Legends of the Fall

By James Weir

Head to Shennongjia this October and you might catch a sighting of China’s Bigfoot…

Located at the western border of Hubei Province, the Shennongjia Forestry District spreads across valleys, mountains and sheets of jagged rock. Under the eaves of thick bands of pine and fir, shrubberies, flowers and herbs flourish; there are said to be over 1,300 individual species of plant life that possess medicinal properties in the forest, leading some to call Shennongjia the cradle of traditional Chinese medicine. However for some believers, there’s also thought to be something else to be found under those thick eaves; something a little more sinister.

Memories of ancient sages, and the tales of the great ancient ruler Shennong, are perhaps overshadowed by a myth of a different breed: Shennongjia is believed by some to be the home of China's very own Bigfoot, the Yeren. Like other creatures whose existence is debated both abroad and here in China - Scotland's Loch Ness Monster, the Lake Tianchi Monster of Northeastern China, America's Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, to name a few - sceptics and diehard believers abound, curious to catch a sighting of this unusual and elusive creature.

The Yeren, said to be roughly the size of a man, is believed to have reddish-brown hair, a gigantic footprint and the disposition of a shy, elusive loner. This bashful demeanour is perhaps one reason that no conclusive evidence exists to back up the claim that the Yeren stalks the forests of Shennongjia. Another possibility is that the presence of golden snub-nosed monkeys, who have reddish-brown hair and a bearing somewhat similar to a human's, has allowed locals to mistakenly identify the occasional monkey as the Yeren.

To catch a rare sight of one of these endangered monkeys may well inspire a traveller to believe they’re coming face to face with an enormous, bipedal creature unseen on this earth since the extinction of the gigantopithecus over a hundred thousand years ago. But the debate rages on! Until the Yeren can be caught, domesticated and forced to reproduce, the closest you’ll come is to catching a glimpse of these endangered golden monkeys as you traipse through the forest.

You can see a few monkeys in captivity within the central town, Xiaolongtan, where you'll also find the Wild Man Museum, a small exhibit of newspaper clippings, footprint-casts and maps indicating the locations of all the sightings of the Yeren. It's a good place to set off into the brush, as a number of paths in the area wind across the landscape and around the park, one of which ultimately carries the more determined hiker to Shennongding which, at 3,105 metres, is the highest point in the district.

Though Shennongjia is over 3,000 square kilometres, most of the nature preserve is closed to foreigners, and a guide is recommended. Shennongjia is most commonly accessed by bus or private car from Yichang, a journey that takes around four hours. The park is divided into four sections and the only section that is open to foreigners is accessed at the Yazikou junction (near Muyiping), with an entrance fee of RMB 140. Muyiping is about 15km from Yazikou, and offers access to the park, as well as a number of restaurants and lodging options.

James Weir is an editor for ChinaTravel.net, a sister site to Ctrip.com, China’s leading online travel service provider. ChinaTravel.net brings readers everything they need to know to enjoy their China adventure to the fullest.

The Great Shennong

5,000 years ago, the great ancient ruler Shennong plundered these forests, searching for remedies to cure the ill. In the intervening years since his death (suspected cause: ingesting a poisonous herb), this man has grown in legend to take on the aura of a demigod. Shennong was one of the Three Sovereigns who, in conjunction with the Five Emperors, has been credited with presiding over the time of great peace and cultural advancement that preceded the first Chinese dynasty, the Xia. It was an era believed to have birthed fire, the first written Chinese script, the introduction of modern tools, and (Shennong's personal contributions) modern agricultural practices in tea and herbal medicine.


Fancy doing a little Yeren-spotting of your own? Ctrip offers a two day private Shennongjia tour from as little as RMB 2,100 per person (http://activities.english.ctrip.com/activities/73269), with October flights from Shanghai to Yichang starting at just RMB 660! See Ctrip.com for more details. 

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