The one thing you MUST do in Chengdu, China
Pandas. That’s why most people come to Chengdu. There are less than 2000 of them left in the wild and the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research base is one of the few places you can see them. Understandably, it is on many tourist itinerary, with some people visiting this town purely for the chance to gawk at these endearing and rare creatures.
When the centre opens at 7.30 am there are just a handful of visitors clustered around the ticket office. Once inside, the park is expansive and green, a world away from the hustle and bustle found amongst the neon lights and shopping centres of central Chengdu. Its not immediately clear which way to go, but we soon spot a pile of bamboo in the corner of an enclosure. We hover expectantly and within just a few minutes we are rewarded with our first sighting of one of these endangered creatures. An adult male Panda pads gently out of his house, sniffing the braches lining the floor of his enclosure, searching for the food he knows is close by.
Spotting the pile of bamboo, he plonks himself down mere meters from us and begins devouring his breakfast. He picks each stick up in his paws, handling them with remarkably human co-ordination. He cracks them between his back teeth, shredding off the dry brown skin to reach the juicy green innards. There is great purpose in every action as he bites with his back right teeth, then his back left, alternating without fail. He is fully focused on his task – eating enough of the low nutrition bamboo to give him the energy he needs. Seeing a creature like this in the flesh and so close before your eyes is almost surreal. Having seen them on television programs and in photographs as a symbol of the pressing need to work against their extinction, it’s almost hard to believe you are seeing one in the flesh. But there he is in front of you, as real and solid as anything, chomping through an immense stack of food.
One of the main attractions here are the giant panda cubs. Big despite their age, they live together here rather than being the solitary creatures they would in the wild. This increases the chance of future mating and allows visitors to witness their interaction. As they are younger they have more energy so there is more to entertain the casual observer. Seven of these large cubs are out in their pen when we reach them, all happily munching away. One is lying stretched flat out on his back as he shreds bamboo into his mouth – apparently sitting up to eat is too much effort. A few of the others are sitting, bits of bamboo littering their protruding stomachs as they loll about. One of them gets bored and lumbers off, climbing over the back of the wooden frame they play on. But then, half suspended in the air, he changes his mind and tries to get back up. However, as he scrabbles with his paws two of his companions contribute a few downwards shoves in the wrong direction. Playful and funny, the cubs are a popular attraction. With a heavy gait, portly physique and an engaging nature it would be easy to spend hours watching and smiling as they bumble their way through the day.
The nursery is, understandably, another big draw. Here you can see panda cubs at just a few months old lying sleepily in their playpen. Tiny and squirming, they are quite a contrast to the rotund, healthy 3 year olds you can see play-fighting nearby. These little bundles are blind and unable to walk. The smallest two are about one month old and they lie immobile, content to doze the days away. The bigger two are more active: one in particular is constantly squirming, kicking his tiny arms and legs and sliding around the polished wood on his stomach. A clear troublemaker, he goads the smaller ones, even boxing them in the head a few times with his paw to get attention. They don’t stir however, so he goes back to wriggling spread-eagled around the play pen.
They also have red pandas here – an unrelated, racoon like creature whose wild numbers have dropped to just 10,000. While not as endangered as the giant panda, they are still rare enough to provide novelty for the crowds of tourists pulsing round the park. With burnished tangerine fur and long ringed tails, these small creatures are easy to spot slumbering in the branches above us. One of them stalks through the under growth, finds a hole in the wire netting that separates him from the visitors and boldly struts along the wooden boardwalk, weaving around the ankles of surprised tourists. They are said to be fierce but they seem un-perturbed by our presence. It’s interesting to see the contrast between the two species when presented so close together.
As we leave the park at the end of the day, we happen to wander past the cub enclosure one last time. Having heard that the pandas are usually asleep by early afternoon, we are surprised to see some activity. One of the cubs is padding around his enclosure following a piece of food hanging from a stick. The keeper is trying to use it to lure him inside, where the other pandas are all sleeping for the night. Before long, however, the panda stops following. He sits down. The keeper waves the food, but to no avail – this panda cub has lost interest. He pads into the bushes. Despite the frustrated call of the keeper, he climbs a tree and settles down for the night. Eventually, everyone gives up on him. This rebellious two year old settles down contentedly, in his tree. It’s quite simple really. He can relax now. He has won.
Witnessing the character and individuality of these creatures drives home the important message of conservation that is the bottom line of this centre. The extinction of any creature is a huge loss to our world. Diversity is what makes us great, it is what teaches us and expands our consciousness. For every species we lose we let go of something incredibly special. Every loss is a tragic one.
Its absolutely worth arriving here early. It is open from 7.30 – 18.00, and when we arrived at 06.50, there were already a few people queuing. However, once they start telling tickets it doesn’t take long to get through and into the park. The main bonus of arriving at this time is to see the first feeding session at 8am, and without the mosh-pit like crowds jostling at your elbows. We headed straight to the cub enclosure, which you can reach by taking the path straight in front of you when you enter the park. If you spot a pile of bamboo in an enclosure its worth stopping and waiting as it generally means that very soon a panda will arrive and plonk himself down right by the pile of food! Another bonus of getting there early is that the pandas tend to sleep in the afternoon and are more active in the morning. The afternoon is a good time to re-visit the cubs as their age means they don’t nap as much and are still entertaining visitors long after the adults have curled into rhythmically heaving balls! The nursery with the very small pandas operates on a queue system, with security guards there to hurry people along. It doesn’t give you much time to look at them or take photos, but the line was very short when we were there so we went round a few times. You can pay extra to go on a golf cart tour around the various enclosures, but it is much more enjoyable to stroll along through the greenery, past the placid lakes and the shady tree tunnels on foot. Its not so big that this is impractical, though it isn’t laid out in a straightforward circle so its inevitable that you will end up taking a bit of a haphazard route. There are a couple of eating options for different budgets, though obviously more expensive than elsewhere in the city. If you really want to save consider bringing lunch with you. The centre is located 10k north of the city centre. The easiest way there is by taxi, as the buses take long routes through the city and often get stuck in traffic. The taxi’s have a flag fall of 8CNY in the day (9CNY at night) and then a further 1.9CNY after that. It cost us around 30 CNY total. The journey takes between half an hour to 45 minutes. Its a good idea to ask for your taxi receipt as this has an identification number, which can be helpful if you accidentally leave something behind in the cab. Entrance fee is 59Y per person. How long you spend is up to you – you can definitely see it all in half a day, but we stayed from opening time till they locked us out, and we loved every minute!
Words copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe.
Photographs copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe and Liam McCarthy.