Hunan –the China from imagination

Before I begin my posts on our travels after China, I have a guest post for you from my incredible husband Marc who travelled to Hunan to visit a field site. Unfortunately, we were not able to join him as I was finishing our preparations to leave China. So, here it is. Enjoy!

China today is a living contrast between the old and new, between slow paced peace and the hectic speed of modern life, and between nature and full-blown industrialization. There are two images of China: one of massive cities and factories dominating landscapes; and the other image is best captured in classic Chinese ink paintings of landscapes and villages. Clouds wrap around rough rock towers, gnarled trees cling to rock faces, and idyllic villages are nestled at the base of a mountain.


Classic Chinese landscape painting -called ‘Morning in the Mountain Village

After more than eight months of living in China, I have come to doubt the existence of this romantic China. It seems like a China that exists only in imagination; that is until I visited Hunan province. Hunan jumps from canvas to reality and offers unparalleled beauty. Here you can walk through these classic Chinese paintings and peer through the mist that shrouds mountains and glimpse those villages that seem like time forgot.

In Hunan, you can be freed from the packed hectic megatropolises of the east and the polluted human-dominated landscapes that surround them. I wasn’t really expecting this –I went to Hunan to visit a field experiment and give a talk at Jishou University, but my hosts added in some stops to lovely sites around Hunan.

I started the tour in the city Zhangjiajie, whose sole existence seems to be as a gateway to the world-renowned Wulingyuan scenic area, also commonly called Zhangjiajie Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Wulingyuan is famous for what is referred to as ‘sandstone pillars’ but this description does not do this place justice. The awe-inspiring sites defy adequate description, but the best I can come up with is ‘rock skyscrapers’. That is what they are, rock towers, many of which are between 200 and 380 m tall! To put this into perspective, the tallest building in Toronto (not including the CN tower) is the First Canadian Place building at about 300 m. There are hundreds of rock towers taller than 200 m, rivalling the skyline of New York City. Wulingyuan is simply one of the most remarkable natural areas I have ever seen. The only disappointing part was the fact that our visit coincided with an unrelenting rainstorm; so much of the beautiful scenery remained shrouded in mystery.


The base of a rock office tower


Towers peeking through the mist


Just like a classic Chinese painting


Imagining the beautiful sight before us. And, I never knew that twinsies came in multipacks


One of the marketed selling points of this park was its connection to the movie ‘Avatar’. Local tour operators and photographers will tell tourists that the Hallelujah mountain scenes in the movie were filmed there. You can have blue aliens superimposed on to a photo of yourself on the ‘Hallelujah mountains’ or you can even mount a fibreglass dragon from the movie. Sometimes reality gets in the way of a good story –the movie wasn’t filmed there and the movie creators said the inspiration came from a number of sites around the world, including Hunan. This is another example of the creative marketing that seems to be common in China (I saw a guy charging people to touch a 1000 year old turtle…).

“The wild monkey infesting area, caution! Do not tease feeding”

While these magnificent rock towers immediately draw your gaze, the park has many wonderful sites and hiking trails. But another aspect that really impressed me was the pristine state of the surrounding forest. There were animals everywhere, and wild animals are sadly in short supply in China. Wild nature is always at the losing end of conflict with human development, and with so many people in China, this means that nature exists in just a few remaining pockets.


The rhesus macaque -a very photogenic species.


Baby macaque and the best sad face to solicit handouts


Monkey infestation! Do not teases feed. Of course this is exactly what many domestic tourists were doing


Bird -all tail.


The landscapes modern China forgot

The next day I needed to visit the experimental site and give a talk in Jishou which was a 3 hour drive away. We passed through what seemed like an endless expanse of forested rugged mountains, making Hunan easily one of the greenest provinces I’ve seen. Along this journey I saw those idyllic villages at the base of mountains and perfectly laid out rice terraces. People used ox to plough fields while wearing the stereotypical straw hats. Besides Zhangjiajie and Jishou, we went to Chongqing, Fonghuang, Biancheng, and Huai Hua. Fonghuang is a famous ancient city, and like other famous ancient cities we’ve been to in China, it was overrun with karaoke bars and kitsch tourist shops. Biancheng is another ancient city, but for some reason is not a typical stop for tour buses and so retains its original splendid and quiet character.


Planting the rice paddies


Ploughing the terraces with ox


Biancheng was full of narrow alleys


Biancheng scene -crossing the river brings you into the neighbouring province


Biancheng water taxi fighting the current in the rain-swollen river.


Keeping out of the rain with a game of majong


Man with backpack basket. These were commonly carried by the local ethnic group and were used to hold everything from food and goods to small children.



The food in Hunan was quite different from other parts of China -and it was delicious!


A scene from the uber-touristy Fonghuang

Hunan is the China of history and art, but like the rest of China, it has been impacted by modern industry, its just not as readily apparent as elsewhere. The main purpose for my trip to Hunan was to visit a field experiment. This is a globally unique and significant experiment that examines how plants can help clean up soil that has been contaminated by toxic pollution. The area was severely polluted by mining waste and the soil is virtually barren of all life.


The field experiment with the abandoned mine processing facility in the background. The grey soil is contaminated with zinc, nickel and cadmium, and has been devoid of plants for at least 6 years –nothing grows on it (at least until the experimental plots were established). This experiment will provide valuable information on how plant communities can be used to help clean polluted sites.

Hunan represents everything that is good about China and is a part of the country that visitors must see. I have two regrets about my visit to Hunan: it was a much too short of a visit and my family did not come with me. At least now I have a perfect reason to visit again.








2 thoughts on “Hunan –the China from imagination

  1. Very good narrative Marc. The pictures were beautiful and I found the pics of the field site with plots of vegetation really interesting. This sums up the true value of what you do and teach.


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