Situated at the crossroads of central China on the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang), Wuhan is far more than just a place to switch trains, buses or boats.
Known as the "Gateway to Nine Provinces" and one of China's "Furnaces," Wuhan is sprawling, industrialized, crowded, and dynamic as any city you'll find in China.
A three-in-one urban mashup, the modern metropolis is made up of the once-independent cities of Hankou, Hanyang and Wuchang. Linked by bridges spanning the Yangzi and Han rivers, the three are now districts that maintain distinct feels despite the rampant demolition & construction giving much of Wuhan a makeover. Hankou, in particular, is home to a finely preserved colonial quarter and old Chinese neighborhoods sit side by side with shiny new high rises throughout the three districts.
Wuchang's iconic five-tiered Yellow Crane Tower, dating back to the 3rd century AD, is Wuhan's top must-see attraction.
Other popular points of interest include the Rock and Bonsai Museum with its outdoor garden of exquisitely trained bonsai.
The Hubei Provincial Museum features a fascinating collection of relics from the storied region's long history, including treasure excavated from the tomb of the Marqui Yi and a 64-strong bronze bell orchestra.
The Mao Zedong Villa, where Mao frequenty staid between 1960 and 1974, provides green respite from the bustling city. Surrounded by landscaped grounds, the villa makes for a fascinating window into PRC history, though the "maomorabilia" and a distinct whiff of personality cult can reach overpowering levels for some.
East Lake--the largest city lake in China--is another handy getaway from crowded streets, and Wuhan is a point of departure for riverboat tours to the Three Gorges Dam and Chongqing.
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The site of two major battles in Chinese history--one ancient, one modern--as well as the 1911 Wuchang Uprising that led to the fall of dynastic China, Wuhan has always been in the middle of China's often tumultuous story.
Long before Japanese and Nationalist forces clashed in the four-month-long epic Battle of Wuhan in 1938, and even before the decisive Battle of Red Cliffs fought as the Han Dynasty began to collapse over the winter of 208-209 AD, the Wuhan region was a vital part of the growing Chinese world.
With evidence of some 3,500 years of settlement, the area gained prominence in the 8th century BC under the Kingdom of Chu, rival to Qin during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, only to fall to Qin in 225 AD. The Qin went on to unite all of China for the first time, with the short-lived Qin Dynasty falling to Han a few years later.
Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang thrived early as Yangzi River ports, and their prosperity allowed culture and arts to flourish. Yellow Crane Tower, Wuhan's signature building, dates back to 221 AD and, despite having been destroyed and rebuilt several times over, remains an awe-inspiring piece of living history.
As imperial China began its final period of decline, during the Qing Dynasty, (1644-1911), Wuhan would play a key role in the final collapse. Hankou had been a colonial trading port since the the Treaty of Nanjing and subsequent "unequal treaties" forced the city open to Russia, France, Germany, Britian and Japan. The colonizers had a strong influence not only on riverfront architechure, but on the locals, who bristled at the humiliation of foriegn domination and the corruption and weakness of the Qing.
Things came to a head in 1911 with the even that would catapult China into revolution that, in many ways, wouldn't truly come to an end until the communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949. The Wuchang Uprising inspired revolt throughout China, and by the end of the year the Republic of China had been declared.
20th century turmoil was not done with Wuhan, however. The Japanese, bent on expanding their Asian empire at the expense of a weakened and divided China, pressed Chinese forces for over four months in 1938 before taking Wuhan in a bloody and protracted battle. The city would further suffer the ravages of war as American planes bombed the Japanese stronghold, burning much of the city to the ground in 1944.
Though it recovered quickly, becoming one of the first cities in China to industrialize extensively, Wuhan was to figure yet again in the drama of China's history with the Wuhan Incident, as competing factions comprised of Red Guards and the local Red Army detachment-supported "Million Heroes" faced off in a tense propaganda war turned violent. Eventually, Beijing had to send other PLA divisions to wrest control of Wuhan from the mutinous soldiers and their "Million Heroes" allies. In the process, some thousand residents perished.
Today, the city has a population pushing the 10 million mark, making it among the most populous cities in China.
Wuhan has been called one of China's "Summer Furnaces" due to the fact that May through September the stifling heat and humidity (often over 40 ºC) will have you dreaming of sleeping next to one of the ice sculptures in Harbin. There is heavy rainfall from April through to July. The residents of the city often complain that there are only two seasons: winter and summer – both of which are too long.
The city is famous for its snacks - oh the snacks - be it succulent, spicy duck's neck, designer dumplings, hot and dry noodles (re gan mian), chili-spiced pigeons, the delicious and often squirty soup buns (tang bao), salty doughnuts (mian wo) or doupi (sticky rice, egg, beef, mushrooms and beans wrapped in a pocket of soy skin) – eat, gorge, snack, feed… yum. Check out the stalls at the night market, heaped with goodies, on Jianghan Yi Lu, east off Jianghan Lu. Wuhan food is generally a mix of Shanghainese, Chongqing and Sichuanese cuisine. And for the less adventurous, there are a number of Western-style cafe and cake shops along Jianghan Lu and Yanjiang Lu. The formal restaurants are still inexpensive and cling together on Zhongshan Dadao in Hankou. The Fantasy Land of Oz is a highly-praised vegetarian restaurant. Kaiwei Beer House and Dezhuang Huoguo Guangchang, Dongfang has excellent Sichuan hot pot for cheap. Bordeaux Bar is a romantic little fusiony spot serving up the best of pasta, steak, Chinese food and strong coffee. Yuanye Jiaozi Guan is a popular spot to try some of the local favorites.
Tickets for bus, train, flights and ferries can be arranged at your hotel or at one of the agencies at the Yangzi ferry terminal. Wuhan is too big to get very far on foot (especially in the humidity of summer). Taxis are a good way to get around at 8 RMB for the first two kilometers, although the traffic jams are legendary. If you are new to the city, trying to figure out the public transit can be time-consuming. The buses and trolleybuses are crowded and slow. The city bus stations are at the train stations in Hankou and Wuchang.
To and from Wuhan
Thirty kilometers north of Wuhan is Tianhe International Airport, one of the busiest airports in central China. You can fly to most cities with China Southern or China Eastern between Shenzhen and Urumqi. A taxi to the airport takes about half an hour (80 RMB) or catch a shuttle bus from the China Southern Airlines office on Hangkong Lu, leaving every hour (20 RMB or free if you purchase a ticket with China Southern, 40 minutes).
There are two train stations: one in Hankou district if you are going north and one in Wuchang for southern destinations. You can go pretty much anywhere by train, including Beijing (13 hrs, 350 RMB), Guangzhou (16 hrs, 320 RMB), Shanghai ( 18 hrs, 285 RMB), Xian (16 hrs, 240 RMB) and Guilin (12 hrs, 250 RMB). At the moment a new train station is under construction that will have with 11 platforms. Wuhan also has a subway. The initial ten kilometers is elevated above ground running from Huangpu to Zongguan.
The long distance bus station is located in Hankou on Jiefang Dadao. Both sleeper and standard buses go almost everywhere and you generally won't have a problem getting a seat. Just to get an idea for prices: Shanghai (15 hrs, 330 RMB), Changsha (4.5 hrs 96 RMB), Xiangfan (6 hrs, 85 RMB)
Ferries run upriver on the Yangzi River to Chongqing, but the route down towards Shanghai or Nanjing is not very impressive scenically.