It’s such a cliché to say a city is “sprawling”, but sometimes, it’s the only word. They’re the cities that reach into the horizon like a concrete Serengeti, with tangled freeways ducking and weaving through the landscape. They’re the cities that, come nightfall, look like an earthbound nebula pulsing below. They’re cities that, every time you think you’re about to break free, toss up another turnpike or roundabout, encircling you in its urban hedge maze.
Wuhan is that kind of city. It just sprawls.
Located in the Hubei province of China, Wuhan extends across the Yangzte and Han rivers and has a population of more than 10 million. A patchwork metropolis, Wuhan was originally three different cities — Wuchang, Hankou and Hanyang — that were eventually stapled together for administrative convenience. It’s a city that drops to sub-zero temperatures in winter, and steams like a fan-force oven through summer.
So what I’m doing there, rugged up to my earlobes and conspicuously foreign, is not entirely clear. Emboldened by a teenage diet of Richard Curtis movies, and the promise of some Kerouac-style travel material, I’d decided to throw caution to the smoggy wind and visit my boyfriend, who was over there teaching English at a local university.
Stepping off the fast train from Hong Kong border city, Shenzen — a randy locomotive he casually announced as we took our seats, “had slowed down a bit since that crash last year” — my initial enthusiasm evaporated. The night air was freezing, and the flashy new station’s modern design features were somewhat diminished by an inescapable, suspect smell. Mewing in the distance, a stray cat snuck under the taxi rank barrier and off into dark.
After a few more days in the city, my first impression of the place as a strange mix of new-age Chinese advancement and lingering underdevelopment deepened. A trip the riverside downtown area included a stroll down a glitzy shopping boulevard, but ended with a box of sedated puppies in fluro jumpers being sold next to a kebab stand. Along the riverbank, the middle-aged locals waltz to the nostalgic tunes of buskers while their children barter for rhinestone-encrusted iPhone covers at the local night market. Girls walk arm in arm puffing frosted breath, and boys skulk around display flatscreens in department stores.
But for all its conflicting new/old-world elements, Wuhan understands that one thing is universal and timeless: food.
As someone who notoriously exceeds her dumpling quota with every trip to Chinatown, the prospect of a holiday in the homeland seemed like a dangerous idea.
Compared to the gelatinous dishes of Hong Kong’s touristy diners, the Wuhanese enjoy tasty, simple cuisine prepared at greasy street stalls. Emerging at sundown, these footpath vendors skewer lukewarm fillets of chicken and lamb, char gilled over hot coals and lathered in a murky MSG lacquer. Mmmm, delicious and suspicious. What a combination.
But if you can find those few sparkling diamonds in the OH&S rough, they’re worth it. The traditional noodle dish of Wuhan (re gan mien) is best made fresh, with sesame paste and stock giving it a nutty warmth that proves ample defence against the city’s notoriously icy winters. Similarly, ultra-thin crepes stretched out on street food hotplates and layered with pickled vegetables, pork crackling, a cracked egg (it works, don’t worry) and coriander make for a good snack. Most restaurateurs will also spruik the local steamed fish, which is proudly served whole on plastic plates (You want a fish? This is a fish.)
Perhaps the only culinary pothole to avoid is the odd dog meat restaurant — don’t let the spritely spaniel on the sign fool you, that’s no vet.
Towards the end of my trip, I was looking forward to coming home and breathing the fresh air again. But in some ways, I was dreading it — Melbourne, with it’s neat little grid and wide streets would be easily to navigate perhaps, but like a lot of Asian destinations, something of Wuhan’s frenetic energy had proved infectious. And as I taxied back home from Tullamarine, I cracked a smile as I looked out onto the grassland that lines the freeway. Urban sprawl? What urban sprawl?