I decided after my visit to Xi’an, China and the Terracotta Warriors not to attempt to write my travelogues after a long day of touring. Instead, I wanted to take notes on the tours and experiences. Once I returned home, I wanted to use the notes to create the travelogues and to review all of the photos which I had taken on the tours. My hope was to create a much better story. I am optimistic that my plan works.
On May 10th, I departed Xi’an, China on Shenzhen Airlines at 14:40. I arrived at the airport my usual 3 hours prior to my scheduled departure. I’m glad I did, because there were the usual hassles that I was becoming accustomed to flying in this region. The airline clerk stated that the baggage was over limits. However, I had documents that clearly stated that I was authorized to have that number of bags and more than that amount of weight. The clerk clearly didn’t want to confuse the issue with facts. It was supervisor time. It took him at least 20 minutes to stroll up to the counter and determine the problem. I showed him my documents which he reviewed up, down, and sideways. Finally, after 10 minutes of my pointing to the exact paragraphs, the supervisor made a “Command” decision to allow me to pass with my baggage.
Now for the next issue. I was flying to Xining, China to change airlines to Air China for my flight to Chengdu. You would think that checking my bags directly to Chengdu would be a normal procedure. Wrong, American flyer! I had to claim the bags and recheck them at Air China at a different terminal. There, I had to go through the same Kabuki dance of insisting that I was authorized the correct baggage! Luckily, the Air China folks quickly understood my situation and rapidly resolved the issue. I was on my way except for the usual delayed flight.
Chengdu, China is a major city in Western China and is the provincial capital of Sichuan. The actual population of Chengdu is 7.8 million, according to the 2016 census. As an urban agglomeration, it is the 5th most populated area in China with an overall population of over 14 million. The metro area covers approximately 1,760 sq. miles. I can’t emphasize enough how mind boggling the population of China is. The size of the crowds and traffic are truly hard to describe. Yet, Chengdu continues to grow and is projected to do so for the foreseeable future.
Chengdu is an industrial city and is home to over 31,000 companies. Over 250 of the Fortune 500 companies have branch offices in Chengdu. The city’s major industries are electronics, information technology, and finance. Chengdu’s heavier industries include automotive and military aviation manufacturing. Chengdu has another important industry and is the reason why I came to this remote city in Western, China. It is the home of the famous Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
I chose the Crown Plaza Panda Garden Hotel because the name implied that it was located near the Panda Research Center. Visiting the Center was my main purpose for coming to Chengdu. The hotel was very lovely, and I was given an upgraded room and club privileges. With the help of the concierge, I coordinated my pickup time for the next morning’s tour. After that, I went to the room to prepare for the tour and to get a good night’s sleep after a long day of hassle and travel.
The next morning, I had a huge breakfast. The hotel food was considered safe. However, as in most places in China, drinking the tap water was not advisable. The hotel provided an unlimited number of bottled waters and I used them. My son, Nick, had suggested that I have a huge breakfast in the morning. That meal may need to last me most of the day. The potential of visiting “safe” restaurants was uncertain. He was right. I carried Quest Protein bars as an additional safety measure.
It was 07:30 and I was happy that my driver was on time. A long, 90-minute drive through the Chinese countryside to the Panda Research Center lay ahead of us. I was grateful to be able to see the Chinese countryside as we passed through small towns and villages. I was impressed by the quality of the Chinese roads. They were in great condition and in much better shape than the Illinois toll roads. Speaking of toll roads, it was interesting to see that the Chinese have learned that aspect of capitalism. The major roads on which we traveled were toll roads. As we traveled down the highway, I would occasionally see a flash of light from a pole above the
road. I asked my driver if the photos were used to catch speeders? There seemed to be an unusual number of speeders because the flashes seemed almost constant. My guide explained that the photos were taken to determine if the cars were carrying criminals who were trying to escape from the law. It was a graphic example of the big brother aspect of China.
Shortly after 09:00, we arrived at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. This is a world class research facility designed to imitate the natural habitat of the Giant Panda. The purpose is to create the best possible environment for the breeding and rearing of one of China’s national treasures, the giant panda. Opened in 1987, the center began with 6 pandas. By 2008, there had been 124 panda births. Currently the 92-acre facility is home to 83 giant pandas, lesser pandas, and other endangered rare animals.
Once at the center, I joined a small group of people from all over the world to serve as volunteers at the Panda Base. Our purpose was to spend the day serving as volunteer helpers by preparing the bamboo food for the pandas, cleaning their cages, and actually feeding them. It was a fantastic opportunity to get up close and personal with the pandas. We were also going to have some great opportunities to get some amazing photos of the pandas, both in their cages and on the grounds of the center.
Joining our group of 10, I soon realized that there was one small problem. Three of us, including me, were over 65-years-old. The new policy prohibited us from working with the pandas. The new policy was unknown to me or my guide! My comment was that I was in better shape and could out work most of the millennials in the group. The other two seniors echoed my comments. I looked at my guide and told him that this was wrong and if I was not permitted to participate, I wanted a full refund! Those magic words got him to swing into action and the issue was soon resolved. I got full participation along with the other two seniors.
After signing a ream of paperwork and non-liability forms, we were given clothing (green panda polo shirts and a set of plastic work gloves) that identified us as volunteer workers. We went to work breaking up bamboo poles to feed the pandas. This was done by taking the 8 – 10-foot poles, holding them over one’s head and cracking and smashing the pole on the ground. This splintered the bamboo and made the poles easier to shred and break up for feeding the pandas. Once the pandas were allowed to move out into their yards, we swept out the panda cages and the surrounding areas. The reward for our labor was an up close (but not too close) interaction with the pandas. I actually got to feed the pandas, ever mindful that their claws were very real and very sharp. The high point of the day was sitting next to a baby panda, petting it, and having my picture taken with it.
Throughout the day, the “senior citizens” worked just as hard as anyone else and proved our metal! In fact, everyone carried their weight and worked equally hard. It was a fantastic experience! After the morning chores, we were permitted to roam the grounds on our own to take pictures or simply watch the pandas in their habitat. They loved to climb trees and rest on the larger limbs while eating bamboo. They also loved to play with each other. However, there always seemed to be a watchful eye from the official staff making sure that the pandas played well together and that there were no real problems.
After we had our lunch, we returned to the cage areas to do more bamboo shredding and feeding of the pandas. This was followed by the cleaning of the cages and the surrounding areas. It was definitely a busy work day but very rewarding.
There were several highlights of the day but the biggest one was when some of us, who had paid the extra fee, actually sat with a baby panda and petted it while having our picture taken. Sitting next to the baby panda, we both seemed comfortable with each other. I patted and petted the top of the panda’s head. The fur felt thick, soft, and slightly wiry. Ever mindful of the panda’s sharp claws and its unpredictability, I was very gentle and
quiet with the panda. All too soon, my turn was up and I had to yield my seat to another member of the team. I turned and watched the other members of the group enjoy the same wonderful experience that I just had. I realized just how fortunate I was. After all, how many people were able to sit elbow to elbow with a baby panda and pet it. I was truly grateful that I had made this journey.
After the photo session, we were permitted to roam the grounds taking pictures or just watching the pandas play until about 14:30. At that time, we gathered in a lecture hall on the second floor of the administration building. There, we watched a movie about the history of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and a project where the center introduced pandas that were born at the center into their natural environment far away from the center. The pandas are found only in the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu Provinces. It is estimated that there currently are fewer than 2,000 pandas in the world. About 70% of these are distributed within the territory of the Sichuan Province. Thus, the work at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is vital to the preservation and the perpetuation of the giant panda. It was a very impressive program!
After the movie, our group returned to the administrative section. There, we were permitted to keep our work polo shirts and given another lovely panda t-shirt as a souvenir. We were also given a nice certificate that commemorated that we had volunteered at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and had contributed to the preservation of the giant panda. The certificate is suitable for framing and it will be.
My driver was there to greet me at the end of the program and we proceeded to the car for our 90-minute-plus ride back to my hotel. It was going to be rush hour now and the travel time was expected to be considerably longer. However, before we started the long trek home, a stop at the gift shop was necessary. There, I purchased two small pandas, one for me and one for my special friend, Alexa. Since they wouldn’t allow me to take a real one home, this was the next best thing.
The long ride back to hotel was hampered by rush hour traffic. I munched on a Quest bar and drank bottled water that helped hold me over until I was able to get dinner. The trip was uneventful except that I got a text from Alexa worried that she hadn’t heard from me for a couple of days. Internet connections are almost non-existent at airports except in airline lounges. Due to the fact that I was dealing with the luggage issues, I didn’t have time to visit the lounges and to go on line. However, because I have T-Mobile, I have texting ability and limited data usage in China. Alexa’s concern prompted me to call her from the car. It was the middle of the night in Henderson, NV. I assured her that I was well. Our brief conversation lasted about 6 minutes. I recently received the bill for the call and it was less than $3. If I had known the price was that reasonable, I would have talked longer!
Once back at the hotel, I dropped my gear off and decided to do some quick exploring of the area around the hotel. The concierge noted that there was a giant mall about a 10-minute walk from the hotel. The only problem was that I had to cross a busy street, which was a risky challenge in the heavy traffic. I took the risk and reached the mall. It was very similar to many malls in America and even had some of the same stores. They also had a Burger King! I couldn’t resist and attempted to order a double whopper plain. The clerk’s English was as bad as my Chinese. Thus, we ended up communicating via the picture menu. Instead of getting a plain double whopper, I got the burger in the picture onions, mayo, et al! Oh well, I was grateful for the brief taste of home! I spent the next hour walking around the mall and walking off the double whopper.
I returned to the hotel and prepared for my departure, in the morning to Lhasa, Tibet. The trip to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding had been a special day. I realized that I was able to participate in a program that many people will never be able to enjoy. I was truly grateful for the opportunity.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my visit to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know.the