China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 229 (39)

Chengdu

Saturday 23rd October

Panda fever was clearly reaching epic proportions this morning, as we both woke up and got ready very quickly after the alarm went off on Sandy’s watch. Both of us were very much looking forward to seeing the famed Giant Pandas and we didn’t want to be late for our ride. I don’t know what it is with the weather but it seems that the farther South we’ve travelled, the worse it’s gotten. It was overcast and dull this morning with a light but constant drizzle. Nothing so trivial as the weather, however, was going to get in our way of seeing the Pandas, although I must admit to being just a little concerned about adequate lighting for the photography. We waited outside for our minibus and when one arrived and the driver yelled out ‘Pandas?’ to us, we got in. After sitting there for a few minutes, we suddenly realised that we weren’t entirely sure that this was our minibus after all. Indeed the driver eventually asked us for our tickets and when we showed them to him, he invited us to get out and wait for the correct minibus to arrive. Even though all the minibuses from all the hostels in town all take people to this same place every day, he still felt it necessary for everyone to be in the correct vehicle but as luck would have it, our minibus pulled up just as we were debating the issue and we relocated to the new vehicle.

Another traveller that was collected along with us from the Chengdu train station yesterday morning was a rather talkative American that had travelled to seemingly every country on the planet. He and some other travellers were already in our minibus and we all had the ‘pleasure’ of listening to him all the way there. For some reason, our minibus, together with the one we were following, stopped off half way across town. We all sat there thinking that we were waiting to collect someone but after ten minutes of this, one of the passengers was getting quite irate. Getting to the Panda Research Base as early as possible is the one thing that all the guidebook all agree is a must. The Pandas are apparently quite active during the morning feeding but soon fall into a bit of a motionless stupor for the rest of the day after that. The irate passenger eventually got out to go and investigate and soon came back with the driver in tow. She informed us that he was apparently just standing there drinking tea. The driver doesn’t speak any English but she must have made her feelings quite clear to him, as we took off without delay as soon as they both got back into the minibus.

At the Panda Research base, the drizzle had not let up but fortunately there were free umbrellas available for a ¥20 ($2,40) deposit. I didn’t have any ¥20 notes but I did have a ¥10 and a ¥50 but for some reason the Chinese man handling the umbrellas and deposits didn’t seem to grasp the concept op me giving him a ¥10 note and a ¥50 note in return for two ¥20 notes and I could only get my umbrella upon presenting him with exactly ¥20. I did my level best not to get irritated with the man but I don’t think I managed too well.

The Panda Research Base is spread out over quite a large area and consists of a number of unobtrusive buildings with dozens of very large Panda enclosures linked together by narrow footpaths and a few small roads. There is bamboo growing absolutely everywhere with pretty much no other type of vegetation besides. There are trenches and handrails but otherwise no fences, bars or anything else to suggest that the animals are caged. As far as the animals being in captivity is concerned, they are kept in probably the closest conditioned to being in the wild as is possible. The whole place did not have a zoo-like feel to it, even though that is essentially what it is, albeit a very specialised one, which I was particularly gratified to see.

Our first encounter with one of the Pandas made me go instantly weak at the knees. It was sitting there on its back, happily chewing a clump of bamboo and looking all around rather nonplussed. It looked like the cutest, most playful and cuddliest thing imaginable. It was a mature bear, about the size of an armchair with the classic black and white markings, although the white looked like a very dirty white. There’s just something about the innocent look a Panda Bear that makes it oh so endearing and it’s quite easy to see why they attract so much attention worldwide. The World Wildlife Fund could not have chosen a better symbol for its logo.

It’s at times like these that we really appreciate the fact that we have digital cameras. Between us, we took over six hundred and fifty shots in the space of just a couple of hours, passing numerous Giant Panda pens as we meandered through the extensive grounds. Each angle we looked from and every movement the bears made presented another must-take photo opportunity one after the other. We took our time admiring one particular pen that had no less than four Giant Pandas with three of them sitting on their backs next to one another, all swiping clumps of bamboo and munching merrily away on them, as they rolled around playfully with each other. They were no more than about three or four meters away from us with no obstructions whatsoever to spoil the view. I could have stayed there quite happily all day long. For only the second time ever, my one Gigabyte memory card filled up completely with snap after snap before I had to eventually swap it for my reserve one Gigabyte card. Fortunately, we have three of these huge capacity cards between us and always keep the reserve card on hand for just this sort of one-off situation.

We’ve travelled half way across the planet to see to see these magnificent, mild-mannered beasts but the best was yet to come. At the very next building, we would get a chance to actually hold a Panda Bear. Everybody had to first don plastic shoe protectors, presumably to prevent any stray germs from getting anywhere near the Pandas. There are less than one thousand of these magnificent creatures left on the entire planet and every precaution is rightly taken to ensure their well-being. Several others joined in each paying ¥400 ($50) to hold a baby Giant Panda and it was going to be Sandy to have the honour today whilst I manned the camera. Perhaps somewhat unfortunately, quite a crowd had gathered in the rather small space, as several groups of people happened to arrive at this particular building at the same time. Sandy and the other hopefuls all had to put on what looked like sterile, throwaway gowns or the type you might expect to find yourself wearing if you were going to have an operation in a hospital. They also had to put on thin, clear, plastic gloves for additional protection for the bears. As it happened, Sandy was first up and she was invited to sit on what looked like a park bench. Then, one of the staff came out holding a cuddly, four-foot tall Giant Panda cub and slapped it onto Sandy’s lap on its backside with all four paws facing forward. Sandy held the huggable beast around its waist whilst the gorgeous thing was given a couple of bits of apple to sit and chew on. It seemed quite content with the apple slices and munched happily away looking around from side to side. It was the most loveable sight you could ever wish to see and Sandy was absolutely beaming from ear to ear. I have to say, however, that with the excited crowd all jostling to get as close as the staff would allow, it did seem like a bit of a circus there for a moment and I had a flash of guilt as I wondered if these animals weren’t being exploited merely for our pleasure. I comforted myself with the knowledge that they are clearly, exceedingly well looked after and that the money we paid would be going towards their upkeep and conservation efforts, which I consider to be a very worthwhile endeavour. Indeed, I thought that ¥400 ($50) was a very small price to pay and would gladly have paid much more without hesitation. The experience with handling the Panda was fantastic even though I was only holding the camera. My only regret is that there were so many people there with the consequence being that each person only got just a minute or so with the Panda.

It just so happens that a new-born Giant Panda cub was born here at the research base just a couple of days ago. It was being fed and cleaned in an incubator by a very loving handler inside a clean room, which the viewing public could clearly see through huge panes of glass. The resulting crowd that was hoarding the narrow viewing area was quite a circus and people were getting irate when the handler perceived the focus light from one or two cameras as a flash and decided put the bald little pup beneath a blanket to protect it from the light. Quite rightly, they won’t do or allow anything that might make the animals uncomfortable in any way. I found the continued shouting and general loudness of many of the Chinese visitors in particular to be very annoying, not to mention disrespectful for the animals and other guests alike.

After admiring the little Panda cub as best we could through the huge throng of pushing and jostling onlookers, we moved on to another section of the park where the smaller but no less cute and cuddly Red Panda Bears were penned. I found these creatures with their red and black fur to be no less endearing than their larger cousins, although I’m not sure if they technically really are cousins or not. The Red Pandas were no less active than the Giant Pandas were and some of them were climbing through trees as well as waddling along the ground. It did take a bit of patience before I could get a full frontal of the small bears that were closet to us on the ground. I do have a nice zoom lens but each time I moved from one side to the other, the tempestuous little ball of playful fur seemed to want to keep its back to me. My patience was well rewarded, however, and I bagged quite a few gorgeous shots from just about every possible angle in the end.

Our delirium wasn’t over yet as it soon became apparent that for the smaller amount of just ¥50 ($6) per person, we could sit and hold one of these furry little bundles of joy too. This time both Sandy and myself indulged and we were lucky in that it was only our group that was in this part of the park at the time and there was just one other person in our group that also wanted to share in the joy. It would not be the same circus that we had to endure with the Giant Panda cub this time around. The same precautionary measures were taken with the protective clothing and gloves and we each took turns to sit on a stool to be handed a black and red, cuddly fur ball to hold whilst it sat there contently munching away on a couple of slices of apple. The handler gave me several slices to feed the little chap, which I did with a huge, unstoppable ‘isn’t he so cute’ sort of grin all over my face. Sandy did likewise and we each took quite a compliment of photos of the other in turn.

We passed by several more Red Panda Bear pens before eventually making our way to what looked like one of the main buildings in the overall complex, where a video presentation was being shown of the Pandas and the work of the research base here in Chengdu. Even though it was in Chinese with Chinese subtitles, we sat through the presentation, trying to follow the storyline and enjoying the imagery. Part way through the presentation, Sandy noticed that neither of us had our backpack. After a brief look at each other, I realised that I had left it back at the Red Panda pen when I donned my protective clothing. I found our driver and did a pretty decent job, so I thought, of using body language to convey to him that I’d left my backpack behind and the two of us legged it back half way across the park to see if it was still there. Luckily it was. The truth is that I cared little about the backpack itself or even its contents, save for the full memory card with all the photos of the Giant Panda and, of course, with Sandy sitting with one of them on her lap.

By the time the driver and I made it back to the main building, the presentation had finished and our group had already made it through the centre’s museum and exhibition hall and were now waiting outside for the remaining stragglers to make their way back to the minibus. We each returned our umbrellas and all of us sat in the minibus waiting for Mr. Talkative America to find his way back. Unfortunately, the driver refused to leave without him. It turned out that there was an English showing of the same video presentation after everybody had left the auditorium and he had sat back to sit through it. We got to hear all about the love life of a Panda Bear all the way back to the hostel.

One of the couples that had stayed at the Dragon Hostel where we first arrived at here in Chengdu decided to stop off at our hostel to try to find a bank and the four of us walked up the street to find a bite to eat. They had not long ago been in Thailand and we agreed to buy their remaining Thai currency from them. This worked out to our mutual advantage as they no longer needed the currency but we will be in Thailand in just a couple of weeks from now. We spent much of the afternoon exchanging travel tips and anecdotes before heading off in different directions. With a slight sniffle coming on and the cold damp weather not helping, Sandy was keen to get back to the hostel for a bit of a rest from the day’s excitement.

With the weather being what it is, we’ve decided not to sign up for the trip to Leshan tomorrow to see the world’s largest Buddha, but will instead see what the weather looks like in the morning and make a decision about making our own way there by public bus instead. We have another two full days here and we are even contemplating going back to the Panda Research base again. I’ve also been toying with the idea of seeing about obtaining another lens for my camera. The two that I have provide me with probably the best wide angle and zoom range I can get with just two lenses but I wouldn’t mind having a larger lens that will allow for better photography in lower light conditions such as today with the Pandas.

After a couple of hours of rest, I set off in search of an Internet café to hook up my laptop. I found three places all quite close but failed to communicate my needs with any of them, although I did manage to get one of them to give me their phone number and I had Sam, the hostel proprietor here, call them to sort things out for me. I subsequently spent the next couple of hours hooked up and sent of a batch of the best Panda photos to Lisa, whom I knew would appreciate them the most, being a huge animal lover. She replied quite quickly and judging by her reply, I think the photos might have just about brought her to tears. I also found a very nice posting on the Internet bulletin board that I often visit. Nancy, the English language teacher we met in Xi’an, posted some very nice comments about our visit with her and her students. These are the experiences that will stand out most in our minds at the end of this trip and I was gratified to hear that they got at least as much out of the experience as we did.

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