we rest in our clean room with our first Western shower. Nice!! We also got called at midnight asking if we wanted a massage. We guessed the call came from the strangely overdressed, overly made up women we met in the elevator earlier. As soon as women answered, these girls immediately hung up the phone. Oh to be a Western man traveling in Asia, the attention they attract. I meant to ask our male counterparts whether they were propositioned at this upscale hotel. Finally, after all the excitement, the next day we visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding for our Panda Adventure.
This center has had the most success breeding the panda in captivity, with 67 animals currently living at the base, the largest captive population in the world. Estimates of pandas living in the wild are from 1200 -1600, up in the mountains of Gansu, Shaanxi and Sichuan Provinces, all of which I visited on my travels through China. I did not see any pandas on my hikes, as I wasn't deep enough in the forests, where they hide. I was so excited to get to this research center, because I have known about it most of my life, having studied pandas in the 6th grade.
I think it is only due to the fact that pandas are so reclusive that they survived through all of China's human history. Most of China's native wildlife was hunted to extinction long ago. So I am thrilled and grateful to be going to see my favorite animal, the animal that as a 12 yr old and learning that the survival of their species was threatened, turned me into an environmentalist on the spot. I mean, I used to collect these guys. Stuffed animals, salt & pepper shakers, figurines, you name it. I was panda crazy. I still keep a little panda statue in my car, even now.
I wasn't allowed to take photos of the 6 newborn pandas we saw - yes just ridiculously cute - because it would hurt their eyes, but I took enough pictures to satisfy the most fanatical panda enthusiast. Me. I stayed at the park as long as possible, and could have stayed longer. I was able to look more than one panda in the eye.
I didn't pony up the extra cash to pose with a panda, and I still have mixed feelings about that. But at this center, you are very close to the animals, so I didn't feel like I was missing out at all. In fact, I felt like I was in panda heaven. Visit the pandas at http://www.panda.org.cn/english/index.htm
Getting to Chengdu is one of those stories reserved for long nights drinking in a dark bar in the middle of nowhere. Not in a good way. Tired, dirty and hungry after a marathon 7 and 1/2 hour journey, the hotel we were supposed to stay in the blink and you miss it town of Gou er Gou got a last minute tour group - I don't really know how this was possible in this out out of the way place, but that's what they told our leader. Maybe they just didn't like the look, or more appropriately, the smell of us. We end up in the only other place to stay in town. You know what they say about the rooms in the only place left in town?? This was no manger. I'm convinced Jesus himself would have gotten up and walked out. Dubbed "the Ass Hotel" by one of our companions, this place was like the setting of a murder scene in a bad movie. To accompany the dubious smell, our towels had blood, yep, blood on them. I had my own towel anyway and they did have hot water, so I took a shower in the weird, elevated bathtub/shower setup. The other problem was, this wasn't just the only place to stay, but the only place to get a meal. Now, we are a group of able bodied, well traveled folks here. This wasn't a group of pampered, over looked after tourists. But even we groaned when the hotel owners balked about having to cook for us. It seemed like they hadn't had guests in years. We wondered if this was some sort of front operation, but out here in the middle of nowhere?? We were mystified and grossed out, but mostly, damn hungry. The food finally came and it was nowhere near our newly elevated Tibetan standards. But we survived, because as if sent by God, we learned that this place was well stocked with Tsingtao, China's most famous beer. Once again, we drank ourselves out of this vexing problem. I've learned that with the unexpected twists to life on the road, sometimes, that's all you can do. We got on the road early the next morning, not getting out of the China Bates Motel fast enough, for yet another marathon road trip. Seven hours later we were rewarded with the nicest hotel so far, and it couldn't have come at a better time. We were also now in Szechuan province, famous for its spicy, tasty cuisine. We were stoked. After getting a great meal at the funky outdoor market,