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.
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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 demise of the Yangzi river dolphin
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.