HUBEI (湖北, húběi) is Han China’s agricultural and geographic centre, mild in climate and well watered. Until 280 BC this was the independent state of Chu, whose sophisticated bronzeworking skills continue to astound archeologists, but for the last half-millennium the province’s eastern bulk, defined by the low-lying Jianghan plain and spliced by waterways draining into the Yangzi and Han rivers, has become an intensely cultivated maze of rice fields so rich that, according to tradition, they alone are enough to supply the national need. More recently, Hubei’s central location and mass of transport links into neighbouring regions saw the province become the first in the interior to be heavily industrialized. The colossal Three Gorges hydroelectric dam upstream from Yichang, car manufacturing – up and running with the help of foreign investment – and long-established iron and steel plants provide a huge source of income for central China.
As the “Gateway to Nine Provinces”, skirted by mountains and midway along the Yangzi between Shanghai and Chongqing, Hubei has always been of great strategic importance, and somewhere that seditious ideas could easily spread to the rest of the country. The central regions upriver from the capital, Wuhan, feature prominently in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms – the port of Jingzhou for one retaining its period associations, while Wuhan thrives on industry and river trade, and played a key role in China’s early twentieth-century revolutions. In the west, the ranges that border Sichuan contain the holy peak of Wudang Shan, alive with Taoist temples and martial-arts lore, and the remote Shennongjia Forest Reserve, said to be inhabited by China’s yeti.Read More
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Shennongjia Forest Reserve
Shennongjia Forest Reserve
Hidden away 200km northwest of Yichang in Hubei’s far west, Shennongjia Forest Reserve (神农架林区, shénóngjià línqū) encloses a rugged chain of mountains, culminating in the 3053m-high Da Shennongjia, the tallest peak in central China. The area has been famed for its plantlife ever since the legendary Xia king Shennong – credited with introducing mankind to farming, medicine and tea – scoured these heights for herbs. More recently, the botanist Ernest Wilson found several new species here in the early twentieth century. And more fancifully, Shennongjia has been the setting for numerous sightings of the Chinese wild man – even if he eludes you, there’s a chance of seeing endangered golden monkeys here.
As parts of the reserve are militarily sensitive, it’s best to visit Shennongjia on a CITS tour from Yichang. If you want to travel independently, the only area open to foreigners is at Muyu Zhen, which you can reach on public transport. CITS might be able to arrange PSB permits for other areas, but whatever you do, avoid Shennongjia town (known locally as Songbai or Songbo): arrive here and you will be arrested, fined and booted out.
Hubei’s river plains extend well into the province’s northwest, where they reluctantly cede to mountain ranges butting up against Henan, Shaanxi and Sichuan. The region’s peaks are steeped in legends surrounding Wudang Shan (武当山, wŭdāngshān), the Military Mountain, known for its Taoist temples and fighting style. A relatively easy ascent, coupled with the mountain’s splendid scenery and the availability of transport from Wuhan, Xi’an and Yichang, make this an appealing trip.
Wudang Shan’s 72 pinnacles have, since Tang times, been liberally covered in Taoist temples. Those that survived a wave of thirteenth-century revolts were restored following proclamations for the development of religion under the Ming emperor Cheng Zi in 1413 – the work took three hundred thousand labourers ten years to complete – and the mountain is currently enjoying another bloom of tourist-funded religious fervour, with many of the temples emerging fabulously decorated after decades of neglect.
To foreigners, Wudang Shan is most famous for its martial arts, which command as much respect as those of Henan’s Shaolin Monastery. It’s said that the Song-dynasty monk Zhang Sanfeng developed Wudang boxing – from which tai ji is derived – after watching a fight between a snake and a magpie, which revealed to him the essence of neijia, an internal force used (in typical Taoist manner) to control “action” with “non-action”. Fighting skills would also have come in handy considering the vast number of outlaws who’ve inhabited these mountains over the centuries. The rebel peasant Li Zicheng amassed his forces and eventually deposed the last Ming emperor from here – there’s a tablet recording the suppression of the Red Turbans on the mountain by Qing troops in 1856. More recently, the Communist Third Front Army found sanctuary here in 1931, after their march from Hong Lake in southern Hubei.
On a more peaceful note, Wudang Shan was also the retreat of Emperor Zhen Wu, who cultivated his longevity in these mountains during the fifteenth century, and whose portly statue graces many local temples. His birthday is celebrated locally on the third day of the third lunar month, a good time to visit the mountain. Wudang’s valuable plants later attracted the attention of the sixteenth-century pharmacologist Li Shizhen, who included four hundred local species among the 1800 listed in his Materia Medica, still an important reference work on the medicinal use of Chinese herbs.