When I booked a flight from Tokyo to Madrid, I didn’t imagine I’d be dragging my suitcase round a night market in central China. But that’s exactly how things played out.
A layover of 8 hours in Wuhan forced my hand; there was absolutely no way I was going to sit in an airport that long when a 24-hour transit visa exists. An adventure beckoned.
Timings, however, were going to be tight. I had landed at Wuhan at just gone 5 in the evening and would need to be back at 11pm for the two-hour check-in window. Queues meant it took a while to get through immigration, and then worse, I wasted time walking to the domestic terminal to find the left luggage service. They were only open until 10pm which so no use to me anyway.
So with a “f*ck it” and a grin, set off with suitcase in tow.
I asked the information counter lady where I could actually go – she pulled out an illustrated map and circled an area with shops. She told me it would take about an hour to get there.
I dragged my case onto a transit bus, hopped off at the metro and rode the train all the way to the mystery location (admittedly, I had had to wave my map at people at the ticket machines and then pray I was going the right way).
The metro ride itself was a fascinating experience, mainly due to the curious adverts playing out on the screens in the carriage. It seems that public health and manners are at the top of the Chinese government’s agenda, with cute little animations explaining not to eat stinky food on the train, and more little cute characters promptly catching bird flu and infecting far too many people.
I was also entertained by a milk drink that was too good to share, and an alarmingly patriotic video with the characters for “love country” hovering in front of a Chinese flag billowing the wind.
I hopped off at Jiangshan Road, which is a thriving commercial centre. Modern shops line a wide pedestrianised street, with food stalls are squeezed into adjoining roads. Teenagers roam in pairs and groups, but there are families too with younger kids entranced by balloon sellers and entertaining pieces of public art.
There was also some fantastic impromptu street dancing.
I knew that the side alleys would likely contain the cosy, little eatery that would give me my first food hit. So I persisted and dragged my suitcase over the rougher pavements, puddles and grimy patches.
After some skulking around, I selected 湘中面馆 (which apparently translates as Xiangzhong noodle shop) as it had a gaggle of customers. The ladies stared at me and I just smiled and shrugged, and peered closely at what everyone was eating. One woman warmly tried to explain things, but in the end I just pointed to the one thing I knew Wuhan was famous for re gan mian (hot, dry noodles /热干面). They recommended me a beef topping, thanks to the fact I’d written out the characters for beef (牛) earlier. I also ended up with a mysterious soup, containing dried plums?
Then I sat down with this scene in front of me. As you can see, the ladies were pretty entertained.
Re gan mian doesn’t look like much but it packs a surprising amount of flavour and punch. Having been to Wuhan before, from memory these weren’t the best noodles in town. But they certainly made me very happy.
My wandering took me to a very well-kept part of town, with upmarket stores, elegant shrubs lining the road, more public art, and these ladies doing some group dancing for exercise, which is popular across China.
Heading back to the street, I was passed by an overwhelming amount of people carrying bubble teas. Following the trail, I happened across 1點點, which I think might be the Chinese version of the Taiwanese bubble tea chain 1點點-台灣50嵐 where I promptly ordered milk tea with small bubbles, that were so soft and made me sad that Japan really hasn’t grasped the concept yet. (Bubble tea in Tokyo is expensive and nowhere near as delicious.)
This fuelled my energy for a “just one last side street” adventure. I came across a man frying mysterious battered things in a pan. I bought one and it turned out to be a rather greasy, spring onion roll. His wife(?) was intrigued by me, and ushered me to one of the plastic tables outside where her young daughter was eating a giant watermelon with a spoon.
So began an amazing form of communication with absolutely no words in common. Her daughter – totally unabashed by my lack of understanding – chatted on to me as children are prone to do. She looked delighted at my gobbledygook responses.
The woman gestured to a pot of beef and potatoes next to her daughter. I was given chopsticks to dig in with the family. And it was much tastier than my spring onion pancake.
Nothing brings people together like sharing food. Or selfies. We took a couple, which made mum and daughter very happy.
On my way back, I passed a very insistent old man selling tofu so I got a pot of that. A bit greasy and one dimensional in its salty flavour, it wasn’t my favourite and even though I didn’t finish, I was basically now so full that I waddled back to the metro.
Fortunately, I had played it safe with time to get back because I wasn’t prepared for the bedlam that awaited me. I would say the queues were massive, except for the fact queuing seemed to be an alien concept at the airport. The room was a heaving mass of people, each with the belief that he or she had a divine right to be first. Tensions ran high, and as I finally made it to the immigration counter, a fight broke out just behind prompting some stern barking from officials.
Despite our flight being the last of the day (1.10am), it got more and more delayed and we didn’t take off until around 3am. We were held in empty waiting areas, on a shuttle bus and on the plane itself. I could only imagine the dismay of those who were hungry. Meanwhile, I smugly rubbed my tummy and drifted off to sleep.
Some photos of street food stalls and a little night market I stumbled across…