The Wudang Mountains

In the northwestern region of Hubei province, the mysterious Wudang Mountains rise up in a sea of clouds. Resplendent with dense forests, trickling streams, and vast caves, it is a mountain range of unparalleled natural beauty. Yet it is more well-known for the Taoist temples and monasteries scattered throughout its expanse, which are considered so exemplary that they were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. While the Shaolin Temple in Henan province is heralded as the source of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Shaolin Kung-Fu, many regard the Wudang Mountains as the legendary birthplace of Taoism and the practice of Tai Chi. In fact, the three “internal” martial arts, known as Tai Chi, Bagua, and Xingyi, are classed as Wudang styles. 

Building began on the mountains as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Emperor Taizong commissioned the construction of the Five Dragons Temple, and further religious structures were added during the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. However, it wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that the mountain range was finally recognised as prime piece of spiritual real estate! The Yongle Emperor claimed to enjoy special protection from the Taoist deity Zhenwu or the “Dark Warrior” and, since Zhenwu supposedly attained immortality while living on the Wudang Mountains, the Emperor felt this would be the ideal location to build a temple complex dedicated to him.

While some people have shopping sprees, it seems the Ming emperors were wealthy enough to have building sprees! At its peak during the Ming Dynasty, there were a staggering 9 palaces, 9 monasteries, 36 nunneries, and 72 temples located on the Wudang Mountains, most of which were built under the instruction of the Yongle Emperor. Unfortunately, due to their precarious location, maintaining the temples was extremely difficult and they frequently had to be repaired or rebuilt. Nowadays, only 53 of these ancient buildings and 9 architectural sites remain.  

Situated on the southern side of Tianzhu Peak, the Golden Hall is part of a much larger complex known as the Palace of Harmony, which also contains the Forbidden City and Gutong Hall. Standing at 6 metres (20 ft.) in height and 3 metres (10 ft.) in width, the Golden Hall is so-named because it is entirely made of bronze. Within the hall, you’ll find a bronze statue of Zhenwu, which reputedly weighs over ten tonnes. To put that into perspective, that’s nearly twice the weight of an African elephant! 

The nearby Purple Cloud Temple, which is perched on Zhangqi Peak, was built in 1413 and is another highlight of the mountain range. Covering a colossal area of 6,850 square metres (73,733 sq. ft.), it consists of the Dragon and Tiger Hall, the Stele Pavilion, Shifang Hall, the Grand Hall, and numerous other structures. With its blue glazed-tile roof and intricate wood-carvings, the Grand Hall is particularly magnificent and is considered emblematic of wooden structures from the Ming Dynasty.  

Nanyan or “South Cliff” Palace, which is named simply because it faces south, was built during the Yuan Dynasty and is said to be the most sacred place on the mountain range, since it was rumoured to be where Zhenwu attained immortality. Tianyi Zhenqing Hall within the palace is considered particularly spectacular, since all of its beams, pillars, doors, and windows were carved from stone. So don’t be offended if you get a stony reception during your visit!

Although many of the oldest buildings have now been lost, the temples and palaces of the Wudang Mountains represent over 1,000 years of artistic and architectural progress, and are considered some of the finest examples of Yuan, Ming, and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasty style architecture in the country. They provide an insight not only into the historical periods during which they were built, but also into the progress of Taoism as an indigenous religion in the country. While the range’s historical connection to the imperials is palpable, its designation as the birthplace of Tai Chi is the subject of heated debate.

According to legend, a Taoist hermit named Zhang Sanfeng came to live in a monastery on the mountains and supposedly invented the concept of neijia, which encompasses the art of Tai Chi. In Chinese martial arts, the term neijia refers to styles that train and harness the power of the three internal treasures: “Jing”, the essence and inner energy of the physical body; “Qi”, the natural energy that flows through all things; and “Shen”, the original spirit of the body. While Shaolin Kung-Fu focuses on improving the strength and power of the body through physical exercise, neijia-style martial arts employ meditative exercises to enhance the body’s three internal treasures.

Since Zhang Sanfeng was purported to have lived for over 200 years, it is unsurprising that historians doubt the accuracy of the records surrounding him. However, even if the stories aren’t strictly true, the spiritual nature of the Wudang Mountains and the temples that populate them is undeniable. Whether it be strolling through the forests on a dusty afternoon, wandering the temple halls in the pale light of morning, or simply sampling a cup of locally grown tea in a mountain teahouse, a visit to the Wudang Mountains is guaranteed to be time well spent. 

The Three Gorges Dam

The Three Gorges Dam has been the subject of controversy in China ever since its conception. This colossal engineering project, which stretches across Xiling Gorge of the Three Gorges in Hubei province, is 2,335 metres (7,660 ft.) long, approximately 185 metres (607 ft.) high, and was constructed from 28 million cubic metres (37 million cu. yd.) of concrete and 463,000 metric tons of steel. To put that into perspective, that’s enough steel to build the Eiffel Tower 63 times over! Construction began in 1994 and, at the time of its completion in 2006, it was the largest dam in the world. 

The idea for the dam was first discussed by Sun Yat-sen during the 1920s, but wasn’t seriously considered until Chairman Mao Zedong ordered detailed planning for the project in 1955. In fact, Chairman Mao was so enamoured with the idea of the dam that he wrote a poem dedicated to it, which he entitled “Swimming”. However, lack of funds and heavy criticism of the project meant that Chairman Mao was unable to achieve his dream. In short, he just couldn’t give a dam! 

It wasn’t until 1992 that Premier Li Peng, who was himself trained as an engineer, was able to convince the National People’s Congress to ratify the decision to build the dam. Nearly one third of congress members either abstained or voted against the project, which represented an unprecedented level of resistance from a typically compliant government body. With so much opposition facing the project, it’s difficult to see exactly why anyone would want to build it in the first place. 

The main impetus driving the construction of the dam was two-fold: to produce electricity and to help prevent flooding. The dam functions as a hydroelectric power-plant and is able to produce as much energy as 15 coal-burning power stations. This has reduced the need for coal mining in northern China, lessened pollution in the region, and provided nine provinces with clean energy. It has also created a deep-water reservoir, which allows oceangoing vessels to safely navigate a path from Shanghai on the eastern coast to the inland city of Chongqing. This means that freighters can now transport goods where trucks would otherwise have to be used, which has heavily lessened harmful fuel emissions. 

It is estimated that every year the dam reduces air pollution by 100 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, millions of tonnes of dust, one million tonnes of sulphur dioxide, 370,000 tonnes of nitric oxide, 10,000 tonnes of carbon monoxide, and a significant amount of mercury. If that wasn’t enough, the dam is also primarily designed to protect millions of people from periodic and devastating flooding that takes place annually on the banks of the Yangtze River. However, as with all large-scale projects, these benefits have come with a heavy price.

Upon its construction, the dam flooded over 500 cities, towns, and villages, which displaced approximately 1.3 million residents. Relocating all of these people consumed over 45% of the project’s budget alone! While some of them were moved to places within Hubei province and nearby Chongqing, others were sent much further afield to the provinces of Hunan, Sichuan, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Fujian. The social impact of the dam has been immense, as local businesses were forced to close and many of the displaced are still struggling to recoup their losses while simultaneously adjusting to the local culture in their new homes. 

Yet these social problems pale in comparison to the environmental damage that the dam continues to cause. It currently blocks the natural flow of sediment down the Yangtze River, which has resulted in sediment build-up above the dam and severe lack of sediment downstream. The absence of this sediment could potentially make downstream areas more vulnerable to flooding and weakens the bed on which Shanghai is built, while the build-up of sediment upstream is harmful to aquatic wildlife. Much of this sediment is created by erosion from rising water in the dam’s reservoir, which also frequently results in major landslides.  

Over 6,300 species of plant once populated the area surrounding the dam, the majority of which were classed as endangered and were used as ingredients in traditional Chinese medicine. However, since the dam was built, the percentage of forested area in the region has dropped from 20% to 10%, which has had an enormous negative impact on the resident plant species. It has also changed the water temperature and flow of the Yangtze River, which has affected the 361 freshwater fish species that populate it. Numerous scientists believe that the dam was the direct cause of, or at least a major contributor to, the extinction of the baiji or Chinese river dolphin. Talk about a damming testimony! 

As if the catastrophic environmental affects weren’t enough, the dam’s reservoir flooded over 1,300 archaeological sites, some of which could not be salvaged or moved. Historical treasures such as the hanging coffins of Shennong Gorge were tragically lost under the cascading waters. Although river cruises are now able to explore areas of the Three Gorges that were previously impenetrable, the dam itself has altered the appearance of this glorious natural site forever.

In 1997, the Three Gorges Dam Scenic Area was opened to the public and includes: the Exhibition Hall of the Three Gorges Project, where visitors can learn about the history and construction of the dam; Tanzi Ridge, the 185 Platform, and the Dam Viewing Point, which offer panoramic views of the dam and the surrounding countryside; and the Memorial Garden, a large open-air museum featuring machinery used to build the dam. While curious visitors flock to the dam in their thousands, debate rages on as to whether it should have ever been built in the first place. 

Shennongjia Nature Reserve

In prehistoric times, a legendary figure known as Shennong was said to roam the dense forests of Hubei province, searching desperately for medicinal herbs and remedies to add to his repertoire. His quest to provide healing poultices to the common people led him to eat hundreds of different plants each day, resulting in him becoming poisoned over 70 times. You could almost say he had a toxic relationship with the botanical world! The name “Shennongjia” literally translates to mean “Shennong’s Ladder”, in reference to the rattan ladder that he would use to climb up and down the mountains.

Shennongjia Nature Reserve is located in Shennongjia Forestry District, the only district of its kind in China. Its biodiversity, abundance of rare plant and animal species, and beautifully preserved virgin forests meant it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016. Covering a colossal area of over 3,200 square kilometres (1,235 sq. mi), it is more than twice the size of the city of London! Thanks to its mountainous landscape and deep valleys, the reserve encompasses three climatic zones: subtropical, warm temperate, and cold temperate. This means that it can support a wider variety of plant and animal species, resulting in the unique diversity of its inhabitants.

The reserve boasts over 3,400 types of plant, including 26 rare and 33 indigenous species. Over 490 species of animal populate the reserve, many of which are heavily endangered and under state protection, such as the golden snub-nosed monkey, the golden eagle, and the giant salamander. For unknown reasons, the reserve supports an uncommon number of albino residents, with albino bears, deer, squirrels, snakes, and even crows being spotted throughout its expanse. But all of these curiosities pale in comparison to the strange creature that some locals would have you believe is hiding in the forests.

Like the Himalayan Yeti or the American Bigfoot, Shennongjia Nature Reserve is rumoured to be the home of the dreaded Yeren or “Wild Man”. This ape-like beast is said to walk upright like a human, be over 2 metres (6 ft.) tall, and is covered in shaggy red or brown hair. Since the 1970s, there have been several sightings of the Yeren, although thus far it has never been clearly photographed or caught. Hikers beware, the Yeren has a preference for mountainous terrain and is evidently an expert at hide-and-seek!

There are plenty of places for it to live and hide, since the reserve itself is part of the Qinba Mountain Range. Its highest peak, Shennongding, towers in at 3,105 metres (10,187 ft.) above sea level. With an average altitude of 1,700 metres (5,577 ft.), the mountains of Shennongjia are often referred to as the “Roof of Central China”. Based on the various attractions within the reserve, it is usually split into four sections: Shennongding Scenic Area in the southwest; Yantian Scenic Area in the northwest; Xiangxi Source Scenic Area in the southeast; and Yuquan River Scenic Area in the northwest.

Alongside Shennongding Peak, the Shennongding Scenic Area is home to a plethora of hidden gems, including the glittering Dajiu Lake and the accompanying wetlands beneath Yagao Mountain. It is also inhabited by members of the Tujia ethnic minority, who delight visitors with their vibrant customs and rich folk culture. Yantian Scenic Area is an emerging eco-tourism destination, with the valleys of Tianmenya, Yanziya, and Hongping forming the core attractions. They are renowned for their misty peaks, lush foliage, pristine waters, and dizzying cliffs. An ethereal sea of clouds blankets the landscape, giving the impression that one has entered a fairy-tale world.

Xiangxi Source Scenic Area is so-called because it is located near to the source of the Xiangxi or “Fragrant” River. Alongside its apparently beguiling aroma, the waters of the river are also said to contain 14 different kinds of minerals and have special nourishing properties. Historical figures such as Wang Zhaojun, one of the Four Great Beauties of ancient China, and Qu Yuan, a famous poet of the Warring States Period (c. 476-221 BC), were said to visit the river specifically to drink its water. Other highlights of the area include Shennong Altar, a 21-metre (69 ft.) tall statue to commemorate Shennong, and Laojun Mountain, which was named after the founder of Taoism, Laozi.

Yuquan River Scenic Area is similarly based around the Yuquan or “Jade Spring” River and is particularly popular with more adventurous tourists, since it features high mountain peaks, deep valleys, and sprawling lakes. The area also contains its own museum, known as Shennongjia Eco-museum, where visitors can learn about the mysterious Yeren and admire some of the fossils that were found in the nature reserve.

During each of the four seasons, the Shennongjia Nature Reserve transforms into a wonderland of new and exciting scenes. In winter, the mountains are capped by snow and glistening icicles cling to the rock-face. Spring breathes life into the meadows with colourful rhododendrons, cherry blossoms, and all manner of wildflowers. By summer, the sun-baked earth has turned a golden brown and the vibrant greens of the trees shimmer in the bright sunlight, while the rich orange and yellow hues of autumn, though more muted, are no less magnificent.


wuhan 02

The history of Wuhan is a tale of three cities. Before 1949, it was separated into Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang, which together formed the industrial, cultural, and commercial centre of Hubei province. Since they were located at the intersection of the Han and Yangtze rivers, they rapidly became some of the major inland trading ports in the country. If three is the magic number, then Wuhan must truly be a magical place! Nowadays, the city remains the most important transportation hub in central China, with countless railways, roads, expressways, and cruises connecting it to cities in the north, south, east, and west. On the north-south axis, it is roughly equidistant from Beijing and Guangzhou, while on the east-west line it forms a vital link between Shanghai and Chongqing.

The area surrounding Wuhan was settled as early as the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1045-256 BC) and, by the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), Hanyang had already risen to become a busy inland port. During the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), the infamous Battle of the Red Cliffs took place in the region, resulting in the construction of city walls around Hanyang and Wuchang to protect them. However, it wasn’t until the Song Dynasty (960-1279) that Hankou came to the fore, as it became one of China’s four major commercial cities.

Under the Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin), Hankou was opened up to foreign trade in 1858 and, from 1861 to 1896, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) were forced to grant foreign concessions to Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia. This meant that Hankou, Hanyang, and Wuchang found themselves under Western influence much earlier than most Chinese cities. In 1911, a revolt that broke out in the army barracks of Wuchang eventually escalated into the Xinhai Revolution, which resulted in the toppling of the Qing Dynasty and the end of imperial rule. In short, being made up of three different cities means that Wuhan has three times the history of most places in China!

wuhan 01Although Wuhan boasts a plethora of temples, pavilions, and colonial mansions, the most historically significant building is undoubtedly the Yellow Crane Tower. It was originally built in 223 but it was unfortunately destroyed on numerous occasions and its current incarnation only dates back to 1981. While its initial purpose was as a watchtower, it progressively transformed from military post to picturesque paradise. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a poem written by Cui Hao entitled simply Yellow Crane Tower skyrocketed it to fame throughout China as a destination of unparalleled beauty.

While the Yellow Crane Tower remains an emblem of manmade majesty in the city, it is shimmering East Lake that embodies the natural splendour of Wuhan. Covering a colossal area of 33 square kilometres (13 sq. mi), it is the largest urban lake in China and is over 6 times the size of Hangzhou’s celebrated West Lake. It is surrounded by mountainous forests, with over 120 islands dotted across its expanse. In springtime, the East Lake Cherry Blossom Park is awash with delicate pink blossoms, while the nearby Wuhan Botanical Garden boasts more than 4,000 plant species and 16 specialty gardens. Nestled deep within the city, it gives new meaning to the term ‘urban jungle’!

On the lake’s banks, you’ll find the luxurious Villa of Chairman Mao Zedong. It was built as a leisurely summer retreat for the Chairman and other privileged members of the Communist Party, but was opened up as a tourist attraction in 1993 so that visitors could learn more about the private life of one of China’s most influential figures. A major highlight is the indoor swimming pool, which is 30 metres (98 ft.) long and six lanes wide. Though it might not be Olympic-sized, it’s larger than most competition-sized pools!

For those who are particularly interested in the region’s history, the Hubei Provincial Museum is packed full of over 200,000 priceless artefacts, some of which date back over 2,000 years ago. Its prized treasure is a set of bronze chime bells, which are 2,430 years old and collectively weigh 5,000 kilograms (5 tonnes). They rank as the heaviest musical instrument in the world, and visitors are treated to a performance on a reproduction of the bells every day.

If you fancy more modern pleasures, Jiqing Street is famed for its vibrant nightlife, with street performers setting up live shows and restaurants offering an authentic taste of Wuhan style cuisine. A local favourite is Hot Dry Noodles, a traditional breakfast dish consisting of freshly boiled noodles, sesame paste, pickled vegetables, soy sauce, chilli oil, and chopped spring onions. Different vendors serve up their own version of this tasty treat, proving that variety really is the spice of life!

Hubei Province


Lying at the very heart of central China, Hubei province forms a large part of the middle basin of the Yangtze River. Even its name, which means “North of the Lake” in reference to its position north of Dongting Lake, is derived from a body of water and demonstrates just how important these natural wonders are to the province. You could almost say locals in Hubei are used to the life aquatic! Alongside its scenic beauty, Hubei’s central location means that its provincial capital of Wuhan has risen to become one of China’s major transport, commercial, and cultural hubs. Historically it was known as “the thoroughfare of nine provinces”, since it is the largest inland port in the country.

ShennongjiaThe province itself is made up primarily of vast mountainous regions and flat alluvial plains. It benefits from a humid subtropical climate, with four distinct seasons. Winters are short but can be particularly bitter when the north winds hit, with temperatures oscillating between 4 °C (40 °F) and 6 °C (43 °F). The summers are long and swelteringly hot, with temperatures regularly exceeding 29 °C (85 °F). The relatively high humidity can make the summers somewhat oppressive, especially during the night. Summer in Wuhan is notoriously unbearable, with punishing temperatures of 40 °C (104 °F) and above. The best times to travel in Hubei are during spring and autumn, which are both comfortable and sunny seasons.

The high profile Three Gorges Dam is located in the west of the province, positioned in Xiling Gorge of the magnificent Three Gorges. This colossal water control project was designed to provide water conservation, flood control, and hydroelectric power by utilising the powerful current of the Yangtze River. It represents the largest hydropower project in the world and is now a surprisingly popular tourist attraction, where visitors can marvel at the dam’s impressive size and learn all about how it works. However, this gigantic undertaking came with an equally large price. The dam has actually caused irrevocable damage to much of the natural scenery, and many scientists have complained that the ends simply didn’t justify the means.

three-gorgesNowadays visitors can also navigate the Three Gorges conveniently by riding one of the many tourist boats that travel up the Yangtze River from Yichang into neighbouring Chongqing Municipality. While Xiling Gorge is famed for its spectacular rocky peaks, Qutang Gorge boasts scenic landscapes and Wu Gorge is resplendent with forests and mountains, all wreathed in an ethereal mist. Three may be the magic number, but choosing which of these three gorges to explore will feel like a trial!

Although Hubei is undoubtedly a water wonderland, its mountains are no less magnificent. The Wudang Mountains have been a site of natural and cultural significance for centuries, and were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. This small mountain range may not seem terribly impressive, but its home to a world-renowned complex of Taoist temples and monasteries that are all dedicated to the god Xuan Wu.

The oldest extant building on the mountain is the shimmering Golden Hall, which was constructed entirely of gilded copper and dates back to 1416. Many of the other temples are technically much older but had to be rebuilt or refurbished over time, such as the Five Dragons Temple, which was originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). While the Shaolin Temple in Henan province is heralded as the birthplace of Chinese Kung-fu, the Wudang Mountains are celebrated as the origin of Tai Chi.

Alongside the Wudang Mountains, the Shennongjia Nature Reserve was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 and ranks as one of the finest scenic areas in Hubei province. It is home to numerous rare species of animals and plants, including the giant salamander and the golden snub-nosed monkey. The park itself is named after a legendary deity in Chinese mythology known as Shennong, who is believed to be one of the ancient ancestors of the Chinese people. He supposedly invented crockery, discovered herbal medicine, and taught people how to cultivate the land. According to local legend, he poisoned himself over 70 times while tasting herbs in Shennongjia to test their medicinal properties.

With such an otherworldly background, it should come as no surprise that the Shennongjia Nature Reserve is rumoured to hide a mythical creature within its depths! The yeren or “Wild Man” has long been said to stalk the forested hills of the park, acting as a sort of Chinese equivalent to North America’s Bigfoot. The reserve is also supposedly home to an unusual number of albino animals, including white bears, white squirrels, white deer, and white crows. So be sure to keep your camera handy; you never know when you might be treated to an extraordinary sight!

Fairy-tales and legends abound in Hubei province, even in its provincial capital. Yellow Crane Tower, which is located in Wuhan, was reputedly the place where an immortal named Wang Zi’an rode away from Snake Mountain on a yellow crane. The tower was built later to commemorate this story, and is considered one of the Four Great Towers of China. Although it was originally built in 223 AD, it has been rebuilt several times and now boasts a number of modern features, including an elevator. It may not be as fun as riding a yellow crane, but it certainly makes ascending the tower much easier!