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Fishy Myth Lures Lake Visitors

Skeptical scientists and curious tourists hope to see 'Kanasi Huguai,' China's version of the Loch Ness monster.

November 13, 2005|Audra Ang | Associated Press Writer

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 that visitors 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 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. 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, known as the Tuwa people, living in the area and heard the ancient legend of the monsters in Kanasi. Most of the villagers fell silent when pressed for details.

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, 30 to 50 feet long and weighing as much as 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 of myth.

Despite that conviction, there remains a niggling doubt.

Yuan says the largest Taimen salmon scientists have captured is 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?

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