"The road to Hunan's hills" Top 5 Page for this destination Hunan Sheng by mke1963

Hunan Sheng Travel Guide: 192 reviews and 756 photos

"It will take five hours," she says. Then she pauses. “Maybe six”, and she frowns. "Perhaps six is best. You must leave now." If it hadn't been for a problem over payment, we would have gone hours ago. We had arranged to depart at eight o'clock; it is now closer to ten. The manageress seems to have forgotten that this delay is entirely of her own making.
Eventually we clamber into the big 4x4, and swing out through the mass of oncoming traffic to do a U-turn on one of Changsha's busiest and widest streets. Our driver seems nonplussed at holding up a good proportion of Changsha's vehicles and heads for the expressway, where a good proportion of Hunan's trucks is able to exact revenge, lumbering slowly in whatever lane they prefer and at grindingly slow speeds. Changsha disappears behind us and we head first south, before turning west on a brand new highway. This westbound road is as empty as the first part had been choked, and we are zipping along through Hunan's rural landscape. The countryside here is like an egg-box: little flat plains surrounded by little hills with flat tops surrounded by little plains. Each hill is crowded with houses and trees, but the plains are clear, and every inch is covered with glittering paddy fields. Men and women tend to their precious crops constantly, oblivious to the modern world rushing by on the highway. It is a pleasant area, seen fleetingly from ours by smoked glass windows and the sound of Mandopop. Newer houses cluster just metres away from the manicured trees and shrubs of the highway embankment, testament to the considerable need for resettlement when constructing a new road in China. These new houses look awkward, garishly white, antiseptically box-like among the older more prosaic but functionally attractive buildings. This landscape spreads almost endlessly across central Hunan, broken only by the occasional ridge of thickly forested ridges. These ridges, stripped bare during the Great Leap Forward, are now monocultures of coniferous forest; perhaps the ensuing Great Leap Backward for biodiversity. The turn off for Shaoshan - the birthplace and ancestral home of Mao Zedong - is passed, and now the traffic really does vanish: the highway is ours alone. We stop for a break at a service station perched above a wide reservoir. Square fish-breeding structures float on the mirror surface, with a few boats breaking the monotony. The expected clear air and sunshine has not appeared, and everywhere remains cloaked in a low grey haze, a significant contribution of urban and industrial China to rural peoples' lives. A restaurant and shop stand looking out over the lake, but they see little business. The staff are surprised to see us, and give a guided tour of the convenience store and its little collection of goodies, spaced widely on acres of glass shelving. The bathrooms have been built on the side looking out over the lake, with a wall-to-ceiling glass wall providing a great view of China as you relieve yourself: surreal but satisfying.

We continue onward, the highway starting to rise now, passing a strip of jagged limestone hills. In a few million years this will rival Yunnan's Stone Forest or Guilin, once the rain has eroded the area more thoroughly. Surprisingly, none of the houses are stone-built, the locals preferring to use clay bricks from the soil rather than hew the stone blocks. What, I wonder, triggers people to stop using the cheapest building material, and start using something that will last?

As we speed along, we chuckle at the "five hours, maybe six" advice from the manageress. We have travelled more than half the distance in not much more than a couple of hours. We decide to stop at Shaoyang, the biggest town in the area, for lunch, and discover a Brazilian barbecue restaurant inside the lobby of the Hualong Hotel. I can't quite put my finger on why this seems so bizarre, but the mixture of Chinese buffet and waiters sliding barbecued cuts of meat onto your plate from a skewer seems so out of place.

Leaving Shaoyang, we cruise for a short while before the highway suddenly ends in a huge pile of red earth and yellow bulldozers, and a billboard thanks us for using the highway. Suddenly we are onto an ordinary road, the G320, sharing our driving space with geese, iron-buffalos, belching trucks, sleeping dogs, wandering pedestrians and suicidal bus drivers. Simultaneously, the landscape changes, becoming more affluent, broken only by heavy industry around Longhui, where effluent seemed more appropriate than affluent as a description: tall chimneys pumping black smoke and gritty soot into the air. The fields becomes bigger, the land flatter. The road winds its way back and forth across the plains, over hills and we see a much more intimate version of Hunan, just metres away from our open windows. From being a documentary projected on the windows of our vehicle, Hunan is now just outside our doors: the smells and sounds as well as the sights. The diversity of the economy shows the propensity of rural Chinese people to adapt to hardship and isolation, with gravel being mined from river beds, plywood being dried in the open, concrete fixtures being poured and cut, roofing tiles being made and stacked, and roadside vendors selling their fruit and vegetables from multi-coloured shacks. The G320 road swings around the big hills, and joined all the dots on the map, as we headed roughly westwards.

Not long after Longhui, a huge grey complex appears to the south of the road, its disused grey and white buildings, all pointed roofs and intricate detailing boarded up, but still strikingly attractive. Further on, a tall, slender pagoda, of the same colour and style as the earlier building merits a brief respite from the numbing effect of the poor road surface. People working in the fields stop to watch us watch them watch us.

Still assured of our early arrival at Huaihua we stop at the curiously named Dongkou ("hole of the door", not "east door" which would have made sense) for tea and coffee. Dongkou is all investment and no business, with substantial and continuing construction of many kilometres of long, low, and empty, apartment blocks, the ground floor of each one a long row of empty shop spaces. "Build it and they will come" remains the mantra of real estate development in China. "Build it and it will remain vacant until it falls into disrepair" remains the reality, from Sanya to northernmost Heilongjiang.

To the west of this strange little town wanting to become a strange big town, is the first mountain, looming menacingly in the grey mist, its slopes covered with firs. We strike out west again, suddenly rediscovering our expressway. It will eventually connect Changsha to Guiyang, presumably with some reason, but not to worry right now: keep pouring the concrete and setting that steelwork!

As we enter the first deep valley, our "Ooohs" and "Aaaahs" start and it takes a long time before they subside. The construction of this road - which we will track most of the way to Huaihua - is a succession of increasingly vocal exclamations at the audacity, creativity, expenditure and sheer physical significance of this highway. By purposefully forgetting the environmental and social consequences of this new highway, one can marvel at how it is being built. Today, only the concrete supports are being put in, like the legs of giants marching up the gorges, striding across dams, and pushing up the steep slopes. The whole length is a hive of activity, with thousands of men clambering around, cranes and trucks in constant motion. At times, the highway plunges into the sides of mountains, only to reappear on the other side an hour later: an hour for us on the old road; two minutes later when it is completed.

Make no mistake: this is not just the product of people toiling manually, for this project uses huge and intricate equipment and gantry cranes and massive equipment. It really is twenty-first century engineering feat by any country's standards. The highway is truly a route through the sky, as it rarely touches the ground, crossing the landscape on these stilts way above the trees. Across several valleys, the roadway will be at least 170 metres above the ground, the height of a 40-storey skyscraper. (In the photo, note the men standing on top of one of the pylons to the left)

But what is to become of the people and communities along the highway? Many rely on the passing trade for their livelihoods, and in just a few years, the old road will be empty, and their old customers will pass by like airliners above them. There will be less bus services and less interaction with the outside world.

We pass numerous dams with grey slimy walls, many of them leaking water into a rushing river below. A good number of them have had their capacity increased by adding a cap to the dam wall.
Our road continues to climb, then it begins to soar. We swing around endless hairpin bends, catching sight of traffic way above and below us. The brick-built houses have long since given way to a beautiful style of long, low timber structures, many dilapidated, but many still beautifully maintained by proud farmers. As we climb, the terraced paddy fields become smaller and smaller, until, high up, they are just patches containing less than fifty straggling weary plants. Then, suddenly we are into the clouds, and the visibility drops to a few metres. We pass several minibuses with no lights on, suggesting that this should be just a short stretch, and soon we will be on our way down into daylight. It is not to be: never take the driving habits of Chinese minibus drivers as any form of rational indicator. An hour later we are still climbing. Two hours later we reach the high point of the road, but it has been a monotonous and chilling ride through the gloom, passing huge trucks - every one met on a hairpin bend.

By the time it gets dark, the driving has become difficult, but the wet, muddy roads are treacherous and we fear for our safety if we stop. Many trucks coming down behind us have brakes gushing smoke, and the coaches and minibuses are driving insanely as always.

We are moving at a snail's pace following the edge of the right hand side of the road. We are silent, and nobody notices that the CD has come to an end. There is a flash of light, dazzling us and our car interior is lit up, the strained features picked out on every face. The headlights of a truck arc across the road and through the car, as we round a bend. We inch past the front and side of this shuddering, throbbing vehicle inches away from us. Many more times we squeeze past, not knowing what drop lies to our right. A crash barrier gives a sense of safety as we continue the tortuous descent. The driver coughs and we all jump out of our skin.

Then miraculously, the cloud lifts and we can see again, the crystal clarity of total darkness brought into light and form by our headlights. The slippery twisting road suddenly seems like a well-lit highway when its features can be seen.

We pass a warning sign where 25 people died, plunging us into silence and contemplation again. The driver stops the car for a cigarette, recovering his calm and his smile. Within an hour we are pulling into the small town of Anjiang, the streets lined with lights and life, below the big mountains. Thirty minutes after that – and another “small mountain” – and we are in the bright lights and hustling traffic of Huiahua and our eleven and a half hour journey is over. A beer beckons. Now we know why the manageress was frowning.

It doesn’t do to underestimate a Chinese road on a Chinese mountain.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Beautiful hills and a wild landscape
  • Cons:Can be inaccessible
  • In a nutshell:Mao's beautiful wild country
  • Last visit to Hunan Sheng: Mar 2005
  • Intro Updated Apr 2, 2005
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