We flew from Shanghai to Chengdu on October 20 and installed ourselves in the first classic backpacker's hotel that we have come across in China. Called "The Traffic", it is crawling with travellers from all over the globe converging from Kashgar in the far west, Songpan from the north, Yunnan from the south and Yangshuo in the east. The place is abuzz with news of the current state of Tibet's borders (open or closed), the current state of Pakistan's borders (definitely closed), the best place to stay wherever you are headed next, and details of the newest scams to be aware of. You can be massaged, have your various ills diagnosed and treated by the onsite Chinese medicine clinic, book flights/trains/buses to anywhere, surf the net, or just hang out and tap the travellers' grapevine -- all without leaving the grounds. The popularity of the Traffic has spawned a whole backpacker service industry in the near vicinity, including a number of casual restaurants with English menus and western food. Our two favourites are Carol's By the River which offers good Tex-Mex food and a daily lunch special of.... MACARONI AND CHEESE, and Paul's Oasis, a dark, smoky den of mesmerizing music, cold beer and good conversation.
Chengdu's attraction for us was to visit the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base located here. The Giant Panda was once spread widely across Asia but now is only found in reserves in Sichuan province; it is thought that there are only about 100 left in the wild. Despite being an endangered species now, the Giant Panda was actually one of the few large mammals in this area that survived the last ice age, outliving the mastadon, a species of ferocious tiger and many others. It has evolved into a highly specialized creature that can live on only a few species of bamboo that provide such little nutritional value that the pandas spend about 80% of their time in the wild feeding or foraging. There has been hot debate about what family the Giant Panda should be placed in -- the bear family or the racoon family, since they have skeletal adaptations that are different from both. Their reproductive rate is appallingly low, due largely to their solitary natures, as well as mismatched reproductive apparatus (one too short and the other too long), thus making fertilization a tricky and difficult endeavour!
There have been attempts to breed the Giant Panda in captivity for decades and the overall survival rate past 6 months old over the past 34 years is about 55%. The Chengdu facility has used different methods to assist reproduction and has also devised ways of nurturing twins, as mother Pandas will only nurture one cub and will allow the other cub to die.
The Giant Pandas in captivity are active and feeding for only a short period of time in the morning so we arrived at the station early, and were rewarded with full views of the Pandas feeding and grooming. Their habitats are spacious and wild-looking and attempt to recreate a natural habitat. The Pandas themselves appeared gentle and benign, lazily stripping leaves from shoot after shoot of bamboo. Their natural colouring which features black circles around the eyes gives them a slightly sad and cuddly appearance; combined with their passive manner and unhurried pace, it's easy to understand why they have become a beloved animal worldwide.
Tonight we'll attend an evening of Sichuan entertainment... see Part 2 for more!