A short 45-minute flight takes us to Chengdu. Arriving at the taxi stand outside baggage claim, we encounter the biggest hurdle yet during our time in China – we have forgotten to print out our hotel information (phone number or street name in Chinese) to give to our driver. All we have are Kurt’s notes and hand drawn map. This oversight turns into a dilemma: As our turn in the taxi queue arrives, we step over to the cab, load our own luggage, get in and tell the driver we’d like to go to the Holiday Inn Express.
Our driver doesn’t speak any English. (Upon arrival at prior airports in China, English-speaking taxi drivers have approached us
the minute we walk out the door.) He looks at Kurt blankly. Uh-oh. We look around for someone to help. The driver finds a policeman and brings him over to us and luckily, the policeman speaks some English. Kurt shows him the map he has drawn (in English). He studies it, but Chengdu is a large city of nearly 7 million people, and he doesn't recognize the hotel’s neighborhood.
The last item which complicates this situation is the fact that the Holiday Inn Express in Chengdu is a new hotel, and the people we’ve encountered thus far have not heard of it. The policeman, the cabbie and Kurt try for over 20 minutes to understand each other. I begin to wonder exactly how we’ll solve the problem. The policeman begins to ask other drivers and eventually, one driver indicates that he might know where to find the hotel. We transfer the luggage to his cab and finally, we’re off.
The driver gets his dispatcher on the phone and he talks with her as we drive. The hotel is near a large stadium or venue which can, hopefully, serve as a landmark for the driver. Once we think we’re in the right neighborhood, we drive around, circle back and guess. All of a sudden, the hotel is right in front of us, and we quickly tell the driver to pull in. We’ve arrived at last!
Check in goes quickly and soon we’re in our room - with one bed and one sofa. We walk over to the sofa sleeper to unfold it but it’s locked up like a bike to a bike rack. Kurt calls the front desk and they want an extra fee to unlock it. We decline, hang up and use all the sofa cushions to make a padded bed on the floor for the kids. Problem solved!
Back downstairs, we visit the small travel office to book a day trip to the giant panda reserve. The agent looks at us like this is a new request he has never heard. He recommends renting a car to make the 40-minute trip, an option which neither Kurt nor I will entertain. We walk out disappointed and wander to the front desk where a helpful clerk tells us that all we need to do is hail a cab in the morning, and it will take us straight to the panda reserve.
Somehow we missed lunch so we opt for an early dinner in the hotel’s restaurant instead of wandering the streets. We split a semi-spicy chicken cashew dish and a giant serving bowl of noodles in broth. Then we head upstairs to call it a night.
The next morning we wake to a gray Saturday. We dress and hurry downstairs to the crowded breakfast buffet full of delicious American-type foods. Then we hail a cab as instructed and are delivered, 35 minutes later, to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. We excitedly purchase the entrance tickets. Our early arrival gives us the best chance of seeing the pandas during morning feeding before they nap or disappear into their enclosures for most of the day.
This research base is huge and we walk everywhere, following signs to take us to the habitats. First we see the red pandas, which look similar to raccoons, except they’re bigger and possess bear-like claws. They’re adorable. Only a few other people are milling around so we take our time photographing the red pandas in the open and in the trees.
A fine mist begins falling as we walk to the adolescent enclosure. Nothing is happening in the yard so we wait in line to walk through the inside of the habitat. Here we spot our first giant panda, napping. I worry that we’re too late and have perhaps missed the feeding and frolicking at all the enclosures now.
We walk to the infant complex but cannot spot babies anywhere. Light rain is now falling but we don’t care about getting wet because we have a mission to find more pandas, any pandas. Rain falls harder and we’re on our way back to the adolescent habitat. And here our persistence pays off: Four teenage giant pandas are playing, climbing trees and chasing one another wildly. This is very exciting!
For the better part of an hour, we watch the pandas play in the rain, wrestle and chase each other up and down fallen tree trunks. We take pictures and movies (click on "The Original Panda Pile Up" video to the left for a sample), and then we move in a bit closer when parts of the crowd disperse. The kids are pressed right against the railing so they can see everything. I could stay here all day in the pouring rain because this scene alone has made our trek to Chengdu worthwhile.
Eventually a keeper enters the habitat and puts some food down for the pandas. They come right up to her and wrap their legs around her legs. They sit in a shallow pond to eat and then they’re off to play again. The rain becomes a downpour, and we are now soaked to the bone. We take shelter under the entrance to the enclosure, contemplating our next stop.
The rain won’t let up so we run to the cinema and gift shop, purchase an umbrella and four cheap rain capes (which rip the moment we put them on) and wait for seats to open up in the dark theater. At last we enter, sit, relax and watch the short film. Researchers pair the pandas for breeding but when the female does not conceive, they resort to collection of semen and artificial insemination. Still, the exact length of the gestation period remains a mystery.
The footage then includes scenes of female pandas giving birth, some of the mothers immediately pick up their babies to nurse and some reject their wailing newborns. In one scene, a scientist sneaks in to snatch up the newborn after its mother bats at it before walking away. (I venture to guess that because the pandas are living in captivity and are not naturally breeding then they may not feel comfortable enough to breed. Further, they might not have the same instincts they would in the wild, maternal or otherwise.) I think the mother rejecting her baby is upsetting, and I’m certain the kids will have questions about this later.
The film has provoked a few objections in my mind about the methods employed at this research base. Kurt and I try to have a private discussion as we walk to the next habitat but the kids are ready to ask their questions. So we talk about the movie, explaining that scientists help the pandas have babies to keep the species alive. As their natural habitat disappears, their population shrinks in the wild. The researchers create special diets for the pandas and although the pandas eat throughout the day, their bodies only absorb 20% of all the food they take in. (All the work happening here seems, to me, to be an uphill battle at best.)
We stop at the next habitat where some giant pandas are perched in trees eating the leaves. On several occasions we see scenes like this and wonder how the tree branches are supporting the panda's weight. The pandas seem unconcerned.
At the bottom of the next hill is a lovely marsh area complete with a boardwalk around the perimeter. We spot dragonflies, koi, black swans and other shorebirds as we cruise around. A peacock, perched atop a rock, sits so perfectly still, that we pass it and do a double take. Finally we stop for lunch at a snack shack.
The afternoon activities include visiting the adult panda habitats where we spot more adult pandas perched in the trees.
As the afternoon wears on, almost all the pandas we see have settled down for a nap.
Around 2pm, we begin the long walk back to the entrance until we catch wind of a program that allows visitors to hold baby pandas. We hurry all the way back to a habitat we had visited in the morning and get in line to hold a panda. Once we reach the front of the line, we find that we need cash, in the local currency the Yuan, to pay for the 10-minute session. Prior experience on our trip has taught us not to walk around with lots of cash. Further, we didn’t know we would need cash for this. The nearest ATM, we’re told, is a 30-minute cab ride back into the city. We don't have time to go and come back, so Kurt tries to convince the employees at the enclosure to let us pay with a credit card. They refuse. This is our only day at the panda reserve, we argue. They remain resolute.
Kurt walks across the way to the gift shop and tries to pay for the holding session there or take a cash advance, but they won’t accommodate him. We find another gift shop and they refuse as well. We walk all the way back to the entrance to guest services and plead our case. The employee says there is no way but to leave the park to go to the ATM or come back tomorrow (and pay a second entrance fee tomorrow as well). He tries two more gift shops and each declines the request. He is frustrated, and we are all tired. As we select stuffed animals at the last gift shop as our souvenir for the day, we reflect on everything we’ve seen today. We've had an incredible visit even though we couldn’t hold a panda.
Back at our hotel, we hang out in our room, play cards and I do laundry in the laundromat on the second floor. Then we head downstairs to the restaurant for dinner. On the TV, swimmer Michael Phelps is in Shanghai for the World Cup competition. We watch swimming relays and synchronized swim teams long after dinner is done.
The next morning is Sunday. After brunch, the rain subsides so we wander around the neighborhood that is comprised mostly of office-type buildings (closed for the day) and bus stops under construction. In a nearby plaza area, complete with pretty fountains and high-end shops, we are stopped frequently with requests for Kate and Kai’s picture. Sadly, we have left the camera in the room. I think it’s amusing to photograph the people who want pictures of themselves with our kids.
I drag everybody into a large department store to explore. After checking out the toy section, we find the café, sit down and enjoy hot, fruit teas, a fancy-looking cake slice and a layered pudding parfait. Quite wonderful. Every time I pour a cup of tea from my glass teapot, a wait person hurries over to refill it. This happens four or five times until I cannot drink any more. It’s tough to finish a bottomless pot of tea. All the while we hang out in the café, sales people and customers alike delight in pointing at us as they pass by. We are simply standouts here as usual.
Back in our room, we play Hearts and Go Fish. Tomorrow we fly back to Beijing for about 24 hours and then we catch our flight to Tokyo, Japan.
Our Monday morning runs smoothly enough as we enjoy breakfast downstairs, check out and hop in a cab to the Chengdu airport. A long, long line of passengers stands between us and the ticket counter. When we finally make it to the front, the ticket clerk tells us she cannot process our tickets as there is a mistake on one of them. A mild panic sets in because this is the last flight of the day to Beijing, and missing it would jeopardize our departure from Beijing to Tokyo the next day.
We are directed a row of kiosk booths not far from the ticketing desk. We look for the airline’s logo, find a clerk and present our tickets. Time is ticking down now to catch our flight, and we’re getting nervous. The clerk says some data was entered incorrectly when we left Beijing last week and she can change it. Then we somehow zip through the ticket desk to the boarding area where loads of people are sitting around everywhere. As it turns out, we needn’t have worried about making our flight because all flights at every gate seem to be delayed.
We find a spot to sit in the lounge, order snacks and play cards for a while. Although we can’t understand the announcements, nothing is happening at our gate so we wait. At last we load and depart Chengdu after lunchtime.
Our flight lasts about two hours. The screens in the backs of the seats offer a live camera shot of the runway during takeoff and landing. Upon arrival, we find a cabbie who understands some English and we have printed our hotel info in Chinese in advance. Although we’ll be in Beijing less than 24 hours, we want to return to the original guesthouse we stayed in when we were last here.
When we enter the guesthouse, we are greeted like old friends. The owner, Bobby asks where we visited and what we toured. We are sad to learn that their bunny has died. Kate takes the news especially hard. We decide to take it easy for the remainder of the afternoon, visit our favorite bakery, stroll around the neighborhood and return to the guesthouse on time for dumpling making at 7pm.
Our last morning in China finds us at a post office shipping home a box of souvenirs we've collected and then in a cab en route back to the airport. We arrive with plenty of time to spare and extra Yuan to spend before we’re off to Tokyo.
We browse the airport shops for gifts and panda souvenirs and then enjoy noodles in broth for lunch. Soon enough we’re boarding our afternoon flight from Beijing to Tokyo, which will take under four hours. Our two weeks in China have disappeared.
On to Japan where we'll spend the last two weeks of our around-the-world trip.
The time has come to depart the Howard Johnson's in Xi’an, China and travel to the Holiday Inn Express in Chengdu. Never in my life would I have thought we would stay in either of these hotel chains overseas. Check out at HoJo’s is quick and efficient and in no time at all, we’re in a taxi to the Xi’an airport.