A trip to China for me was usually a work-related exercise, with next to no time to explore and see it for what it’s worth. This visit was more about leisure, and thanks to my good friend that lives in Wuhan, I had the bonus of a local and someone that’s beyond familiar with the lingo.
On this two-week trip things began, and ended in Wuhan; the capital of the Hubei Province, and one that has over 3500 years of history beneath its belt. It’s also coined as one of the furnace cities along the Yangtze River Valley, so you can expect (July-August) summer temps over 40°C (104°F), coupled with killer high humidity.
Wuhan is split by China’s longest river, the Yangtze, and is a conglomerate of three ancient towns – Hankou and Hanyang on the west bank, and Wuchang on the east. Now it’s a sprawling megacity that’s home to over 10 million.
The city’s architectural icon could well be the Yellow Crane Tower, known for the poetic inspiration it gave to masters like Cui Hao and Li Bai – poems now learned by early school kids in China.
The five-level tower is meant to resemble a yellow crane with outstretched wings, and it’s believed to have been around since 223 AD; although it had been destroyed and rebuilt a dozen times since. The current tower was built in 1981, and can be climbed for breezy views in all directions.
It’s not all about the tower, though. Snake Hill, where the tower sits, has a bunch of beautiful pavilions, gorgeous ponds, gardens and forests, and plenty of places to grab a souvenir, some food or a drink.
Entry is 80RMB. Take bus 590, 715, 64, 36, 12, 49 and 15, or any bus which can get to the Changjiang River Bridge.
Not too far from Yellow Crane Tower – say 15 minutes walk – is a hotspot for all things street food – Hubu Alley. There’s a great deal of hype surrounding this culinary magnet, and despite being told that locals don’t go there, I still wanted to see it.
Hubu Alley itself was closed and under major reconstruction when we visited, but Minzhu Road with which it intersects was in full force with plenty of eating options. As soon as we arrived I noticed a certain aroma. Ok, I’m calling it a stench; something I’ve never come across.
This was stinky tofu, a highly popular dish that tastes nothing as it smells. Large cubes of darkened fermented tofu are tossed into hot oil, splashed about until almost blackened, then drained and adorned with pickled veg and coriander leaves. I must say, the smell didn’t agree with me as I honed in to photograph them cooking. It wasn’t long before I dry retched, which is something I’ve never done with food. This stuff smells nasty!
The pungent smell of stinky tofu may seem to follow every step you take, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing to try. There are many local specialties like spiced baby potatoes, Jingwu duck neck, fermented and grilled spiced duck, reganmian (hot dry noodles), braised pig trotters, fried seafood and so much more.
Another dish I tried was doupi, a layered breakfast snack of sticky rice, pork, mushrooms and a thin layer of pastry made using mung beans, eggs and milk. Garnished with a variety of pickled vegetables, it’s nothing short of delicious.
With the Yellow Crane Tower sitting high on Snake Hill in Wuchang, Qíngchuān Pavilion can be found sitting on the east foot of Tortoise Hill on the opposite bank of the Yangtze, in Hanyang.
The original pavilion was established during the Ming Dynasty between 1522 and 1567, and just like its across-the-river neighbour, it was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times. The one we see today was renovated in 1983.
Aside from Qíngchuān Pavilion, there are several buildings – including a palace – in the leafy complex. It’s not as overrun with tourists like the Yellow Crane Tower complex, so it’s a pleasure to take in the serenity and river views.
You can’t miss the Iron Gate, either, an impressive structure built over Ximachang Street. The breezy pavilion on top of the gate is the perfect spot to take a load off after exploring the complex.
To get to Qíngchuān from the east bank, you can take a quick ferry for 10 RMB, or take bus 559, 45, 30, 531, 560, 571, 803, 108, 401 or 402. Entry to the temple complex is free, but it does require photo identification. It’s best to carry your passport around to enter major temples and tourist sites, otherwise you simply can’t get into them.
Over in Wuchang – east of Yellow Crane Tower – is the Baotong Temple complex at the foot of Hongshan Mountain. Its 1500 year history saw it devastated by fire numerous times, though it was always rebuilt, and even renamed a few times.
The temple has several other buildings as you ascend the hill: the Mile Hall, the Grand Hall and the Zhushi Hall. Towering over them all is the seven storey Hongshan Pagoda, built during the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1280-1291).
Arrive before midday and you can grab a free vegetarian meal in one of the halls, or simply wander the leafy grounds, take in the city views and soak in the tranquility.
Entry is 10RMB. Take bus 608, 519, 557 to get there and get off at the Hongshan stop, or there’s the Baotong Temple Metro stop nearby.
The area in which I stayed was Hongshan District, perched high in one of the hundreds of residential towers southeast of Nanshu Lake. It’s purely for locals, and any foreign visitor to Wuhan would never venture this far from the main sites of the city.
Each cluster of towers has its own outdoor space for residents to exercise, walk their dogs and socialise with others. Grocers, services and restaurants fill the streets, so no need to head downtown for anything. There’s even a Walmart fifteen minutes away, by bike!
Food-wise, we lunched at one place called Sichuan Cuisine Story; an eatery often frequented by my friend and his family. The four of us tucked into a hearty spread of typical Sichuan dishes, each of which laced with varying levels of fire.
Stir-fried chicken gizzards with pickled lotus & chilli (29RMB), a fiery cauldron of beef, tripe, ham, strips of tofu skin, sliced lotus and blood cake (59) and delicious hand-torn cabbage (19). Wow, this was all quite something, and so flavour-packed! I was becoming quite the fan of huājiāo (Sichuan peppercorns); a spice I seldom eat, or cook with.
A few minutes walk from “home” was Chongqing Noodles, a tiny joint that specialises in a bunch of dishes from the city and municipality from which it gets its name.
We really only came here for breakfast, and I couldn’t help but order the same thing every time – reganmian (5RMB)- or hot dry noodles.
This is a dish unique to the city of Wuhan, and has been around for almost a century. Unlike most other noodles that are in a soup, reganmian lives up to its name. It’s basically egg noodles tossed with dark soy sauce, sesame paste and chilli oil. You can pimp up the noodles further with garlic chives, coriander leaves and chopped pickled vegetables. I loved adding a hot boiled egg, bought from a vendor two doors away.
The other dish you can see below is a spicy noodle soup (18RMB), packed with Sichuan pepper and loads of other spices and goodies. Oh, and slices of beef bought from some guy on the street.
In a city that’s home to more than 10 million people, I’m sure it has its fair share of markets. The only one I got to was less than 10 minutes from the condo – the South Lake Community Market.
It’s only been in operation for several months; built along what was once a strip of auto repair and lubricant garages.
Like any neighbourhood market in China, it has virtually anything you’d need for the home kitchen. A dazzling array of fresh produce, butchered meats and fresh seafood, vendors selling all varieties of tofu, freshly made noodles and dumpling wrappers, dried sweet potato noodles and aromatic spices.
There’s a lot of cooked food, as well. Crispy strips of pork belly, steamed and fried dumplings, fluffy bread rolls, mantou, youtiao, braised meats, chicken feet, duck necks and heads and so much more.
I couldn’t help but go a little dumpling crazy with steamed and fried dumplings, plus a tasty sweet potato fritter.
I did cook a few times during my stay, so dinners were always spent at home. One day we biked it to Optic Valley Mall to pick up groceries at Walmart, squeezing in a wonderful lunch at a restaurant inside the mall.
Miao Xiaotan specialises in sour fish soup, which is available in a tomato broth, or a lemon one. We went for the latter – big enough for two and filled with fillets of freshwater fish, shredded bamboo shoot and deliciously refreshing lemony soup.
Opposite the restaurant is a corner store called Liao Ji Bang Bang Chicken which sells a huge variety of goodies threaded onto skewers. Bamboo shoots, chicken feet, beef, tofu, seaweed, beef tendon, lungs – all doused in a marinade of numbing Sichuan pepper, sesame and other flavourings.
You simply take your pick, they lump them into a big takeaway cup and give you a bowl of hot, sour and salty sauce to dunk the skewers into.
Just in case that wasn’t enough food, it was insisted that I try the wares at Hankee Hot Chicken outside the mall entrance. These guys do just one thing – tender nubs of slightly sweet, flavour-packed fried chicken with a copious amount of fried red chilli. Seriously addictive!
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