My arrival in Wuhu was not auspicious. The train station was a throwback to another time when traveling for pleasure was unheard of in China. In fact, so off the beaten path is Wuhu that no bullet trains go there: it took 7 hours to get there from Suzhou on what is now considered the slow train.
I decided, while I was at the train station, to extend my stay in Wuhu and only allow myself 1 night in Hefei, reasoning that Hefei is easy to get to by Gao Tie (pronounced g-ow tee-ay) – fast train from Wuhan: I could always come back to explore that city at length. While the rest of the debarked passengers fought for taxis I repaired to the ticket window. I felt unguilty, savage glee as I exchanged all the tickets Martin had arranged for me to suit my plans, and then I took my first proper look at Wuhu.
Wuhu means 'Weedy Lake'. I was prepared to be assaulted by strong, swampy smells and people who made their living on the water. Instead I saw tall buildings, some neon-lit, an attractive boulevard with flower planters strung together as a median divider and... little noise! That last was a pleasant surprise. Normally there is all manner of honking horns and drivers hawking their services, especially to an obvious tourist such as I.
From long habit I knew that I might have to fight for a taxi, so I headed in the opposite direction of the crowd, toward the parking lot. I was rewarded by a stream of taxis off-loading passengers, but when I tried to get in one, the driver instructed me to walk 100 meters to the taxi stand. When I got there I was the only passenger needing a ride. I got into the first cab in line, wary of possible rudeness – not every taxi driver is fond of ferrying foreigners. I was taken aback by the man's courtesy and helpful attitude.
3 interactions; 3 courteous, helpful, friendly outcomes. I'm beginning to like this town.
The hotel Martin had booked me in adjoined a furniture store, the only building in a construction zone. The desk clerk was given to sneering, especially after his call to Martin yielded unsatisfactory results. I couldn't help but notice his countenance changed while on the phone with a native Chinese speaker... Fortunately, the hotel manager was onsite. She ordered him to clean up his attitude and give me a room in spite of the fuddled reservation. When I got to my room I found it spartan, with an exceedingly hard bed, just as I had in Suzhou, at another house in that hotel chain.
Now that I had a room, it was time to look for food. The hotel's security guard confirmed my suspicion: there was nothing to eat anywhere close. About 2 km away I could see the lights from a newly built shopping plaza. If I wanted food – and I did! I would have to walk there.
You would think that these initial experiences might somehow sway me to form a bad opinion of Wuhu. I put them down to Martin's influence, resolving to see how things go the next day, when I'm on my own. Quite glad I did! Once out from under the Martin Cloud things decidedly turned around.
The hotel I found on my own the next day went out of their way to accommodate, even going so far as to walk me to the bus stop when I asked how to get to Snack Street. Unbelievable the trouble they went through to help me! I experienced that everywhere I went.
My first stop was Phoenix Snack Street. I expected a merry collection of vendor carts selling street food. Instead I found Restaurant Row. It was a little bit disappointing, but then: a very wise friend once told me 'you are only ever hurt by your expectations'. He is right, of course.
After walking up and down the street I settled on a restaurant that advertised barbecued short ribs. They were some of the best I've ever had. The meat was so tender it melted off the bone, their taste complemented rather than dominated by the tangy sweet and sour sauce. I had also ordered corn cakes but they turned out to be glutinous rice bars containing an occasional corn kernel, and coated in corn flakes. Yummy looking, but not particularly tasty.
Initially, I was the only patron to that restaurant, which was divided into several private dining rooms but had no open area. Thus I was seated alone in a room at a small table for 4 next to a big table set for 10. About 20 minutes after I was seated, a boisterous party joined me... and invited me to join them!!!
The people in Wuhu are decidedly friendly.
A large part of my pleasure in traveling is watching what goes on. In Wuhu, people did not seem to focus on their phone, preferring instead to look out the bus window or converse. On the buses, people sprang up to give their seat to an elder without being admonished to do so by a recording, as in Wuhan. Whereas in the latter city I get frustrated by phone-absorbed youths, seemingly unaware that a senior has boarded, it seems that youths of Wuhu go out of their way to watch for elderly citizens so that they might perform that virtue.
The people of Wuhu seem to radiate happiness. I conveyed that impression to the taxi driver that took me home the second day I was there, himself a friendly person. He validated my thoughts. That meant a lot, considering he is native Wuhu. I didn't see any elders gazing out forlornly, children being reprimanded or crying, lovers quarreling. I did not see anyone intoxicated or behaving badly. I didn't see any drivers cutting people off or threatening passengers; in fact I hardly heard a horn honk the whole time I was there! Pedestrians stayed on the sidewalk, bikes and scooters used the bike lane and cars did not drive on either sidewalks or bike lanes. Again it struck me how orderly this city must be.
Wuhu is a city without pretensions. She is not trying to be like any other place and the people are not trying to be superstars, fashion plates or millionaires. She does not have the 'in your face' attitude I found in Chong Qing, nor the humble pleading of Yi Chang. Wuhu is Wuhu, unlike any place I've been so far.
Chugging around on the buses, imbued with endemic happiness I couldn't help but smile, in spite of the constant rain. It rained every day I was there. Perhaps that is why there were no throngs of people about in the attractions I visited. Or, it could just be that this city is not jam packed, like Wuhan.
I did not see any other foreigners. That, and this charm of a town being off the beaten path led me to ask the hotel clerks: do many foreigners come here? “Yes”, they said. For work and for play. That made me think: could I live here?
There are plenty of things to see and do in Wuhu, but the rain and my aching feet kept me from making the most of my visit. Nevertheless I saw plenty by riding the buses and catching the people's good vibes, and I felt great about being there. I most definitely could call this place my home. If I had to leave Wuhan and the school where my loyalty lies, I would want to hang my hat in Wuhu. True, there are not many foreigner concessions but Nanjing is relatively close – about 2 hours by train.
I would want to live in Wuhu because the people are so happy. I liked the rhythm of that city and the dwellers' relaxed, forthright attitude. Not a single person stared at me or accosted me for my foreignness. Those I interacted with did ask what country I came from and how long I've lived in China, but only after complimenting me on my language skills. Their eyes mirrored their smiles, leading me to believe their laudings were not about giving 'face'.
Unfortunately, the last day I was there I could feel myself coming down with a cold. I couldn't bear the thought of going out in the damp and sitting on a bus, so I chose to stay in that last afternoon, foregoing the temple and the mountain. I had a lovely hotel room: why not make the most of it?
I want to come back to Wuhu, sometime when the weather is more cooperative and my feet are not torturing me. With so many other places in China to visit... would I make it a priority? I don't know. For now, it is on to Hefei.
As I pack my bag I hold Wuhu's peace and happiness in my heart.