still remember the day in March 2020 when I received the message: The documentary is confirmed, please book your tickets and hotel and prepare for production. At that moment I knew I was going to the most locked-down city on the planet. I was Wuhan bound.
The city was technically open, but things can change quickly and suddenly in China.
Negative Covid-19 test in hand, mask covering my face, and bags prepared to go, I made my way to the railway station. That sense of excitement during the taxi ride to either the train station or airport is borderline addicting, and this was no different. It’s the adventure and the journey that can be so much more impactful than the arrival to the destination, but this time, the excitement of wandering a city that had been so impacted to the point of dystopian, that inner adventurer was, for a lack of better words, stoked.
The high-speed train from Shanghai to Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, was the perfect length, between four and five hours, and unsurprisingly half-capacity to basically empty by the time it arrived at the final destination. As the doors opened at Hankou Railway Station, I was greeted by a man in a full hazmat suit, goggles and heavy-duty mask. Though the city was open for inbound travelers the precautions were very much still in place and a bit daunting at first.
Wuhan is basically the gateway from South China to North China and from east to west, and the incredible ebb and flow through the city is something that can���t be overstated. If China is a wheel, Wuhan is the central spoke that the whole country spins around. As one of the four major transportation hubs in China, the importance of this city can’t be downplayed.
It is bisected by the Yangtze River, which divides the city into the southern district of Wuchang and the two north bank districts of Hankou and Hanyang, themselves divided by the Han River, a major tributary of the Yangtze.
It is known as hub for manufacturing and also as center for higher education, and of revolutionary activities. Former Chairman Mao Zedong was fond of the city, often visiting his villa in the 1960s, which is equipped with a swimming pool, if he decided not to swim along the Yangtze itself.
I biked everywhere. I walked everywhere. There were many days were I clocking up to 10 kilometers on share bikes and an additional 20,000-30,000 steps per day. I explored the whole city as best I could. A foreigner couldn’t always access the ever-important QR code that was required to enter everything from taxis to the metro and even some of the malls that were open. My Shanghai green QR code worked for the majority of these places, but I had to explain myself each and every time.
One thing I wanted to try so much was the hot-dry noodles. As a big fan of noodles, I desperately wanted to try a proper version in the place they originated. But with many mom-and-pop restaurants still not open, I was resigned to eating the version from the hotel.
While the weather overall was pretty cloudy and moody, there was one day where the sun came out and it was warm. On that day, I borrowed a scooter from a friend and drove it around to enjoy the city. This day was full of life. Children were outside and playing. Couples were embracing each other and having coffee. It was genuinely beautiful.
Project done and my time being up, I left back to Shanghai.
Seven months later, I was invited to be on the first media tour of foreigners to the city since the outbreak began. I wanted to collect before and after shots to highlight whether the city was now really open. And it was.
After a week filming high up in the western Sichuan mountains, I flew into Wuhan Tianhe Airport and was whisked away to the excellent Shangri-La Hotel. Seven days in a hostel and tents and my back and body were aching, so the hotel bed was heavenly.
During the three days there, I was able to visit many of the places I visited before, and ones that I hadn’t. From the massive East Lake, which is six times larger than Hangzhou’s more famous West Lake, to the Hubei Provincial Museum, with its bounty of historical riches, this trip was a lot less gloomy than the previous one. The museum, not far from the East Lake in Wuchang District, contains many artifacts unearthed from the tomb of the Marquis of Yi, dating from 433 BCE. The main attraction is a set of 64 bronze chime bells, along with other musical instruments, bronze artifacts and weapons.
A major highlight of the trip was visiting the Yellow Crane Tower, in its 12th reincarnation sitting high above on Snake Hill overlooking the Yangtze.
The tower, which has existed in one form or another, although not always in the same spot, since 223, is a kind of double whammy as it holds a sacred
Tibetan Buddhist relic and the only Lama-style white stupa in the city. It is also a sacred site of Taoism as scholar and poet Lu Dongbin is believed to have ascended to heaven from here. After the city emerged from lockdown, a ceremony was held at the Yellow Crane Tower to symbolize that Wuhan was open for business again.
Near Snake Hill is one end of the Wuhan First Yangtze River Bridge, built in 1957, which carries cars and trains across the river in a double-deck construction - before that, trains had to cross from northern to southern China on barges. The other end of the bridge is Turtle Hill.
The amount of life in the streets was a drastic difference. It was bustling. The energy was back with a vengeance. Those months of forced idleness has made the people wanting to live and enjoy, and it was everywhere.
From revelers taking in a 1920s experience on cruise up the Yangtze River to those in costumes preparing for a Halloween night of shenanigans to the Wuhan Fashion Week debutants strolling the catwalk, the people of Wuhan have bounced back and are definitely proud.