Lying at China’s geographical heart and ringed by five provinces and the municipality of Chóngqìng, Húběi has long been famed for its vital strategic significance. The province is inundated with water and lushly fertile, its landlocked panoramas flushed by the mighty Yangzi River (Cháng Jiāng) and its tributaries, which cleave the province into a mosaic of lakes, waterways and irrigated fields.
The flood-prone Yangzi has delivered periodic devastation but it has also ensured a prosperous trade route, while gouging out the scenic phenomenon of the Three Gorges. Gob-smacked tourists still funnel through Yíchāng for once-in-a-lifetime glimpses of these chasms, now visibly reduced by rising waters amassing behind the Three Gorges Dam. The Yangzi is the powerhouse behind the astonishing hydroelectric potential of the dam – Húběi’s most controversial chunk of construction – which could meet a tenth (18, 200 megawatts) of China’s energy needs. The leviathan river has also increasingly obsessed the parched north of China, which seeks to slake an insatiable thirst by snatching its waters in a gargantuan south-north diversion project.
The bulk – more than 70% – of Húběi undulates aesthetically into hills and mountains, forcing farmers to sculpt the curved landscape into cultivable terraces, and providing slight relief from the summer scorch. The remaining 30% of the province, in the east, is a low-lying plain drained by the Yangzi and Han Rivers. It swivels around the dynamic provincial capital Wǔhàn, a mighty city that simmers feverishly in hothouse temperatures from May to August.
Away from the capital, travellers can put their heads literally into the clouds among the other-worldly Taoist peaks of Wǔdāngshān, explore the scenic landscapes of Shénnóngjià or ferret out the distinctive architecture and ethnic culture of the Tujia minority in Yúmùzhài, in the hilly southwest.