I’d been told that you had to get to the Panda Sanctuary early for feeding time, as in the afternoon they sleep. This is not strictly true, as they spend the vast majority of their day eating, with frequent sleeping breaks, so turning up at any time is generally fine.
I intended to take a bus, but after waiting at the bus stop for a while and not having a clue which one to take, and with all buses stopping for seconds before whizzing on, with destinations only in Chinese, or occasionally mention of a bus station which don’t correspond to any in my LP book, I give up and hop in a cab.
Now what is Chengdu, which means “Perfect Metropolis” (!), famous for world over? One place all the tourists are here for. So you would have thought when I showed the Chinese translation of “Panda Centre” to the driver, she’d know. Instead she frowns, thinks for a bit, then nods. Once we’re on the way, she again has a look at the entry, and frowns at the map. Surely?!
Wide streets with cycle lanes
It takes forever, and Chengdu is very uniform, so you generally don’t have a clue where you are, but taxis are not too expensive, so the 30 minute drive costs 51. Now to show you the different tipping culture here, I offer her 55 (just under four pounds), but she hands back the 5 and just takes the 50. Taxi drivers rounding their prices down and refusing tips, whoever heard of that?!
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
So, the centre. I buy my ticket (30Y), by the way the exchange rate is about 15 to the pound. At least I’m assuming it is. Corrections on a postcard before I waste my life savings!
Bamboo everywhere, the Pandas would never escape!
Inside I’m in a panic, those lazy pandas will be sleeping any minute, so I skip past the Tourist Reception Centre, Panda Cinema and other buildings, heading straight for the first enclosure, No.14.
It’s slippery as everywhere’s a bit wet, but in 10 minutes I’m there. And confronted with exactly what I came to see. A big fat black and white thing lying on his back munching bamboo like there’s no tomorrow!
What makes them so funny is that they look like slobs as they munch away. I can just imagine them being human, sitting in front of the television with the same pose, eating pizza instead of bamboo. As they munch, the outer stem that they don’t eat gets stripped off and piles up on their fat bellies!
Their problem is that they glean so little nutrition from the bamboo. I presume as it’s so fast growing it doesn’t start with much anyway, then as the pandas used many generations ago to be carnivores, their stomachs are hopeless at digesting what is there – apparently they absorb about 2% of the nutrition in the bamboo.
As a consequence, they have to eat vast quantities of it – apparently the average is for 18 hours of the day! The rest of course, is spent sleeping from the effort of eating. Even with individual bits of bamboo, they seem to switch the stems between arms when one is getting tired! They have developed a special extra thumb for holding bamboo, and stripping the outer stem off.
They also make a delightful gnashing noise as they chomp, baring their teeth, and looking about with mild interest at what’s going on around them, before dropping their eyes to look for the next handful of bamboo, which is generally scattered about their enclosures – it’s gathered by hand by four villages not far from here.
They don’t seem that concerned at the large crowds watching them, even the Chinese tourists who will stand next to signs saying please be quiet and no flash, shouting and calling out to the pandas, and flashing away with their cameras.
On the move
Having finished eating (for the while), they just waddle up to the nearest tree or raised area, hop up, using all the energy they just gained by eating for several hours, and sleep.
There are wooden frames and raised platforms that have been built for them, but sometimes they seem to get themselves high into trees which are clearly suffering with the weight of the panda, bending over. It looks incredibly uncomfortable, but they seem to be happy, until, as occasionally happens, they fall out of the tree asleep. I’d love to see that!
Check the guy in the straining tree
The pandas are segregated in age groups, thus the three or four oldies (17 years or so) are together in one area, Enclosure 14. I like this one the best as they never do anything exciting so the tour groups never stay long, giving it a peaceful air. The sub-adults are also together, and then there are the ultimate in cute-cute – the kindergarten and nursery schools!
Panda Kindergarten! New levels of cute cute!
The thing about panda babies is that they are very under-developed when born – their eyes don’t work yet, they don’t have hair, and in general they look like that creature in the movie Alien that pops out of people’s stomachs! Not so nice! I’ve missed “Falling in Love Period”, which is March to May (wink wink!), but now is the best time to see the babies.
No photos near the babies
We’re probably not allowed to take photos because Chinese tourists are incapable of turning off flash even when they’re told to.
Within a few months, the babies develop, grow hair and start to produce the signature white and black spots on their body that make them so loveable. All the ones we can see in the nursery are super cute (And sleeping)
9 babies already born to 5 mothers this year (so far)
Next I head over to see the red pandas. These are much smaller, like racoons. One enclosure is closed as the mothers are pregnant and need some peace and quiet away from tour groups, but the other is open.
They are found in the Himalayas, and I’m sure we once saw one on our Langtang trek. I could be inventing memories though. Anyway, after a brief bit of munching, even these guys go to sleep, so I wander back to find the documentary cinema!
The video is not that long, but does have lots of nice clips of video, including the amusing scene of the pandas wiping their naughty bits everywhere when they’re feeling frisky to spread their musk. Apparently they even hang upside down in trees to give the wind a chance to carry the scent further!
There is also a lot of birth footage. Panda babies don’t slowly come out, they seem to fly out like they’re on a fairground slide. First time mothers often don’t seem to know what to do, panic when the babies start crying, and sometimes bash the baby about the floor until the keepers can get in to the rescue.
In you go
I’m starving by now, so go to the one eatery, a restaurant next to the lake, which is a bit corporate in feel, clearly set up to accommodate groups. I sit on my own on a table for about 12, and try to order some food. I ask for spicy food but the girl says they don’t have this, then steers me to chicken with cashews. Plain old boring Chicken with Cashews. I’m not impressed with this in Sichuan. Especially when the next table after me is loaded up with delicious hot-looking food!
After tea I head back out for some more panda action, then the museum in the tourist reception centre.
It’s not bad, with a few interesting snippets, but somewhat dull displays. I could not believe when I read about former Chinese armies using Pandas in battle! One clawing then they’d fall asleep whilst all around fought. At least you could pay them in bamboo, though you would need vast quantities of the stuff.
Apparently the mere flag of the bear would stop wars!
There are photos of various famous people and world leaders who have visited Chengdu, including our own dear John Prescott, who I think was in charge of the relationship with China in addition to his many other roles.
Caption competitions back home
There are only about 1,000 pandas left in the world now. There is another Panda Sanctuary in Woolong, with more pandas than here, but according to Chengdu, it’s not so interesting as the pandas are free in a large sanctuary, so the odds are stacked against you seeing more than one or two when you visit. Well, to be honest, that’s the way I’d prefer it. Here seems too sterile and set up for tour groups who seem to have no respect for the animals they are looking at. Not that there’s any chance of the pandas having the energy to escape, they’d be found yards from their enclosure sleeping surrounded by bamboo leftovers!
There’s a small gift shop where I buy postcards, and meet Yi Jun, one of the guides here who is bored because there aren’t many tourists (it’s a bit cold and rainy).
We pose for photos, and of course the oriental two-fingered salute comes out.
By now it’s mid afternoon, and must be time to go, as all the panda residents are asleep!
Yi Jun takes me to the bus stop and puts me on the 902 tourist bus which for 2Y goes straight into the centre of town. So much for LP’s two buses and a rickshaw advice!
People’s Park and a Tea House
I notice that the area around the Panda Park is really nice, with lakes, temples and other attractions. Would be good to visit some of these on a longer trip. The bus takes ages and I doze until I’m told to alight - Yi Jun has told the driverwhere to get off. I’m hoping to go to the People’s Park.
After being dropped, I look around, goodness knows where I am, I have no bearings here, no street signs in English, and it’s uniform Chengdu in all directions, so I have to take another cab! He accepts the 1Y tip I give him and is extremely happily.
Into the park, which unlike the “People’s“ Park in Myanmar doesn’t charge for entry, I find all sorts of crazy things happening.
Chinese regard parks as somewhere to let one’s hair down, somewhere to do all those crazy things you can’t do otherwise. First up is a kind of fast tai chi to music.
Further on I find karaoke without the words, comedy with a big crowd watching, ballroom dancing, kite flying, someone playing the sax, not busking, just playing for fun.
The other side of the park is a memorial to the train workers who rose up against officers spiriting away cash meant for railway improvements. Good patriotic work!
Next the real reason I’m here, the Tea house. Apparently Chengdu is the place to go to one of these. It’s a large open and partially covered space, decked out with hundreds of tables and chairs.
Everywhere is beautiful classical Chinese woodwork, with strange-looking home-made chairs. I sit facing the lake, and in front of me are two old chaps chatting over their cups.
Chewing the seeds
An old woman brings a menu, but I beckon for her to choose for me. She does so, and I get something completely different to everyone else, a chrysanthemum tea with a few red berries of some kind In it, and a pile of rocks of sugar at the bottom.
After gving me this, she fills up right to the brim a 2L thermos flask from a large kettle in front of me, then caps it and leaves me to it. I watch carefully, after all, I wouldn’t want her to short change me on 2L of tea, which comes in at 10Y.
If 2L isn’t enough, they bring along the daddy pot
People sit here for hours, chewing through piles of seeds or something similar, playing cards, and chatting. The perfect place to while away the afternoon, but I find two full cups is enough for me, and head off back to Zac’s via cab, only possible using the all important bit of paper: