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The Yangzi basin

Having raced out of Sichuan through the narrow Three Gorges, the Yangzi (here known as the Chang Jiang) widens, slows down and loops through its flat, low-lying middle reaches, swelled by lesser streams and rivers that drain off the highlands surrounding the four provinces of the Yangzi basin: Anhui, Hubei, Hunan and Jiangxi. As well as watering one of China’s key rice- and tea-growing areas, this stretch of the Yangzi has long supported trade and transport; back in the thirteenth century, Marco Polo was awed by the “innumerable cities and towns along its banks, and the amount of shipping it carries, and the bulk of merchandise that merchants transport by it”. Rural fringes away from the river – including much of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces – remain some of the least developed regions in central China, a situation the mighty Three Gorges Dam on the border between Hubei and Chongqing, whose hydroelectric output powers a local industrial economy to rival that of the east coast, is going some way to address.

The river basin itself is best characterized by the flat expanses of China’s two largest freshwater lakes: Dongting, which pretty well marks the border between Hunan and Hubei, and Poyang, in northern Jiangxi, famed for porcelain produced at nearby Jingdezhen. Riverside towns such as Wuhu in Anhui also hold interest as working ports, where it’s possible to see traditional river industries – fish farming, grain, rice and bamboo transportation – exist alongside newer ventures in manufacturing. Strangely enough, while all four regional capitals are located near water, only Wuhan, in Hubei, is actually on the Yangzi, a privileged position that has turned the city into central China’s liveliest urban conglomeration. By contrast, Anhui’s Hefei and Jiangxi’s Nanchang seem somewhat dishevelled. Long settlement of the capitals has, however, left a good deal of history in its wake, from well-preserved Han-dynasty tombs to whole villages of Ming-dynasty houses, and almost everywhere you’ll stumble over sites from the epic of The Three Kingdoms, making the tale essential background reading (see Classics). Many cities also remain studded with hefty European buildings, a hangover from their being forcibly opened up to foreign traders as Treaty Ports in the 1860s, following the Second Opium War. Perhaps partly due to these unwanted intrusions, the Yangzi basin can further claim to be the cradle of modern China: Mao Zedong was born in Hunan; Changsha, Wuhan and Nanchang are all closely associated with Communist Party history; and the mountainous border between Hunan and Jiangxi was both a Red refuge during right-wing purges in the late 1920s and the starting point for the subsequent Long March to Shaanxi.

Away from the river, wild mountain landscapes make for excellent hiking, the prime spot being Huang Shan in southern Anhui, followed by Hubei’s remote Shennongjia Forest Reserve, and Wulingyan Scenic Reserve (known locally as Zhangjiajie) in Hunan’s far west. Pilgrims also have a selection of Buddhist and Taoist holy mountains to scale – Hubei’s Wudang Shan is outstanding – and less dedicated souls can find pleasant views at the mountain resort town of Lu Shan in Jiangxi. As an alternative to the better-known Huang Shan, Anhui’s Jiuhua Shan has many advantages: it’s lower (the highest peak is a little over 1300m), the walking is considerably easier and there’s plenty of interest beyond the scenery.

Autumn is probably the most pleasant time of year, though even winters are generally mild, but near-constant rains and consequential lowland flooding plague the summer months. In 1998, floods claimed four thousand lives, wiped out entire villages, isolated cities and destroyed millions of hectares of crops, and a similar disaster was only narrowly averted in 2002. In 2010, torrential rains upstream saw the Three Gorges Dam – trumpeted as the solution to the region’s water management problems – put to its stiffest test since completion, amid swift backpedalling from its supporters: while the dam held, both land and people felt the destructive effects of the flooding. During building it was claimed the dam could deal with everything but a “once in 10,000 year flood”, by 2007 that had been reduced to “once every 1000 years” and in 2008 to “once in every 100 years”. By 2010, Chinese lawmakers were saying the dam’s flood prevention abilities were “limited” and “should not be overestimated”.