This day was mostly dedicated to visiting the Panda Research Centre in Chengdu. I hadn’t been sure what kind of access tourists would have to the pandas themselves, but the facility is set up so that the pandas’ feeding stations are only two or three meters from the visitors, so there are plenty of opportunities for viewing their behaviour and for taking pictures.
We learned a few things about pandas which we hadn’t really known before. First, I had never really realized just how laid-back and lazy the little buggers are. They are quite content to lie on the backs of sit on their bums for hours while munching on bamboo. Second, I had never known that in earlier times, pandas had been carnivores, and that they had then evolved to become herbivores. This partially explains the inefficiency of their gut, which is very short, even for a former carnivore. Pandas only process about 20% of the nutritional value of their bamboo intake. That is why they must spend quite so much of their day consuming bamboo. Finally, we learned that almost all of the breeding now going on at the Research Centre is done by in vitro fertilization, and only rarely are the cubs left in the care of their mothers. Instead, they are raised in a nursery by human caregivers.
The facility itself is quite nice, and we marveled that the many plantings of bamboo and other vegetation between the various areas deadened the sound of the thousands of visitors. I suspect we were fortunate, though, to have gone so early in the morning before the crowds really started to fill the place up.
After viewing the Giant Pandas for a while, we moved on to the Red Panda enclosures. (photos) The Red Pandas are also endangered, although not to the extent of their big black brethren. For one thing, they have a wider distribution than the Giant Pandas. They also have a very different disposition. They are far more active and also more ornery. We barely saw the giant pandas do more than shift position, but the red pandas – if they were not sleeping – were almost constantly on the move – slowly, mind you, but on the move nevertheless. And the giant pandas had seemed unflappable. One panda would fall backward with his bamboo shoot, and land on another without any kind of reaction. But we saw at least one short, nasty altercation between red pandas, and Kevin had told us this is quite common.
After lunch, we toured a couple newly-created “old-style” tourist districts. One of the downsides of such rapid growth and development is that some cities have, in recreating themselves, bull-dozed their history into oblivion. Then, in hindsight, they have created these new commercial districts aimed at capturing the ambiance of old Chinese streets. In fact, the area around our hotel and the hotel itself are just such “recreations.” And while the Chinese can fake “old” like nobody’s business, these neighbourhoods certainly lack some the authentic charm of the real thing, which we had experienced in the hutong disctrict of Beijing. On the upside, we saw some fantastic food stalls with all kinds of things we had never seen before, but we were so stuffed from lunch that we couldn’t take advantage of any of them.
Kevin was less inclined to “sell” this sort of area to us than some of our previous guides had been, so he asked us if we wanted to experience something approaching a traditional Chinese inner city experience. We said sure, so we abandoned faux history, and drove to an inner-city park (photos). Like many of the parks we had seen in Beijing, this one surrounded a man-made lake. But unlike many of the old parks in Beijing, which were also tourist attractions, this one was open to the public without charge. Even though we visited on a Thursday afternoon, the place was just packed. And once again, as in Luoyang, we experienced one of those rare glimpses into everyday Chinese life. The walkways were lined with stone tables where older men played Chinese Chess and Mah Jongg, each table usually attracting 8 or 10 onlookers. Every open space was crammed with people enjoying some kind of amusement. Groups were dancing. Others were gathered around amateur hour singers and performers, again, most of them senior citizens.
We had a small chuckle at the “match-making corner” an area where mothers would post flyers extolling the virtues of theirs sons and daughters much in the same way we might post a flyer in the mall to sell a used car. Some mothers had a more targeted campaign, handing out individual flyers advertising their sons to prospective young girls as they walked by. And North American kids think their parents embarrass them!
After we’d walked around for a while, Kevin took us to a teahouse in the park, the oldest in Chengdu. It was a huge, open, lakeside plaza with beaten up old bamboo chairs. Kevin ordered us some tea, and the server brought us three teacups, each with the dry tea in it, and a gigantic insulated carafe of hot water. We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon there sipping on tea. As it was we just soaked up the ambience for about an hour or so, while exchanging stories of our respective countries with Kevin. In a discussion on homelessness as a problem, we told him we would probably see more homeless people in a city of one million like Calgary than we have seen in cities in China. He had trouble processing what we were saying. In actual fact, we had seen very few conspicuously homeless people in two weeks in China, the odd one in a park in Beijing, and a few men lying down for the night at the train station in Zhengzhou.
After a relaxing afternoon, we headed back to the hotel a bit early. We caught up on some writing in journals before we headed out to shop for some souvenirs, and snacks for the next day’s train ride and to find a place to eat. After eating street food for three nights straight, I thought we should try one of the inside restaurants in the area. Big mistake. While the food wasn’t expensive, it also wasn’t very good. Live and learn.