Cuddle me... you know you want to!

Trip Start Sep 01, 2010
Trip End Jun 18, 2011

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Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It seems like all we have been doing since we arrived in China is riding around on buses and trains; since we arrived only a week and a half ago we have already been on 2 over-night trains and 3 long-haul bus rides. And now we were due to face our longest ever journey: 20 hours on the train from Kunming to Chengdu. Our train left at 6:30pm and arrived at 2:20pm the following day and we'd booked two hard sleeper beds; the other four people in our cabin where very sweet and we managed to say hello to them even though they didn’t speak a word of English and our Mandarin hasn’t improved drastically enough to enable any kind of conversations. But armed with my MP3 player, a couple of books and some crackers we managed to get through the journey very well indeed.

Our next destination is called Chengdu and we had not originally planned to come here. However once we found out that our train journey was going to be 36 hours long we decided to add in a couple of days in Chengdu just to break the journey up. As far as short stops go Chengdu is probably one of the best places we could have picked as it is home to China’s Giant Panda Breeding Research Center and Sanctuary. There used to be a huge population of Giant Pandas in China but due to the destruction of their habitat and hunting they’re numbers are so low that they are now considered critically endangered; there are only 1500 left in the wild and 500 in captivity. The Pandas are considered to be one of China’s national emblems and there is a lot of work being done to try and save the Giant Panda from extinction; however the odds seem to be stacked against these amazing animals: they are solitary animals, they only have a window of 2 days per year within which to mate with each other, a mother panda can only care for one baby at a time, they only eat bamboo (which is not very nutritional) and the reproductive organs of the male and females don’t actually fit each other very well. All in all it seems that evolution hasn’t been too kind to the Giant Panda. So we were really excited at the prospect of getting to see some pandas before it is too late and these beautiful animals are lost forever.

We’re only in Chengdu for two nights and in all honesty our first impression of the city wasn’t great; it is really smoggy and polluted, everyone seems very miserable and the weather is awful. Our hostel is okay but the staff are really dopey and quite rude; the only saving grace for Chengdu is that there is a French supermarket around the corner which has our favourite noodles on special offer and that the bar at the hostel sells cheap beers and let you borrow DVDs for free. All in all we are quite happy to spend the majority of our time in Chengdu either visiting the pandas , cuddled up in our room watching movies or in the bar with a cheap beer in hand.

On our second day in the city we headed out to the Panda Center on a tour organized through the hostel. Whilst waiting in the car park we had a nice surprise when we bumped into two people whom we have met whilst traveling: Tony who we first met in Dali and Hans, Alexandra and their two kids who we met back in Lijiang. It was a very nice way to start the day! The whole reason we had come on an organized tour was so we could arrive at the centre early enough to see the pandas being fed; after they have eaten their breakfast they tend to get quite sleepy and you don’t really see much of them past 10am. The weather was really drizzly and grey but we all headed into the huge park and followed our guide to the first enclosure. We had no idea of how close we would get to the pandas, so we were very surprised when we rounded the corner and found ourselves no less than 10 feet away from a group of four baby pandas having their breakfast! They really are magnificent animals. Even though they are very tough little animals and can break through bamboo with their teeth and hands like they are twigs, there is still something so cute and cuddly about them… it doesn’t matter that they are wild animals; you just want to hug them! The pandas were lounging around on their mats, discarding the leftover bamboo leaves all over their bellies and munching away quite contentedly. Seeing them so closely and hearing them chewing their breakfast-bamboo it is difficult to believe that you are looking at a critically endangered animal. It is almost impossible to believe that if my own nieces and nephews where ever to come to China in the future, these pandas might not exist anymore. When you see them with your own eyes it is a hard fact to stomach.

During our morning at the centre we got to see about 20 Giant Pandas ranging in age from about one year to ten. We also got the chance to see some Red Pandas and listen to a very funny (and annoying) Chinese woman decide that she could talk to the Red Pandas and convince them to pose for photographs. Yes, she probably was clinically insane, but she was certain that she could speak to the pandas and then got very upset when they chose to ignore her: her excuse was that they didn’t understand her because she was speaking in a dialect which the pandas didn’t understand (Tom compared her to that scene in Finding Nemo when Dory thinks that she can speak 'Whale’). The younger pandas were all kept in enclosures together, however pandas are very solitary animals so when they mature they have to be kept in individual enclosures (which is one of the reasons why breeding pandas is so difficult as each panda needs a huge enclosure all to itself and the centre just doesn’t have enough room). One of the adult pandas which we saw had started its life from very tiny beginnings; it was the smallest baby panda the centre had ever bred and was only the size of a human thumb when it was born. Looking at the panda rolling around on the floor munching through a huge pile of bamboo it was hard to believe it had ever been so small! Towards the end of our day at the centre we were offered the chance to hold a baby panda… the only catch was that you had to make a £100 donation to the centre. We umed and awed over it but decided that we couldn’t afford such a big donation, so instead we made a very nice deposit at the souvenir shop instead where I bought the world’s cutest panda hat which has ears on it and everything! The funniest part of the whole day was that when we looked back at our photos, and particularly the videos we have taken of the pandas eating, we realized that they don’t actually look like real animals… they look more like men wearing panda costumes. You’ll have to believe us when we tell you that they really are real-life pandas!

The following day we were due to catch our next train; we were heading 16 hours north again to the city of XiŠn. Our train wasn’t until 10pm so we spent the day at a local Buddhist monastery where we drank copious amounts of green tea and wandered through the beautiful gardens and temples. Later in the evening we headed down to the train station and caught our train to XiŠn. The crowds at the station where incredible and at one point we were nearly crushed to death by a stampede of over 400 Chinese people trying to squeeze their way through a (closed) ticket counter. I do love the audacity of some Chinese people though; we watched one lady walk straight from the back of the queue (which had grown to about 500 people by this time) and push her way right to the front and then just stood there looking proud as punch for having made it to the front. Fair play to her, she nearly got trampled on but she stood her ground and was one of the first people on the train! I guess when all else fails just stick your elbows out and keep pushing forward until you can’t go any further. It certainly seems to work in China! 
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