Nestled in the sun-kissed hills of central Hunan, there’s an ordinary yellow mud-brick peasant house with a not-so-ordinary neighbor — a permanent People’s Liberation Army guard station.
That humble — and now fortified — abode was laojia (老家, home) to one of China’s most commanding (and controversial) figures of the 20th century: Mao Zedong.
In a China hell-bent on modernization and the the whole idea of “out with the old, and in with the new” (旧的不去，新的不来), Mao’s home offers a delightful respite from the usual concrete-block urban depression. Yes, delightful — even if you’ve sworn off the Chairman for personal reasons, or after reading Wild Swans (or, more likely, Mao: The Unknown Story).
That might be hard to believe when you’re touring his home. People’s Liberation Army soldiers had us bustle through in a neverending line of tourists, leaving no more than a moment or two to admire the wooden canopy beds, or imagine the fiery aroma of local Hunan dishes being cooked over the old-style hearth. (At the very least, the privilege of gazing upon the humble home of Chairman Mao comes gratis, in a China where, nowadays, there’s a price on everything.)
But then John and I rambled up a dusty trail above Mao’s home, between the terraced ponds and the fringe of forest beside us. Soon the only tourists seemed to be cicadas, and the guards geese waddling around the ponds. And when we stopped and glanced back, there stood
Mao’s home shrouded in every gorgeous, verdant shade of green — and, from afar, a rare afternoon silence. Later, when we left the grounds of Mao’s home, even the stream and its almost perfect, translucent waters flowed with abundant life, from snails plodding along to birds taking an afternoon bath.
“My hometown used to be like this,” John claimed, as we admired the local temple balancing on one of the hills beyond us. And while I’d never know the true beauty of John’s hometown, before the old made way for the new, at least we had Shaoshan.
And, for that matter, a lifelong reminder of it all. Not the photographs, or the memories of his home or that sweat-stained afternoon — but a military green cap, crowned by one red star, just like Mao’s Red guard used to wear. It’s true that the greatest beauty is hidden in those hillside vistas. But the Mao kitsch hawked in Shaoshan? Well, that’s another thing of beauty, for another article. 😉
When to visit
Mao’s Childhood House (毛泽东同志故居) is located in Shaoshan (韶山), just 130km south of Changsha. It’s open 7am – 6pm daily, and — hooray! — it’s free to visit. Since the outdoors are much of the fun, plan your visit for the Spring or the Fall.
WARNING: If you take one of the Shaoshan minibuses to Shaoshan village, where Mao’s home is, note that the first stop — where they will likely encourage you to get off — is this dodgy conglomeration of restaurants and hotels, with a cable car slapped with a 110-plus RMB price (to get you into the “Chairman Mao scenic area”). Save your money! Shaoshan village itself is scenic everywhere you go, and it’s all free — and your 75-year old grandmother could walk through the hills without hardly registering a sweat.
By Train: One train daily (17 RMB) leaves from Changsha to Shaoshan at 6:40am, and leaves Shaoshan for Changsha at 5pm. It’s 3.5 hours one way. If you don’t mind getting up in the wee hours of the morning, this is really the best way to go.
By Bus: There several buses leaving daily (20 RMB one way) from the Southern bus station in Changsha — and, usually, they only take about 2.5 hours one way. But be prepared for unplanned stops — these buses will take the smaller countryside roads to scoop up more passengers along the way.
Where to stay
Since Shaoshan is short on accommodation — and anyhow, you probably want to catch the thrills of Changsha — your best bet is to stay in Changsha.
We stayed at Daronghe Holiday Hotel (大蓉和假日酒店, 0731-888-1888), at 188 Furong Zhong Lu, Section 2, Changsha (长沙市芙蓉中路二段188号), nestled in the Helong Stadium (和龙体育馆). The rooms are very modern, clean, and include all local and long distance charges in the room fees. Rooms start at around 200 RMB/night, and there’s a Carrefour nearby.
This hotel is currently not on Ctrip, so if you want to book, try calling them. Otherwise, find more hotels by booking — online, as I did — at Ctrip.com (no deposit needed, and you can cancel easily, if necessary).
This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.
To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives.