Home of the high-profile Three Gorges Dam, Hubei has masses of breathtaking mountain scenery, rare (and mythical) animals, interesting history and an indigenous culture quite different from that of northern China
A simian warrior with supernatural powers acquired through Taoist practices, the Monkey King is the much-loved hero of the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West. Most recently portrayed in a Hong Kong fantasy flick, the immensely strong protagonist — Sun Wukong in Mandarin — rebels against the Jade Emperor of Heaven and the character may well have been inspired by a real-life creature, the Sichuan snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana).
This very distinctive-looking creature is now found only in a handful of forested areas in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, Shaanxi and Hubei and one of the few places that visitors can see the animal at close range is in Hubei’s Shennongjia National Park.
“The golden snub-nosed monkey is a rare species and is protected by the Chinese government. The importance of its existence and protection is on a par with that of the [giant] panda,” explained Lee Jun, who acted as our guide during a recent visit we made to Hubei, a province in the easternmost part of central China. “Anyone caught hunting these monkeys can be fined up to 100 million yuan [about 522 million baht] and face a prison sentence of up to 20 years,” he added.
Listed as an endangered species and included on the “red list” maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), it goes by a variety of names including Sichuan golden-hair monkey, snub-nosed leaf monkey, snow monkey and orange monkey. The fur on its body and limbs is actually a yellowish-red while its face is hairless and can look pale blue under certain light. It varies in height between 50 and 70cm, has a long tail and lives in montane forests between 1,400 and 2,800 metres above sea level where snow cover can last for up to six months of the year. It eats seeds, fruit, tree bark, insects and small vertebrates and the IUCN estimates that there are now only 16,000 of them left in the wild.
“About 1,600 of them live in this national park at present,” Lee told us, adding that this figure was a substantial improvement on the situation a few decades ago when the local population numbered only about 300.
This small waterfall in Hubei is a popular bathing spot for snub-nosed monkeys in the locality.
As part of Beijing’s ongoing protection efforts, a team of rangers has been specifically assigned to take care of the snub-nosed monkeys in this park, feeding them daily with fresh fruit like apples. “Food is one of the most important factors in maintaining numbers, especially during the winter when the whole mountain is covered in snow. Feeding helps more of the monkeys survive,” Lee noted.
Before being allowed in to see the monkeys up close, we were told that there are two simple rules that all tourists need to follow. First, we had to don military-issue camouflage jackets to cover our own upper garments (presumably so that our garb would look like the uniforms worn by the park rangers, to which the animals have become accustomed). The second regulation was that the monkeys could only be fed peanuts that had been bought from park officials; this, our guide said, was intended to protect the monkeys from digestive problems or even poisoning from unsuitable foodstuffs.
A wooden walkway fenced on both sides leads directly from the visitors’ car park to the designated viewing area. A five-minute stroll along this brought us into the fringes of a pine forest where I had my very first glimpse of a snub-nosed monkey. It was perched nonchalantly on the branch of a tree overhanging the walkway, munching on what looked like a piece of bark.
Not far from me was a boisterous group of Chinese visitors. They began shouting and laughing and screaming when a monkey that they had been posing for pictures with got chased away by another, much bigger specimen.
A troop of monkeys, perhaps a family group, could be seen on the other side of a small stream, but they were in an area into which visitors were not permitted to venture. We had been instructed not to stray from the wooden walkway, but several of the monkeys saved us from temptation by coming quite near to us. I counted five scampering along the top of the fence or just sitting on it.
I gripped my camera tightly to my chest as I approached the first of them. I was afraid they might behave like those naughty macaques one often encounters in Lop Buri temples, sometimes aggressive creatures that grab or steal things from unsuspecting tourists. But these distant (and much more endearing) furry cousins of those Thai macaques didn’t seem particularly interested in us humans or our belongings, for that matter.
They only had eyes for one thing: the tidbits we were carrying.
“Put a peanut in the palm of your hand and close your fingers around it like you’re making a fist,” was the advice from our guide, Lee. “Then extend your arm in the direction of one of the monkeys.”
So I did as instructed. The little fellow nearest me certainly had lightning-fast reactions, reaching out both his hands to hold mine and then gently folding back my fingers to reveal the peanut underneath. It plucked the treat from my palm, broke open the shell and greedily devoured its contents.
When I repeated the process with an empty fist, he again peeled back my fingers, but finding nothing edible inside he merely moved on to check out some other people standing nearby to see what pickings might be on offer.
Although visitors can stay and watch the monkeys as long as they please, Lee knew that our time was up when park rangers started to distribute apples around 10.30am. Most of the monkeys quickly abandoned us and darted over to the feeding spot, which was about 50 metres away across the brook. It was time to move on and explore other parts of this vast national park.
Shennongjia covers an area of 769.5km² and the main attractions, according to Lee, are unusual rock formations (he called them “stone forests”), a wetland area home to many varieties of bird and larger species of resident wildlife. There have even been sightings here, he claimed, of that mythical hairy creature, the Yeti (what some term Bigfoot).
Apart from its abundance of unspoilt nature, Hubei also has a number of historic and cultural attractions. A visit to Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan, the provincial capital, was an entertaining way to spend a few hours. This is a great place to learn about the ancient state of Chu, which flourished on the territory of present-day Hubei during the Eastern Zhou dynasty, which developed its own unique culture, quite distinct from that of the Shang/Zhou civilisation of northern China.
Hubei is now best known, of course, as the location of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest engineering project of its kind in the world. It spans the Yangtze River in Yichang, the second largest city in the province.
The People’s Republic of China is a massive country and first-time visitors should be aware that travelling from one part to another may require considerable expenditure in terms of time and effort. If you want to explore Shennongjia National Park, as well as the cities of Wuhan and Yichang, you will need to allocate at least five days of your holiday to do them justice.
According to our guide, the autumn months of October and November are the best time to visit Shennongjia. The park is at its most beautiful at this time of year, he explained, as the leaves on all the deciduous trees change colour, creating impressive canvases in many shades of yellow, orange and red.