We recently took a China Eastern Airlines flight to Chengdu to visit the Giant Panda breeding centre.
Chengdu, our young guide Simpson said, has grown from one million people to 20 million people within the last 30 years. Construction makes the scenery a lunar landscape. The air is brown, the trees are grey and workers in orange uniforms with twig brooms sweep the dust on the curbs to no apparent effect.
But the people! Half of them ride motor scooters, zipping through intersections the size of superhighways whether the lights are red or green, some wearing masks, carrying groceries or boxes or their kids. There is a dedicated lane for them or the roads — are you listening Rob Ford? Course not — and the dance with pedestrians is balletic.
The Panda Centre sits in a suburb of Chengdu ripped up for construction of a high-speed train line. You only know you’re there because the roadside stands change from strawberries and cabbage to stalls of stuffed pandas of all shapes and sizes, like it’s a local crop. Which it is.
You cross the dusty road and pass the construction and walk for about 20 minutes into a progressively greener surroundings. After a little while the colours around are brighter and you can hear birds. We were lucky — there weren’t many people that day. Finally on the left in a large, hilly enclosed with wooden climbers similar to those in children’s parks, and bamboo stalks set in containers below the grass so they can ‘harvest’ them, were a giant female panda and three babies about 8 months or so. One of them was clearly hers: she nibbled on it and rolled with it while another baby snoozed in a tree crook and the third played mountaineer, climbing anything within range of its stumpy legs.
If you make a donation of 2000 yuan (about $300 Canadian) you can don surgical garb and hold a baby panda for five minutes. My birthday’s coming up, so Jonathan bought me this as a present. I followed the other lucky squealing donors inside the breeding centre to a bench, put on a paper gown and plastic gloves, glanced to my left and saw an attendant bringing in what looked like a soccer ball in a bucket. Miao Miao lifted her head and the squeals got louder. I’m sure every heart melted but the attendant has clearly done this before. She methodically plonked this perfectly content baby (four months?) from lap to lap, yelling “Next!” like we were waiting in line at the bakery.
I was third. Miao Maio was surprisingly light, a fur covered basketball munching on short stalks of bamboo and as oblivious to me as Richard Parker the tiger was to human feelings in Life of Pi. Her fur was rough and soft at the same time, like a crew cut, and nice and clean. I see from the video we took that I ran my hands up and down her little legs and arms and it looks like I kiss the top of her head when I shouldn’t have. Inside it felt like I had split into five senses all reporting back Bliss.
Then a voice shouted “Next!” and Miao Miao, munching on her bamboo, was lifted and deposited on another waiting human.