Changsha, the capital of China’s southern Hunan Province, is home to around 5 million people. Yet, given China’s massive population, it doesn’t even crack the list of twenty biggest cities! As such, Changsha is largely unknown to foreign visitors, though some pass through on their way to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. But despite its relative obscurity, the city has enough surprises in store to warrant a stopover. For nature and culture lovers, scenic areas like Yuelu Mountain and Orange Island can be explored together in a single day.
Changsha’s history is about as old as China’s itself. It was a major population center as far back as the 8th century BC, and it was the capital of Changsha State during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). And more recently, it’s known throughout China for being the hometown of none other than Mao Zedong. But much of central Changsha was destroyed in a 1938 fire, meaning the city east of the river doesn’t really feel all that old. Yuelu Mountain, then, is one of the best places to experience the area’s ancient past.
Yuelu Mountain is situated to the west of the city center, while Orange Island is a narrow island right in the middle of the Xiangjiang River. I decided to start my day by getting to the top of the mountain and stopping at various landmarks on the way back down. And then I’d make the quick trip over to the island, accessible either on foot or by subway.
Before ascending the mountain I first had to head underground. Hopping on the local subway, I got off at the Yingwanzhen metro station. While the signage was not totally clear, finding my way to the base of the mountain was simple. All I had to do was follow the crowds.
I ended up at the cable car station, but as it wasn’t too hot out, I decided to walk. I asked one of the women at the booth where the trail started, and she pointed off in the distance. The quickest ‘trail’ up the mountain was actually just a road. Yuelu, at only 300 meters above sea level, is far from being a huge mountain, and it wasn’t long before I found myself at the top.
It was an especially hazy day, but I could still make out the river and Changsha’s high-rises in the distance. It’s baffling to think that a city with such a skyline could be as unknown as it is. But surely, there are dozens more bustling cities like this in China that most people outside the country have never heard of.
Anyway, it was time to take my eyes off Changsha’s modern cityscape, and take a step back into its storied past.
Scattered around the mountain are various tombs of revolutionary leaders who helped overthrow the Qing dynasty. While not of special interest to most foreign visitors, they do, at least, serve as convenient landmarks. Though there are signboards with bilingual maps around the area, they’re few and far between. And some of the smaller trails are left out entirely.
Thankfully, it was a weekday and not too crowded. And while I had some trouble finding my way to Lushan Temple, this tranquil mountaintop setting was certainly not a bad place to get lost.
After confusedly walking in loops several times, I decided to try out a small unmarked staircase just next to an ice cream stand. Sure enough, this was the right path.
Lushan Temple, one of the mountain’s main highlights, is also the oldest Buddhist temple in Changsha. And given Changsha’s ancient history, that means that it’s very, very old. In fact, it dates all the way back to 268 AD during the Jin dynasty. It was originally founded by a Buddhist monk from India. And later on, important Buddhist relics were enshrined here in the 6th century.
The colorful entrance gate is one of the highlights of the temple. In front of the set of three doors, stone elephants keep guard. There’s a turtle pond and a wide spacious courtyard. Supposedly, this is only the rear hall of the original temple, with the main hall having long since perished.
Visitors can still step into numerous structures, the largest of which is called Maitreya Hall. The main divinity worshipped at the temple is Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion that’s so prevalent throughout Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. Even if you’ve seen your fair share of temples in China, though, the real highlight of Lushan is its peaceful mountaintop atmosphere.
Note that Yuelu Mountain is also home to one more temple called Yunlu. It’s a Daoist temple that’s situated at the other end of the mountain, but I couldn’t find an easy way to get there while still having time to see the rest of the sites.
The temple costs ¥15 RMB to enter.
The next major landmark of the mountain is the Aiwan Pavilion. Amusingly, some of the maps around the area translate it literally, calling it the ‘Love Dusk Pavilion.’ You may also see it called the Autumn Admiring Pavilion after its original Chinese name.
The original pavilion dates back to 1792. But what we see today is a 20th century recreation following its destruction at the hands of the Japanese army. While the structure is nothing too special on its own, the pavilion sits right in front of a scenic pond area, all of which is surrounded by lush greenery.
But scenery aside, many modern visitors flock here for another reason. Supposedly, this was where Mao Zedong liked to sit and read while he was a student at nearby Hunan University. And for better or for worse, many of the ideas which would help shape modern China were formulated at this very spot.
I walked a bit further down the mountain until I arrived at Yuelu Academy. Entrance to the Academy requires its own ticket, and I was a little taken aback to see that it costs ¥50 RMB. I decided to go anyway, and was ultimately glad that I did.
Yuelu Academy was one of the most prestigious educational institutions of ancient China. It was first established in 976 during the Northern Song dynasty. But throughout its long history, it was destroyed and rebuilt on multiple occasions.
Numerous influential figures both studied and taught here. One of them was Zhu Xi, one of the 12th century’s most important Confucian philosophers (the campus even has its own Confucian temple). Modern-day Hunan University, established in 1897, is an offshoot of the Academy, and is situated right next to it at the foothills of the mountain.
Walking around the academy’s campus is relaxing, and not unlike the experience of visiting a traditional Chinese garden. I encountered ponds, tranquil courtyards, a bamboo forest and various pavilions from which to view it all. It was easy to picture intellectuals of ages past hanging around here, absorbed in thoughts on Confucianist philosophy.
The Academy also features a number of memorial temples. One is dedicated to a poet named Qu Yuan, who was born all the way back in the 4th century BC. Another is dedicated to 17th-century philosopher and alumnus Wang Fuzhi. Yet another was built for Zhang Shi and Zhu Xi (mentioned above), both Confucian scholars.
As strange as it may sound to Westerners, building temples to influential historical figures is a pretty common practice in China, and it’s not unlike the ancestor worship that takes place at private homes.
Also on campus, you can find the old dorm room where Mao Zedong stayed on and off between 1917 and 1919. Just next to it is an old office of the university’s Preparatory Committee.
While the fact that Mao studied at the university is pretty well established, I later met a well-travelled Chinese man who told me there are ‘former residences’ of Mao all around the country. And many of them are fake! After hearing that, I’m not quite sure what to believe anymore.
Also part of the Academy is a museum detailing its history and significance to Chinese culture. And just outside, next to the modern Hunan University campus, is the Museum of Chinese Academics. While hardly essential, it’s an interesting place to learn about the three other famous academies of ancient China. Notably, aside from Yuelu, none of them are still around.
Finished with the Yuelu Mountain area, I found myself in a completely different place from that where I started the day. While Orange Island has its own metro station, Hunan University is much further south than where the train line is. And so I decided to walk.
It was a muggy day, and getting to the island required around 30 minutes on foot from where I was. But once I made it to the river, there was no mistaking where I had to go. The narrow island, in fact, is the largest inland island of China, stretching out to 5km long.
Orange Island, locally called Juzizhou, is such named because oranges used to grow there. In the early 20th century, it was home to a number of foreign consulates, but now it’s used purely for tourism. Given the space between the landmarks, there’s a useful tram system to take people around. For ¥20 RMB you can hop on it up to five times. Aside from that, all the attractions are free.
Attractions include various parks, pavilions, a giant head of Mao, and of course, a temple. Starving, I grabbed a quick bowl of noodles at the small food court area before waiting in line for the tram.
I rode toward the southern tip of the island, where I encountered a large, scenic pond. Nearby was a big slab of granite featuring three Chinese characters in the handwriting of Mao. And just up ahead was the sight that many visitors come to the island to see – Mao’s giant head – which, at the time of my visit, was under renovation.
Without getting too deeply into politics, I found the whole scene pretty surreal. Mao is widely considered one of world history’s biggest mass murderers. And he’s also responsible for deliberately destroying so much of China’s traditional heritage with his Cultural Revolution. Nevertheless, people still come and casually take selfies in front of his image.
And it was right in front of Chairman Mao that I met a friendly group of high school students on their day off. They’d seen me earlier on the mountain, and as foreigners are so rare in these parts, they were eager to chat and practice their English. Though we would never meet again, we exchanged WeChat info, and they’d occasionally inquire about my later travels around Hunan.
I rode over to take a look at Wangjiang Pavilion, a structure which dates back to the Tang dynasty. And for my last stop of a long and busy day, I headed over to Jiangshen Temple on the island’s northern end.
The elaborate Chan (or Zen) temple also dates back to the Tang dynasty. Around the complex you’ll find spacious courtyards, ponds, various halls and a tall pagoda. I was surprised to find myself practically alone here. It turns out, though, that the temple as we see it today was reconstructed in 2010. Therefore, it lacks the classical feel of Lushan Temple up on the mountain.
Exhausted, but pleasantly surprised by how much this underrated city has to offer, I returned to my hotel for some much-needed rest.
Changsha’s Huanghua International Airport is Hunan Province’s main airport. There are connecting flights with most major cities in China. It’s directly connected to international destinations like Seoul, Osaka, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Using budget carriers like AirAsia, it can be surprisingly cheap to fly to Changsha in comparison to China’s larger cities.
The airport is about 30 – 45 minutes outside the city center, and the best way to get there is by taxi. Just be sure to line up for the official airport taxis. You’ll likely have all sorts of people coming up to you offering their services, but just ignore them.
If you don’t have too much luggage, there are also buses which can take you to the CAAC Aviation Hotel for ¥16.5 RMB, and local trains to South Railway Station form ¥20 RMB.
For those coming from within China, Changsha is connected to the rest of the country by rail, most arriving at the South Railway Station. You can also get to the city by long-distance bus, and there are various large bus stations situated all over Changsha. Note that to get around Hunan Province, bus is often the only option.
Changsha has a simple subway system which can take you to just about all of the city’s major attractions. At the time of writing, it only consists of two metro lines which form a cross. They’re working on expanding it, but even before expansion I didn’t have trouble getting around relying on rail and foot alone.
You can also take taxis, though I generally try to avoid taxis in China, as more often than not I’ve had drivers refuse to give back correct change (though I’ve met a few honest drivers as well).
China has its own ridesharing app called DiDi. I tried to use it on multiple occasions and was never successful due to some kind of technical. You also need a Chinese SIM card/phone number to even attempt to use it, which can be a pretty big hassle in its own right.
I stayed right by Wuyi Square Station, which is the only station in the city that gives you access to both metro lines. It’s also right by plenty of restaurants and small markets, and you can also easily walk over to the popular Taiping Street.
I stayed at a place called Huaxin Apartment Hotel (长沙华鑫酒店公寓) which was a great value. It’s situated within an apartment complex, and you’re basically staying in your apartment there. But unlike an Airbnb, there’s an office on the same floor where you officially check in and out.
I’m a budget traveler but I also don’t like dorm rooms, so I always look for cheap rooms that are also convenient and private. Huaxin Apartment Hotel was perfect for me, but one of the rooms I stayed in was a little bit dirty. And you’ll likely only have a squat toilet! On the other hand, the rooms were very spacious and access to the main subway station is right outside your door.
If you do decide to stay here, note that finding it from the outside can be tricky. My taxi driver from the airport dropped me off outside the building, but from there I had little idea of where to go, as there were no signs for the hotel in either English or Chinese. I approached one of the building security guards and showed him the name in Chinese, and he confirmed I had the right building. I then took the elevator and wandered around the 17th floor, and while it took a few minutes, I eventually found the room that acted as the ‘front desk.’
As you may or may not be aware, a bunch of major web sites are completely blocked in China. This includes Google, YouTube and social media sites like Facebook. Not only can this be a huge annoyance, but not being able to access your Gmail account or use Google Maps could even cause major problems during your trip.
That is, unless, you have a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to access the internet via servers in a variety of international locations. Therefore, when traveling in China, you can access the internet through a server in Taiwan or Hong Kong (or anywhere, really) and suddenly start using Google and social media apps like normal again.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies over the course of multiple trips, and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
The actual use of VPN’s in China isn’t illegal in itself. However, the Chinese government will often make things difficult for certain VPN companies, and some services may stop working for you out of the blue. That’s why it’s important to go for the most reliable VPN, and ExpressVPN is widely regarded as the best to use in China.