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 China’s two largest freshwater lakes: Dongting, which separates Hunan and Hubei, and Poyang, in northern Jiangxi, famed for porcelain produced at nearby Jingdezhen. While all four provincial capitals are located near water, only Wuhan, in Hubei, is actually on the Yangzi, a position that has turned the city into central China’s liveliest urban conglomeration. 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 a smattering of sites from the Three Kingdoms. 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 spots being Anhui’s Huang Shan, followed by Zhangjiajie National Forest Reserve 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 Lushan in Jiangxi.
In theory, getting around isn’t a problem, as high-speed rail lines and highways link all but the remotest of corners. 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.
The baiji, or Yangzi river dolphin (白鲫豚, báijì tún), was once a common sight along the middle Yangzi, and one of only four freshwater dolphin species worldwide. The animals – 2.5m long, with a long thin snout and a stubby dorsal fin – were seen as a good omen by fishermen, lending their name to Anhui’s Baiji beer, which had their Latin name, Lipotes vexillifer, stamped on the bottle cap. But as China’s population expanded, new forms of fishing, industrial pollution, river traffic and dam projects quickly decimated the numbers of sonar-guided baiji. A six-week, 3200km survey in 2006 failed to find a single dolphin and they have since become the first aquatic mammal to be declared functionally extinct for the past 50 years.
Despite a government vision of Anhui (安徽, ānhuī) as a wealthy corridor between coast and interior, the region continues to live up to its reputation as eastern China’s poorest province. It has a long history, however, and million-year-old remains of the proto-human Homo erectus have been found here, while Shang-era copper mines in southern Anhui fuelled China’s Bronze Age. The province later became known for its artistic refinements, from decorative Han tombs through to Ming architecture.
Any success, however, has been in the face of Anhui’s unfriendly geography. Arid and eroded, the north China plains extend into its upper third as far as the Huai River, and while the south is warmer and wetter, the fertile wooded hills soon climb to rugged mountains, where little can grow. Historically, though, the flood-prone Yangzi itself has ensured Anhui’s poverty by regularly inundating the province’s low-lying centre, which would otherwise produce a significant amount of crops. Despite the expansion of highways and railways – not to mention several huge bridges across the Yangzi – Anhui’s economy still trails its booming neighbours, though there are compensations for this underdevelopment. Superlative mountain landscapes at Huang Shan and the collection of Buddhist temples at Jiuhua Shan have been pulling in sightseers for centuries, and there’s a strong cultural tradition stamped on the area, with a substantial amount of antique rural architecture surviving intact around Tunxi.
Rearing over southern Anhui, Huang Shan – the Yellow Mountains – are staggeringly scenic, with pinnacles emerging from thick bamboo forests, above which rock faces dotted with ancient, contorted pine trees disappear into the swirling mists. This magical landscape has left an indelible impression on Chinese art, with painters a common sight on mountain paths, huddled in padded jackets and sheltering their work from the drizzle beneath umbrellas. Indeed, so great is Huang Shan’s influence on the national psyche – it’s said that once you’ve ascended these peaks you will never need to climb another mountain – that it’s the ambition of every Chinese to conquer it at least once in their lifetime. Consequently, don’t expect to climb alone: noisy multitudes swarm along the neatly paved paths, or crowd out the three cable-car connections to the top. All this can make the experience depressingly like visiting an amusement park, but then you’ll turn a corner and come face to face with a huge, smooth monolith topped by a single tree, or be confronted with views of a remote square of forest growing isolated on a rocky platform. Nature is never far away from reasserting itself here.
Huang Shan barely rises above 1870m, but as you hike up either of the staircases on the trails it can begin to feel very high indeed. You’ll need between two and eight hours to walk up, depending on whether you follow the easier eastern route or the lengthy and demanding western route. Alternatively, cable cars take upwards of twenty minutes to ascend, though queues can be horrendous (there’s usually less of a wait to go down), and services are suspended during windy weather. Once at the top, there’s a half-day of relatively easy hiking around the peaks.
Ideally, plan to spend two or three days on the mountain to allow for a steady ascent and circuit, though it’s quite feasible to see a substantial part of Huang Shan in a full day. Accommodation in Tangkou and Wenquan will store surplus gear: just bring a daypack, suitable footwear and something warm and weatherproof for the top – not forgetting the likelihood of year-round rain, and winter snow.
The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.
So, rather cynically, begins China’s great fourteenth-century historical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Covering 120 chapters and a cast of thousands, the tale touches heavily on the Yangzi basin, which, as a buffer zone between the Three Kingdoms, formed the backdrop for many major battles. Some surviving sites are covered in this chapter and elsewhere in the Guide.
Opening in 168 AD, the Romance recounts the decline of the Han empire and how China was subsequently split into three states by competing warlords. The two original protagonists were the villainous Cao Cao and the virtuous Liu Bei, whose watery character was compensated for by the strength of his spirited sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu – the latter eventually becoming enshrined in the Chinese pantheon as the red-faced god of war and healing. A political dispute between Cao and Liu eventually broke down into forthright conflict, their armies fighting numerous campaigns through the Yangzi basin – both sides all the time claiming to represent the emperor’s wishes. Cao was eventually defeated in Hubei at the Battle of the Red Cliffs (208 AD), after Liu engaged the aid of the wily adviser Zhuge Liang, who boosted Liu’s heavily outnumbered forces by enlisting the help of a third warlord, Sun Quan – a campaign recently brought to life in John Woo’s blockbuster Red Cliff movies.
Consolidating their positions, each of the three formed a private kingdom: Cao Cao retreated north to the Yellow River basin where he established the state of Wei around the ailing imperial court; Sun Quan set up Wu farther south along the lower Yangzi; while Liu Bei built a power base in the riverlands of Sichuan, the state of Shu. The alliance between Shu and Wu fell apart when Sun Quan asked Guan Yu to betray Liu. Guan refused and was assassinated by Sun in 220 AD. At this point Cao Cao died, and his ambitious son, Cao Pi, forced the emperor to abdicate and announced himself head of a new dynasty. Fearing retaliation from the state of Shu after Guan Yu’s murder, Sun Quan decided to support Cao Pi’s claims, while over in Shu, Liu Bei also declared his right to rule.
Against Zhuge Liang’s advice, Liu marched against Wu to avenge Guan Yu’s death, but his troops mutinied, killing Zhang Fei. Humiliated, Liu withdrew to Baidicheng in the Yangzi Gorges and died. With him out of the way, Cao Pi attacked Sun Quan, who was forced to renew his uncomfortable alliance with Shu – now governed by Zhuge Liang – to keep the invaders out of his kingdom. By 229 AD, however, things were stable enough for Sun Quan to declare himself as a rival emperor, leaving Zhuge to die five years later fighting the armies of Wei. Wei was unable to pursue the advantage, as a coup against Cao Pi started a period of civil war in the north, ending around 249 AD when the Sima clan emerged victorious. Sun Quan died soon afterwards, while Shu abandoned all claim to the empire. Wei’s Sima clan founded a new dynasty, the Jin, in 265 AD, finally overpowering Wu and uniting China in 280 AD.
YIXIAN, a county town 60km due west of Tunxi, is not of interest in itself and should only be seen as a stepping stone to the surrounding picturesque villages, two of which have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
As the gateway to Huang Shan, Tunxi has a decent range of accommodation choices, mainly concentrated around the train station and on the other side of town near Lao Jie and the river.
Tunxi has plenty of good restaurants in which to sample the local huicai fare. As well as the listings here there are numerous small restaurants around the Xin’an Nan Lu-Lao Jie intersection. Near the train station, cheap eats can be found at the string of canteens off Qianyuan Lu on Hehuachi Zaochi Yitiao Jie (荷花池早吃一条街, héhuāchí zăochī yìtiáojiē).
Tunxi’s centre is small enough to walk around, though you might need transport for arrival points.
One of the highlights of a visit to southern Anhui is the chance to see Huizhou houses, whose plan of two floors of galleried rooms based around a courtyard became the template for urban domestic architecture in eastern China. Tunxi’s best two examples are hidden in the eastern backstreets, both threatenend by ever-encroaching modern buildings. The more easterly house is that of the mathematician Cheng Dawei (程大位居, chéngdàwèi jū; ¥30; 8am–5pm); the other, closer to the old town, is known as the Cheng Family House (程氏三宅, chéngshì sānzhái; ¥30; 8am–5pm). Further examples can be found at the new riverside park development of Hubian Gucun (湖边古村, húbiān gǔcūn), where some 40 original Huizhou houses and two paifang memorial arches have been relocated, and you’ll find plenty more at Shexian or Yixian.
Any exploration of Shexian will reveal traditional Ming and Qing architectural features, most notably the paifang or ornamental archways – there are over eighty of these in She County alone. Wood or stone, paifang can be over 10m in height, and are finely carved, painted or tiled, the central beam often bearing a moral inscription.
They were constructed for a variety of reasons, foremost among which, cynics would argue, was the ostentatious display of wealth. This aside, the gateways were built to celebrate or reward virtuous behaviour, family success, important historical events or figures, and to reflect prevailing values such as filial piety; as such, they provide a valuable insight into the mores of the time.
Hubei is Han China’s well-watered agricultural and geographic centre. 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, 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. The central river regions feature prominently in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, while the capital, Wuhan, thrives on industry 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.
Hidden away 200km northwest of Yichang in Hubei’s far west, Shennongjia Forest Reserve 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 plant life ever since the legendary Xia king Shennong – credited with introducing mankind to farming, medicine and tea – scoured these heights for herbs. More recently, the plant hunter 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.
Way up in northwestern Hubei, the 72 peaks of Wudang Shan, the Military Mountain, are steeped in legends surrounding its Taoist temples and fighting style. Wudang is associated with Zhen Wu, a martial deity whose portly statue graces many local temples, and whose birthday is celebrated on the third day of the third lunar month – a good time to visit the mountain. Wudang’s martial arts would have come in handy considering the vast number of outlaws who’ve inhabited these mountains over the centuries, not least the rebel peasant Li Zicheng, who amassed his forces and eventually deposed the last Ming emperor from here.
Many temple buildings here date to an imperial building frenzy during the fifteenth century – the work took three hundred thousand labourers ten years to complete – and the mountain is currently enjoying a bloom of tourist-funded religious fervour. A relatively easy ascent, coupled with the mountain’s splendid scenery and the availability of transport connections, makes this an appealing trip.
Wudang 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”.
For those interested in learning some Wudang wushu, there are several academies: try the Jing Wu Martial Arts School (0719 5666666) or Chuanzhen Martial Arts Institute (139 2471458), where you should be able to negotiate a course from around ¥2000 per week.
One way or another, almost anyone travelling through central China has to pass through WUHAN, Hubei’s vast capital. The name is a portmanteau label for three original settlements, separated by the Han and Yangzi rivers but connected by bridges, tunnels and ferries. On the west bank of the Yangzi, Hankou is the city’s trade and business centre and boasts the best services and accommodation. South across the Han River is lightly industrial Hanyang, while Wuchang recedes southeast of the Yangzi into semi-rural parkland.
Wuhan’s sheer size lends atmosphere and significance, even if the metropolis not a traditional tourist centre. Hankou’s former role as a foreign concession has left plenty of colonial European heritage in its wake, while Wuchang’s Provincial Museum in is one of China’s best. There are also a couple of temples and historical monuments to explore, some connected to the 1911 revolution that ended two thousand years of imperial rule. On the downside, Wuhan’s continued growth and development and the ongoing metro construction mean that the city currently feels like an enormous building site, and can make it a challenge even to cross the road. Furthermore, the city has a well-deserved reputation – along with Chongqing and Nanjing – as one of China’s three summer “furnaces”: between May and September you’ll find the streets melting and the gasping population surviving on a diet of watermelon and iced treats.
The Hubei Provincial Museum features a display of items unearthed from the Warring States Period’s tomb of the Marquis Yi, and deserves a good hour of your time. The marquis died in 433 BC and was buried in a huge, multilayered, wooden lacquered coffin at nearby Suizhou, then a major city of the state of Zeng. His corpse was accompanied by fifteen thousand bronze and wooden artefacts, 21 women and a dog. The museum’s comprehensive English explanations of contemporary history and photos of the 1978 excavation put everything in perspective. More than a hundred musical instruments are on display, including bronze bells, stone chimes, drums, flutes and zithers, along with spearheads and a very weird brazen crane totem sprouting antlers – an inscription suggests that this was the marquis’s steed in the afterlife.
The Hubei Provincial Museum’s impressive orchestra of 64 bronze bells, ranging in weight from a couple of kilos to a quarter of a tonne, were found in the marquis’ waterlogged tomb along with the wooden frame from which they once hung in rows. Played with hand-held rods, each bell can produce two notes depending on where it is struck; the knowledge of metals and casting required to achieve this initially boggled modern researchers, who took five years to make duplicates. Brief performances (¥15) can be enjoyed in the museum’s auditorium at 10.30am, 11.30am, 2.30pm and 3.30pm.