In China, Hunt on for Loch Ness Monster
By AUDRA ANG
LAKE KANASI, China - The moon is barely a crescent in the sky as dusk darkens the milky green surface of Lake Kanasi.
Four people huddle on the edge of a floating wooden dock, eyes scanning this mountain lake near China's remote northwestern frontier with Central Asia. Small waves lap at their shoes.
In a soft voice, Yuan Guoying recounts his two sightings of the creatures. The first over there, from a cliff, Yuan says. Then again, 19 years later.
From the group comes a squeal as tiny, silver fish dart at hunks of bread they have dropped in.
"Look! There are so many of them!" says one girl. "But where's the lake monster?"
Another 40 minutes pass. A chill breeze kicks up.
Yuan is unfazed.
"We can wait all night," he says. "Let's see if this is our fate."
They have come by the tens of thousands over the years - skeptical scientists, curious tourists - answering the lure of the mysterious "Kanasi Huguai," China's very own version of the Loch Ness monster.
On this particular trip, part class reunion, part tour package, there are a handful of Yuan's university buddies and their wives (mostly retired professors from Beijing with graying hair and quiet humor), three teachers, a nurse, a local reporter, a university student, a lab technician and her mother. They have flown thousands of miles to Xinjiang Province and been driven 15 hours to get to the lake and commemorate the 20th anniversary of Yuan's first sighting of the monsters.
The outing shows how far 40 years of economic reform have taken China and how much more time and money people have to explore interests that were squelched as superstition, an offense to communist dogma.
In today's society, myth-making and chasing are a big business, and the supernatural and the paranormal are no longer taboo.
Reports of a Chinese "Bigfoot" have been picked up by the official Xinhua News Agency, while tourists have searched for the "Xiao Yeren," small wild men. UFO sightings are treated with great seriousness. A conference on the topic was held in September, and UFO buffs claim support from eminent scientists and liaisons with the country's secretive military.
Yuan, a researcher at the Xinjiang Institute of Environmental Protection, hands out Monster T-shirts, and on the bus the passengers watch state television's elaborate, three-part documentary on the myth of the beasts that supposedly have dragged sheep and cows from the shore and devoured them.
It opens with a dramatized scene of a man stopping his horse-drawn cart by the lake on a foggy night. With a loud splash, something emerges from the water and the camera darkens ...
Yuan's photos of the creatures flash across the screen. One, taken from a distance, features several blurry forms clustered close to shore, some looking as long as nearby fir trees. Grainy footage filmed in June by a tourist from Beijing shows frenzied bubbling in the water.
Yuan, a cheerful 66-year-old with an unlined face and penetrating voice, is featured in several interviews, along with other scientists and people who have witnessed the creatures. Some describe enormous shapes and shadows as big as trees and boats, sometimes tinged with red or white. In 2003, when an earthquake struck the area, witnesses in a boat reported seeing a silhouette as long as 70 feet leap out of the water.
"I said it was rubbish at first," says Yuan. "The next day, I saw them."
"It's fish. Giant fish, some about 15 meters (50 feet) long."
In 1980, Yuan was part of a team of 150 experts who launched the first scientific study of the lake's environment and its flora and fauna.
It was then that he met Chinese Mongolians living in the area known as the Tuwa people and heard the ancient legend of the monsters in Kanasi. Few details were available; most of the villagers fell silent when pressed.
Five years later, still intrigued, Yuan headed another team to study environmental protection for the lake - and to search for the creatures of the Tuwa myth.
Within a day, he had his first sighting.
"They looked like tadpoles coming up for breath," Yuan recalls. "Their eyes were huge. Their mouths were gaping."
After weeks of study, Yuan and his team discovered dozens of huge red fish, each 30-50 feet long and weighing more than four tons, living in the lake.
In 1989, scientists concluded that the fish - a type of giant, freshwater salmon that thrives in frigid, deep, waters - were in all likelihood the monsters.
Despite that conviction, there remains a niggling doubt.
Yuan says the largest Taimen salmon scientists have captured is just 12 feet long and weighs 220 pounds. The biggest caught in Kanasi is 4 feet, 9 inches long, according to the documentary - a flat-headed specimen with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
So are the lake monsters really the giant salmon? Or something completely different?
"There is no doubt the so-called lake monster is a kind of fish, the Taimen salmon," says Jiang Zuofa, a professor at the Heilongjiang Aquatic Research Institute in northeastern China. He says he has seen up to 50 of them - some more than 12 feet long - from the top of a mountain.
"The species is big and ferocious and lives in cold, fresh water," he says in a telephone interview. "We believe it is possible for them to eat chickens, geese and sheep, but it is impossible for them to eat cattle."
The People's Daily, the sober mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party, weighed in recently.
"Scientists say with certainty that there simply can't be so-called 'lake monsters' in the world," its Web site said.
Lake Kanasi is 200,000 years old, roughly 15 miles by a mile, and more than 4,000 feet up in the Kanasi nature reserve in Xinjiang's northernmost tip, where China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan converge in snowcapped mountains. It is 603 feet deep at its lowest.
Throughout summer, up to 4,000 tourists a day flock here. All day long, boats chug along the lake, packed with "huguai" spotters.
"Everyone in the country has heard of it," a visitor surnamed Zhou says. "It may be a rich fairy tale but the scenery is so beautiful - plus there's this mysterious creature. How can we not come?"
Surprisingly, there is scant monster publicity at the site. A souvenir shop had but one book about the lake which mentioned the huguai. On the back of a bus ticket a challenge is delicately posed: "The elusive lake monsters await your pursuit."
"We believe there are unidentified creatures in the lake, but we can't say for sure what they are," says Zhao Yuxia, a spokeswoman for the reserve. "We've never seen them with our own eyes."
Even so, there are measures in place to protect the area's wildlife - whatever they may be. Fishing and swimming are banned. Boats are under a strict speed limit.
As Yuan and his group stroll along the shores, he relives his second sighting, just last year.
"It seemed like they were trying to get some sun. Their whole bodies came up to the surface. Their shadows were like one huge roll of plastic - long and black. They shimmered. I couldn't tell at all that they were fish."
No monsters present themselves to Yuan's group during their nighttime visit to the lake.
But still, Qu Yuan, a 26-year-old nurse, is thrilled.
"I kept my eyes on the water," she says, beaming. "The waves were lapping at our feet. It was almost like we were one with the lake."
She adds: "I couldn't see anything but I could feel there was life out there. It was a wonderful feeling."
But Yuan wants more.
He has written two books and numerous essays on the mystery. He says he is asked to speak on it regularly by different schools and organizations, and gets calls, letters and photos from people who think they may have seen the huguai.
What's the next step then in his quest to find the truth?
To catch a fish and study it, Yuan says. But it's not easy on a lake this big.
On the last day of their visit, Yuan's group treks up to the "Fish Viewing Pavilion," perched high on a mountain overlooking the lake. Thousands of tourists are snapping photos.
Breathless and hopeful, Yuan stands on a nearby bluff, hands shielding his eyes from the sun as he looks down onto the water, hoping for a glimpse of the monsters to honor the 20th anniversary of his first sighting.
"It's hard, it's hard," he mutters to himself as he starts a video camera rolling. "They can be anywhere."
After an hour or so of moving from point to point, a downcast Yuan gives up.
As he begins his descent, he takes one last look at the vista.
"All right," he says. "We're done here."
Source: Associated Press/AP Online