We got up early today and caught a taxi headed north to the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. Feeding (and the most active time of the pandas’ day) started around 9:30, so we made sure to get there around 9. The area is pretty large, and visitors walk from exhibit to exhibit on beautiful paths shaded by patches of bamboo.
We went right to one of the panda enclosures, where there were about four Giant Pandas sitting about 10 feet from us, snacking on bamboo. It’s fun to watch them eat, because they collect a bunch of leaves in their mouths, then hold the bunch in their hands and eat it like a carrot or something. They’re a pretty sedentary animal when full-grown, living what seems like the ideal life – eating and sleeping.
The enclosures here are pretty natural, and we were excited to be separated from them only by a moat and a low bamboo fence.
Next we saw the Red Pandas. We almost didn’t go because we figured they couldn’t be cuter than the Giant Pandas, but were glad we did because they are darn cute. Unfortunately, they move quite fast (unlike the glacial movements of the Giant Pandas) so they were harder to photograph.
The park was a little hard to navigate (about the only thing we didn’t like about it) but we made the trek out to the Giant Panda Houses, the furthest exhibits. They were absolutely worth it, though, and really made the rest of the park pale in comparison. We found the 1+ year-old pandas, which absolutely stole our hearts. Unlike the full-grown adults, the little guys had lots of energy. They wrestled with each other, chased their keepers, and climbed trees.
They were hilarious to watch climbing, because they would get themselves in untenable situations, draped over a branch on their belly or in some Twister-like combination of feet and leg positions. They were pretty good going up, but would flounder and flail at the top and half-fall all the way down. They also fell for real sometimes, which scared the heck out of us the first few times!
For all the pictures we’ve seen of pandas, I realized today that we rarely see them in action. Even in zoos, America only has a few and if you catch them when they’re lazy (as they often are), you don’t get a feel for their motions. They seem like a mix between a fur rug, a beanbag, and a slinky. They often seem to fall downhill more than walking on their own power, so it’s a mystery to us as to how they get uphill in the first place. They really seem like they don’t have spines but we saw a skeleton and apparently they do.
Inside the enclosure with them was a young man whose job seemed to be feeding them and checking them over after falls.
After a while, I started a conversation by telling him that we thought his job was the best in the world. All the other visitors had left so it was just us and we had a nice conversation with him. He told us a little bit about these bears and even introduced them to us by name (not that we could really tell them apart). Best of all, when they were eating, he turned one of them around so that they were all facing us!
I said that these young pandas were really active, but I should mention that there was one notable exception. One of them – Dad’s favorite – was perched at the top of a tree for the entire duration of our visit, which was at least an hour, even while his buddies were pigging out below him.
He was facing away from us the whole time and looked like a big ball of fur at first. He did wake up for a few minutes and stretch out in the sun, but then curled back up – I guess his position was really comfortable.
It was a really special hour for us, although the entire visit was nice. We figure that we saw nearly 40 Giant Pandas and another dozen or so Red Pandas, which is an insane amount considering there are only 270 or so Giant Pandas in captivity.
I got that number from a Wikipedia article, which had some other interesting Panda facts:
- although they eat mainly bamboo, they still have the digestive system of a carnivore, without the ability to digest cellulose efficiently, so they have to eat a lot of it – 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo shoots a day.
- The West didn’t know about the Panda until 1869 when a French missionary, Armand David, received a skin
- The first Westerner known to have seen a living Giant Panda is the German zoologist Hugo Weigold in 1916
- Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (son of Teddy and an interesting character in his own right) was the first foreigner to shoot a panda
- in the 1970’s, panda exchanges were a diplomatic move; now pandas are only loaned to other countries for 10 years
- Baby pandas are tiny, about 1/900th of their mother’s size – the largest mother/child size difference among mammals.
- Some conservations think that panda conservation is a waste of money because there is “not enough habitat left to sustain them". “The panda is, unfortunately, virtually unsavable. It lives in the most overpopulated country in the world, it feeds on plants when it ought to be eating partially meat, it transfers all sorts of nasty diseases among itself, it tastes nice and it’s got a coat that looks good on someone’s back".
We took a bus back into town and ended up right near a recommended Sichuan 小吃 (snack) restaurant. It was crazy busy and chaotic in there but I managed to order food and it magically came to our table, so that was cool. It was fun to try about 15 different things without having to eat a lot of any one thing.
The restaurant was in a cool part of town, just off a pedestrian mall that was just packed with people. We liked the area even more after finding a donut shop! They had beautiful donuts and the 6 that we tried were delicious.
We got to watch them make the donuts, too, which we decided is the second best job in the world.
I looked at their list of flavors after eating, though, and I don’t understand how this place that creates such wonderful things could also create something as evil as a seaweed or meat floss biscuit. That is just not right.
For a change, we went back to the hotel in the afternoon to rest before heading out in the evening. After a nice nap, we went back to Tianfu Square in the middle of town. Dad got to see Mao for the first time, and we got to see the area lit up at night.
All the fountains were on, and even dancing to the music; it was really beautiful.
We stopped for dinner at a 兰州拉面 restaurant. 拉面, or “pulled noodles” are a specialty of northeastern China – Xinjiang and Gansu provinces – which are populated largely by Muslims (the Uighur people you hear about on the news). It’s one of my favorite foods and almost like a chain in China, as Uighur food everywhere is pretty much the same – delicious noodles with beef or lamb.
Dad wanted a picture with the owner, which is pretty funny when you know that the guy grabbed his butt while it was being taken.
Back by our hotel, we stopped at a little convenience store to get ice cream. When we got to our room and opened them, though, we discovered that one of the containers had melted and lost most of its ice cream. We nearly dismissed it as a lost cause, but in the end decided to go back down to the store and ask for a new one. Surprisingly, the worker immediately told us to just get another, which means . . . there are take-backs in China!