By Biswas Shrestha (Nepal)
There are many reasons to travel abroad and experience a diverse culture. I live in a big crowded city full of skyscrapers and man-made beauties but the immense happiness and peacefulness that you acquire by experiencing the natural beauties by travelling in a mountainous region is boundless.
In November 2014, Hunan Tourism Bureau and the Hunan Official Web Portal gave me such an amazing opportunity to participate in The 2nd Hunan Province Foreigners Photo Expedition Tour to the Western Hunan’s Xiangxi Tujia and Miao autonomous prefecture carrying a slogan saying “LAOWAI DAI NI YOU HUNAN”(Foreigners show you around Hunan).
I was going into the unknown and was slightly anxious that it would be a bit of an understatement! Never understanding the appeal of a group tour and not having one done before, I had thoughts of being herded like sheep and being told what to do. However, that really was not the case. I found the Hunan Official Web Portal staffs offer a really good balance of well organized trip. Meanwhile, travelling with a local guide provided us with immense local knowledge which made such a difference to the overall experience.
It was 1st of November 2014; we gathered at Pailoukou by the Xiangjiang River at 7:30 am local time and boarded our tour bus for the western Hunan 5 days trip. With an area of 15,730 Km2 , inhabited by Han, Tujia, Miao, Bai, Hui, Dong and other ethnic groups, this autonomous prefecture is home to almost 2.3 million people. Surrounded by Zhangjiajie city on the east, Huaihua City on the south, Chongqing and Guizhou on the east and Hubei on the north, this mountainous area is breeding a rich diversity of ecosystem.
In the afternoon, we reached a place called LUXI (泸溪) where we were warmly welcomed by the local tourist bureau delegates. After visiting the Xinnv square which holds a giant statue of the ancient princess named Xinnv and Shejiang pavilion which features a wide range of work from exquisite sculptures to beautifully-crafted wooden arts, we headed towards the Yuanjiang River to embark on the Xinnv Princess Cruise ship. The stress free and more relaxed river cruise provided the intimate atmosphere to experience the magnificent view from the cruise ship. It was so marvelous to appreciate stunning sceneries of Yuanshui Scenic Area along with the rocks formed by limestone karst by the riverside and few suspending coffins left to tell about its ancient history and culture.
After a while, we reached a place called Pan Hu temple. We got off from the cruise and climbed up hill for few minutes to visit the temple which had a history of over 1000 years. After visiting the temple, we left for a restaurant to have our dinner. On the way back to hotel, we stopped at the riverside spot to enjoy the night view of the limestone karst which were beautifully lustered on the river belts.
Next morning after the breakfast, we left for the border town of Chadong situated at Huayuan County. Very well described in the literature novel called BORDER TOWN by SHEN CONGWEN, this ancient town lies just at the junction of Hunan, Guizhou and Chongqing. This majestic ancient town is filled with soothing sounds of water flowing through the Qingshui River and has so much traditional beauty and culture to offer that one time visit is definitely not enough. The experience of sailing those little boats on the Qingshui River, visiting the little island called Cuicui Island in the centre of the river and walking around the river bank was overwhelming.
Sitting on the riverbank rocks and listening to the relaxing sounds of the flowing water boughtsuch a long lost comfort both physically and mentally.
Next morning, we headed towards the Tianwen platform, a marvelous viewpoint located at the enchanted Miao minority settlement of Dehang (德夯苗寨). The squeezed path leading to a narrow gorge passes Dehang’s second big waterfall, Jade Belt Waterfall. After climbing the trails for about 10 minutes, a high, flat-topped, circular pillar of rock nestled in its remarkable wild setting, with a breathtaking view over the gorge and the jagged peaks can be reached. After taking loads of snaps at such a wonderful venue, we then headed towards the AIZHAI BRIDGE. 336 meters high and 1176 meters long, AIZHAI BRIDGE（矮寨大桥） is the world’s largest cross canyon suspension bridge.
Driving along the AIZHANG BRIDGE provided a magnificent view of the DEHANG canyon. We then headed towards the DEHANG MIAO VILLAGE（德夯苗寨） where the local performers gave us warm welcome singing folk songs and with some cultural dragon dance.
After having lunch in the village restaurant, we went to visit the ancient town of QIANZHOU （乾州古城）and got wonderful glimpses of its picturesque landscapes, traditionally decorated homes, and cultural textile technology. We also got an opportunity to enjoy the live cultural show by the local artists showing the intangible cultural heritage of the MIAO people.
Moreover, the fresh water river flowing through the village and the friendly villagers gave us an awesome feeling.
On November 4th, we arrived at the ZUOLONG GORGE（坐龙峡） located in the GUZHANG COUNTY （古丈县）to set our adventurous hiking trail through the 6500 meters long gorge.
Zuolong Gorge is also known as the first peculiar gorge in south eastern China. The ecological environment, absolute natural atmosphere and mysterious Tujia customs, Zuolong Gorge is no less than any fairyland on earth. Zuolong Gorge contains a special type of holding chains to provide climbing and walking support on its deep valley trails, and steep mountains, just like the sculpture carved by nature carefully looking from a distance. It is barely possible to walk along the trails without holding these chains support which makes the journey very interesting and adventurous. However, the trail is very dangerous at places and definitely gives you an adrenaline rush. The geology of gorge is so beautifully graced with numerous spectacular waterfalls as magnificent and memorable, creating a paradise for waterfall lovers. The soothing sounds of streams and waterfalls and the image formed by the sun rays striking over the trees and rocks are beyond explanation.
After hiking for about two hours, we reached the top of the mountain and were served the local meals in the mountain top restaurant.
After our lunch, we headed towards the RED CARBONATE ROCK FOREST NATIONAL GEOPARK located in GUZHANG COUNTY. It is said that the red carbonate rock there may date back to the Ordovician Period of 480 million years ago. At the time, the seabed of the ancient Yangtze was covered with carbonate blended with sand. It was then raised due to crustal movement. It became the current shape through long-term weathering, water erosion and melting.
The park outstands with its deep caves and miles of red carbonate-rock stones whose color changes with the weather turning to purplish red in sunny days and brownish red in rainy days. The view of this marvelous creation of the nature really filled us with sudden wonder and amazement. After appreciating the natural beauty of RED CARBONATE ROCK FOREST, we then headed towards the ancient town called FURONG TOWN.
FURONG TOWN（芙蓉镇）, named after a famous movie entitled FURONG TOWN which was filmed in this place, was originally called as WANGCHUN. With a history of about 2000 years old, Located just above the MENGDONG River, FURONG TOWN is mostly inhabited by TUJIA ethnic group. The town is full of TUJIA architecture, stilt wooden houses and well preserved streets paved with stone slabs which give a luster look with each rain wash. The town is well known for its Furong town waterfall which is about 60 meters high and 70 meters wide. Walking behind the hanging screen of the waterfall is like placing oneself in a crystal palace.
It is indeed an incredible once in a life time experience to walk behind those falling streams of the waterfalls.
After trekking through local villages, whizzing along waterfalls and gorges, exploring jungles and zipping around ancient towns I was excited to end my 5 days trip with loads of good experiences, wonderful memories and my camera full of snaps. Western Hunan trip indeed left a nostalgic impression on my mind. I also recommend my fellow friends to visit this wonderland and experience the diverse natural beauty and culture. My sincere thanks to the Hunan Tourism Bureau and the Hunan Official Web Portal team for providing such an opportunity to explore the beauty of western Hunan.