We travelled to Chengdu via an incredibly long overnight train (i.e. about 26 hours, which is basically forever since we were in hard sleepers, where there are no power outlets or wifi). I was here for one reason and that reason was pandas!
Chengdu is famous because it’s home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which is basically a huge park where they breed and raise giant pandas, in order to help protect the species from extinction. Many are released back into the wild, while some find homes in zoos. When you see gifs and YouTube videos of lots of baby pandas being adorable, they are often from Chengdu. Chengdu’s breeding program is also credited as one of the major successes involved in getting pandas taken off the endangered species list.
The part of the facility that is accessible by the public is basically a big zoo containing only pandas. Different areas of the park have pandas of different ages.
There are a couple special buildings where the baby pandas can be seen. The littlest ones are still pink and blind, and are kept in incubators. Breeding is the main goal of the park, and it’s quite a complex process. Female pandas are only fertile for two days of the year, so those days are prepared for very thoroughly. In order to increase her changes of conceiving, a lot of work goes into choosing a suitable mate for her and introducing the pair ahead of time so they are ready when the time comes.
In addition, female pandas will go through all the motions of pregnancy each year, regardless of whether they are actually pregnant. This false pregnancy is so convincing that you actually can’t tell whether she’s really pregnant or not until the final month of her 5 month-ish pregnancy, when the fetus finally becomes visible in an ultrasound. So all in all, everyone is pretty excited whenever a baby panda is born. Fortunately pandas often give birth to twins, and while in the wild only one of these would survive (as the mother will devote all her resources to the stronger baby), in captivity both have a very good chance of survival.
After a couple months baby pandas grow their black and white fur but still just lie around all floppy and SO CUTE. Pandas are kind of useless at this age, which only adds to their adorableness. The funniest ones are the slightly older toddler-aged pandas, because they are the most active, doing a lot of climbing and rolling around.
The adult ones mostly trundle around and eat. Pandas used to be carnivorous like other bears, but adapted to eating bamboo when their sources of prey ran out. Comparatively of course bamboo has much less nutritional value, which is why pandas spend so much time eating.
When possible, Chengdu releases suitable pandas into the wild. This is quite a complicated process because these pandas must be taught to fend for themselves, which involves eliminating their contact with people. Hilariously, in order to achieve this, workers must dress in panda costumes whenever they are in the vicinity of these pandas during the preparatory period.
The park also includes some very photogenic red pandas, because why not.
Besides the panda sanctuary, we also spent some time that day wandering around Chengdu. We visited Kuan and Zhai alleys to look at all the fun street food for sale, and also found our way to the very peaceful Huan Huaxi Park.
For Chris, the highlight of Chengdu was going for hot pot. We went with the other braver members of our group (a lot of people opted out because they are afraid of spice and/or Chinese food in general) and our guide, the very bubbly Xiao Shuang, who helped us through the ordering process.
Chinese hot pot involves everyone sitting around a large pot of boiling broth. You order different things such as meat, vegetables, noodles, etc. and cook them in the broth yourselves. The hot pot comes is several levels of spiciness, but we got the beginner level, which was more than enough for us. We also got a regular non-spicy broth, which was good because I think I would have died if I tried to eat the spicy broth for the entire meal.
We were all feeling pretty adventures, so we ordered a bit of everything including the usual meat, vegetables, dumplings, and noodles, plus some fun things like seaweed, tongue, intestines, and brain, which everyone was pretty excited about. Considering we were all explosively full afterwards, the meal was also a pretty great deal price-wise.
We spent the last morning visiting Wenshu temple with the group and doing some shopping around Jin Li Street and the Tibetan quarter. Then it was onto Xi’an!