A day at Pandaland
Leaving the green peaks of Guǎngxī, our itinerary now led us far North into Sìchuān, with a first stop at the provincial capital, Chéngdū.
Even though measured in distance, it is not too far from Guìlín, the train journey to get there was going to take 24 hours. After our not too relaxing one-night-on-a-hard-seat experience from Shànghǎi to Fènghuáng, we decided to invest into a sleeper class ticket this time. The so called hard sleeper class on Chinese trains is pretty much the same as 3rd AC in Indian trains, with a little larger berths, the two corridor berths replaced by tables and pull-out seats, no shabby curtains and a 24h hot drinking water boiler – which is actually the best service of all, once we had understood some two features of Chinese traveling habits.
First, all Chinese seem to carry a glass or plastic thermos bottle with tea any place they are, any time. Their way to prepare the tea is a little odd at first sight, as they let the leaves floating inside the water and use the same ones for three or four infusions. When drinking, a small filter fixed at the top of the bottle prevents the leaves from flowing out. There is the first key to the necessity of 24h hot drinking water on the train.
And here’s the second one: as there’s no culture of eating bread or preparing sandwiches here, people usually carry several portions of instant noodle soup for the meals they would have on the train. They come with some different brands and different colors, differentiating the tastes. Red for beef, purple for duck, light green for chicken and dark green for pork. The person who introduced those soups on the Chinese market must be a rich man by now, as at eating hours inside the train coaches a colorful carnival of noodle soup bowls takes place and of course, how would all those noodles be prepared without constant hot water supply?
Traveling in the hard seat class was a surprisingly comfortable and relaxing experience. We happened to be in the same coach as a travel group of Chinese senior citizens from Sìchuān, who were delighted to have a curiosity like us among them, invited us to undefinable sweets and sunflower seeds and made us feel welcome in all aspects of their body language, in the absence of any possibility to understand each other by talking. Some tried the I-just-talk-Chinese-and-see-what-it-brings technique after some good slugs from a bottle rice whiskey they finished during the journey, but pretty quickly figured out that it didn’t lead them anywhere.
About Chéngdū as a city, we wouldn’t have much to tell besides that it is big, stuffed with skyscapers, has a very modern subway system and more foreign faces on the streets than any other place we’ve been to so far in China. For being what it is, it is quite clean and enjoyable though, with a nice river bank to walk along – especially when illuminated at night – or having a tea in one of the open air tea houses spotted around in the city parks. The area we stayed at, between Tianfu Square and Xinanmen bus terminal, reminded us of Providencia district in Santiago, and the weather was exactly as a typical sunny spring day there would be.
Having a little afternon walk through the South Western district of Wŭhóu we witnessed another very curious Chinese custom in front of a large restaurant: the whole staff of the restaurant was lined up in front of the entrance door in their working clothes, practising modern dance choreographies of the Gangam-Style type, in order to warm up for work. It seemed like a daily custom, as all of them seemed to know the moves quite well, even though certainly some performed them more enthusiastically than others.
In Wŭhóu we also got a feeling that we were approaching Tibetan territory. Not only that most souvenir shops were selling dried Yak meat, in front of the Wŭhóu temple – where we didn’t enter because of the high admission fee – there are some narrow side streets called the Tibetan district, with shops selling traditional Tibetan clothes, monks in their long red robes walking around and the smell of butter tea in the air. It was a little bit like entering into another world and we found a tiny Tibetan restaurant to get our first feeling of the culinary culture awaiting us when driving more up north: tsampa, yak meat dumplings and fried potato with yak meat pieces. Very different to the Chinese dishes we tried so far and clearly a diet adapted to cold weather in the mountains.
But we loved it, as we loved the calm ambiance in the restaurant, with people murmuring prayers when not serving the guests. It made us even more looking forward to getting on the Amdo plateau in Gānsù.
But let’s not forget the main purpose of our visit to Chéngdū: the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding , located at some kilometers outside the city. We visited it early morning, the day after our arrival, to avoid Sunday tourists crowds.
The Research Centre is destinated at investigating breeding of several endangered species in China, but particularly focussing on the procreation reluctant giant pandas. China’s emblematic animal is classified as and endangered species, with an estimate wild population of less than 2000 individuals, affected by increasing farming and deforestation in their natural habitat areas in low land Sìchuān, Shǎnxī and Gānsù.
To the research unrelated visitor, the base isn’t much more than a very eco-friendly, exclusive panda-oriented zoo, but probably the best place to visit pandas in the whole world. The enclosures don’t have fences, it is possible to get very close to the animals, watch the females cuddling their babies, young pandas playing and rolling around and above all, pandas lying on their back eating huge quantities of bamboo. Apparently, even though pandas are bears and are therefore classified as carnivores, their diet consists in a 99% of bamboo. So they eat a lot of it, and if they are not eating then they sleep – so basically the whole day. At even though we know we wouldn’t probably feel the same when encountering a panda in the wilderness: it is impossible to not think they are incredibly cute!
Besides the Giant Pandas, the base is also home to a population of the so called Red Panda, also known under the name Fire Fox – so know we know that the emblem of the Mozilla web browser is not really a fox, but actually a panda, even though we have to admit, it looks much more like a fox and is only little larger than a domestic cat. Before seeing them at the research base, we didn’t even know this species of pandas existed. Actually, we learned that the red panda is the only living species of the family of cat bears (Ailuridae), while all other species belonging to it are extinct. The reason both, the giant black-and-white bear and the small, cat-like red bear, where united into the panda family, is that they both feature the so-called “false thumb”, a finger spreading out of the heel bone.
Red pandas naturally live in the temperate forest ranges of the Himalaya, so its habitat comprises areas of China, Nepal, India, Bhutan and Myanmar. It is classified as a vulnerable species, with around 10.000 individuals remaining worldwide, but still not as endangered as its giant brother.
Even though seeing the pandas inside the base is obviously not comparable to spotting them in the wild, we felt that thanks to our visit there we learned quite a lot about those peculiar creatures and would definitely say that it was worth the stop – as long as you arrive early morning!