie Park that evening it was already dark, so after a quick supper we avoided the hassle and cost of finding a hotel room by setting up our house (tent) in the back corner of the park entrance parking lot. The prime location for an early start the following day!

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Parking lot camping with a view hinting at what was to come.

We entered at the lower forest park entrance, making our way thorough families of monkeys swinging from trees and park signs.  As we followed a stream up a valley the sheer size of the pillar-like rocks and their beauty was breathtaking.  Truely one of the most unique places, geography-wise, we ever been.  The stream meandering along the valley with the jungle scenery and monkeys is amazing in itself, but then you look up and realize that you are surrounded by these absolutely giant rock pillars defying gravity with vertical cliffs and unique sandstone formations.

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More greeting committee members.
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The park pathways were all stone, kilometers and kilometers of it. Some paths were less used and so were slippery with jungle moss, but none quite as bad as this abandoned staircase.

We spent 3 days and 3 nights in the park, hiking and camping.  Certain parts were extremely busy, but we were able to find private camping spots in hidden corners to soak in the beauty and surreal scenery.  Writing will not be able to do the park justice, check out these pictures!

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Our view of “the worlds #1 biggest natural land bridge” from our second camping spot.
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Jenn livin’ on the edge.
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View from the bottom
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An adventurous Chinese tourist nervously keeping his balance on top of a formation.
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A tight squeeze on the way to a very well protected village up in the rocks. The village was used by bandits as it as very easy to defend, a natural fortress in the sky.
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Camp site #3. The view from site #4 was also spectacular, but the camera did not make it out due to rain.
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Zangjiajie sunset.
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Mohawked critter.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to leave any questions or comments you may have in the comment section below.

Jenn and Steve


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