Monday, 14 November 2011

Cute, fluffy eating machines: Pandas in Sichuan

Another overnight train - this time a 16 hour journey - and we found ourselves in the Sichuan district, known primarily for spicy food and those cute black and white beasties - pandas. We were determined that any trip to China would involve these lovely animals (and F was rather keen on the spicy food too), and being quite anti-zoo - particularly anti Beijing zoo from what we'd heard, our only option was a considerable detour out west.

Chengdu as a city was a real surprise. Modern and bustling, it was also friendly and welcoming. Within minutes of getting out at our subway stop and trying (and failing) to decipher the small and outdated map we had, someone had stopped to offer help and we were back on our way.

Grateful to stretch our legs after the long train ride, we hopped on the local bus to the panda research centre around an hour outside of the city. As with all places that use 'enclosures', we weren't sure what to expect, but had read good reviews of the centre and were keen on their policy of breeding for re-introduction to the wild. The centre was huge, with very generous outdoor enclosures for each panda mimicking their natural environment as best they can. One of the keepers told us they ship in around 5 tonnes of bamboo a week from a relatively nearby farm, with the adult pandas eating up to 40kg a day!

The pandas were lovely - munching constantly on their food and playing around in the brief breaks between consumption and sleeping. After a couple of hours we had to leave to catch the last bus back to the city, but arranged to come back the following morning spending a day on the 'keeper program'.

Bright and early the next day we were back, and after some information about the centre from our guide, kitted up in protective gear and helped with the morning feeding and cleaning of the indoor enclosure spaces. Weighing the panda poo was an interesting experience - the keepers have to monitor the food intake of each panda, and the easiest way to do so is to see how much comes out the other end. The high fibre content means the poo doesn't smell at all, which was a very good job as despite the protective clothing I still managed to get it all up my trousers...

After a morning's hard work, we had a break for lunch and were then given a guided tour, spotting the baby (and very tiny) pandas out on a blanket for a bit of sun, and the gorgeous russet coloured red pandas with their huge bushy tails. Stocking up on panda toys for just about every young child we know, we finished the day and headed back to the bus stop. And that's when things went a bit wrong. After our great experience with the bus the day before, we had committed the ultimate travel faux pas and forgotten to bring along the Chinese version of our hostel name. After an hour and a half of waiting for the bus, most of the other Chinese visitors had grabbed taxis or found lifts, and we were stuck. No bus, and no way of communicating with the taxi drivers (despite multiple attempts). We were beginning to wonder which patch of ground would be the warmest to spend the night when a Thai visitor and his friend who by complete chance happened to be staying in the same hostel as us (and the name written down) offered to share a ride - friendly strangers who offered us a bit of a lifeline!

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