Wuhan’s excellent transport connections make it a popular stop. Hubei’s capital is surprisingly peaceful and charming, sprawling across the Han and Yangtze Rivers and full of green views.
Donghu National Park and East Lake can be glorious on a clear day; both are close to the city and a serene opportunity to spend an afternoon. However, when the smog is heavy, Mulan Heaven Lake and Donghu Scenic Resort are more picturesque. ◦ Rising high above the city, the curved golden pagodas of Yellow Crane Tower are an iconic sight, especially when they glisten after dusk. The tower acts as a compass throughout your stay, as does the Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge, another impressive feat of engineering.
Wuhan’s traditional streets are full of atmosphere and strange smells. Head down Hubu Alley and the crowds move through thousands of food vendors selling all manner of weird and wonderful classics. Chu River Han Street is another good place for an ambient evening, the full range of modern Chinese culture (good and bad) on display.
Barely an hour from Wuhan, the little city of Ezhou is almost China in a manageable nutshell. You’ll find many temples, the best of them perched above green hills with excellent views. The markets run into the evening and have an endearing atmosphere. There are more impressive places to visit, but Ezhou’s low- key vibe is inherently appealing.
Jingzhou is another relatively impressive walled city, although after Xian and Xiangyang there is a feeling of overkill.
As you move south from the Yangtze you enter Hunan, birthplace of Chairman Mao yet virtually unseen by foreign tourists. The mountains get steeper here, cladded with forest as they roll into the karsts of Guilin . Travel here requires patience and an intrepid spirit, but it has many off the beaten track rewards:
Shaoshan was Mao’s birthplace, and while it’s not an especially pretty town, the destination revels in its dedication to the former Communist leader. You’ll find many places to buy his little red book of quotations.
Hunan’s capital and transport hub is Changsha, home to an almost bizarre conglomeration of architecture. The Yeulu Academy, Tianxin Tower, and Hunan Provincial Museum are classical impressions of the past. Then they’re juxtaposed with glass facades of the Changsha Museum and the Changsha Window of the World. Many visitors tend to stay longer than intended in this intriguing city.
Rolling along the river, Fengshuang is one of China’s most picturesque historic towns. Yet to be oversaturated with tourism, it offers a quaint immersion in traditional life and dazzling historic buildings, along with some iconic journeys by boat.
Shaoyang is another of Hunan’s understated historic delights, tucked away in the south and offering a look at tradition for visitors disenchanted by the rest of China.
A World Heritage Site, the sandstone peaks and forests of Zhangjiajie are a relatively accessible and picturesque setting for those seeking a way from the smog.
Less accessible but home to a stunning landscape of sandstone karsts, the Wulingyuan Mountain is an area of hiking trails and cable cars across precipitous cliffs of green.
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