Panda-hunting in southwest China

Trip Start Feb 29, 2004
Trip End Nov 24, 2004

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Thursday, September 2, 2004

... in which the author hears a panda giggle and discovers the pleasures of Chinese train travel...


After flying from Lhasa, the western city of Chengdu gave me my first glimpse of life in China proper. Considered the westernmost civilised place before the barbaric areas start, Chengdu in comparison to many other Chinese cities is a pleasant one. The guidebook notes that it was considered a bad place to live by most Chinese, until the political detainees who were sent there in the 1960s and 70s refused to come back to the east coast cities after the persecutions stopped.

Capital of Sichuan province, it's a wealthy city with some of the fieriest food in the country, many old traditional teahouses where you can sit sipping tea all day, and a relaxed attitude to life in general. Motorbikes are banned to combat the pollution which can be bad, and there's still a huge number of people getting around by bicycle. Maybe a fifth of these bicycles are funky electric ones used mostly by women, zooming along noiselessly, and often equipped with a very nifty umbrella holder to help keep the sun and rain off your head (why don't they sell those in Holland? I've been soaked by rain so often).

Unfortunately, it's a relentlessly modern place, with skyscraper-lined boulevards leading to the main square where Mao's huge statue waves to the traffic jam of commuters thinking of the big television they'll buy next. Sprinkled between the modern stuff are a few old temple complexes, some teahouses (all closed during Mao's years as drinking tea was considered bourgeois) and a shrinking number of hutongs - old residential areas that are quickly being bulldozed to make place for more malls. The main pedestrianised shopping streets reminded me more of Europe than anything I've seen until now this trip. It could have been a city centre street in any prosperous modern Dutch or German city, except for the proportion of Asians walking around. In the end the Chinese are just like us - all they want is a good life, a TV, a car and children going to university, and here they were, all shopping like mad.

Just west of Chengdu is the range of mountains that is home to the last wild pandas on the planet. Pandas somehow have acquired the image of being cute, friendly cuddly animals, most probably because of the black marks over their eyes and their slow movements. Deforestation combined with the Chinese habit to eat everything that moves have nearly culled all pandas, but nowadays thanks to a incredibly expensive rescue programme, Chengdu can cash in on the tourist-income related to the bears.

The hostel I was at organises a daily trip to the Chengdu panda research and breeding centre, north of town, which has a dozen pandas in captivity. The bears live in large, green compounds, and perfectly happy to being photographed a million times per day. We had to leave very early - the pandas get fed bamboo in the morning and, like me, once they're stuffed with food they don't like to move much for the rest of the day. The skies were grey when we set off in the hostel bus, which is a good sign when visiting a major sight in China - threat of rain keeps a significant of the Chinese visitors away.

As the pandas are such high-profile animals (adopted to be the World Wildlife Fund mascotte), the park gets plenty of attention and foreign visitors, so the Chinese go out of their way to make the experience a good one. Still, I was surprised to see a rack of maybe 30 umbrellas at the entrance, which visitors could use for *free* (an underused word in China). Unfortunately the sleepy staff could not find the key to the rack that prevented theft, so I ended up walking in the pouring rain between the panda compounds after all.

Unlike many things Chinese, the park is well layed out, with nice paths curling between clumps of high bamboo forest surrounding ten compounds (concrete pens with large forested green areas for the bears to romp around in). In the first one I came to, a giant panda was just being fed. A warden threw a bundle of bamboo across the moat to a truly large panda, who sat spread-legged down next to them, leaned backwards and contentedly started chewing at the leaves. A cute and unknown feature of pandas is that their tails curl around their essential parts when they lounge backwards for a relaxed meal, keeping the photos decent. This particular panda seemed to be happy - he even attempted a growl, which came out more like a purr.

After watching a few other giant pandas, I trumped off through increasing rain to the place where red pandas roam. These aren't related to the giant variety, but cute nevertheless, looking more like raccoons. Unlike giant pandas, they're hyperactive and run around all the time, making for more interesting viewing.

The rain drove me to the visitor centre, where a museum and a documentary film tried to enlighten us about the mystical beasts. It seems strange that pandas are still with us today, as they don't make it easy on themselves when it comes to trivial things like staying alive and reproduction. Pandas as we know them today are survivors of a period of mass extinctions during the climate change two million years ago - though I was wondering if it wouldn't have been easier for everyone involved if they had gone down with the others when the party finished. They have trouble with nearly all aspects of staying alive. If the WWF would have any heart, it would shoot all remaining pandas to relieve them from their evolutionary anguish. Here's why:

a) For starters, they are originally carnivores that at one point in history switched diet to plants. Not just any plant, but only bamboo. And not just old bamboo, but just one type, unfortunately one that dies off for a month or two every year, leaving the bears without any food they like.
b) Then there's the panda's digestive system, that after millions of years of evolution is still completely unsuited to eating bamboo. Of all the bamboo they eat, only 2% gets digested. Let me repeat that - only two percent of what they eat actually benefits them. The rest just gets pooped out as chunks of bamboo. As a result, the panda has to eat huge amounts of bamboo every day and spends 13 hours per day eating. As a result, pandas have to be careful with energy, and spend the remaining 11 hours of the day sleeping or at most moving around slowly.
c) When it comes to the birds and the bees, pandas are shysters and have immense troubles finding a nice partner to do cool stuff with. Living far apart, the often don't meet any other pandas at all.
d) If by chance two pandas do meet and hit it off, their possibility of producing any offspring is limited by the fact that the male panda's penis is pretty short (a problem, I'm told, that many Chinese human males share though I'm in no position to comment), and that the female panda's vulva is pretty long. In short, the panda's social life sucks.
e) If everything works out well despite the above, there's the next problem: birth. Baby pandas are so small at birth that the pandas don't even notice they are pregnant until the big moment, and researchers also still have to find a method of knowing there's a little one on the way. Until their firstborn, female pandas have never seen a baby panda, and in the documentary we saw 'unique footage' of a panda birth - a pink squiggly thing falls out of a surprised panda munching on some tasty bamboo leaves - followed by the alarm of the mother, who jumps up and starts whacking the ugly thing on the floor, not realising it's her baby. A researcher has to run in to the cage to save the baby, risking being hit by the panda as well. Only when pandas get their second or third baby do they learn not to panic after giving birth.
f) You may think the panda ordeal is over, but then there's the shockingly low survival rate of baby pandas - the majority doesn't live long enough to become a true giant panda.

Pandas look cute though, and that's what's saved them from extinction now.

The panda museum held another interesting fact; these bears were only really 'discovered' by the outside world in the late 19th century, and in the 1920s-30s they were popular hunting fodder. And among the wealthy foreigners who came to blast the bears from the bamboo were Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt, whose name later was given to all cuddly teddy bears the world round (sic), and his brother Kermit (sic sic).

OK, Enough about pandas.


Two hours drive south of Chengdu, on the wild confluence of two rivers, is the town of Leshan, pronounced something like leu-shuw. Leshan would have sunk into darkest anonimity, had it not been for some enterprising monks a few thousand years ago, who hacked the world's largest Buddha statue out of the riverside cliffs, and the presence of a reputedly less unkind visa office.

Mika and I were still lodged together on the damn Tibetan group visa, and had to do something about it fast, or get fined or kicked out of China. We'd already heard that the PSB ('Public security bureau') in Chengdu were unwilling to entertain anything that would lead to avoidable work, so we didn't even bother going there. A guy in our hostel had succesfully approached the PSB in Leshan so we thought we'd give it a go while we were visiting the Buddha.

We had been warned before to forget about it if the office was staffed by a woman in her thirties - any woman in her thirties. These women, in a position of bureaucratical power, are known to be the bitchiest, meanest beings around. Sure enough, there was one glowering at us when we entered the gleaming marble PSB office early in the morning after a swift trip along an amazingly modern highway. She listened to our problem (Tibetan group visa - need to split or both leave on the same day - wiling to pay - etc), and then, without looking up from her game of minesweeper on the brand new computer explained to us in good English (pretty unique) that no way, sorry, not possible. Please leave China. This pissed me off to no extent, and quoting my friend who had done it before ('maybe you are lying about this friend') and telling her it's not possible in Lhasa or Chengdu ('maybe you never entered China from Nepal') the stupid cow just walked off. In the meantime, while ten animated minutes passed, her boss (male, hurrah!) walked past. I asked for his help, and he patiently listened and suggested 'well, in that case we could just split you off the group visa'. The magic words. To save face, they charged me double the going rate but I was happy to get a de facto extension sticker in my passport, while Mika could keep the group visa to cross into Laos. The woman fumingly was set to work on my beautiful new sticker, and we left with a polite grin on our faces. The Free World vs China: 1-0.

The Buddha was amazing. Seventy metres high, hacked out by thousands of artisans millenia ago and set in a huge tropical park with temples and villages, it was still complacently staring out over the rivers' confluence and saving ships from disasters. Before noon it was surprisingly quiet in the park. It's good we arrived in the early morning - the heat and humidity got pretty bad as the day proceeded, and when I returned to the statue just before the bus carted us off again, there were at least 500 tourists herded together in the typical chrome-tube queueing lines, waiting for their turn to be on a unique photo with the statue.


Testing Chinese intercity transport for the first time, I took a nighttrain fron Chengdu south to the rather horrific industrial town of Panzhihua, with a connecting 10-hour bus ride to reach Lijiang, a town high up in the western Yunnan province.

Train travel in China, while not as diverting as in India, is pretty interesting. Gettinb the ticket is the most difficult part of the trip. In India, you can book tickets for any route, for any class, months in advance in the convenient booking offices or online using a credit card (even with free courier delivery within India).

China, despite its great leaps forward in information technology is still stuck in 1987. You can only purchase a ticket from a certain desk at the station you are leaving from, and only a three days before the trip, which leads to huge pile-ups of people when the holidays hit. It's strange that a country that is so modern is so many ways fails miserably when it comes to the simple task of selling tickets that are already in a computerised system. Thankfully, the Chinese are lazy last-minute travellers and there's often a seat for the intrepid foreigner who plans a day ahead. But unfortunately, the system Chinese-only, and sometimes you face a cashier who not only can't speak any English, but who is also completely unwilling even to try to understand what you want, written down on a slip of paper or not. So then there are the travel agents and tourist cafes that are all to eager, for a surcharge of 'only' 30-80 yuan, to get the ticket for you.

Like everything in China, travelling by train has been regulated into a carefully controlled and sterile mass experience. Stations, even small ones, are run like airports, where passengers have to wait in special waiting rooms in front of the door with their train destination/number above it. About ten minutes before the train leaves, the doors open, and tickets are checked before anyone is allowed onto the platform. The people crammed at the front of the queue run off to the train quickly - they're the ones with unreserved seats instead of reserved beds, and they'll have to stand all night long if they're not quick enough. Guards make sure that you go to the correct platform and don't deviate. After relishing the chaos at Indian train stations, the empty platform comes as a shock: no ads, no kiosks, no vendors, no sleeping families, no noise, no scurrying porters, just a train with guards at each entrance. Once in the train, the conductor assigned to your carriage (unfailingly a miserable-looking young woman) swaps your ticket for a little plastic card, so that she knows when to wake up which passengers. I of course always manage to lose track of the stupid plastic thingy, leading to bumbling searches in the early morning. On arrival, you won't be allowed to leave the station platform into the relatively free world without showing the ticket, so better better not lose that either.

The conductor is basically your mother during the trip, so she and she only decides when the lights go out (22:30 usually, unannounced) and how loud the slushy intercom music is played (loud), when it gets turned on in the morning (06:00, why not) how the toilets are cleaned for the next stretch (bucket of water chucked inside) and when the get locked (half an hour before arriving at the destination, just when I need to go). Fabulous. There are no individual light switches for late-night reading, or doors to block out the terrible music - it's all part of the great Chinese group control thing. Submit yourself and be grateful.

In the sleeper carriages, you have the choice of hard sleeper (six beds in an open compartiment, with padded beds, comparable to European night trains except for the missing door) or soft sleeper (real matrasses in a closed a/c four-bed compartiment). Then there's also some very flashy double-decker a/c tourist trains, with four beds in each open compartiment. All in all, pretty good standards for spending the night.

Many travellers bring loads of food, whatever the time of day, and as hot water is always at hand (a standard thermos in a special rack) DIY noodle packets are popular. Once finished, all packaging (spoon, bowl & wrappers) just go out of the window.

Back to the trip. Transferring from Panzihua to the 08:30 bus to Lijiang was quite an adventure with no knowledge of Chinese nor any idea of where the bus would depart. After making it to the bus station finally I got the ticket (40 yuan for a 10 hour trip, not bad), bought some sweet rolls and enjoyed the ride. Otherwise than the average long-distance Indian bus journey, this one was over fabulously well built roads, with a good a/c bus and a break at a place serving great local food. I arrived actually feeling refreshed after 25 hours of travel, instead of a wreck like after bouncing through India. The landscape along the route was good - we ascended from the west Chinese plains up into the foothills of the Himalayas, with many deep, green valleys and isolated villages with 'typical' Chinese houses and bright green rice paddy fields. Lovely.


Next up: recycling goldfish and hiking through the world's nearly-deepest gorge.

Currently reading: "Wild Swans" by Jung Chan. A terrifying story, partly set in Chengdu, about the lives of three generations of women whose lives were determined and destroyed by Mao.
Stomach status: Really regretting drinking too much of that bottle of Nepali whisky.
Sign Of The Day: "Birds are our friends"; "Protect our heritage - hands off!" (Leshen Buddha park).
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