Beginning 4 September 2012, Ctrip will be offering a Hubei. In addition to being home to a growing population of golden snub-nosed monkeys, the woods of Shennongjia have birthed a legend, a creature of unknown provenance and purpose similar in bearing to the Yeti and Bigfoot.
There are many things that transcend cultures the world over. People falling over is a hilarious happening, no matter where you may find yourself. Babies are cute—so long as they're asleep, giggling or gazing upon the world in wonderment—everywhere in the world. These are the facts. Here is another fact: people love tall tales. We are simultaneously skeptical and enraptured by the idea of mythical beasts awaiting discovery.
There is the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, Lake Champlain's Champ in Vermont, the Pacific Northwest's Bigfoot, the Himalayan Yeti. People love this stuff! Can't get enough. So it's no surprise that China has it's share of monsters that occasionally terrorize tourists and villagers in the far reaches of nature. Tibet's got one (it Qinghai Lake boasts a dragon-like beast with a snake head. Cool.
My personal favorite lake monster is the Jilin Province near Changbai Shan. It's a volcanic lake, which makes it immediately more likely to have provided refuge for an underwater hell-demon (obviously). And get this: in 1903, the monster emerged from the glittering blue waters, attacked three people and was shot six times. Six! That's a lot of times to get shot. Then it casually got back into the water and went on being a badass lake monster, equal parts coy and terrifying. Like an ex-girlfriend I know (hey-OO!).
But not all the beasts in China dwell underwater. Indeed, the Yeren (Yěrén, 野人) of Shennongjia is an air-breathing bipedal hominid (just like you and me!) that has existed for centuries, stalking prey beneath the eaves of massive metasequoia trees and eluding capture. More on Shennongjia and the Yeren after the jump....
The forest of Shennongjia itself is steeped in myth, and is considered the birthplace of Chinese herbal medicine. It is believed that the ancient ruler Shennong—who is also credited with introducing modern agricultural practices, like irrigation and tilling land, to China—first learned to harness the power of medicinal plants he picked from atop his ladder amongst the trees, hence the name, which mean's "Shennong's ladder." (He didn't harness all of the plants, however, as he eventually ingested one that caused his intestines to rupture, bringing about an early and unpleasant death. Whoops.) The forest boasts over 1,300 species of plants that are believed to possess medicinal qualities, which is probably one reason the man-beast chose the region as his dwelling. Medicinal plants are like Wheaties to mythical mountain men, imbuing within them the courage, strength and resilience to live in isolation as misunderstood outcasts.
The forests of Shennongjia are in western Hubei, and are most commonly accessed by bus or private car from Yichang, a journey that takes three to four hours. The park is divided into four sections, only one of which is open to foreigners. This section is accessed at Yazikou (Yāzǐkou, 垭子口), near Muyuping (Mùyúpíng, 木鱼平), and has an entrance fee of RMB 140.
The Yeren isn't the only thing worth seeing in the nature reserve, which is a good thing considering how camera-shy it is. The forest boasts a diverse and unique plant population, and is home to the endangered golden snub-nosed monkey. Due to conservation efforts, the monkey's population in Shennongjia has seen a significant increase in the last decade or so, making it ever more likely to spot one on your trip (there are also some in captivity; we can all agree, though, that it is not nearly as exciting to see an animal behind bars). The best places to see the monkeys and other wildlife in the preserve are Xiaolongtan (Xiǎolóngtán, 小龙潭) and Dalongtan (Dàlóngtán, 大龙潭). Hiking trails wind across and along streams, and through the dense forest. For the more aggressive hiker, the highest peak is Shennong Ding (Shénnóng Dǐng, 神农顶) at 3,105 m (10,188 ft) tall.
As the frontiers of the earth continue to be conquered by our expanding civilizations and our ever-broadening understanding of the world, we will continue to be equal parts astounded at the diversity and strangeness of this planet and disappointed that the beasts of our youth may not exist in the form we had long imagined. There may be no Yeren, it is true, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't approach our surroundings with eyes peeled, ever yearning for discovery. Certainly it seems unlikely, given the concentration of cameras in tourist-traveled areas of China, that such a creature stalks the woods of Shennongjia. But that doesn't mean we should close our eyes.