The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is one of China’s biggest tourist attractions. In China, the potential for ridiculous crowds is a very real possibility and something to keep in mind when planning a visit.
I had come after the last day of Golden Week in Sichuan and the place wasn’t too bad, the day before had seen thousands upon thousands of visitors, and that was just to see the sanctuary’s ticket queue. There are millions of people living in the city of Chengdu, and the city is increasing in size by over a million potential Panda Sanctuary visitors per year. Then there are the 300 million Chinese citizens who have recently started to come up in the world. They are starting to throw a few tourist yuan around the place and what better place to do it than here, with a chance to see China’s favourite mascot in real life. The Chinese simply adore pandas. In a country where most species of animal are simply considered fresh dinner options, the pandas are the People’s Republic’s most prized possession.
I bought my ticket, walked past a large screen which blasted the movie “Kungfu Panda” at full volume and entered the park in the hopes of seeing some real off-menu animals for a change. Today, my chances were fairly good that I could actually see some of the fluffy black and white giant pandas for myself without having to resort to hand to hand combat with thousands of tourists to get a fleeting glimpse over a fence.
It didn’t take long before I got to see my first panda. The front enclosure featured a terraced viewing area, and there were five juveniles happily munching their way through their bamboo breakfast, most of them lying on their backs with bamboo shoot debris strewn over their big furry bellies.
As I looked over the panda banquet, I instantly understood the Chinese obsession with pandas: they are fantastic. The several hundred people standing there with me thought so too. In Europe, having so many people standing within a few square metres of you is considered quite crowded, and would they mind not standing so damn close thank you very much. In China, this level of crowding was the equivalent of walking by yourself on a secluded beach somewhere. Not wanting to overdo it on the serenity thus created, some of the Chinese men started to shout loudly at the pandas in the hopes of getting their attention for a photo. They banged on the fence, clapped their hands and were about to start throwing things at the pandas when common sense got the better of them, represented in the form of an authoritarian zookeeper who had appeared out of nowhere and was now yelling at the spectators to stop yelling at the wildlife.
The podgy pandas didn’t seem to mind the commotion or the crowd of gawking tourists flashing their cameras in their furry faces. On the contrary, they soaked up the attention. The Sichuan superstars showed their faces to their adoring public from all angles, the Chinese tourists took hundreds of photos and yelled as loudly as they could, so everyone was happy.
The pandas in the Chengdu sanctuary live a life of relative luxury in the captivity of the breeding facility. Every day they munch their way through a large stack of bamboo shoots like spoilt cruise ship passengers at a buffet. Each panda here is provided with more personal space than the average Chinese village and the air here doesn’t require the use of an oxygen mask. How long this will be true no one can tell, as the city of Chengdu is expanding at a phenomenal rate. The lucky pandas living here, too, could begin to feel the noxious incursion of the city sooner or later. For now, all the panda jail inmates seemed content with their lot in life. The wild pandas unfortunate enough to still be wandering around in the surrounding areas numbered only a few thousand at best. Most of them were being forced into tighter mountain habitats in Sichuan, another victim of China’s rapid rise to world stardom. The giant panda is lucky to be China’s Number One Designated Animal, but thousands of other wild species are not. They’re not blessed with their own breeding sanctuary to protect them from deforestation, pollution and the relentless development of the most rapidly developing and populous country in the world. The wild animals in China are the unlucky ones.
I watched the panda picnic for a while and then moved onto the nursery, the internationally-renowned highlight of the panda base. Three tiny baby pandas were on display, visible through a large window which visitors were allowed to pass by quietly. The room behind the glass contained various pieces of medical equipment, as well as a few desks and computers, and one of the nursery’s employees, dressed from head to toe in blue protective clothing much like a surgeon in an operating theatre, was busy weighing a fourth tiny ball of fluff.
This years’ mating season had produced a record 14 squawking infants and a sign informed the guests that the pandas were fed exclusively on human baby milk formula. Now, I couldn’t help but wonder if the sanctuary staff imported their formula from outside the country just like many others in the country. In recent years, worried Chinese parents had begun doing so after a very serious problem concerning tainted Chinese baby formula had come to light. When babies started dying in China from poisoned formula, hundreds of travellers began to get busted at airport security, having to explain the rather large bags of suspicious-looking white powder in their hand luggage.
I had seen the unchecked, and completely illegal, trade in baby formula when crossing the border at Shenzhen. Some cities in the world are infested with drug dealers. In other parts of the world, people themselves are traded as commodities. Cross the border north of Hong Kong, and you’ll see gangs of baby formula mules, milk powder pushers and there is even a market for nappies.
How many of the sanctuary’s staff members would have been sent overseas for baby formula I could not tell, of course, but I was fairly sure such an operation would have taken place here too. I doubted very much anyone would take chances giving toxic milk products to China’s national pride and joy. That would simply not do. It was depressing to think that not only did the people of this country have to deal with the effects of ever-increasing contamination of air, water and food, but it seemed some of the groceries on Chinese shelves were just as toxic as the sludgy rivers and brown air.
I looked at the little fluffy bears for as long as I could and cooed appreciatively as the crowds slowly shuffled past them. Two policemen standing behind the queue made sure no one was having any fun, barking orders and rudely shoving people towards the exit. And thus we were quickly marshalled back out towards the open and told to get on with the rest of the visit.
There was quiet in the rest of the park, with the exception of an occasional, glass-shatteringly loud high-pitched squeal emanating from a flock of local teenage girls screeching about how cute the pandas were. I enjoyed being away from the bustle of Chengdu for a few hours. Most of the natural environment I now found myself in had been recently created to protect the panda sanctuary. It was fake, but a natural environment nonetheless. Cicadas chirped noisily in the trees, birds twittered. Usually, car horns, car alarms, public announcements and street vendors drown out any other sounds in China. There was also the added bonus that the sun was out as well, and the sky was a hazy shade of blue. That’s the best one can hope for in a Chinese city of over 14 million people. Enjoying peace and quiet in China is all about making the best of what’s available at any given opportunity.
Every few hundred metres, a small souvenir shop offered panda hats, small electric pandas and Panda brand cigarettes. The people in the large group behind me descended upon these articles and bought as many as they could.
The next few enclosures contained some of the large breeding males. It was already a little past feeding time, and the bears had settled down for their mid-morning snooze, occasionally yawning, stretching their limbs and scratching their testicles. They reminded me of Chinese policemen on a long-distance train.
The neighbouring Red Pandas, however, were still quite active, and in one section of the park they walked around freely amongst the visitors. They moved like cats. The Chinese tourists weren’t at all interested in the Giant Panda’s small and less desirable cousins, so I had the place to myself for a lot of the time. This was the first time I had experienced a zoo where the animals weren’t completely confined to their cages and it was refreshing to have close contact with an animal which wasn’t the dish of the day. Indeed, I imagined harming any of these animals in any way would not be a good idea. In China, people are put down for much lesser offences.
The second of the nurseries had even more Giant Panda cubs, and the policemen here shouted even louder to keep the crowds swishing quietly past the viewing window.
Panda Fatigue began to kick in after a couple of hours, and after another large enclosure of adult males lying comatose in the shade, it was time to get back into the metropolis of Chengdu. The half-hour drive back into the city again demonstrated how vile the air pollution in an average Chinese city really is. Image a science fiction story of a futuristic city on a distant planet, with its own protective glass dome shielding its citizens from the poisonous fumes beyond the safety of its breathable atmosphere. Exactly the opposite is true in Chengdu. The city is enveloped in a thick, brown bell of air pollutants which would have authorities in other countries declare a state of emergency. The yin and yang of Chengdu is you can see a fantastic animal enclosure and come face to face with its most adorable inhabitants, but you have to access this wonder via a city which has so much pollution you’ll want to rush out and buy your own supply of oxygen.
I had heard the local cuisine was good for clearing the sinuses, so I made do with that instead. I ordered a Sichuan hotpot, which has to be the best food in the province. My hotpot was presented to me in the form of a large octagonal bowl the contents of which was halved by a divider which made the rounded interior resemble the yin and yang symbol the Chinese hold so dear. The waiter had filled one of the halves with a tasty soup broth, the other contained fiery red chilli oil. To add more flavour to the two liquids, whole chillies, Sichuan peppers and then more chillies were added to the already super-spicy oil, and a small fish and a few other ingredients were added to the side with the broth. All I had to do now was to add the array of raw ingredients from about a dozen small plates that had also been artistically arranged on my table while I was still trying to work out what the octagon was for.
I added the beef and a few of the larger vegetables, some of which I recognised. Then I added some more stuff, and more, and soon I was cooking up a storm, with both the yin and yang of broth and oil bubbling away, fired up by a small gas burner underneath the octagonal bowl.
I had time to think as I waited for the food to cook. I thought about the pandas and the pollution. In the country’s rise to greatness, and let there be no mistake, China is great, there has perhaps been a miscalculation about the price of the rapid rise to greatness. Many of China’s cities have air pollution so dense that health warnings are issued at regular intervals encouraging the populous not to breathe too much air, and perhaps they shouldn’t go out today either. Indeed I had read a newspaper article admitting 70 out of the top 74 cities were now “extremely polluted.” Considering the heavily-censored Chinese newspapers were usually the last source of up-to-date information in the country, and those in charge only made such information public when it could no longer be avoided in any way, this was a very grim admission.
Air pollution had become so drastic recently, it had now become a matter of national security, as CCTV cameras had to be supplemented with radar because no one could see anything through the dense fug anymore. The decision makers who ratified the rapid construction of more coal power plants per year than exist in Western Europe in total, had been blind to the consequences of their actions. Now they were becoming physically blind as well.
If the air wasn’t bad enough, then a look into the country’s waterways would be a further shock to the system and it would be suicide to even think about drinking any of the water. A few weeks ago I had seen a fisherman pulling a dozen small fish out of a disgustingly polluted river. The fisherman was standing about a hundred metres downstream from a gigantic factory and it was very obvious were all the polluted gunk in the water was coming from.
It occurred to me the hotpot I was currently looking at was a perfect symbol of China’s losing battle with pollution. On one side, there bubbled a red inferno of chillies which made my eyes water, my throat burn and my nose twitch, and on the other floated a mass of debris in a brown soupy liquid in the middle of which floated a dead fish. One half represented the polluted air in China, and the other the dying rivers. A yin and yang of environmental destruction.
Then I made a mental note to stop thinking complete drivel. I set about my hotpot and it was good. The fact is, China is a great place and as I ate my dinner and thought of pandas, I hoped the pollution, and not the pandas, would one day be a thing of the past. What a place China would be if it were so.