Dispatches From China's Wild West

China's Nessie
Notes from different corners of the world.
March 7 2008 11:15 AM

Dispatches From China's Wild West

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Click here for a slide show on Day 5: China's Nessie.

KANAS LAKE, China—We were heading north, toward the Russian border. The flat, brown steppe we were driving through is considered to be a part of Siberia, ecologically speaking. The area is inhabited mainly by Tuvans, who are famous among world-music fans for their throat-singing prowess and who, according to legend, are the descendents of Genghis Khan, who used the place as a staging ground for his westward assault.

On the 12-hour bus trip from Urumqi through flat, desolate scrub, we saw almost no human settlement other than the new oil town of Karamay, with its gleaming glass-pyramid airport. It felt like the end of the earth—and a suitable home for China's most mysterious creature, the Kanas Lake Monster.

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The monster is so new on the international mysterious-creature scene that it doesn't even have a nickname (like Nessie or Bigfoot) yet. It's generally just called the Kanas Lake Monster. Its habitat, within sight of the Soviet Union, was a sensitive border zone until the 1980s, and only with the opening up of Xinjiang has the outside world learned about the monster. So, there hasn't been time for its fans to get the story straight. Depending on whom you talk to, it might be a giant fish, or it might be a mammal, or the lake might have both monstrous fish and monstrous mammals. There may be only one monster or there could be eight or more. It could be 30 feet long, and it could be longer than a football field.

But last year the monster appeared to receive official approval from the central government when state-run media reported that tourists from Beijing had seen it and even caught it on video. (The clip has now been viewed more than 900,000 times on YouTube.) According to Xinjiang TV, the tourists were sitting in a boat on the lake when "two huge black aquatic animals with the length of more than 10 meters sprang out from the surface in succession."

When our tour bus reached the park, it no longer felt as if we were at the end of the earth. There were dozens of other buses in the lot, along with vendors selling everything from bowls of hot noodles to surplus quilted People's Liberation Army jackets for tourists unprepared for the frigid Siberian climate.

In the park, most of the tourists take a bus up to the top of Camel Mountain, which offers the best view over the lake; take a pleasure cruise on the lake; or poke around an ersatz village of Tuvans, the ethnic group that has traditionally lived around the lake. My translator, Pan, and I escaped the crowds and walked up the back side of Camel Mountain. A recently constructed staircase goes up 2,200 feet to the summit (the Chinese, I came to learn, love staircases on their mountains), but it's already falling into disrepair. "That's because they can make more money taking people up on the bus—no one will pay to walk up the stairs," Pan said. And, indeed, we had the stairs all to ourselves.

We rounded a corner, Pan a little bit ahead of me. "Joshua, come look at this," he called back, excited. I rushed up, thinking he'd seen a telltale bump in the lake. I caught up to him but couldn't see anything. "What is it?" I asked. "The view, it's beautiful," he replied. And he was right—even without the lure of a monster, Kanas Lake is spectacular, its vivid, minty green water surrounded by forested mountains.

Once back down from the mountain, Pan and I asked around a village, hoping to find someone who had seen the monster. The first person we found was a retired border policeman, Tolugen Zikeli. "The monster is fake, it's a lie," he said. "It's just to attract tourists."

"The government makes a lot of money from this park, and without a monster, this is just a lake," he said. Like a lot of crotchety old men, he cited a list of culprits that was broad and vague and included the local government, Beijing, the media, and the tourist industry.

The next morning I went in search of a Tuvan religious official, having heard that Tuvans view the monster as holy. But it turned out that the village's last cleric died in 1986 and "wasn't replaced." So, instead, I talked to Bieke Qihai, a 25-year-old Tuvan who gives short talks on Tuvan history, culture, and music to Chinese tourists. Pan and I had to wait a few minutes while he finished up with a tour group—and for the tour leader to slip him a handful of cash.

Qihai was the first person to tell me that the monster actually has a name: Hobzhk, which means something like "always changing" or "strange" in Tuvan. Genghis Khan believed that the monster was lucky, so he stationed 126 soldiers around the lake to protect it. Tuvans believe the monster uses his body to plug up the entrance of another lake inside Kanas Lake that, if he allowed it, would flood the entire valley. Qihai admitted that he had never seen the monster, though he also said Tuvans don't like to talk to strangers about it.

Finally, we found the park's director, Tan Wei Ping, who said that in 2007 the number of visitors was expected to top 1 million, up 30 percent from the previous year. And with a new airport opening up just outside the park, he projected there would be 20 flights a day from Urumqi by the end of 2008.

Tan told us that he once saw four of the monsters all together, each 45 feet long. "The monster has been here for a long time, as long as the Tuvan people have been here. But monster is just the word that the Tuvans use—it's just an animal with no name," he said.

Tan acknowledged that the Chinese government uses the creature to increase tourism. "Definitely, more tourists come here because of the monster," he said. "We did market research in Beijing and Shanghai. We asked people if they had heard of Kanas Lake, and they hadn't. But when we asked if they had heard of the monster who lived in a lake in Xinjiang, they knew it very well."

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Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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