The ancient heart of China is truly worth exploring
Wuhan, the sprawling capital of Hubei province, located in the centre of China, lies at the confluence of the Han and Yangzi rivers, which separate three original settlements of Hankou, Wuchang, and Hanyang, all of which have their own unique histories.
Hankou, in the northeast of the city, is the bustling commercial centre, where you can find the best hotels, restaurants and shopping, and was opened as a European treaty port in 1861 and so boasts a pleasant colonial quarter along the river. Hanyang, south from here across the Han River, is mostly a light-industrial area, but features a great viewpoint and an important Buddhist temple. Lastly, there is the ancient walled city of Wuchang, east across the Yangzi via the Great Changjiang Bridge, where you’ll find most of the tourist sights and a less hectic environment as the city thins out toward the tranquility of East Lake.
As it holds the majority of the better accommodations in Wuhan, most people start their exploration of the city in Hankou. Once a simple inland fishing port during the Tang dynasty, it rapidly grew after the arrival of European and Japanese traders in the mid-19th century, which led the area to become a centre of early industrialisation in China, and whose iron and steel workers were key in the toppling of the Qing dynasty during the 1911 Revolution.
Although a mostly modern part of the city, there is still evidence of the Europeans, with many neo-classical buildings in what is known as the colonial quarter between Zhongshan Dadao and the riverfront. The only real formal tourist attraction here is the Wuhan Art Museum, housed in a very grand 1920s neo-classical building on the western edge of the quarter, and a good place to see both classical and modern Chinese art. However, the real joy of the colonial quarter is to just wander around, especially through the maze of backstreets, where you can see more of the local culture and stylish cafés, shops and restaurants that are opening to take advantage of the atmospheric surroundings.
The best area for a riverside stroll is along the former British-built Bund (embankment), similar to the one found in Shanghai, which has been landscaped to become Jiangtan Park, a popular place with both locals and visitors, especially to escape the ferocious heat in the summer. Many of the colonial buildings here have been converted into high-end restaurants, clubs and bars, and the area is quite lively at night.
Hankou is also famous for its shopping, and Jiankou Walking Street, just back from the river, is well-known as a place to experience authentic Chinese shopping, with shopkeepers standing in the street, clamouring to lure the crowds of shoppers inside. It’s especially good for picking up discount clothes, though for larger sizes you’re best off heading for the less-rowdy department stores and international chains that are well-represented here.
If Chinese food isn’t your thing, this is also where you’ll find the main concentration of Western food chain outlets. If you do like Chinese food, then there’s no shortage of street food as well as some fine restaurants serving local dishes hidden amid back streets. Try the Wuchang fish (one of Chairman Mao’s favourites) or braised pork in black bean sauce, which is more for Western palates.
Moving south from Hankou across the Han River is the second of Wuhan’s ancient settlements, that of Hanyang. Although founded in the Sui Era (CE581-618), there is little left of its long history, and it is little-visited by outsiders, though there are a few places of interest clustered around Gui Shan (Turtle Mountain), which is now a pleasant park and worth a climb for the ancient tombs dotted on its slopes and wonderful views of the city from the top. The park is easy to find, thanks to its enormous TV tower. A couple of kilometres to the southwest, you will find the late Qing dynasty Buddhist temple of Guiyuan Si (one of the four most important in China), which is not only a tranquil place to escape the crowds but features hundreds of statues of both the Buddha and his acolytes.
The last and most attractive of all three is Wuchang, the ancient capital of the Wu kingdom that takes up the eastern bank of the Yangtze, where you’ll find most of Wuhan’s main attractions. Founded as the capital of the Wu Kingdom during the early Three Kingdoms Period (CE220–280), this ancient city later became the capital of Hubei province after 1300, and much of this long and turbulent history can be seen and experienced at various sights. It’s best to make an early start to sightseeing here, not only because of the many things to see, but because one of the culinary specialties of Wuhan is its breakfast food. Hubuxiang (Breakfast Alley), located near Yellow Crane Tower, is one of the best street eating experiences in China. Try the reganmian (hot dry noodles) or tangbao (small dumpling buns filled with pork and soup).
The most famous building in Wuhan is the Yellow Crane Tower, which has existed in various forms throughout Wuchang’s history. The first tower was built in CE221 as a military watchtower but it has been destroyed and rebuilt on no fewer than twelve occasions over the centuries, thanks in part to the Tang dynasty poets who lavished such praise upon it. The current 51-metre-high tower was built in 1981, recreating the Qing dynasty style with its curved roofs covered with over 100,000 orange-yellow ceramic tiles, though it stands one kilometre away from the original site. Just to the east of here, visit the Taoist temple of Changchun Guan, which is the centre of Chinese Traditional Medicine, with finely carved columns, a doctor and a pharmacy.
From here, it’s a few kilometres east to the edge of the picturesque Dong Hu (East Lake), where you can really come to grips with the region’s history at the splendid Hubei Provincial Museum, which boasts a fine collection of historical artefacts (most are labelled in English) and a daily musical performance on replicas of the over 2,000-year-old bronze bells found in the province. Just a few hundred metres south, experience something of 20th-century history at Mao Zedong’s Villa. It is here that the architect of communist China spent a lot of time during the Cultural Revolution. A delightful area, many scenic locations around the East Lake are now easily accessible by boat.