The southeastern province of Hunan is probably best known for its spicy food. Its main city, Changsha, is notable mainly for being a transportation hub, in other words the type of place you only travel through on the way to neighboring provinces.
But it is a little surprising that it is not more of a travel hotspot given its lovely rural scenery and diverse ethnic minority culture.
It's worth noting that if you have seen the movie Avatar, you have already seen a bit of what Hunan is like.
Set on the beautiful and imaginary space planet of Pandora, the movie's most amazing sight is the floating Hallelujah peaks.
Director James Cameron based these on the towering sandstone peaks in Wulingyuan scenic area, though of course they do not float in the sky like in the movie.
And in a case of life imitating art imitating life, the park authorities actually renamed one of these peaks as "Avatar Hallelujah Mountain," both in Chinese and English.
The mountains in Zhangjiajie National Park Photo: VCGBeauty of nature
But Wulingyuan is much more than just the "Avatar" peak. Comprising four national parks totaling more than 250 square miles, the area offers numerous activities.
Near Zhangjiajie city, for instance, you can spend days trekking and hiking through the natural scenery.
The entrance ticket, while expensive, is valid for four days.
The four parks - Zhangjiajie, Suoxi Valley, Yangjiajie and Tianzishan - feature different highlights.
Zhangjiajie and Tianzishan are best for viewing giant sandstone peaks, which soar like natural towers among large canyons, while Suoxiyu is good for hiking along streams and through the forest.
On the outskirts of Wulingyuan, there are several different ticket stations, from where free shuttle buses take visitors to various stops.
This can be a little confusing, especially for non-Chinese speakers and readers, as there is little information in English about all the stops which the shuttle buses go to.
Try to find out which attraction you want to go to, for example, Avatar peak, or Tianzishan, and employees will direct you to the right bus.
One issue is that to view Avatar peak or Tianzishan, buses drop you off at the Bailong glass elevator or the cable car respectively, which both cost an additional fee.
Hiking paths going up to the mountains are not located immediately by these stations. Going up an elevator to the top of a mountain might seem a little tacky, but for the last few seconds of the ascent, it was exciting to see the peaks come into view.
That settled, Zhangjiajie city has other major sights worth venturing to besides Wulingyuan.
In the town, a cable car goes up all the way to the imposing Tianmen Mountain.
As the world's longest cable car, the ride is half an hour and probably is as much as an attraction as the mountain itself.
I wouldn't know because I took the shuttle bus up, then took it back down because I didn't want to wait two hours for the cable car.
The shuttle bus journey was quite thrilling and scenic itself.
The bus goes zigzagging through dozens of bends, admittedly I did not count but it was a lot, while passengers enjoy great views of the valleys below and the mountain looming above.
A waterfall in Zhangjiajie National Park Photo: VCG
While the possibility of skidding off the side of the road and plunging into the depths below is scary, the drivers are not daredevils, or at least mine wasn't, so passengers shouldn't need to worry about reckless speeding.
The bus stops below the stairs to Tianmen cave, which is actually a huge hole.
After going up the steep stairs and reaching the cave, you take a series of eight escalators to get to the actual top of the mountain.
Tianmen Mountain is a plateau and there is a well-marked oval route which makes for a pleasant walk along cliff edges, bridges and a forest. In the center is Tianmenshan Temple, which was first built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) then rebuilt in the mid-20th century after being destroyed by war.
Visitors can test their nerve by going on several glass skywalks perched along the edges of the cliffwalls.
The weather was overcast and foggy while I was on Tianmen Mountain, so though I went on one of the glass cliffwalks, the effect was not as scary since the bottom was obscured by mist.
Zhangjiajie National Park also has a glass bridge, which is a little further away, and only opened last August.
Named the Grand Canyon Glass Bridge, the bridge is fully transparent which is great for viewing the canyon floor 300 meters below, but not so great if you are scared of heights or have heart problems. There is some good hiking that can be done as well.
Fenghuang ancient town Photo: VCG
Journey through history
Besides Wulingyuan, Hunan's other star attraction is the village of Fenghuang. Often featured in pictorials and described as one of China's most beautiful villages, Fenghuang is indeed very attractive.
However, it is also very commercialized and a far cry from the isolated rural village I had foolishly been expecting. Instead, the old village hugs the banks of the Tuojiang river, surrounded by modern buildings and apartments.
With 300 years of history, Fenghuang is home to a sizeable amount of Tujia and Miao people. From a bridge overlooking the old village on which you approach the Nanmen or Southern Gate, Fenghuang looks pleasant enough.
The village's traditional wooden homes near the waterline, which are propped by stilts, are very attractive.
At night, I was told the village is decked out in bright lights and comes alive with music as people throng the restaurants and bars.
The village buildings may look charming from afar, but each of them is a shop, restaurant or hostel, which, to me, does hamper the atmosphere.
In addition, there is a giant concrete wall built along the riverbank that completely blocks the buildings from the river.
However, there are several authentic tower gates, remnants of the village's old wall, and historic buildings such as the former residence of Shen Congwen, a famous 20th century Chinese writer who was born in Fenghuang.
The historic buildings are located in the inner lanes, as the village becomes more interesting as you get away from the stores.
Changsha is Hunan's noisy and bustling capital. It certainly won't rank on any of China's top city lists for travel but there are a few sights worth seeing if you do happen to go there.
Almost every Chinese city boasts a historic walking street full of shops, restaurants and vendors, and Changsha is no different.
Taiping Street features renovated old buildings that house food stores and bars, while nearby the larger and more gaudy Huangxing pedestrian street features mostly chain stores.
The street is supposed to have been a former city center for over 2,000 years.
A particularly interesting Chinese restaurant can be found on nearby Pozi Street.
Huogongdian or Fire God Palace restaurant, is a renowned dining establishment that is said to have been built on the site of an ancient fire temple.
Apparently, Hunanese in the past had a tradition of worshiping the fire god, which is fitting given their hot cuisine and temperament.
The red complex houses an actual temple as well as a stage for Chinese opera performances, but the main attraction is the restaurant and its authentic, spicy Hunanese cuisine.
For a more natural atmosphere, the 300-meter-high Yuelu Mountain is a place for light hiking as well as visiting one of China's oldest places of learning, the Yuelu Academy, which was founded in 976.
The Hunan Provincial Museum is renowned for its 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220) Mawangdui tomb remains, though I could not see this since it was closed for renovation.
The museum renovation is supposed to be completed later this year, though previous notices on websites have said the same thing about it last year.
I tried to visit the Changsha Museum but I was misled by my map app, which marked the old Changsha museum. By the time a kind store employee helped me figure out the actual location, it was too late.
As someone who makes sure to visit museums, especially in Chinese cities, this was disappointing.
With its mountainous terrain and scattered villages, Hunan people are said to be tough and clannish.
I guess this probably was a factor for some of the grumpiness I encountered.
But I can certainly pay tribute to Hunan's fine rural scenery and the majesty of Wulingyuan, which is the most impressive natural area in China I have ever visited.
Rules of thumb
Getting there: Fly direct from Beijing, Shanghai, or most major cities, or take the train to Changsha. From there you can take a bus to Fenghuang.
If you want to head to Zhangjiajie directly, you can fly there from most major cities in China or take the train.
When to go: As heavy rains fall during April to June, and July and August can be very hot, the best time to visit is during the autumn months, when it is cooler and there is less rainfall.
Fares to enter Wulingyuan and to take the cable cars and glass elevator are cheaper from December to the end of February (non-peak season).