It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything, and that’s because it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a plane. China continues to be a very safe place to live, but that comes at the cost of strict COVID-19 measures. With such a large population, even a small percentage of people getting sick will result in millions of lives lost, so we’re continuing to live with containment measures that limit travel.
I was however fortunate to slip away for a weekend to visit Changsha. I had no specific reason for choosing Changsha as the city is not known as a tourist destination. It’s mostly known for its incredibly spicy Hunan food and being a city that never sleeps. I can say that it lived up to those two expectations without breaking a sweat!
It’s also known for the locals as the place that Chairman Mao transitioned to Communism. You can see his huge statue on Orange Island standing in front of this city of 10 million people. It’s also known for producing a number of super successful TV shows, movie stars, actors and actresses through its very popular Hunan TV channel.
Changsha is located in the southern part of China in Hunan Province. Hunan is bounded by the provinces of Hubei to the north, Jiangxi to the east, and Guangdong to the southeast; by the Zhuang Autonomous Region of Guangxi to the southwest; and by the province of Guizhou and Chongqing municipality to the west.
For cities that you may be more familiar with, it’s about a one and a half hours’ flight from Hong Kong and Guangzhou and a little over two hours from Shanghai. The flight from Beijing took only 2.5 hours there and two hours back and cost only CNY1,800 or about USD 270.
Niccolo Hotel Changsha
Besides the spicy food and party at all costs reputation that I wanted to experience for myself, I also wanted to visit the Changsha location of the Niccolo Hotel. I had such an awesome experience staying at their Chengdu location, I want to ultimately experience their other locations. They have locations including Hong Kong at the Murray Hotel, which I stayed at last year, Chengdu where I also stayed last year, Suzhou, Chongqing and of course, Changsha.
With so few people travelling domestically at this time, my main competition for rooms were local staycationers, and my gosh, there were lots in Changsha! I feel fortunate that we even got a room considering how busy the hotel was. For this trip, I booked an Explorer River View Suite, and my friends booked the N1 Deluxe River View.
Upon arriving at the hotel, the design language is consistent from Chengdu; the location is also on point, being in the absolute heart of the city, where all the night time action is. Whoever chooses locations for Niccolo clearly has an uncompromising strategy of where their hotels should be located and they don’t settle for second best.
Once inside the hotel, the dramatic artwork the brand is known for continues with the Beijing Woman now a familiar symbol of the company. This time, she’s placed perfectly to welcome you as you enter the hotel grounds. Interesting artwork and custom lighting continue at various points throughout the hotel and make for a fun time for exploring the hotel.
The lobby is on the 93rd floor of the the tallest building in central China, nearly half a kilometre in the sky and occupies the top floors of the building. On the day we arrived, the clouds were flowing below the lobby and you could see hints of what this gritty city looks like.
The suite was immaculate as you’d expect of this brand. It’s large with absolutely incredible views of the city, being only a few floors below the lobby on the 89th floor. The corner unit has views of the city, the river, Orange Island, and the Tokyo Shinjuku conquering night streets in the Huang Xing area.
Building amenities were as expected of this class of luxury hotel with excellent breakfast, choice of foods, pool, and a huge gym with a separate sound proof room where I was overjoyed to do two mornings of LES MILLS BODYCOMBAT, while nursing massive hangovers.
Overall, my friends and I loved our stay at Niccolo, and will continue to recommend this newish brand to family, friends and visitors from around the world. I intend to try out their Chongqing and Suzhou locations next, in that order.
Changsha Night Life
In recent years, Changsha has been gaining popularity as a destination for excellent spicy food and a thriving night life. I could understand the spicy food part, but was sceptical of the night life claims. Why would someone from Beijing or Shanghai travel to Changsha to party? Seemed counterintuitive. Then Friday came and we went out, and what I experienced may rival what I’ve seen in Tokyo or New York, during their heydays.
Changsha literally doesn’t sleep. I took a picture from the hotel room at 3:40AM on Saturday night and you can see cars packed into the party street and thousands of people all around. Leave a throbbing bar or club at 4AM and you’ll find the streets lined with revellers having food and continuing to drink. It’s wild, somewhat unhinged, and incredibly energizing. Even if you’re not into going out, it’s worth it to stay up late for the street food, soaking up the endless energy and capturing some memories of it with your camera.
When I use the words “endless energy”, I’m not being hyperbolic. Changsha natives are proud that they start their drinking at 8PM and continue until 5AM. Bars, lounges and clubs are packed full of people by 9PM and stay that way until at least 4AM. That’s when they start to spread out to the street and start another round of eating and drinking. Changsha truly is a city that doesn’t sleep, and that perhaps is all the reason you need to visit.
Hunan Spicy Food
Hunan Province is known for its spicy food and again, Changsha does not disappoint. It’s a totally different type of spicy compared to Chengdu where the numbing peppercorns are embedded in hot pot and create this incredible medley of tastes. Hunan spicy food has more variety to it, but the spice is far more ferocious compared to Chengdu, and without any numbing, it just builds and builds as the dinner goes on. It’s not uncommon to see beads of sweat coming down even on the locals’ foreheads while eating. That could perhaps also be from the wickedly hot temperatures in the city during the summer, where it can hit 30+C with high humidity.
I will always try something at least one time, even if I’m afraid of it. In Hunan, I finally gave in and tried both stinky tofu and spicy frog. Both tasted really good actually, especially the stinky tofu, which tastes totally different than how it smells. In fact, once it’s inside your mouth, the smell seems to disappear. The frog was also very good, primarily because it was covered in chilis and sauce; I don’t think frog will become a normal part of my diet however, as it has a really low return on investment, with little meat, and lots of bones. If you want to be conservative, stick with the spicy beef which is a signature dish and available everywhere.
Changsha Milk Tea
I always think of iced milk tea as being a Taiwan thing, or a Hong Kong thing, but it’s taken to a whole new level in Changsha. There is a milk tea shop every 20 meters. It’s often the same brand called Chayan Yuese (茶颜悦色). My local friends are crazy about this shop and were ordering three a day for me! While I enjoyed the various flavours, the thick cream on top certainly impaired my weight loss goals! Chayan does however offer light cream versions, but I think the calories go down from 1,000+ to something like 700.
While I didn’t get the opportunity to visit some of the main sites, the hotel was very near the Taiping Old Street area where you can see how life would have looked like in the past. It was also very near the Huangxing Pedestrian Street that was absolutely buzzing at night and a treat for photography.
We also made it over to a fun but contrived tourist building called Super Wenheyou (超级文和友) that tries to show what 1980’s Changsha would have been like; in reality, it’s more for the Internet Red people (China’s vocabulary for influencer). However, it is a great place to buy Changsha snacks and food as the quality is high and the variety vast.
With only two nights and three days in Changsha, I certainly barely explored this energetic city. However, it’s already taken a place in my heart. What at first looks like a gritty industrial town, transforms into a party town at night, where everyone lets go. It’s a great place to go release stress from the bigger cities in China!