"Changsha" Top 5 Page for this destination Changsha by mke1963

Changsha Travel Guide: 77 reviews and 309 photos

For two thousand years, Changsha has watched the Frangrant River river sweep by, watching as the clumps of grass and swamped branches pass by the ancient capital of the Chu kingdom on the wide plains south of the lake, Hu nan. Today's Hunan hides its past well, and like so many cities has yet to decide where its future lies. This is a bumpy landscape, small hills hang on to squat houses, and in between the deep red patches of soil push the rice up seemingly for ever. Pastoral China lies all around Changsha, and Changsha serves the whole basin south of that lake, the Dongting Hu. Few other big cities are near Changsha, and given the city's riotous and garrolous reputation, it is probably just as well. There's only room for one Changsha.

This city of 2 million people takes its power and its muscle right to the very edge; the city has no real suburbs. One second you are in heaving busy streets, choked with bicycles and earnest Hunanese, the next you are in deep countryside. Blink and you miss the border. Bounded by rivers to the west, north and much of the east, Changsha must have once been a natural spot to build a safe refuge. It's easier to fortify just one side of your city than all four. Yet this likeable city has never grown up to become a true Chinese powerhouse, and it sits in the hinterlands, permanently behind Wuhan, Nanjing, and Guangzhou and the Xiangjiang never held the promises of mysterious kingdoms and treasures beyond, as did the mighty Yangtze to the north. So Changsha grew up on its own, as warring armied fought endlessly for territory along that bigger river and for the Yangtze ports.

Changsha and indeed much of Hunan became a backwater, left to its own devices and to infighting and inbreeding warlords and landlords. It became a magnet for the peasants and serfs of the big wide, clumpy Hunan badlands, where tempers are as fiery as the ubiquitous chillis found in every dish, morning, noon and night. Changsha was a natural attraction for one particular peasant, a man increasingly troubled by the oppression and servitude of people, friends and family in his native Shaoshan, just 90km away from Changsha. The young Mao Zedong came to Changsha to be trained as a teacher, but found the going hard with the authorities constantly on the lookout for the despised Communists. Mao was never a city person, and seemingly spent much of his time in the parks, forests and other isolated spots in and around the city; but even in those days, 'isolated' was probably a relative term. Throughout much of his life, China's "Great Helmsman" headed for the trees, the fields or the waters rather than the buildings and urban China. Today's downtrodden and poor farmers remain the successors to those Mao observed at Shaoshan and Changsha, almost one hundred years ago. Looking at the area and his people today, Mao must be turning in his vat of formaldehyde.

Changsha was a treaty port, though one of the lesser ones, and European, Japanese and Russian emigres and businessmen set up busines and home here. It can never have been a luxurious affair, but the views from the long, narrow sandbank island in the Xiangjiang were to die for. Many of them did when the local people rioted in protest at the massive grain price increases: only the Chinese ever learnt the maxim "don't raise the price of rice". Some decades later, the city grew into a Communist stronghold, although this is unlikely to have been due to Mao's influence. He was perpetually fixated on the peasants and rural people. Heavily bombed in 1938, by the Kuomintang, much of old Changsha has vanished for ever.
Today's city is a nice mix of cluttered structure, weaving roads and mad rushes of people, cars and bicycles. Changsha has escaped the excesses of the 1990s urban planners' love-affair with massive boulevards and remains a higgledy-piggledy, chaotic place. In the context, the mix of awful buildings from all post-war eras forms some form of harmonious organism, although individually many buildings are hideous. In Changsha, this ugliness of structures somehow blends into an attractive whole, with every street tree-lined.

On a grim, steel-grey March day, Changsha cannot, surely, be at its best, but it still welcomed me, but at the same time kept me away from its secrets. Changsha is a city for the Hunanese and any passing tourists are accepted as any other visitor during the last two thousand years, couretosuly but from a definite distance.

Forget what it says in almost every guidebook: Changsha is worth a few days. Although there are a handful of museums, a bunch of parks and open spaces, the odd temple and some riverside walks, head into the urban jungle to look for a charismatic, argumentative, laughing city that feels 'just right'. It isn't aping western society like some cities in central China, it's not going to attract Microsoft's headquarters, it's doesn't have the Terracotta Warriors, but it does have charm, energy and a sense of purpose. That purpose is simply to serve Hunan, and for that it does its job well. Give Changsha a shot: find a city that is southern Chinese but not southern Chinese, of the Yangtze but not of the Yangtze, eastern China but not eastern China. A place to feel a real China that is so difficult to find in the 21st Century.

Information on the Mawangdui Treasures are on the Mawangdui page as well as the review of the Hunan Provincial Museum

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Harmonious, proud city with human character
  • Cons:Little information avaialable in English
  • In a nutshell:The urban heart of rural Hunan and the Mawangdui treasures!
  • Last visit to Changsha: Mar 2005
  • Intro Updated Apr 17, 2007
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  • ellyse's Profile Photo
    Sep 7, 2007 at 1:47 AM

    Excellent page, well-written and very detailed tips. Thank you! :)

mke1963

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