Tuesday, November 21, 2006


For a little weekend adventure my wife and I packed up and headed off to Chengdu—the capital of Sichuan province to the west of Beibei. There were two primary reasons we wanted to make this trip: we had never been there before; and, we wanted to see the giant pandas.

Our visit to Chengdu confirmed one generalization about China: “Don’t make generalizations about China.” Perhaps more so than in the U.S., each major Chinese city we have visited seems to have its own character--the subtle little things that a casual drop-in visitor might not perceive. The differences, no doubt, are the curious consequences of historical, cultural, and geographical forces. Our friends in Beibei talk about Chengdu as a quaint, garden city dotted with classic teahouses where one can enjoy artistic performances while enjoying the finest tea in China. With more than 2,500 years of recorded history, Chengdu is an old city of commercial and literary note. It is located on the rich Chengdu plateau—the agricultural center of the Sichuan region.

Chengdu is about 220 miles to the west of Beibei, also located on one of the major tributaries of the Yangtze River. If you are able to find it on a map, you will note that it is about as far west as you can go without leaving the comforts of modern transportation. To the north are heavily forested and sparsely populated mountains. To the west is a vast stretch of desolate, arid land that is largely unpopulated. To the south is Tibet. In fact, one of the major tourist attractions of Chengdu seems to be that it is the jumping off place for those seeking the adventures of Tibet. From Chengdu there are bus, air, and a new super-train to Lhasa—the capital of Tibet. Travel to Tibet is restricted and a special visa is required for Western travelers, so that is a trip for another day for us. Although it is an ancient capital, Chengdu feels like a frontier city. The population is currently about 9 million and it is growing very rapidly. The federal government is pouring development money into all of the southwestern part of China because this is a relatively poor region of the country. Chengdu is the consequence of a dramatic demographic shift in this part of the world from rural villages to major urban areas. In Chengdu one notices the absence of older people—almost no one is “from” Chengdu, instead they all have moved there from some little rural village where their grandparents cling to a rural, simple way of life. The young people want jobs, not subsistence. They want TV, stores, neon, congestion, and opportunities rather than the peaceful contemplation of a rural, self-sufficient lifestyle. As a result, as you walk the streets of Chengdu, you see very few elders. In Beibei, every toddler has at least one grandparent in tow; in Chengdu every toddler has parents in tow. The few older folks who are to be seen in Chengdu are usually quite regal and obviously quite well off.

Today, Chengdu is a modern city that has been re-developed for the automotive age. The main streets are broad boulevards with 8-10 lanes of traffic and wide sidewalks. Most roads are “spokes” into the central hub, but there are also two circular beltways around the city that make it possible to go from north to south without passing through the congestion of the center of the city. Chengdu, unlike Beibei or Chongqing, is flat. As a result, bicycles and motorbikes are everywhere. We were struck by the sheer number of electric bikes and scooters in Chengdu. They are everywhere including on the sidewalks which makes walking a little dangerous as they silently weave in and out among the pedestrians. Large sidewalk “parking lots” have electric bikes for short-term rental. They are everywhere. It is not uncommon to see a family of three all precariously perched on a single electric bike as it moves quickly and quietly along its way.

If not continuing on to Tibet, why would anyone go to Chengdu? The answer is quite simple—giant pandas. Chengdu is the home of the Panda Breeding Research Center and its adjacent Panda Eco-Park. The mountains to the north and west of Chengdu are the native habitat of the Giant Panda (literally translated in Chinese as “big bear cat”). The giant panda diet is based exclusively on the leaves of several species of bamboo; hence, giant pandas are found only in natural bamboo forests. The giant panda is a relic of the Pleistocene period that has survived into the present. They are solitary, nocturnal creatures that are going extinct because their reproductive instincts seem to be rather subdued. In an effort to solve this species threatening problem, the Panda Breeding Research Center was created. According to the educational materials at the Center, female giant pandas have one to two days per annual breeding season when they can conceive. Giant pandas in captivity don’t seem to be interested in the other sex at all and those in the wild don’t seem to be in the right place at the right time which is a combination that spells extinction.

The giant panda is the familiar black and white creature that is about the size of a black bear at maturity. There is also a lesser or red panda that is also rare but not as close to extinction. The red panda looks like and is about the size of a cross between a raccoon and a fox. The panda park has a large collection of both varieties and is dedicated to the preservation of the pandas through research and breeding programs. The park, on the outskirts of Chengdu is about 250 acres of land that has been developed into an eco-park with large walled enclosures for the pandas. There are several separate enclosures for the adults, the sub-adults, and the ever popular nursery where we saw three panda cubs on display. The giant pandas are large, slow moving creatures whose life seems to be taken up in lounging around while eating bamboo and sleeping. To assist in the latter activity, the giant pandas have private rooms with blinds for light control and to keep them away from people noises during their rest periods. During their bamboo eating periods, they don’t seem to mind the chatter and flashes of curious humans.

The Panda Eco-Park is an example of eco-tourism well done. It has been recognized by the United Nations Environmental Program as one of the “Global 500” conservation programs. The park is an effective combination of research, preservation, and education. The grounds are extensive relative to the panda enclosures so you never get the congested, caged feeling of a zoo—it is more of a stroll in the park kind of feeling. The pandas, giant and red, are well quartered and obviously well cared for by a professional staff. The nursery, which is the primary mission of the park, is very nice. The babies are on display behind a glass barrier with guards on either side to prevent tourists from creating blinding flashes of light in their eagerness to take a picture. A nurse with a face-mask is in constant attendance.

When our children were very young we lived for a year in the Washington, D.C. area. I recall one Sunday we visited the National Zoo to view the two pandas that had been sent to the U.S. as a temporary gift of the Chinese government as a part of the normalized diplomatic relations President Nixon had initiated. With throngs of people elbow to elbow we saw two pandas in glass cages trying to take a nap. I came away thrilled at having seen these rare, unusual creatures, but a little sad at the plight of the two Chinese visitors. It is the same, empty feeling one gets from seeing a lion in a two-ring circus. At the beautiful Chengdu eco-park we came away with none of that feeling. It is a case study of eco-tourism done properly—research, conservation, and education for a very worthy cause. It was easily worth the 4.5 hour bus ride to Chengdu and the 6 hour return trip.


Blogger On said...

I love Panda... and just bought a Panda Bag from the following Blogshop:

Nice to meet you.

1:38 AM  

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