Hunan borders six other provinces in south central China, it has long been known for its attractive natural beauty and searing, chili-laden cooking.

Photogenic terraced fields, river valleys, mountains, and jutting sandstone karst formations attract legions of tourists, with Heng Shan heading the bill. Heng Shan, also known as Nanyue Shan, is one of China's holiest mountain ranges, and is not to be confused with Shanxi's sacred mountain of the same name. Revered by Taoists and Buddhists alike, Heng Shan is also beloved by hikers, rewarding a little effort on the trail with fresh air, temple-studded slopes and mist-shrouded summits. Those ambitious enough can ascend to Wishing Harmony Peak or explore Grand Southern Heights Temple.

Other big Hunan draws are the Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve and Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, an awe-inspiring UNESCO world heritage site, home to rare plant and animal species and a stunning landscape of karst towers, primeval greenery and clear-running streams.

Hunan is rich with historical treasures as well. Many trek to Fenghuang, to see the surviving portions of the Southern Great Wall, built in 1554 to defend against the Miao. Here you'll encounter Miao and Tujia peoples, reputed to be the last descendants of the mysterious, prehistoric Ba kingdom. Look for their colorful cultural festivals during the second week of September.

More recent times come alive in Shaoshan, Chairman Mao Zedong's birthplace. Still a popular political pilgrimage site for Chinese travelers, it's also of interest to any visitors wishing for a deeper understanding of China. Much is made of Mao's early work organizing peasants to help them overcome famine, while other far more controversial chapters of his career are conspicuously absent. The nearby provincial capital, Changsha, is also home to much "Maomorabilia," including the Helmsman's school and the original offices of the Hunan Communist Party.

Changsha is also a great place to dig into Hunan's signature chili-laden dishes, which rival Sichuan's on the spice-o-meter. Mao once famously claimed that Hunan's fiery fare is what made locals so politically red, and Hunanese fury is something many an invader has regretted provoking, from the British to the Jurchen.

湖南Húnán: Hunan
衡山Hénɡshān: Heng Shan
武陵源风景区Wǔlínɡyuán fēnɡjǐnɡqū: Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve
张家界国家森林公园Zhānɡjiājiè ɡuójiā sēnlín ɡōnɡyuán : Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
毛泽东Máo Zédōnɡ: Mao Zedong(Chair Mao)
长沙Chánɡshā: Changsha