Having read about the Chinese wildman, or yeren, for years, I was nothing less than thrilled to have the opportunity to travel to that part of the world for an expedition. Our investigations would be centered in Hubei province, specifically the Shennongjia Forest District, one of several “hot spots” in China for yeren sightings.
The terrain looked and felt remarkably similar to the Pacific Northwest. It was heavily wooded with mixed firs and rhododendron which grew on its steep canyon walls. Most of this area is utterly devoid of road and trails. It seemed to me that most of the tourists were constrained to heavily developed walking trails that only skirted the wilderness areas that surround the main roads. Small trails have, however, been developed by the local mountain people, and these trails are largely used for the gathering of medicinal herbs and wood.
One of my primary goals on this expedition would be to gather evidence that would indicate whether or not yerens are more-or-less the same thing as bigfoots (as we found in Australia with the yowie), or if they are something else entirely (as would seem to be the case with other hominoids, such as the alma of eastern Europe). Having been to Vietnam and finding that most of the hairy bipeds there were reported to be smaller than what we consider to be average for bigfoots, I was thinking that perhaps we had something a bit different than a North American Bigfoot. I thought maybe Professor Viet from Hanoi National University might be right that these things could be relict Homo erectus, which would make them very different than bigfoots. Only speaking to a number of witnesses would clear that up for me.
After the blessing ceremony, we visited with Professor Wang Shan Cai. Professor Wang is one of the authorities on the yeren, and has been funded by the Chinese government in the past to do research. He was part of the 1976-77 expedition that uncovered evidence on the creatures in Hubei. This evidence included footprints, hair, and scat. The scat contained both vegetable and animal matter. The animal matter included the remains of rabbit and coyote. Considering the relationship noted here in North American between bigfoots and coyotes, I found this to be most interesting, and it has certainly helped shape my current model of that relationship.
Speaking to Professor Wang after shooting the scenes we did for the show, I discovered that he had published a number of pamphlets and books on the yeren, none of which have been translated to English. He included in these publications photographs from government-sanctioned scientific symposiums on the wildman. His lack of English skills prohibit him from communicating with researchers in other parts of the world, so he continues his work in an isolated fashion, not benefiting from the work of his international peers.
The casts Professor Wang shared with us that day were taken by Mr. Luo after his sighting, which was featured later in the program. They are blobby with little detail, but have the general shape of what we were looking for. While they weren’t especially large, they seemed to correspond well with what would be expected from a creature of the height that he claimed to have seen.
The first night investigation posed some problems concerning the terrain. As previously noted, there are very few roads or trails penetrating into the wilderness in Shennongjia. We went to the end of one road in a promising area suggested to us by Professor Wang, and started our hike from there. Bobo and Ranae ran into some problems with rock slides devouring their trail, but Matt and I found an abandoned road that winded its way precariously up the side of a cliff into the interior forest.
At one point, we heard strange replies to our vocalizations. I suspect it was a species of Asian owl with which I am not familiar, but this is uncertain. Shortly thereafter, and from a different location, something large crashed its way through the woods. The sound in the episode was a simple branch snap, but that is not what Matt and I heard. We heard what sounded like a train smashing through a forest heading downhill and away from us. I do not know what it was, and there are many possible explanations. Perhaps it was a deer, bear, or even a yeren. I do not know, and we have no indication of what it might have been other than the noise we heard.
The visit to the Golden Snub-nosed Monkey reserve was interesting and informative. Though they were clearly well habituated to humans, I was struck by their gentle demeanor when taking food from our hands. At one point one of the keepers shook his food tray, and nearby forest came alive with previously-unseen monkeys. Dozens of monkeys that were hidden in plain view came down from the hillsides for a treat. It just goes to show the ability of primates to remain out of view.
Other observations that I found interesting from my time at the reserve were instructive as far as bigfoot research goes. Many of these monkeys had long hair on their shoulders and the base of their heads. This same feature is often reported in bigfoots, with hair up to 24 inches long or more. Such a thick coat of long hair would be an obvious adaptation for cold-dwelling primates, such as these monkeys or bigfoots. Also, I had a good close look at the hands and feet of the monkeys, and noticed the course textures to their skin ridge detail. I am looking for similar marks on footprint casts from both sasquatches and orang pendeks.
The town hall meeting was held at a tea house surrounded by beautiful tea fields. In attendance were two of the six government workers who saw a yeren back in 1976, and later petitioned the government to fund expeditions to discover the creatures. Several other witnesses had excellent observations for us as well. Most, but not all, of the sightings were of creatures in the six-foot range. One sighting by a man named Mr. Qu seemed to indicate a very large creature, and that is the one I chose to follow up on.
Mr. Qu’s sighting occurred a good distance into the forest on a small trail he uses to gather medicinal herbs (in this case, fungi) which he sells to make a living. Mr. Qu was walking downhill after gathering his herbs, and he encountered a yeren walking uphill on the same path. The two stopped dead in their tracks and looked briefly at one another before the yeren took off to its right towards a deep ravine. Mr. Qu had a good look at the creature’s side profile from approximately 23 yards away. He described a massive creature, almost as wide from front to back as from shoulder to shoulder. It was dark brown or black in color, and it used it hands to break branches in its path as it pushed through the forest. Using a branch that it passed under, we determined that it was somewhere in the vicinity of 7.5 feet tall. Finally, here was some evidence that we might be dealing with something that has the size of the North American bigfoots back home. This sighting leads me to believe that if the yeren and bigfoot are not the same species, then they are extremely closely related, and probably have many of the same behaviors. This proved to the case in Australia, and now I had some evidence that it might be true in China as well. After all, it makes more sense that the same (or almost the same) species is what populates the huge curve from Australia into eastern Asia, up into Russia, and over the Bering Strait into North America.
Mr. Qu told me an interesting fact after we were done filming. Apparently, the valley into which the yeren headed once was inhabited by an old hermit. That man moved there and lived alone to be closer to the yerens that he knew inhabited the area. That man is now reportedly dead, the cabin is gone, and no word of his research has ever made it to western ears.
The sighting by Mr. Luo and Mr. Zhou was a pretty typical road crossing. The creature they witnessed came down from a steep hillside, was spotted by the witnesses in the car, and then ran down into a thickly wooded ravine. Mr. Luo later returned to the site and went down into this ravine and found footprints, which he cast. These prints were shared with us by Professor Wang earlier in the expedition.
What is remarkable about their encounter is that the Chinese government has invested in a road-side marker commemorating their experience. In fact, the area surrounding Tienman Mountain has numerous signs and engravings showing where witnesses have encountered yerens. Before the government invests in such a sign or engraving, they thoroughly interview the witness to determine the authenticity of the encounter. (I don’t know what the consequences of lying to the government would be, but I suspect they would be pretty harsh.)
While waiting for others to finish filming interviews, Bobo and I wandered away and discovered an out-of-the-way museum totally devoted to yeren research. We were not told of the presence of this museum, so we made a little time to read up on the subject through their displays. Of most interest in the museum were two original footprint casts under glass. Since nobody was around, I figured out a way to remove the casts from their display cases so I could photograph them using a phone for scale. The phone is 5 inches long, which shows that the cast in photo #1 is over 15 inches long, and the cast in photo #2 is 13 inches. Both casts showed toes, though these are a bit hard to discern in the pictures. The proportions are the same as any number of footprint casts from North America.
Our Chinese expedition was insightful for my personal development of a world-wide view of unknown hominoids. There is definitely something going on there, and it seems to be the same thing as is going on here: at least one species of unknown, hairy biped has avoided detection by the scientific community, but is still thriving in the wilds. With the support of the Chinese government, perhaps our Chinese counterparts will be the first to prove the species exists.