While Sichuan has untold historic and cultural treasures, there is one stop that is a must for every visitor. You cannot fully appreciate the nature of this region until you make a trip to see the Giant Pandas. While China is a country that evokes dozens of images – The Forbidden City, red lanterns, ornate opera costumes, Terracotta Warriors – I can’t think of anything more iconic than those big black and white fur balls. And on this my last day in Chengdu and on perhaps my final trip to Sichuan, the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Base was the obvious way to spend the morning.
The word “base” evokes anything but an animal farm in English. I hear it and I think “military” as I imagine most people do. That or baseball. When my friend Ben used it as the descriptor I figured it was a subtlety of translation. But no, that is the name for whatever reason they chose it. We left my hotel after breakfast and headed across town. The weather was once again completely overcast, the little bit of sun we’d seen the day before had failed in its attempt to burn through whatever makes Chengdu skies so gray. Traffic was heavy and I was glad we were going to the closer of the two centers. One site is far out of town in the foothills and I imagine much harder to locate. Of course “find” is a relative term in China unless your destination is a tall building clearly visible for miles around. This place was said to be adjacent to a major highway on the far side of town so we thought it would be a straight shot. Plus we had Ben’s wife’s cousin along and she’d been there at least once. Well, it’s always good to have an informed member in your party because in China they are very useful for getting out of the car to ask questions.
It had been very slow going due to a combination of traffic and construction when we took what we thought to be the correct exit. We found ourselves in the middle of the biggest wholesale fruit market in Chengdu which although not our destination, was pretty interesting in its own right. Hundreds of trucks were pulling into endless rows of long corrugated steel buildings to unload their goods. The area seemed to be arranged by type of fruit, individual warehouses for apples, oranges, pears and all those other fruits known only to the Chinese. While Ben and the cousin were trying to figure out where we were, I was staring out the window wishing I could stop and buy a basket of tangerines. Individual vendors riding special three-wheeled bicycles with a big wooden platform on the front were lined up shoulder to shoulder along the curb, each bike holding a bright pyramid of fruit. I almost asked if we could stop when I went past a pile of the biggest Satsuma oranges I have ever seen but we were on a mission and so I simply enjoyed the view. When the road ran out we stopped to ask directions from a couple of fruit truck drivers. It seemed that we had done nothing worse than having taken an exit too soon. After a U-turn and a second pass by all the beautiful citrus, we were back on our way.
I’ve been to a number of zoos in China and they have varied from horribly pathetic to almost acceptable. The start of this place was not auspicious – a weedy shabby parking lot followed by a long walk down a lane along a concrete wall that was painted with now faded and chipped cartoonish depictions of Pandas. After the customary argument about who was going to pay (the cousin won) we went inside. Some people were selling panda hats and scarves on the island in the middle of the road outside the front gate.
Once inside, my worry that the place would turn out to be a dump was washed away – the grounds were beautiful. Pin neat paved paths led off from a main street into damp bamboo forests, a simulation of how these wonderful animals live in their natural habitat. The weather was cooperating in the artifice too – a faint mist had descended on us. For a moment you could almost believe you were high up in the forested foothills of the Himalayas. After a review of a decent display map we chose to head off in the direction of the juveniles and we hit the jackpot at the first enclosure we came to – a pair of big brutes passed out on a log platform while one of their pals was spread out on its back below, gorging on bamboo shoots. In a place like this you take a lot of photos of the first animals you see because you have no idea how many you’ll find down the road. As I stood there taking shot after shot a young woman tapped me on the arm and said, “excuse me” and asked,” aren’t you the person who sat across from us at the mushroom hot pot restaurant last night?” I turned around and sure enough it was the family we’d been discussing over dinner (see last blog, western woman, Chinese man and two daughters.) I laughed and said “yes” and she replied “I guess you love the Pandas as much as we do.” I agreed and they walked away smiling.
We went on to the nursery where we found a big male sitting outside no more than 10 feet away. More pictures and then inside to see actual babies – 8 or more cocker spaniel sized cubs rolling around in a human baby playpen. I tried to swap lenses on my camera but a guard cautioned me that pictures were not allowed. Ben asked why and the answer was “flash” but he was not budging even when I assured him that I did not have one. I was sorry that I could only save this moment in memory because they were so cute and special.
There was a sign out front that listed the quantity of animals on display. The total for our visit was 53 so Ben and I started to keep count as we wandered around for the next few hours. I’ve seen Pandas at our National Zoo and the zoos in San Diego and Beijing. Seeing a pair of them is special and I though seeing six of them in the capital city was extraordinary. But as our count approached 40, I began to be embarrassed by the wealth. The park was essentially empty, deserted by Chinese standards, and the animals were so close and accessible. Sometimes they were eating; sometimes they were stretched out asleep on a concrete pad or hanging in a tree. It seemed that you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing a Panda. The coup de grace though came at the farthest reaches of the park – 10 adolescents lounging around in a big treed pen waiting for the caretakers to throw them lunch. They sat together in little knots eating and visiting in whatever language they speak. It was incredible to stand there so close and be ignored by them. In the end our count came close to 50, a thorough job of seeing all of them.
Pandas down, it was off to lunch at a place called The Bookworm, a bookstore cum coffee shop cum restaurant. It was this kind of place that always made me question my burning desire to put China behind me. Ben and I sat and talked and enjoyed cup after cup of coffee and a sandwiches. A place like this is so nice that you could see yourself spending all your spare time there when not immersed in your expat work. Nice thought, but probably not a true depiction of life in these parts; here the highlights always seem so capable of making you forget about your daily life.
Dinner this night was at a local place owned by a family friend that specialized in eel and frog dishes. The food was spectacular, even the eel which I’ve never eaten outside of a sushi restaurant and even then only grudgingly because it’s far from being a favorite. While it didn’t look very pretty, it was remarkably tasty. The restaurant was a very loud and busy - more like a giant family party than a café. Friends of Sahsa’s showed up and sat with us. They had an incredibly cute and precocious early teenaged daughter with them who tried hard to entertain us. It seemed as though everyone knew everyone else and I suspect that was the case as it always is with these neighborhood joints. Next up was a frog dish which was interesting as well. I’ve had bullfrog many times in China, always chopped up and stir fried with some complement of vegetables. This time the frogs were whole and they looked a lot like little pale yellow headless people. One of those dishes that you cannot look at too long, you have to simply dive in and of course I did and they were delicious. Last dish of the evening was a steaming stew of rabbit stomachs - I guess the last part of those little fellows that I had not tried. Served with a spicy red sauce laden with red chiles, they were about the size of a quarter and they reminded me of those rubber grapes that grandmas across the land had in bowls on their dining room tables while I was growing up. The only difference was these had two holes instead of one.
The last stop on my cultural tour of Chengdu was Club Muse, a well-heeled disco in the heart of an entertainment district. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a bar and I guess that this was a nice introduction to how far they’ve come since I last went to one. Essentially a prix fixe deal, you buy a very expensive (minimum 100USD bottle of something ,we chose scotch) and grab a table (if you’re as well connected as we are) and put your cell phones in a specially designed Plexiglas stand (so you won’t miss a call) and sit back and enjoy the sights. The music was absolutely deafening and the cigarette smoke choking. If you wanted to dance you got up and did so by your table since the place had no dance floor. A drunken man across from us tried this and fell over backwards, breaking a lot of glasses and a table. Unbelievably there was a ten or twelve year old girl in that party. She would get up and dance with what I assume to be her parents. I thought about her ears and her lungs.
Every twenty minutes or so a live act would come on a tiny stage in the center of the mass of bobbing humanity, sort of a dark version of American Idol. The first was a young woman who belted out some Chinese pop tunes. The next act was a young man and woman, dressed in black leather lederhosen, who performed some strange modern dance moves to techno music. A waiter cautioned me about taking pictures, I wondered if the flash was going to bother the performers. Below me was a table full of young women, some western, dressed in traditional cheongsam and with lots of flowers in their hair. They spent their time posing for pictures and drinking champagne. After an hour or so Susu decided that she’d had enough and offered to drive me back to the hotel. I said my goodbyes to Ben and Sahsa, knowing that this was almost certainly the last time I would see them. They were so wonderful to me, taking the time to put this little journey together and showing me the most incredible hospitality. You only meet truly great people a few times in your life and I was certainly lucky to become friends with them. On the way out I managed to lose sight of Susu and ended up lost in the sea of partyers. I found a waiter and I was at and all that language study finally paid off - I knew how to shout “exit” in Chinese.
Monday morning dawned surprisingly gray. Susu picked me up and drove me to the airport. We said our goodbyes and I thanked her for a wonderful vacation. I was there early and so I had some time to wander around, recalling my last time through here on the way to Tibet. On that day I had to endure extra security – they made me take my shoes off. Today it was just a simple Chinese pat down.
The flight to Beijing took 2 hours. I sat next to a young woman working on her resume. It was in English and she was touting her language skills. The problem was that the grammar and spelling were so very bad that I almost considered helping her. But I was eavesdropping and thought the better of it. We flew on together, daydreaming and butchering my mother tongue.