Wuhan, where have you been all these years?

April 28, 2008, [MD]

While being back in mainland China is already a great experience, and I really enjoyed all my time in Dalian and the few hours in Beijing–coming back to Wuhan is still a special event. I spent a year teaching in Wuhan Scientific and Technical University in 2000-2001, and it’s the city where I first got my feet wet in China. It was a challenging, but wonderful year, and Wuhan will always hold a special place in my heart. Suffice to say that one of their most famous local dishes, which you cannot get anywhere else in China, is called hot dry noodles, or in Chinese: reganmian (热干面). I had a serving of that this morning, and it was just as I remembered it.

I have spent today walking around in Wuchang, just enjoying the incredible hustle and bustle, the millions of small shops, tiny workshops, the sidewalks that often are two car-lanes wide, the crazy traffic, the smell of coal and fried dough, the old guys playing chess on the street. I have visited Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore (not yet Taiwan - though I’d love to!), but somehow in my mind nothing beats mainland China. And in mainland China, nothing beats Wuhan. It’s dirty and polluted like nothing else, the traffic is insane, you can seldom see the Yangtze river when riding a bus over the ain bridge over it, people swear and spit and shout in a dialect of Mandarin that is almost incomprehensible, but I somehow love it. It’s got an incredible energy, and some kind of “raw urbanism” that I missed intensely in the sprawling slum areas of Jakarta.

Nobody owns a house in Wuhan (or most Chinese cities) - there are no single-dwelling houses. Everyone has an apartment, whether in an eight storey creaking apartment block with edges and windows and laundry hanging everywhere, or a smooth newer building. Almost nobody own their own car - there is not a single parking lot here (thank god!). My friend lives in a tiny studio apartment, with a simple toilet and kitchen, and pays 230 RMB a month (\$32 USD). When she walks into the street she is in the middle of busy restaurants, and there are five buses stopping in front of her apartment. I’d take that over a bigger apartment on a highway in Scarborough any day of the week!

**What has changed?\ **China changes so fast that it’s almost impossible to keep up, and I was very curious when coming back to Wuhan if I’d notice any changes, 7 years after I lived here (I was back for a week in 2004). The truth is - not much. (Of course, Beijing, for example, has been developing much faster). There seem to be more air-conditioned buses, and there is more advertising around. Many of the buses have plasma screens that show advertising all the time, as well as as a scrolling marquee sign that lists kind of “classified ads” (more informative, about events, prices of surgery at the local hospital, and exhortations to look to both sides when crossing the street). None of these carry any information about where the bus will stop next etc (but most buses make voice announcements). A lot of the taxis even have a scrolling marquee sign in the back window facing out, with ads.

The Wuchang train station was torn down, and on the other side of the street, they are almost finished building a new one, that is huge and very fancy. I already mentioned that there seems to be more limitations on internet usage (at least in internet cafes), and I have problems using GMail for example, not to mention Meebo or other foreign webpages. This might be a temporary problem leading up to the Olympics.

Food prices have seen a huge increase to almost the double, since 2004. This is notable especially since from 2001 to 2004 there was no difference at all. Fried lamian now cost 10 yuan, up from 5. Reganmian never cost more than 1.2, now cost 2.5. A plate of suanla tudousi (hot and sour potato stripes) used to cost 3-5, now often 8. Partly this is probably due to the international rise in food prices. If calculated in terms of Norwegian Kroner (NOK) though, the rise isn’t so big, because the yuan has lost value to the NOK (in 2001 it was almost at parity, now it’s 0.7 yuan to one NOK).

I am planning to blog quite a bit about the conference, but not sure when I get a chance. Internet cafes are a bit annoying, very noisy, dark, smoke-filled, with poor keyboards, only Internet Explorer, and frequent timeouts of foreign websites. And most seem to have disabled the USB drives (to avoid people to load viruses I guess), so I cannot even upload an article I wrote on my laptop. But I will try to get it posted later.


Stian Håklev April 28, 2008 Toronto, Canada
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