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Hunan & Changsha

I am spent a week in the central southern part of China – specifically in Changsha the capital of Hunan Province. I gave a seminar at a local university – The Central South University of Forestry and Technology – and for the first time in my life I received a certificated award as ‘Guest Professor’ – and then attended a conference on ‘low carbon futures’. It’s quite a bit warmer in the south than in Beijing and obviously wetter – it rained or drizzled almost every day of my stay. Beijing’s freezing cold afternoons were getting to me a bit and it is cold here now as I write this on my return to Beijing.

Before going to the south I knew that some of the natural southern scenery is outstanding – I first became aware of how good it was by watching the David Attenborough-narrated TV series ‘Wild China’.

Apart from the Conference I spent a fair bit of time sight-seeing around Changsha and eating excellent southern cuisine and drinking some of the superb local rice wine liquor. One lunch-cum-evening got fairly animated with many, many  ghan bay  but with some talented boozers from Japan, China and Korea present I thought it would be inappropriate to let the Australian side down by being a wimp.  The liquor at lunch was 50 years old and smoothly palatable. A great lunch with this aged liquor and an excellent evening with a different potion were among the many meals I enjoyed there.

Another thing I tried were traditional ‘foot massages’.  I’ve had plenty of opportunities to try this type of massage over the years and – with a fair bit of prompting from some enthusiastic proponents  – I finally relented and tried it out.  This is a major industry in China and one that is now being exported to other countries.  It is a straight massage – non-sexual – and puts a lot of attention on, yes, your feet!  You get a general body massage as well but the feet are the focus.  Cost is about $15.

The local southern cuisine is extraordinary. Lots of spicy snacks, fish and an extraordinary variety of tofu called ‘Stinky toufu’ (chòu dòufu) that Chairman Mao apparently was fond of. Mao grew up in Hunan (of which more later) and I was pleased to visit a restaurant he liked at the Firepalace Temple which is famous for its version of this toufu.   The toufa is marinated and supposed to have a bad smell but a great taste – it was one of the few Chinese foods that I was offered during my stay in China that I did not particularly enjoy.  With the greatest respect too I have to say I did not really enjoy Chairman Mao’s approach to cooking pork belly either – a dish he apparently loved – but which I found too heavy with fat.

On one of the free days I had I headed off with two local Chinese faculty (good friends, ‘Ken’ and ‘Echo”) to the famous Hengshan (or Nanyue) Mountain where we visited a spectacular Chinese temple and made the 3000 metre hike to Zhurong Peak.  The original main temple here was built in the Tang Dynasty in 618-907 AD but it was burnt to the ground and rebuilt during the Qing Dynasty. It is one of the most important Buddhist temples in China. The mountain is one of the five important such sacred mountains in China – and most of the visitors there were pilgrims not sight-seers like me. Emperors and celebrities have been visiting this mountain site for 2000 years. It was for me an outstanding day.

On another day I visited the Manwangdui Museum in downtown Changsha. This contains artifacts from a site that was excavated in 1972-1974 and famously the corpse of the Marquise of Dai which is on display. The corpse is 2000 years old and is in surprisingly good condition.  The exhibits show fabulously fine pieces of silk, 2000 year old calligraphy – including one piece that offers suggestions for restoring sexual health –  medical manuals and superb ceramics and other artwork.  An essential place to visit if you travel to Changsha.

An important historical site that continues to be used as a university today is the Hunan University campus.  As a site for learning this dates back over 1000 years – it is arguably one of the oldest universities in the world – academic activities have taken place here continuously for over 1000 years.  Some claim Chairman Mao worked as a librarian here (as he worked at my home base in China, Peking University) and Mao’s calligraphy, identifying this university, in 1950  after the revolution, is an important part of its history.

The campus itself is magnificent with impressive historical buildings and an impressive tree-scape of ancient trees. At the back of the university is a forested park and a mountain site.  Open air pavilions, offerings of Chinese classical music including a 21 string Guchin,  and some truly beautiful statues and paintings of the sage Confucius complete a memorable tour.

I had a great time in Changsha and made some good friends. Some of these friends will read this blog – they should let me know if I have misrepresented anything!

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