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Monday, October 2, 2023

The magic of Hunan

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By Talibeh Hydara

The first province we visited in China was Hunan. It was in late March. We had already spent a month roaming districts in Beijing. It was still too cold for my bones, so I cheerfully welcomed a different weather, away from Beijing, which I believe has a fake sun; shining with rays but still freezing cold in winter. It was also the first time I got on a high-speed train. The journey almost took the whole day but it was worth it. The train effortlessly glided atop buildings from Beijing to Yueyang and by the time we reached, it was almost nightfall and the rains had started drizzling. Each of us was given an umbrella before strolling to the Yueyang Tower.

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Until today, here in The Gambia, I have the little umbrella with me. We spent two days in Yueyang; two days in Changsha; and two days in Chenzhou. There, without waiting to visit other provinces, I concluded that Hunan is the best province in China. I was not wrong. The food. The community. The hospitality. The sceneries. The smiles. It was a heart-warming trip which got stuck on my mind for the ensuing three months of my stay in China.


Then, by design or fate, we were informed that we would return to Hunan for the China-Africa expo, our last activity before flying back home to our respective African countries. I had already developed love for Beijing and I didn’t know how to process that information. The only province that could make me leave Beijing that late in my stay was Hunan.

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I could have stayed back but I had to experience Hunan again, especially Changsha, which is my favourite city. Hunan was our first visit outside Beijing and it was quite poetic to be our last. For someone crazy about literature and knitting words, I do not miss “the last”. If that makes sense.


This time, it wasn’t a high-speed train. It was a plane. Fast, efficient and boring. High-speed is miles more fun, especially if you have altitude issues. At Changsha, I found it better than I left it. Clean, green and serene. The food tasted better and spicier. The people got even more accommodating. The pride on their faces to see foreign visitors. The authenticity of their smiles. The excitement of kids. The generosity of elders. If Beijing is the brain of China, Hunan is its heart; a heart beating with love. 


Like I experienced in the first trip in April, this time too at the welcome dinner, the foods just kept coming. Each was delicious in a special way. That dinner showed me we would have an amazing trip in Hunan again, given the number of local officials that attended and the number of times we had a toast. We just kept toasting. It was amazing to see the humility and the genuineness among the officials at the dinner. We toasted until we almost broke glasses.

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The April trip to Hunan took a different route. We visited some incredible high-tech companies and nature reserves, including Broad Group where I saw a 11-storey built within 29 hours, Junshan Island, East Dongting Lake and the eco-friendly fishing village, Liuzhamen. This time, however, in Changsha, Shaoyang, Shaodong and Shaoshan, it is hair, luggage, elevator, agriculture and Mao Zedong. Different aspects of the province with each holding a special place in its overall development and historical architecture.


Our trips to Hunan have a unique characteristic: high-speed train. During our first trip, we took it from Beijing to Yueyang and then from Changsha to Chenzhou. It’s not different in the June trip either. We got on it to Shaoyang, the largest city by population in Hunan, historically known as Baoqing. There, we visited the Asia Fuji elevator company. Located within the Shaoyang economic zone, Asia Fuji prides on design and production of different elevators. When I say different, I mean DIFFERENT. For the first time in my life, I saw an elevator with four doors, having been introduced to one with three doors earlier at the same company. I had never even seen that on television. It’s top-notch creativity. The elevators can even be personalized in design with colour preference at the centre.


The next stop on that Wednesday was a hair factory. Human hair, to be specific. Shaoyang Sun Group was established nearly two decades ago with an incredible growth rate. The company has more than 1,000 employees with its customers spread across the world, producing 10 million high-end human hair pieces annually. A stroll in the company offered me the chance to see how human hair is made from raw material to packaging. Where I am from, there are dozens of deep-rooted conspiracy theories around artificial hair, with the most prominent ones being the hairs are from horses and dead people. However, despite all that, the appeal for artificial hair is ever strong here with women spending thousands of dollars on it. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry! When a woman spends that much on hair, she doesn’t joke with it. She takes care of it like her life depends on it. Technically, her life depends on it as beauty is life. She doesn’t even gift it. But Hunan is generous, so we were all gifted a package. The visit ended with a beautification exercise. We went on testing different hairs in wigs and other forms, including ones for men and, even for a minute, there was unisex African beauty at Sun Group never experienced before. We also had a stopover in Shaodong at Chunlong luggage and bag company. The focus, dedication and creativity in making bags enthralled me. Medium and high-grade bags and smart luggage series are at the core of its production line.  We later visited the mall and had a chilling interaction with the locals.


After attending the opening ceremony of the China-Africa expo, we headed to Shaoshan, the birthplace of Chairman Mao. It was a refreshing trip. We visited his former residence, the memorial hall and Mao Square, which has his bronze statue. I had visited the Orange Island during the first trip but this is different. The whole city has a Mao touch; interactive, kind and welcoming. Hundreds of young people filled the Square as we laid wreath and paid our respects to the great man. You could not only see excitement in the kids but feel it. The atmosphere was euphoric. Shaoshan is a Mao city.


Our last day saw us visit the China-Africa trade demonstration park. We strolled around African stalls with some freestyle drumming, built networks and had tea with the locals. Hunan Daily was our last stop where me reconnected with two staff who were with us throughout our first trip, Yang Si and Weiyi Xia. It was lovely to see them again. I had also met two other colleagues who I had built incredible connection with, Chen Yaxi and Nie Chenxiao, driving to a local restaurant and ate skewers. Before them, I also met Zuo Si at the expo and Wang Yang, who has stayed with us during both trips.


I have written a lot about China in the last four months. I hope it was enough to present a different picture about the country. Someday, maybe soon, I’d love to go to Guishan Island or Qufu, channel coastal energy and Confucius wisdom to write a book befitting of my experience in China.

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