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Mao's the Time for Changsha
AND where might Changsha be, you ask?
Though many of us are unfamiliar with it, the capital of Hunan province is no slouch in the history department. With a history stretching over 3,000 years, the city has always been best known for its ties to Mao Zedong.
While Mao's childhood home is actually in Shaoshan, about 90km away, Changsha is where he lived, studied, and, more importantly, converted to communism. Hence the many statues and sculptures you will find of the man - the most famous being the giant 'Youth Mao Zedong' head at Orange Isle Park, which sits in the middle of a river.
It is a cloudy drizzly afternoon when we set out for the Yuelu Academy, one of China's four most prestigious academies of higher learning. Set up during the Song Dynasty, this academic centre is where Mao Zedong was said to have been exposed to communist teachings.
There is a meditative air here in the sprawling picturesque compound set at the foot of Yuelu mountains. More spartan than ostentatious, the many courtyards and open classrooms at the academy feel perfect for quiet contemplation.
Apart from the many Mao-related sights, Changsha has lots to offer, and is beginning to up the stakes in the tourism sector. As a newer entrant on the China travel map, it has huge pluses. For one, you aren't constantly jostling with loads of over-eager foreign or domestic tourists.
One of Changsha's best-known spots is Tai Ping Street, a historic road that's over 2,000 years old. The old cobble-stone street is lined with shops and eateries nicely housed in charming old wooden interiors, many of which were rebuilt after being destroyed in a major fire.
Don't miss the street vendors plying local delicacies, from 'mei kan rou bing' (crispy pancakes filled with dried plum) to 'tang you baba', Changsha's most famous snack.
Essentially sweet glutinous rice cakes, these luscious brown blobs make for perfect instagram posts.
Also raking in brisk business were stalls selling 'stinky tofu'. The Changsha version of this 'acquired taste' dish is charcoal black, and a little less pungent than the ones in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Another local speciality is tea, which accounts for the overwhelming number of tea-houses and tea-shops. Hunan is famous for its black tea, which is boiled and not brewed. You will also find plenty of shops selling tea accessories. A prized buy is an egg-blue ceramic tea set - consisting of a small teapot and a pair of tea-cups that stack nicely together.
Much of Changsha had to be rebuilt after a major fire in the late 50s, which might account for its slow rise as a travel destination, but that seems set to change.
Opening this year is the Zaha Hadid-designed International Culture and Art Centre, located at Meixi Lake.
The jaw-dropping structure seems to be just an assembly of sinuous curves until someone points out that it's designed to resemble hibiscus petals if seen from above. Once completed, the sprawling arts centre will include a 1800-seater Grand Theatre, a museum and a host of gallery and art spaces.
Offering a vantage view of this architectural marvel is the new Luxury Collection Hotel, Changsha, which is conveniently annexed to the Mall of Splendours, an upmarket retail space with over 200 shops. Both the 310-room luxury hotel and the upmarket mall were officially opened last September, and have helped up the five-star stakes.
The hotel has sumptuous swathes of style, from the stunningly modern lobby to the beautifully appointed rooms and the decadent, luxe indoor pool that overlooks Hadid's arts complex. Gourmands should be suitably appeased at Peach Garden, the Hunanese fine-dining restaurant featuring produce from the region, where unusual dishes like cordycep flowers will provide ample fodder for conversation.
Another stand-out is Tea House, a tastefully designed space where the selection of specialty teas is inscribed on a bamboo menu, almost like artwork. Here, guests can opt to have tea while playing mahjong in the four private rooms.
There's plenty to offer for the unhurried holidayer.
With direct flights (under five hours) from Changi Airport, Changsha might well be the ideal destination for jaded travellers wanting a different bit of Chinese history, culture and cuisine.
The writer's trip was sponsored by the Luxury Collection Hotel, Changsha.