The Greater and Lesser Hinggan Mountains in Heilongjiang and the Changbai Mountains in the east of Jilin Province are major forested areas in China. Many wild plants and animals live in the dense forests. Precious fur clothing, rare herbal medicines and special forest products are also found here.
In winter, hunters riding a sleigh go hunting in the forests with hounds.
I stayed for a few days at Changsong Village in Fusong County in the Changbai Mountain and what I saw was quite different from my experience in the Northeast countryside.
The house of the 90-odd families at Changsong village were either built in the mountain or by the river. Almost everything, fences, houses, storehouses and sheds, is made of wood. What surprised me most was that the chimney was a round and seamless tree trunk four to five metres high. The wood is known as fengdao, an overripe tree. The outerside of the tree is hard and does not catch fire easily, while the innerside is inflammable and is therefore hollowed out by burning the centre with a slow fire from the root.
Though a wooden house preserves warmth and resists earthquakes, it catches fire easily and uses up a large amount of timber. In recent years, brick houses have become more popular.
Winter is the best season to fell trees because at this time of year, trees are crisp and easy to chap, and the snow in the mountain makes it more convenient to put the tree trunks with sleighs.
It was the first time for me to go into the forest. Treading the narrow path covered with snow, I became exhausted after a little while. When I saw a stump, I swept the snow off. But as I was about to sit on it, the mountain villagers warned me not to sit on it because it was believed to be the chair of the Mountain God, which is an imaginary god that the mountain villagers worship. There is no statue of him or temple for him. In the past when the woodcutters went to the mountain, they would first set up a makeshif "temple" with three rocks or plywood. But if they could not find these, they would simply chisel out a house-shaped pattern on one of the tree trunks.
The rock in the centre symbolizes the god of the tiger. Only by worshipping this god, could people be safe from tigers. The rocks on either side are said to represent the "God of the Five Ways" and the "God of Earth" that can protect people from disaster. They use pine torches as candles and mountain grass as incense to worship these gods.
The worship of the Mountain God originated from the fear of the forest in the old days when there was no protective measures for the woodcutters. If they were careless, they would either be crushed to death or wounded by a falling tree, or their head would be broken by the dead branches which the locals call "hanging ghosts"; or they would be wounded by an axe or saw, or stumble and fall, or even be attacked by tigers and bears. Unable to master nature, these woodcutters had to turn to gods for solace and relief from danger.
Every year during Spring Festival time, it was customary to cut down the first tree of the year, in order to predict the fortune of the year. On New Year's Day, after worshipping the Mountain God, they would gather at the tree previously chosen as the first tree, generally a straight, well-rounded and hard Korean pine, The ceremony began with a prayer and then people took turns to cut the tree with an axe. With a tremendous boom, the tree fell obediently downhill. If the tree didn't fall on other tree branches or hurt anyone, people felt more at ease; the new year would be a peaceful one.
A little house in the forest.
Today, woodcutters all wear safety helmets and they are not afraid of the falling "hanging ghosts" any more. Machines are used for felling, collecting and transporting timber. As a result, accidents have greatly decreased. Though they don't worship the Mountain God as much as they used to, they still do not sit on stumps or fell the trees that bear the mark of "Mountain God Temple."
Many animals and birds also inhabit the dense forests of the Changbai Mountains such as Northeast tigers, bears, boars, lynxes, sika deer, deer, lynxes and sables which are under state protection, other animals and birds are all hunted.
In early winter when snow covers up grass and fallen leaves, hunters bring along their food and cooking utensils and go into the mountains to hunt. As soon as they set up the camp in the mountain, they also built a "Mountain God Temple".
Hunters use hounds to hunt animals in early winter. When they hear the bark of the hound, they know that a bear has been found in its lair. Bears generally start to look for a lair as soon as winter starts. The small deft bears all go into holes in dead trees, but the clumsy big ones have to dig a pit in the ground, which makes it easy for the hounds to scent them out.
When the hunter takes aim at the dead tree's hole, other hunters go up and knock the tree with their axes so that the shocked bear crawls out. When half of its body is it and cut its chest open to take out the bear's gallbladder and chop off the the bear's paws. Then they disembowel the bear to reward the hounds. The winter hunting season ends when the snow is over a foot deep, making it hard for hunters and hounds to run around.
Early spring is also good time for hunting when snow melts during the day but freezes into thin ice at night and in the early morning. The boar's heavy body, tiny feet and short legs make it impossible for it to run fast enough on the ice and as soon as they touch the thin ice, they get stuck in the snow.
The hound is agile and can run very fast. Hunters usually bind two "running rings" made of willow twigs to their feet, so that they can run on thin ice without falling. When they catch up with the boar, they either use the hounds to bit them or poke them with their dagger without firing any shots.
When the sun comes out and the ice melts. hunters go back to their camp. A few men from the hunting team carry the prey back to their village. If there is too much prey that cannot be taken back all at once, the hunters cover it with snow. Otherwise, they would attract crows which would eat them.
A cellar where forest rangers live, half underground and half above ground.
As the tiger is said to be the Mountain God, it is forbidden to shoot them. Before they start out, hunter, hunters have to say prayers for the tiger. The heart and liver of the first prey caught in the year are cooked and offered to the tiger, the Mountain God, before the hunters are allowed to touch it. Although this practice is superstitious, in a way it has protected the Northeast tiger, an endangered species.
When the hunters leave the mountain, they also leave firewood and salt in the camp for anyone who might get lost in the mountain.
Those who are familiar with the habits of the animals also use snares to trap the animal and they hang wood which sometimes hits the animal. The most interesting of all is catching the otter by freezing it. Hunters usually place an iron board near the ice hole where otters frequently go. At midnight when they come out from the river, where the water from their body soon freezes and makes them stick to the board, making it very easy for the hunters to catch them.