I actually did some research for this one – amazing, right? And found the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to be the best place to visit pandas in China. As suggested by the many reviewers, we got up early (6:30am), and manuvered our way through the public transport system to the panda park in the hope of catching a glimpse (well, hopefully not just one) of the lazy bears at their most active – feeding time – and before the hoards of Chinese tourists arrived. We had straight forward instructions: walk two blocks from our hostel (Lazybones), catch the number 1 bus to Zhao Jue Si Bus Station, transfer to the number 87 bus, and Bob’s your uncle – you’re there.
Easy peasy Japanesy.
Well, it’s not Japan. And it wasn’t as straight forward as I thought. We made it to the station alright. Taking a quick walk around and seeing no buses marked ’87’ we assumed the obvious and went inside to the ticket counter. The last counter had a sign saying “Elderly, Disabled, Foreigners, Police, Military” – Bingo! This was a sure sign that the lady would speak English, right?
We approached the window and said “Pandas! Two!” I mean, we were in Chengdu – the city famous for pandas. What else would foreigners possibly be doing at this small bus station? She looked a little confused, then enthusiastically yelled back “OK!” and handed us two tickets. We were on our way! We didn’t even have to wait for the bus – it left as soon as we got on. We drove for about 20mins – the panda centre was only supposed to be 10km from the city centre, and we had already gone about 7km. Wait a minute…
The bus stopped at an odd industrial looking sub-city somewhere on the outskirts of Chengdu. Not a stalk of bamboo to be seen, let alone any fluffy, black eyed faces. We asked around for pandas. No one understood English. We had forgotten our map. We don’t speak Mandarin. Where are we…? The local men started to laugh as they realised what had happened. We were offered a ride for 100 yuan ($20) as he pointed back in the direction we had come from. The only thing to do was walk back to the bus station and ask for pandas again. Hopefully this time she’d understand…
Back on a bus again, we ended up back at the same station – an unnecessary round trip costing us the same price as a taxi would have directly to the centre. Urgh. By this time it was 10am – feeding time was over, and I’ll admit it, I was a little devastated. I’d had four hours sleep, been sick the night before, had woken up early, had taken the budget transportation option in order to save money, taken the wrong bus – and now I’d missed the best part of the day.
All I wanted to do was get into a taxi and go. A lady approached us offering a car – this we’ve noticed is fairly common in China – so we agreed on a price and walked with her to wait at a corner. Wait? More time? With all the taxis around it seemed stupid to wait longer so we left – with her yelling at us the whole way down the road. FINALLY, we saw the bus!
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
Oh man what a sweet place. 165 acres of bamboo, and trees and greenery! All the enclosures were a decent size with small pools, and a wooden structure to climb/lie/sleep on. The museum was full of interesting facts about the animals and the conservation efforts to help keep the species around. Did you know they poop around 120 times a day? Holy shit! Biologically speaking, there’s a lot of obstacles when it comes to reproduction. Anatomically the males and females aren’t so compatible – the males are not very well-endowed. Their diet of (predominantly) bamboo is so low in energy that they can’t really be bothered moving let alone getting busy, and they are extremely picky when it comes to mates – a bit of a problem when there’s few to choose from to begin with, and a short period of time to do it in (the female oestrus cycle is super short – like, just a few days, short). And, if despite all these issues a female does manage to give birth, she may not win any awards for ‘Best Motherly Instincts’ – pandas are known to abandon the weakest twin in order to concentrate all her efforts on one cub.
The park only costs 58¥ ($12) to get in which – compared with some of the other stuff you have to pay for in China – is a bargain! As soon as we entered I was practically dragging Angelo by the shirt to see the pandas. And this was the first thing I saw:
To my surprise the crowds weren’t too bad, but despite all the signs saying to be quiet, they were bloody loud. And, in fact, most of the time they were more interested in the peacocks than the pandas. Fine by me, it meant I got lots of sweet photos.
And then there’s these little guys:
A Question of Conservation
While I thoroughly enjoyed getting to see these ridiculously cute creatures up close and the facilities seemed really well maintained and spacious, it did make me question if the conservation efforts were based on the right thing. I read in the museum that the breeding programs were in effect in order to one day be able to re-populate the wild panda population. If this is so, would there be repercussions as to the fact that the breeding population was in captivity for many years? Will they still be able to function in the wild? Although, I doubt that the ‘wild’ would truely be so, and that they wouldn’t be released without close monitoring. And secondly, is there enough natural habitat remaining to sustain a larger population of giant pandas? Is habitat destruction and urbanisation not some of the main reasons the panda population is declining in the first place? Should we really focus our efforts on saving a species if they are only to live on in zoos?
Perhaps we should pay more attention to our own breeding rates..?
There is also an option at the centre to hold baby pandas (at a mere US$400, for 15mins), or even to volunteer. This, as much as I would love to be so close to a baby panda, doesn’t strike me as the kind of actions that would be in line with re-releasing in the future. Constant human companionship and interaction is hardly a natural course for wild animals.
Directions to the Panda Base
It really is better to get there early while the weather is still cool enough for these critters (big and small) to be active, and to make it bearable to walk around. There’s plenty of shaded spots, but not with good views of the bears. Allow an hour to get there if you are going by public transport – it’s cheap, only 4¥ per person ($0.80). If you are staying at Lazybones, Mix Hostel or anywhere close to the stadium, walk two blocks east to “Shuncheng Street” (顺城大街) and take the number 1 bus north to “Zhao Jue Si Bus Station” (昭觉寺汽车站). Then take number 87 from outside the station (some of the buses look like old blue trams) which will drop you off just before the entrance to the park.
Naturally, I took a bizillion photos. So, if this wasn’t enough cuteness for you, check out the rest here!