We’re in Wuhan, a modern-day combination of two ancient cities on opposite sides of the Yangtze, here along the river’s wide middle reaches. We arrived via overnight train from Hangzhou, waking in the morning to passing scenery of damp, gray towns amidst misty green hills and soggy rice terraces. This place is wet, and hot, far more so than even humid Hangzhou.
Wuhan is notable for a couple of things. First, it’s located near the ancient capital of the State of Chu, once the superpower of the ancient Chinese world. The Chu state once controlled the Sichuan basin as well as most of the Yangtze valley all the way to the sea, but was eventually outmaneuvered, weakened, isolated, tricked and finally annhilated by the ruthless Qin, who unified all of China under their highly organized rule. Second, Wuhan was the farthest-inland foreign concession in the later days of the Qing Dynasty. The Europeans’ sailing ships could navigate this far up the wide, deep Yangtze, so the location offered easy access to inland markets. The riverfront area still has some old buildings left behind by the Brits and French, although they haven’t recieved the same make-up and botox treatment of the treaty port areas in Shanghai. Tianjin, and Guangzhou. Third, Wuhan is where the 1911 revolution that eventually overthrew the Qing Dynasty all started. (Chinese have remarked to me more than once that China is actually the world’s third oldest democracy, after the US and France.) As the museum here would have you believe, Sun Yat-sen and his fellow revolutionaries were willing to risk their lives so that China could be pushed forward to the next stage of capitalist development, thus meeting the prerecquisite conditions for another revolution, this time of the proletariat. Actually, walking through the propaganda-filled museum, it’s interesting to ponder the what-ifs of Wuhan’s, and China’s, histories and present: What if the Chu had held on to their independence, and maintained a balance of competing powers in China? What if the revolution here had failed, or, looking at the ensuing chaos, actually succeeded?
Meanwhile, we really like the place. Wuhan’s pretty developed, but it still retains some of the ‘colorful grittiness’ that places like Hangzhou are getting rid of as fast as possible. And apparently we’re not the only foreigners to have remarked in this way: in two different cabs, our happy appraisals were returned by the drivers with mentions of other foreigners, American (“黑的！” and French, who sat in those cabs and said the same thing. Whether it’s the messy, crowded streets and shops, spicy “dry-pot” style food, or the steaming-hot riverside setting, for some reason we foreigners all decide we like it here. The coastal cities are just so tame.
But we can’t stay long, and it isn’t so wild here, after all. Upriver, where the full power of the Yangtze once burst violently forth from the tight confines of the Qingling Mountains, obliterating all in its frequently changing (and flooding) path, the contained river now obediently flows through the power turbines of the Three Gorges Dam. There, where Nature herself has been tamed by clever Chinese engineers, our journey west continues.
Below: some pictures from our first day of travel. Not included (yet): video of Bayley doing something really wild above Wuhan’s East Lake.