Today we visit the Chengdu Panda Breeding & Research Centre and finish off the day at the Sichuan Changing Faces Opera.
27 May 2016
Another early start this morning but we are all keen to see the Pandas. Our alternative hotel has an amazing selection of breakfast items in the buffet both Chinese and Western – almost too much choice – and they are prepared when we arrive early (unlike our Shanghai hotel). Our luggage is bundled up and will be transported to the other hotel for us.
It is overcast but Jing assures that it isn’t going to rain – it is just pollution! Yesterday the pollution rating had been 86 (light), today is about 150 which is considered medium. If it gets to 500 it is considered to be extreme, schools are closed and people advised to stay inside. (My camera is struggling with the conditions.)
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province and has 11.5M people, compared with 28M in Beijing and 24M in Shanghai. Tomorrow we are heading to Chongqing – a much bigger Sichuan city with 33M people that was previously known for its ‘mafia’.
We arrive at the Panda Breeding and Research Centre early because the pandas are only active for a short time in the morning and because it is Saturday we want to beat the crowds. This research centre has only been set up since 2012. In the wild, bamboo only flowers every 25 to 30 years and when it does, it dies and all the bamboo in an area will flower and die at once so the pandas will starve unless they have somewhere else to move to. Six pandas were rescued and are now the centre of a breeding programme to try to preserve this national (and global) treasure. They have survived for 8 million years and now there are less than 1500 pandas left.
This centre has developed methods of getting pandas to mate (including the use of ‘panda porn’ movies to show them what to do) – females are ‘in heat’ on 3-5 days of the year and they usually live a solitary life so finding the right mate at the right time can be difficult. They have also developed artificial insemination methods. Pandas usually produce twins but the mother panda will only ever rear one in the wild, so the centre has developed methods of keeping the babies in incubators and swapping them over regularly so that the mother will feed both. They now have a 100% survival rate for the second twin compared with 0% in the wild. Pandas produce their babies in summer (June/July) so unfortunately we can’t see any new babies but we see 12 that are nearly one year old and still very cute. They have a very leisurely life and look totally relaxed as they either sit contentedly eating their bamboo or lying flat out. Some amuse us with rolling around over each other and on and off their platforms. They have red pandas as well.
Most of the adult pandas there are female and just about to give birth again so they are very wary and tend not to come out into the enclosures when there are people around – we got a couple of peeks of them but nothing more. The centre has bamboo plantations with the varieties of bamboo that the pandas like so that they can get only the best food. When the adult females are pregnant, they get some other special treats and we hear that sometimes they pretend to be pregnant – but this doesn’t fool anyone for very long these days as they monitor their urine daily so that they know exactly what their condition is.
There is another research station about 3 hours away that isn’t open to the public and is designed to breed pandas for release into the wild. There they aren’t allowed to have ‘knowing’ human contact so that they won’t associate humans with food etc – staff there have to dress in panda onesies or as trees or rocks!
At our research centre there is a new coffee shop that has stuffed pandas sitting at the tables. I ordered a mochaccino and get a cute little panda design on the top of it. There are panda statues everywhere and of course the obligatory souvenir shop, but in this case all the profits go to panda research efforts so we are more than happy to support it.
We head back to our new hotel (the Garden City Hotel) and most of the rooms are ready but we again just drop our bags in our rooms and meet to go and have a late lunch. The restaurant is another local favourite (rated in the top 100 in China) just around the corner from us. Jing does another sterling job of ordering a range of local delicacies for us to share, catering for vegetarians and those that like or don’t like spicy food. My favourite this time was a spicy battered prawn dish with crispy sweetcorn. The vegetables were delicious – a spicy cauliflower dish, eggplant with green beans – yum.
There were options to visit a renovated ancient Chinese street area or go out to a Buddhist monastery which all sounded good but when it came down to it, many of us (including me) opted to just have a look around the areas nearby and then return to the hotel for a bit of down time. We are heading out again in the evening to see a cultural show.
When we assemble in the lobby ready to take our local bus to the Sichuan Changing Faces Opera, Jing emphasises to us the need to be very careful with our belongings as she has had someone in another tour pick-pocketed while they were waiting for the bus. We were really jammed into the bus and when we get off Mary-Ellen discovers that her purse is missing. She is very upset as she has all her credit cards and cash in it. Jing drops the rest of us off at the theatre and then goes with Mary-Ellen to try to cancel her cards etc.
We are not sure quite what to expect with the show but most of us have heard that the changing faces speciality of the Sichuan Opera is spectacular. The show combines several different types of performance including opera, acrobatics, shadow puppets, puppets, comedy, fire ‘spitting’ and the famous face changing, all complete with spectacular costumes and a laser light show, into a story. The finale is just amazing with the costumed figures managing to change their masks seemingly at the blink of an eye or a wave of a sleeve. They even managed to get this to work with the puppets and with faces on enormous head-dresses worn by the actors. No-one could figure out how they managed to do this.
We catch the bus back to the hotel making especially sure to hold onto our bags. Mary-Ellen has managed to cancel her cards and got a refund from the opera ticket so has some cash. She is trying to arrange for the bank to send a replacement card to her at our hotel in Xi’an a few nights away. Once I get back, she decides that she needs to go out and have a stiff drink. I didn’t even hear her come back in at about 2.00am.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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