By Alexis Tavares (USA)
Hey everybody! My name is Alexis Tavares, but you can call me Lexi or 雷茜. I first came to Changsha in 2012 to serve as a one-year volunteer English teacher. I had such an amazing experience living and working in China that I decided to stay! This is my third year living in Changsha, and I’m loving every day here. The city of Changsha and the province of Hunan have provided me with so many wonderful opportunities and experiences. I’m really looking forward to all the upcoming adventures I will continue to have while living in here in Hunan Changsha.
This year, I was invited to participate in the “Hunan Foreigner’s Photo Contest” for the first time. I was so excited to take part in this event because I had heard about the contest from my friends who partook last year. I was especially grateful to find out that I could join the Chenzhou trip after I had been waitlisted. Finally, on November 7, I woke up early and packed up my backpack with all the necessities – my camera, rain boots, and lots of socks, of course. That afternoon, we embarked on a 5-day journey that turned out to be not only a much-needed vacation from the grinds of being a teacher, but also a wonderful trip about photography, tourism, friendship, learning, and fun. I can’t even describe how grateful I am to have participated in such a unique experience. I will always remember this trip, and I hope that by sharing the memories I have made in these places, you will also feel inspired to tour around Hunan and create your own memories.
So, after last-minute packing that Friday morning, we all met up at Hunan University right after lunch. We hopped on the bus and rode for about 5 or 6 hours as we made the trek down to Rucheng. When we arrived it was already dark outside so we hurriedly went to eat our dinner and check into the hotel. We were so happy to go into the hot springs after the day’s long drive. The weather was cold and rainy which normally might put me in a sour mood, but in fact, the crappy weather made the hot springs feel so much better! The feeling you get when you finally submerge into that steaming natural water enriched with various minerals just can’t be put into words! We moved from one pool to another and finally made our way to relax, lie down, and dry off on the naturally hot stone floor neatly covered with a bamboo woven mat. I couldn’t believe that despite how cold the air was, after dipping in the hot pools, I felt so relaxed, so warm, and so content. I could have lain there for hours. But, as all good things must come to an end, we made our way back to the hotel room to retire for the night.
The next morning, after we woke up and ate a delicious breakfast, we headed over to the Opening Ceremony of the Chenzhou International Hot Spring Leisure Tourism Festival（郴州国际温泉休闲旅游节）. The ceremony was something like I’d never seen before. There was a beautifully set stage and even a giant crane to add special effects to the show. At one point, there was a man suspended from the air while beautiful dancers graced across the stage below in extravagant costumes. The ceremony was also fully equipped with a designated applauding audience that chorally clapped on cue. For the finale, fireworks, balloons, and colorful smoke dissipated into the air. The backdrop of the manmade beauty was the natural beauty of mountaintops and mist. So serene yet so exciting!
After the ceremony, we went to Jiulongjiang National Forest Park（九龙江森林公园）. The park was about an hour away from Reshui River Hotspring (the hot springs resort town we were staying in), but it was surely worth the bus ride! We walked alongside a crystal clear river. Breathing in the fresh air and taking in of all nature’s beauty was a refreshing change from the city life I’m used to. Our tour guide told us that summer is the perfect time to come and enjoy white water rafting. I definitely want to try that next time! But this time, we opted to stay dry (and warm) and take an easy hike through the park. We ended our walk at two very tall waterfalls. The group had fun posing in front of the waterfalls and I even busted out some ballet moves. After spending the whole day outside, my roommate Yulia and I relaxed in our hotel room’s private tub filled with the natural hot spring water. How relaxing!
On Sunday, Yulia and I woke up early to take pictures of the Fuquan Mountain Villa hot springs. The sky was white so it was a little difficult to capture the steamy mist emitting from the pools, but it was our last chance to take pictures here because we were going to travel to our next destination: Yiliu town and Tanhuli village. I particularly enjoyed the bus ride on the way. The scenery was like something out of a fairytale book – very picturesque and still hardly touched by industrialization and urbanization. For lunch, we got to enjoy some of the fish that is raised in this village’s hot springs. It was one of the best fish I had ever tried! My mom absolutely loves seafood, and I know she would love this fish. She must be jealous!
After our pit stop in Yiliu town, we continued our travels to Mang Shan（莽山）, an enormous mountain range that borders Hunan and Guangdong. Because it was raining, we went to one of the nearby scenic spots, Houwang Village or Monkey King, and we took a hike through the lush forest. It was gorgeous! I wish we could have camped there overnight. Waterfall after waterfall after waterfall! We climbed up the mountain and even stopped for some delicious ginger sweet tea and a hot tofu pudding on the way. One waterfall was set behind a big boulder. Govinda, Ali, and I wanted to pose on the giant rock for some pictures. After being so bold as to reject any help in descending from the rock, I fell into the river and my right rain boot filled with the icy cold fresh water! It was so funny – maybe I got was I deserved for trying to climb the slippery rocks. It was so nice to get back to the hotel and warm up in the hot springs there. I really liked the scenery of these hot spring pools. I felt very relaxed, like I was in a paradise. It was so refreshing; we even went back very early the next morning!
We didn’t have much time to enjoy the morning hot spring visit because we went back to Mang Shan to take a hike on Mount Tiantai. The drive from the entrance gate to this scenic spot was maybe 40 minutes, but the drive through the forest park is like going on a safari. I could imagine myself living in Mang Shan and just feeling at peace all the time. Halfway up the mountain, we stopped to take photos. We could see the mountaintops from afar peaking through the clouds. I felt like I was in heaven looking down at the earth. We went on a relatively easy hike through the forest of Mang Shan, and even though it was rainy and foggy, the experience was so mystical and magical. I had felt a similar feeling when I visited Zhangjiajie two years ago. It was very special and I reflected on Mangshan’s beauty as we headed to a new place for the last hot springs resort. I liked these hot springs too (Of course I did, I mean, how can you complain about hot springs?!). This place was nice because it was very quiet and there weren’t too many people, so the feeling was very chill and relaxed. It was also cool because they had a “fish spa” – small fish eat the dead skin off your feet. It really tickles, but after you get used to it, it’s easier to relax.
The last stop of our trip was Dongjiang Lake（东江湖）. First, we visited a rare stone museum. I thought it was strange to have this type of museum at this type of tourist destination, but because I really like rocks, I found the gallery to be really interesting. Then we saw a small Dongjiang Lake (not the real one). The water there is so clean, so pure and bright green, and it’s drinkable! I didn’t have the chance to try it, so hopefully I can try next time. We also saw the big Dongjiang Lake and took a boat to Doushuai Island. We saw the coolest cave I have ever seen. It’s illuminated with different colored lights and the rock formations are just divine. I felt like I was in a movie exploring new territory! We enjoyed a phenomenal lunch with fish from the lake. Oh, do I miss that seafood! In just those five short days, I saw so much of Hunan that I never even thought to visit before. This experience really opened up my eyes to the possibility of exploring Hunan even further. I can’t wait to read about other travelers’ experiences so that I can start planning my next trip!