A Weekend in Wuhan

Hubei Province, China 

May 21th - 23rd, 2016

Continuing my quest to visit every province in China, this was one of my first forays into more central parts of the country. I decided to visit the city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei province. Hubei is the 9th largest province with a total population of around 60 million.

I left work a bit early on Friday afternoon for the short flight (about 1.5h) from Hong Kong to Wuhan on Dragon Air. Due to one of the frequent spring thunderstorms in Hong Kong my flight took off nearly two hours delayed, which got me into Wuhan just before 9:00 pm. But things moved quite quickly from there on. There were no lines at immigration, nor at the taxi stand, and the drive into the city took about 30 minutes. I stayed at the very nice Renaissance Wuhan Hotel located in the Wuchan district of the city on the Eastern shore of the Yangtze and within walking distance to the East Lake.

About Wuhan:
Wuhan is the capital of the Hubei province. It is the largest city in Central China, and generally recognized as the economic, financial, political and cultural capital of Central China. Wuhan is located on the Yangtze River at its confluence with the Han River. It is a huge and sprawling metropolis with a population of almost 11 million. The name Wuhan did not exist until the early 20th century, since the city is an amalgamation of the three ancient cities, Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang, which were separated by the two rivers.

Wuhan's recorded history stretches back 3,500 years, which puts it among the most ancient cities of China. Given its strategic position on the Yangtze river in the centre of the country it has always been an important transportation hub. It became a busy imperial port city during the Han dynasty (221 – 206 BC). And throughout its history the city was known as a centre for the arts and poetry. Probably the most significant role played by Wuhan in Chinese history came in 1911, as it was here that the so called Wuchang Uprising started that lead to the end of the Qing Dynasty, and the establishment of the Republic of China. In the 1920s Wuhan briefly served as the capital of the Kuomintang government, and as the wartime capital in 1937 following the fall of Nanjing.

Wuhan is also known as one of the ‘Furnaces of China’ as apparently the heat and humidity in summer are brutal. End of May however turned out to be perfect, with a very pleasant day time temperature of about 20 degrees and very little humidity.

Saturday, May 21st
I started my day at the main tourist attraction in Wuhan, the Yellow Crane Tower. The tower is located in the large scenic area, which covers a narrow hill aptly named Snake Hill in the middle of the city and close to the river. It costs 80 Yuan to enter the park, which also contains several beautiful little pagodas, some large sculptures and memorials with important looking inscriptions (but no English translations).

The current Yellow Crane Tower is a modern replica (built in 1981) of the many previous towers. The first tower was constructed here in 223 AD, and there have been 12 subsequent constructions, which were all destroyed either by accidental fires or war. Numerous legends exist about the Yellow Crane Tower, and many famous poems have been written about it. One poem in particular, written during the Tang dynasty in the 8th century, made the tower probably the most famous building in the entire country. It is considered among the Four Great Towers of China. Unlike its previous wooden incarnations, the current tower is built out of concrete, which should prevent it from being burnt down again, like so many of its predecessors.

You can walk (or take the elevator) all the way to top of the tower. On a Saturday you have to fight the hordes of other tourists to make your way up the narrow stairs and particularly the balcony on the highest floor. The great views in all directions across the city and the Yangtze river from the top make it well worth the effort though.

This fierce looking warrior on the left is Yue Fei, a famous general from the Southern Song dynasty. I went to his tomb on my trip to Hangzhou last year, and you can read more about his life and exploits in my Hangzhou blog post here. The strange looking red building on the right is the Museum for the Revolution of 1911 (I didn't go inside the museum).

Palm readers and fortune tellers seem to be quite a big deal in Wuhan. I saw lots of them along the streets, and they seem to be doing pretty good business:

My next stop was the Changchun Taoist Temple located just to the East of the Snake Hill Park. It was a very pretty temple with numerous buildings and prayer halls and narrow passageways between them.

From here I took the metro to the Hubei Provincial Museum, which to my great disappointment was closed. It looked like there was some construction going on, but I couldn't figure out if that was the reason for the closure, as there was only a notice in Chinese (and I am not sure that notice explained much, since there were many Chinese tourists with the same puzzled look as me standing in front of the closed gate). I had read much about this particular museum, and it is apparently very good. Fortunately there was the Hubei Art Museum right across the street, which turned out to be really interesting too. It's a huge building with exhibition spaces over four floors. I particularly liked the show on the top floor illustrating the history of art in Hubei throughout the 20th century. And in the basement was an temporary exhibition of the Renault collection with a particularly impressive number of works by Jean Dubuffet and Victor Vasarely.

Afterwards I walked towards the huge East Lake. It is the largest lake within a city in China. Although not quite as historic or scenic, it did remind me a lot of the more famous lakes in Hangzhou and Nanjing. The Tingtao scenic area is a large park on the Western shore of the lake, containing several causeways, little side lakes full of pleasure boats and numerous pagodas.

Sunday, May 22nd
I started the day on the other side of the river at the largest and most important Buddhist temple in Wuhan. Guiyuan Temple was built in the late 17th century during the early parts of the Qing dynasty. The temple is located in the Hanyang district. It is a huge temple complex with large prayer halls and many smaller pagodas. The most famous of the buildings is the 'Arhats Hall', which contains 500 statues of Arhats (which are the Buddhist equivalent of Saints). Apparently you are supposed to count the Arhats from whichever side you enter, and when you get to your age, you write down the number above the statue, go to a little booth and buy a golden card, which tells you your fortune.

To the back of the main temple, I found a large Buddha statue and this huge wooden pagoda with a concrete base. It was called the Yuantong Pavilion and it seemed to be brand new, since it was not mentioned in any of the guide books, and the signs in front of the building where still wrapped in plastic foil.

From here I went on a walk down to the Yangtze river and then along the very nice Hanyang Marshland park. I had great views across the huge river to the Wuchan side of the city. The Yangtze is one of the great rivers of the world with a total length of 6,380 km, which makes is the third longest after the Nile and the Amazon. It is more than a kilometer wide here, even though it is still more than a thousand kilometers before it reaches the East China Sea.

The walk also took me under the very impressive Yangtze River Bridge No 1. Imaginatively named as it was the first bridge to cross the river here, prior to which all cross river traffic was done by ferry. Construction of the 1.6 km long bridge started in 1955 and it was completed in 1957. It has two decks, the lower one for rail traffic and the top one for cars and pedestrians. The building of the bridge was one of major projects in the Communist Party's first five year economic plan and its completion was billed as a great triumph for Communist China (trying not to emphasize the fact they had to rely heavily on Russian engineering expertise to build it). Chairman Mao himself came to Wuhan a month before the official opening in Oct 1957, and walked across the bridge as part of a big ceremony.

Wuhan is about 400 km downriver from the Three Gorges Dam. While few people would argue the fact that the dam has caused immense ecological damage and displaced millions of people, it has also helped to control the frequent and often catastrophic river floods, which used to plague Wuhan and Hubei Province. The last major flooding in 1954 pretty much inundated the entire city and killed an estimated 33,000 people. A large monument on this side of the river commemorates the fight against the floods.

I walked from here across a bridge over the Han river to get to the Hankou part of the city. This side of the city still has a lot more older buildings left than the much more modern looking part on the other side of the Yangtze. I walked through narrow and crowded streets until I got to a large pedestrian street, which was incredibly busy on a Sunday afternoon.

I found the nearest metro station, and took the metro for five stops to find the Dalin Museum of Sexology. I had read about it on Wikitravel, and this being only one of two sex museums in all of China, it sounded too intriguing for me to miss it. And it turned out to be well worth the detour - an absolute gem of a little museum, fascinating and hilarious at the same time. It is not that easy to find. It is located on Qingnian Road about halfway between the metro stations Fanhu and Wangjiadun East. You can see the big blue sign from the outside, but to get to it you have to go through the lobby of a hotel and then take the stairs to the first floor. There you have to pay a man in an office 50 yuan, before he unlocks the door for you. (I was the only one here at the time). It is an amazing collection of weird little artifacts, ancient erotic sculptures (some as old as 5,000 years), porcelain figurines showing different sexual positions (including one involving a horse), various large antique dildos made of wood and jade as well as a detailed census showing the number of prostitutes by area in Wuhan from the 18th century. And the freakiest of all, several fairly large human embryos in glass jars.

I ended my weekend with a few beers in the hotel bar editing pictures and writing my blog, and I flew back to Hong Kong on Monday morning. I very much enjoyed my short trip to Wuhan. It is not one of the most beautiful cities in China, but it has plenty of interesting sights, museums and temples to make it well worth a trip.


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