Features

Inside China...Wuhan: River city revival

28 Feb 2013 by ahmarshah
One of the most undervalued cities in China, Wuhan was once three separate jurisdictions located around the confluence of the Han and Yangtze rivers. Its history dates back some 3,500 years, older even than the famous ancient capital of Xian. The city of Hanyang, now the southwestern district of Wuhan, was already booming during the Han Dynasty (206BC–220AD), and by the Song Dynasty (960–1279AD) it had become one of the few Chinese seaports open to foreign trade. Unfortunately, almost all of the historic buildings from imperial times have been destroyed by war, and those you do see – such as the Yellow Crane Tower – are reconstructions. Wuhan has its own version of “The Bund”, which was once lined with foreign banks and embassies. Many of these buildings have been preserved – some taken over by government agencies, others occupied by private businesses. Although it has lost its place as an important economic hub, Wuhan is set to make a comeback with new developments in infrastructure, such as the high-speed rail. ON ARRIVAL There are two terminals in operation at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. I flew in from Hong Kong and used the smaller International Terminal, which opened in 2010 and is a very simple facility with only two luggage conveyor belts. The bigger Terminal 2, which opened in April 2008 at a cost of almost RMB3.4 billion (US$54.6 million) and three years’ construction work, offers close to 15,000 sqm of space over three storeys. Its annual capacity is 13 million passengers and 122,000 flights. Terminal 3 is already planned, and when completed will be able to accommodate the A380. Located in Huangpi District, the airport lies some 26km north of the city centre – around 45 minutes from the centre of Hankou, Wuhan’s most established urban district. Wuhan is now well connected with high-speed rail – a ride to Shenzhen takes four to five hours, with fares starting from RMB540 (US$87). Wuhan Railway Station, however, though spacious and modern, is located to the east of Wuchang and quite far from the city centre (about an hour or more from the city centre). ORIENTATION Wuhan is a city of lakes, and many of them are in Wuchang, one of the city’s three main districts. To the north on the west side of the Yangtze River is Hankou, what is best described as the old urban district of modern Wuhan. There are still a lot of old blocks from the days of foreign settlements and the riverfront is reminiscent of the Bund in Shanghai, but on a much smaller scale. Across the water on the east side is Wuchang, which in 221AD was made the capital of Eastern Wu, one of the major states that formed the Three Kingdoms period of China. It was here that on October 10, 1911, a revolt broke out that led to the end of the Qing Dynasty. One of the most notable features in Wuchang is the 33sq km East Lake, the largest urban lake in China, surrounded by parks and other attractions. This body of water has been linked to the much smaller Sha Lake by a man-made canal, which is lined on both sides by a newly developed retail and entertainment district called Han Jie. To the south of Hankou, across the Han River but still on the Yangtze’s west bank opposite Wuchang, is Hanyang, which has a history dating back 1,800 years to the Tang Dynasty (618-917), when it was an important trading port on the Yangtze. In more recent history, it was the home of the Hanyang Arsenal, which produced and stored weapons for revolutionaries during the uprising, then for the Republic of China before the city was taken by the Japanese during World War II. Today, Hanyang is where the Wuhan International Exhibition Centre and the Economic and Technological Development Zone are located. Many French companies have their operations here, and as a result there is a sizeable French expatriate community. Line 2 of the Wuhan Metro opened last year to connect Hankou with Wuchang, and by 2016 the network is set to reach the airport. Ticket prices are RMB2 (US$0.32) to RMB6 (US$0.96). WHERE TO STAY Dorsett Regency Wuhan For first-timers this hotel can be hard to find, as it is “hidden” in a mixed-use building in a busy part of town. Once you’ve got your bearings though, you realise that shopping malls, night markets, the riverfront and Jiang Han Lu Railway Station are all within walking distance. The décor is bright and contemporary, and the 319 units include apartments, suites, business, deluxe and superior rooms. Facilities include a gym, business centre, two grand ballrooms and four banquet halls. www.dorsettregency.com Marco Polo Wuhan Owned by a Hong Kong group, the service at this 365-room hotel is reliable, while its location by the riverfront is excellent, surrounded by heritage buildings from Wuhan’s heyday, including the old residence of former first lady Soong Ching-ling. Adhering to brand standards there are Continental Club floors, Café Marco for international food, a Cantonese restaurant, gym and swimming pool as well as nine function rooms and two ballrooms. The décor is classy and subtle. www.marcopolohotels.com New World Wuhan Hotel This 327-room property offers understated and stylish rooms in Hankou, and boasts all the trimmings of an international-standard business hotel, including a conference room for up to 300 and a 440 sqm pillarless grand ballroom. The Chinese Restaurant offers Cantonese, Sichuan and Wuhan dishes, and is an ideal place to sample the various cuisines without having to battle the language barrier outside. www.wuhan.newworldhotels.com Shangri-La Hotel Wuhan Located near the Wuhan Library in Hankou, this hotel opened in 1999 and is one of the most established international hotels in the city. A recent renovation project has made it look as good as new, and the décor and scent are unmistakably Shangri-La. This property has also been the venue of choice for many conferences, and its grand ballroom can hold up to 1,800 in a reception setting. There are 442 rooms including 22 suites. One of the standout features is the izakaya dining outlet Tori-ji, famous for yakitori and teppanyaki: the interior is so well designed you could be fooled into believing you’re in Japan. www.shangri-la.com The Westin Wuhan Wuchang This property is situated along the riverfront of Wuchang, and some of the 305 rooms offer a view of the sparkly cityscape across the water (when the weather is clear). The glittery lobby feels a little unusual for a Westin, but other features such as the Heavenly Spa and Heavenly Bed are unmistakable. Notable features include the executive lounge with a 180-degree view of the Yangtze and Hankou, the 1,488 sqm grand ballroom and a sizeable landscaped garden outside the hotel’s café Tastes. www.starwoodhotels.com WHERE TO EAT AND SHOP It may once have been just an alley, but Hubu Alley now refers to a whole area of small lanes selling Chinese street snacks, from wontons to beef noodles, as well as indigenous ones such as mianwo (a savoury deep-fried doughnut) and reganmian (noodles dressed in a spicy sesame sauce and served with chopped, air-dried vegetables). Locals come here for breakfast, and very few dishes cost more than US$1, except more decadent choices such as grilled scallops topped with glass noodles and garlic (RMB10/US$1.6 each, though the ones we tried did not have much meat in them). If you feel adventurous, a whole grilled frog on a skewer is about US$2. Hubu Alley is located on the Wuchang side, near the riverbank and the Wuhan First Yangtze Bridge – a double-decker road and rail bridge built in 1957 and a landmark of the city. Along the riverfront in Hankou, between the Second Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge and Wuhan Yangtze Tunnel, is Taizi Restaurant (226 Yanjiang Ave Jiang’an; tel +86 27 8271 2228), a more upscale restaurant with uniformed staff. Some of the dishes are rather indulgent, such as deep-fried lotus root with goose liver (RMB38/US$6). The Wuchang fish here was braised in a spicy sauce (RMB38/US$6), and we also tried pig’s trotter in a sweet-savoury Yangzhou sauce (RMB38/US$6) and bean noodles in spicy chilli sauce (RMB18/US$3). A bonus for foreigners is the bilingual menu with pictures of many of the dishes. Wuhan is not particularly famous for shopping, but Baocheng Road near the Dorsett Regency hotel has a vibrant night market. For an upscale shopping experience, Wuhan Tiandi, a sister project to Xintiandi in Shanghai, features outlets of international brands as well as local ones like Woo (www.shanghaiwoo.com). WHAT TO SEE One of the best places to visit is 118-metre-high Moshan Hill, located on the southern shore of East Lake. This green park has lots of trails to explore, and is peppered with pagodas and replicated ancient Chinese structures – some looking quite real, such as the walled city gate. The entry fee is RMB60 (US$9.60) plus RMB20 (US$3.2) extra if you want to visit the dynastic-style Chutian Tower, where there are exhibitions and dance performances. There is also a RMB120 (US$19.2) package that covers the above fees as well as a chairlift to ascend the mountain and a slideway down which you speed to river level. March and April is the cherry blossom season here, and in addition to Moshan, the campus of Wuhan University (http://en.whu.edu.cn) is also a popular place to appreciate the picturesque blooms. One of the city’s most famous landmarks is Yellow Crane Tower (www.cnhhl.com), on Sheshan (Snake Hill) near the Yangtze in Wuchang. The current structure – built in 1981 – is a reconstruction of a tower destroyed during the Qing Dynasty. The site also includes a 133sq km park featuring landscaped gardens, pavilions, a rare stone museum and the Millennium Bell. The iconic tower itself showcases plaques engraved with poems and legends, as well as a calligraphy room where visitors can try their hand. WHERE TO UNWIND A number of bars are frequented by expatriates in the city, and one of the most popular is Brussels Beer Garden (www.brusselsbg.com), near the Shangri-La and New World hotels. The interior’s arched ceiling is decorated with football team banners and jerseys, and a big TV shows important games, but the most charming area is a patio at the back that looks out to Xihu (West Lake). An extensive range of Belgian beers is offered, as well as choices from Germany and other countries, and the bar can also whip up cocktails. A pint of Vedett costs RMB45 (US$7). Yanjiang Avenue, the Bund of Wuhan, is lined with nightlife options. Next door to the Marco Polo hotel is Soho China (No. 158), part of a nationwide nightclub chain. This particular branch is unique in that it’s located in a classical 1920s building, whose high ceiling makes it ideal as a dance club. The crowd is mostly young Chinese, and a gin and tonic costs RMB40 (US$6.40). One&Night A+ (http://weibo.com/onenightabar) in Wuhan Tiandi is a happening place, filled with well-dressed and trendy locals and usually buzzing even when most other places are quiet. Flatscreen TVs placed around the bar play international pop videos, and two cocktails cost us RMB110 (US$18).
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