Chengdu is home to some of China’s most famous residents. Julia Buckley tells us how to get up close and personal with these cuddly giants
I couldn’t have picked a worse day to be late for breakfast. It’s the final day of a week in Chengdu, and I’ve planned a catch-up with some locals I met last time. They’re famously early risers, and Chengdu traffic is notoriously bad, but still, I’d gamely agreed to be there for 8am.
And then a late night — involving a long acupuncture session and an even longer dinner at one of Chengdu’s famous ‘private kitchens’ (intimate restaurants in people’s own houses) — turned into a slightly late morning, and the traffic was even worse than usual, and as I’m jumping out of the taxi and running to the gate, it’s coming up to 9am.
Still a decent time, I think; when I was here two years ago, breakfast went on till at least 9.30. But I rush in to find that it’s all over, and most of my friends are already taking a nap. Lesson learned: Never stand in the way of a panda and its food. Pandas are, of course, China’s most cuddly export, as endearing as they are endangered. They’re to be found in the wild in three parts of the country — Shaanxi, Gansu and Sichuan provinces — but it’s here in Sichuan’s capital that the obsession escalates into full-on panda-monium. Souvenir shops fill the city centre.
There’s a Panda Post Office opposite the central People’s Park. The taxis are all branded with a panda chomping on a bamboo sprig. My hotel, the Temple House, sends up a plate of panda cupcakes
on room service when they hear I had a bad day. There’s even a panda-themed hotel at nearby Emei Shan.
But nothing can compare to seeing the gentle giants in the flesh. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, 11 miles from the city centre, has scrubbed up since my last visit.
The entrance gates are topped by a gargantuan, Disney-style panda, which seems to embrace visitors as they pour in. Past the police station (signalled by cartoons of pandas dressed in uniform)
I buy my ticket, walk under the giant momma bear and into the park. There’s a little train that does the circuit of the grounds for an extra fee, but I know where I’m starting — with the young bears, or ‘sub-adult pandas’ who made such an impression on me on my last visit.
Everyone tells you to arrive as early as possible — it opens at 7.30am — to catch the pandas for breakfast. Two years ago, on a group trip booked through my hotel, we arrived about 8.30am to find the action just beginning. Today, though, the half-hour delay means the youngsters and their mothers are nowhere to be seen. Tourists are wandering aimlessly around the vast toddler enclosure — for unlike other panda centres, Chengdu’s is pleasant, clean and well kept — but there’s not a bear in sight. I duck around to the next enclosure and — thank goodness — there they are.
Four adult males sit on a treehouse-like contraption in the Adult Panda Enclosure, polishing off breakfast as if it’s their last meal. They’re clinging to every panda stereotype: sprawling lazily on their backs, reaching out for the bundles of bamboo shoots which their keepers have delivered, grabbing handfuls with their opposable thumbs, and shovelling it into their mouths, smiling at us onlookers all the while.
Looking at them in the flesh, it’s easy to see why we’ve a global soft spot for them — they’re human-size but too fluffy to be intimidating, clumsy enough for us to want to mother them, with faces that appear to show real, identifiable emotion.
Most groups visiting the research base are on strict schedules, meaning they don’t get to see the whole 100-hectare park. I can take all the time in the world, hanging back to watch that snoozing panda as he twitches gently in his sleep, waiting for an adult female to make her way to my side of the pen in the Number Two House’, where she sits and talks to me in extraordinary high-pitched squeaks, and making two trips to the Sunshine Nursery House where the baby pandas are kept. Yes, baby pandas. My last visit was in March, the wrong time of year to see them, but this time, in October, there are about 10 of them, half-asleep on the floor in one room — glass-walled, so we can watch their every breath — the others lying on pink towels in a big cot. They sleep there, still as waxworks — when an official comes over with a stethoscope to listen to their breathing, they even wriggle in slow motion.
There’s much more to love about the panda base: the joyous descriptions of its inmates, which list not just their names and birth dates but also their temperaments and favourite hobbies. The animal accoutrements like little rocking horses for the toddlers to play on, and the stalls, both official and otherwise, with panda-shaped clothes, watches and tea sets among the most popular offerings.
There are other animals, too — a swan-filled lake and a couple of enclosures of red pandas, which bear more resemblance to cats or foxes than their monochrome cousins. Trails on raised platforms meander through the red pandas’ territory, and visitors can get even closer to the giant pandas, with the opportunity to have a photo with a young panda for around $300. But nothing beats the experience of quietly observing the pandas as they go about their normal business: eating, sleeping, and grinning for the cameras. Just don’t be late for breakfast.