In many ways, Hunan is a pastiche of the tourist image of rural China – a view of endless muddy tracts or paddy fields rolling past the train window, coloured green or gold depending on the season. But the bland countryside, or rather the peasants farming it, has greatly affected the country’s recent history. Hunan’s most famous peasant son, Mao Zedong, saw the crushing poverty inflicted on local farmers by landlords and a corrupt government, and the brutality with which any protests were suppressed. Though Mao is no longer accorded his former god-like status, monuments to him litter the landscape around the provincial capital Changsha, which is a convenient base for exploring the areas where he spent his youth.
Both Hunan and Hubei – literally “south of the lake” and “north of the lake” respectively – take their names from Dongting Hu, China’s second-largest lake, which also provided the origins of dragon-boat racing. South of Changsha, Heng Shan houses a pleasant assortment of mountain temples, while Zhangjiajie Scenic Reserve in the far west boasts inspiringly rugged landscapes. A few hours south of here lies the picturesque town of Fenghuang, where you’ll find remnants of the Southern Great Wall.