-by Ernie Diaz
Anyone grousing about the summer weather – too rainy, too smoggy, too short – deserves a stop in Wuhan. It’s not the heat; it’s the furnace blast. Open the oven door, in the sauna, to check on the car exhaust cookies, and you’ve got an idea of Wuhan’s summer purgatory. China has hotter places, more humid, more polluted, but none with Wuhan’s center-of-China convection effect, as if the city were drawing the rest of the country’s excess sultriness.
Add to that effect the hot air of over ten million Wuhanese, blandishing, wheedling, and otherwise earning their “Nine-headed-birds” moniker. And yet there are unsuspecting tourists lured into this Summercaust! Like sensible Wuhan-dwellers with the time and means, they are well-advised to seek higher ground. Never mind sophomoric theories about hot air rising. To seek low-places means circling the drain with Wuhan’s endless stream of quickly-curdling refuse, to wind up floating in the foulest stretch of the Yangtze.
Those looking to rise above the city’s fervid swelter are naturally drawn to the Yellow Crane tower, on Snake Hill. Perched above the banks of the Yangtze, and offering a hazy vista of Wuhan, the cooling effect is more psychological than physical, although the odds of a stray downstream breeze drying one’s brow are significantly higher than they are down in the city proper.
Yellow Crane Tower, at least according to legend, is a testament to the karma of standing a penniless Daoist priest to drinks. In gratitude to the bar owner, the priest painted a crane on the wall, which danced nightly without the aid of CGI, making the barkeep rich enough to build the tower as a thank you.
Versified, destroyed, and rebuilt seven times, the last time in 1981, Yellow Crane Tower is a pretty symbol of Chinese resilience. If you’re not out to prove your resilience to summer suffering, though, treat yourself to a few of Wuhan’s storied snacks and get the hell out of Dodge.
Shennongjia, figuratively, is as far as you can get from Wuhan and still be in Hubei. This national drapes over the eastern face of Daba mountain, in the shadow of mighty Wudang mountain, however we will not recommend the latter destination, for it is a subject worthy of many articles, at least one describing it as the home of a kung fu style which falls short of Shaolin.
Actually, we’ve given Shennongjia due shrift for its unique geo-location, so close to so many Chinese cities, yet still remote enough to earn serious speculation as to whether it is still home to yeren, the Chinese sasquatch. We mentioned that there are stretches of Shennongjia’s forest oft-shrouded enough that the resident owls, monkeys, snakes and turtles all glow a silvery white.
Over three thousand square kilometers of dense forest, bamboo thicket, and alpine meadow, ranging up three thousand meters’ elevation, offer shady groves, hidden pools, and leafy respites in numberless profusion, unnerving profusion, in fact, so that even after a long hike up, many visitors feel not the heat so much as the hairs standing on their napes, the gooseflesh raised by a creepy certainty that all this lush greenery must be sanctuary from the heat for other creatures that go on two legs, but much more softly than a tourist’s tread.
So to prevent the quest to chill in Hubei from turning into downright shivers, nearby Suizhou offers a happy, breezy medium between civilization and forest to inspire the Brothers Grimm. After all, Shennongjia is named for Shennong, the agri-emperor, he who taught China how to make nature serve the belly rather than prickle the ears. A reported 400 million RMB has gone into refurbishing the purported birthplace of Shennong, otherwise known as Emperor Yan.
Other than an abundance of fresh paint, an elaborate arch, and a vast plaza spiked with steles, there is not much to account for such a massive sum. Hubei officials working with the National Tourism Administration to upgrade Suizhou to AAA status could not be reached for comment; they were either touring universities with their offspring or attending open houses in Vancouver.
But none can doubt that a big wad of financing is appropriate to honor Shennong, a Jacobian ancestor of the Chinese race. Those who visit this locale on Lieshan mountain in the summer will have missed the filial crush of Han who come to pay homage each April 26th, and can bask in the gelid recesses of the Shennong Temple and the Immortal Hall, the mist of the Andeng Fountain, the chlorophyll freshness of the Baicao Garden. There’s even a cave to visit where Shennong chilled, cool as the other side of your pillow.
The home of another Chinese cultural icon, enjoying equal measure of mountain cool, lies close by. Zhuge Liang, ultimate player, hero with a thousand faces, was born on Longzhong mountain, and will live forever in Chinese hearts as the most cunning warrior ever to quote Sun Tzu.
Drafty Sangu Hall serves as both an escape from the central China sun and a memorial to the concept of brains over all: brawn, wealth, even regal authority. Moreover, it memorializes love of home and humbleness over fame and fortune. Just because Zhuge Liang was the craftiest general ever did not mean he preferred campaigning over staying at home with the family. Three visits, san gu, did the emperor Liu Bei have to pay Zhuge Liang before the latter would consent to at last divulge a plan by which the former could fend off Cao Cao, Joe Frazier to Zhuge Liang’s Muhammad Ali.
Zhuge Liang himself would point out that there’s little use in stiffly adhering to one solution, when another presents itself. Hubei’s high places make a great escape from the summer furnace of Wuhan, Enshi Canyon a sublime one. Hot Cloud Cave, a Khazad-Dum-sized cavern that holds ten thousand, sources much of the cool air which mingles with sultry Yangtze air currents, creating a fog that wreathes karst, fern and mountain stream in a long white veil.
Some two hundred other caves along the canyon contribute to the perpetual fog, vents to tortuous shafts which lead to the world’s longest underground river, fifty kilometers of the Fengjie Longqiao. Covered by canyon from the worst of the sun, river breeze cooling misted skin, the visitor to Enshi Canyon knows that, high or low in Hubei, staying the heck out of Wuhan is the prime directive.