An early start to the day saw us walking out of the hotel at 7.30am to be greeted by an oppressive sky and the rumble of thunder. Traffic, the reason we were setting off early, did not seem too bad, as the predicted hour long journey to the Panda sanctuary took only 25 minutes.

The largest breeding and research centre for Giant Pandas in the world sits just on the northern outskirts of Chengdu. Opened in the mid 1980′s the centre is over 50 hectares big and consists of science labs, a nursery, sub-adult areas and adult enclosures. In the 20 or so years the centre has been running, they have successfully bred more than 130 Pandas. Not a bad record for a species that only has a mating window of about 48 hours every 12 months.

Giant Panda at the Chengdu Panda Sanctuary

Over 8 million years old, Pandas are a dying breed, being saved only due to their iconic status. Having evolved from meat eaters to a diet of bamboo, (and eating only 20% of the types of bamboo that exist in the world), they would not survive for long if left to their own devices. The only Panda to be released into the wild from the centre survived six months. Found at the bottom of a cliff, it is thought he was pushed off by a rival male in a battle for mating rights.

They are however unbelievably cute. Any movement is greeted by the crowds with squeals of delight and the click and flash of dozens of cameras. The keep quiet signs seem to be mostly ignored. The crowds make it a money spinning operation, cuddly toy versions fly out of the gift shops and it is not hard to see why they are the poster bears of China.

It is depressing though. Only a few miles away is the Moon Bear Sanctuary. A bear that can survive by itself but is not being allowed to do so. In the same CITES category as Giant Pandas, the Asiatic Black Bear is not treated with the same level of love and care as it’s cousin.

Having said that, the group enjoyed the visit immensely, some have been Panda lovers since they were young kids and an added bonus was the incredible thunderstorm we were witness to. Trapped under a small wooden pergola, the lightning display and resounding peals of thunder were amazing.

Sheltering from the storm

The visit also included the delightful antics of the Red Panda, not related to the Giant Panda, being from the Raccoon family, the Red Panda is small, quick and cute as a button. The museum is also interesting, with chronicles of the Panda dating back as far as 3000 years ago. The displays do leave a lot to be desired though, with a sabre tooth tiger attacking what looked like a deer whilst prehistoric man looked on. An amazing feat considering they didn’t co-exist.

Panda by name, the Red Panda from the Racoon family

Then it was onto lunch, another incredibly good meal for about $8 Australian and a short trip to the domestic airport for a fifty minute hop to Songpan. Arriving at sunset, the flight into the airport is stunning. The journey down the mountain, slow and bumpy. Houses along the way studded with scaffolding, a legacy of the earthquake here just over two years ago.

Tomorrow heralds the start of four days trekking. Technology free and a 2000 metre climb. Some of us are feeling decidedly light headed from the altitude and it’s going to be an interesting four days. Sharing tents, no toilets, carrying all our water. The trepidation is palpable. Bring it on.

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