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Shennongjia Forest

Dreams of Pandora: Touring the Shennongjia Forests in China

by Jamie M. Kwan
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We sailed between dark forests amongst fog and rain. Winding rivers through the depths of tall, rounded mountain peaks, as if you were thrown into a traditional Chinese painting. Stone paths led us through mythical folk tales while gentle beasts lurk behind a wall of trees and bushes. The Shennongjia Forests are truly a vast landscape of mystery, emotion, and a tad bit of fear of isolation – unless of course you’re on a large guided tour whilst on vacation!

Two years ago today, I was in the midst of my summer travels through Eastern and Northern China. As part of the trip, I was fortunate to have been able to go on a three-day tour down the Yangtze River and through a guided hike around selected spots in the forest. Honestly, this was the one time that heavy rain made a walk that much more memorable, despite having not been able to take too many photos (SLR camera + rain = not fun).

Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest power station

We started in YiChang – a city known globally for its absolutely giant Three Gorges Dam. Now, I have to say that I cannot take too much credit for the planning of this trip, and most of what we did was part of a guided tour – a definite must when you’re in China! What was great was that this guide would take us from city to city for a couple of days, talk about the sites, and give pointers about food. It may seem like a true tourist-move, but as a Calculated Traveller, it really is a great way to see lots of those non-Beijing/Shanghai locales without fear of getting lost in a foreign land. It was an excellent way to hop from city to city, tour to tour, without having to worry about your transportation between each location. But I digress.

Yangtze Three Gorges Dam 

After a quick visit to the Three Gorges Dam, we boarded a cruise/ferry (honestly…it felt like a cruise ship, but it really was just a ferry with really nice seats and an upper observation deck) to take us to the Shennongjia area.

Pro-tip – unless you really want to see the Three Gorges Dam, I would suggest skipping the cruise up the dam. It takes hours and you likely won’t see much more than you did on the regular tour. Anyhow, cruising down the Yangtze is absolutely breathtaking – so many picture-perfect moments winding down the river. Keep an eye out for really awesome bridges, homes and artifacts that line the edge of the mountains.

Shennongjia ferry yangtze 

The next stop was this temple/complex up in the mountains. We got off the ferry and loaded up onto a bus. Again – this site was breathtaking. The contrast of the beautifully detailed centuries-old architecture against this picturesque mountainous backdrop felt perfect. The name escapes me. However, I do remember it being an ode to a Chinese woman who played a lot of instruments….(apologies – I was quite distracted by the scenery that I barely listened to the tour)

Shennongjia temple 

Shennongjia temple view 

The Wild Man of Shennongjia

When we finally made it to the Shennongjia Forests (the next day I believe…if my memory precedes me) we hopped across four sites in the area – each with its unique features:

The first was an overlook fairly high up into the mountain area. Fog completely covered the landscape, making the site feel as if I were on a journey to Mordor…or on a hunt for Dragon Balls…or right in a scene out of Avatar. In fact – I had learned that this region was of inspiration for James Cameron while he was creating the world of the Na’vi, Pandora! Pretty cool, I think.

wild man of shennongjia 


Reasonably close to this site was our next stop, and it was quite the relief to be indoors finally. We went to this tourist-y building in the middle of absolutely nowhere, that acted as half-zoo half-movie theatre. We got to see a 4D movie (yup – those exist apparently) and saw a bunch of protected animals, like one that literally cries like a baby, the rare and regional Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys, and a humongous Giant Salamander. For you budding cryptozoologists, we also learned of the famous Wild Man of Shennongjia – basically the Chinese Bigfoot. This movie made the next two stops quite magical.

Shennongjia golden snub-nosed monkeys 

We went for a hike along this set trail in the forest. With the Wild Man on our minds, you could literally look to your side through the dense trees and see the silhouette of a 7 foot tall monkey thing lurking in the background…which 100% turned out to be a weird shaped bush. Unfortunately, about 5 other tour buses stopped off here – this was the only time the place was busy – so it felt more like a march than a hike…but either way, it was a really really cool walk. We were told to look out for the rock formations in the shape of some of their famous folktales!

Shennongjia rocks 

**Be extra careful here, while the trails are marked they’re also not maintained, or even paved. Especially when it’s raining, there were lots of slippery rocks to climb over, and LOTS of umbrellas from other tourists knocking me in the face (remember – its China. People are short here. Haha).

The last site was one to explore waterfalls. Again – a similar hike to the previous, except we got to see a few really scenic spots which all had waterfalls. Not too many photos here, as at this point it was freezing and pouring rain, so I’ll keep this one brief. Here’s a picture of me trying to smile when really I’m thinking about the hot noodle soup that was waiting for me when I got back to YiChang.

Shennongjia waterfall 

Overall, despite the weather, this was one of the highlights of my trip to China, and probably not something I thought I would be doing! Leading up to a trip to Beijing, you think…okay I’ll see the Forbidden City…the Great Wall…take in the strange street food…but NEVER would I have thought I’d be hiking through one of the most vast and wet forests I’ve ever been to (I’m not the camping type..so maybe this is normal for you?)

Here are some final tips for your next trip to Central China!

  • Pack some warmer clothes. When we started in YiChang, it was about 30 degrees Celsius. By the time we got to the Yangtze and the mountains, it had dropped to about 5. The tours even try to sell you down-fill jackets at the beginning, so don’t get stuck forking up 250Y to rent a dirty jacket!
  • Bring your umbrella! Umbrellas here are floral or patterned in weird colours; never the black umbrellas that we’re so used to in Canada. A lightweight umbrella was also instrumental in the photos I managed to get here.
  • If you’re hiking, and it’s raining, wear extra thick socks or double up! That was the best decision I made, as hiking/walking in wet shoes and socks is the absolute worst.
  • There are plenty of hours spent in transit on a cruise or a bus. Try not to sleep or sit the ENTIRE time! Look out the windows – you see some of the most real and non-touristy things on the WAY to the touristy things!

So there you have it: my Memory Monday. Do you have any good hiking/adventurous stories in foreign lands to share?

For more about China, read:
6 of the Best Chinese Cheap Eats in China
Beijing, China: A Gentle Mix of Old and New
Ancient Experiences – Pingyao County, China

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Escape Hunter November 29, 2014 - 12:47 pm

Funny blue marshmallow-faced monkeys :)

Frank June 7, 2014 - 12:58 pm

Cruising down the Yangtze looks amazing! I can’t believe the blue-faced monkeys, never seen that – these are the snub-nosed monkeys you’re referring to?
Looks like a fun trip.
Frank (bbqboy)

jan June 3, 2014 - 8:34 am

I love rivers and the Yangste has always appealed. I am happy to see you were so impressed. Superb photos by the way.

Eileen June 2, 2014 - 2:09 pm

Thanks for sharing this memory with us. I love your photos and hope to visit China one day!

Mary Calculated Traveller June 2, 2014 - 9:07 am

This looks like an amazing experience. I haven’t travelled within China yet and appreciate your tips …Thanks so much for sharing.


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