Hugging Giant Pandas In Sichuan: The Journey And Regret
My heart melted as I gazed into the eyes of this incredibly active, strong, loving baby panda back in 2006. We were at Wolong Panda Research Center–once home to about 60 Giant Pandas–about 3 hours outside Chengdu, the capital city of China’s Sichuan province. It’s taken me a long time to write about this because I have mixed emotions about the entire experience.
The 2008 Chengdu earthquake destroyed Wolong Panda Research Center and much of the almost 500,000-acre Wolong Nature Reserve surrounding it. The epicenter was just 7 miles away. The quake took the lives of 5 dedicated employees and one panda. We were living in Hong Kong at the time. I hope that the news in the U.S.A. and beyond conveyed how honestly devastating it was. Almost 70,000 people died, 375,000 people were injured and almost 5 million left homeless. But, the number could actually be much higher because the area is very rural with many people unaccounted for.
The Journey To Wolong
We hired a town car through the Sheraton Chengdu hotel. I wasn’t at all prepared for the hairy drive via one-lane, crumbling, hillside roads. Nor was I prepared for the speed of the car and odd driver confidence while barreling around blind, one-lane corners. And, when I say one lane, that means one lane–not one on the left and one on the right–in the middle of nowhere China. I listened to my iPod and silently prayed for safety. If we sped off a cliff, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for someone to radio help.
A bus full of Western tourists was also headed our way, which was odd because no one was headed in the same direction. We learned later that it was a flight crew for a major European airline. This becomes important, unfortunately, later in the story.
Arrival To The Wolong Panda Research Center
I remember nearly spontaneously combusting with joy upon arrival to Wolong, because I was about to fulfill a life-long dream. The Giant Panda stole my heart, way before my husband did, and I longed for the opportunity to support and get closer to these majestic creatures than any zoo would ever allow. We ate lunch next door and waited for it to open. Wolong Panda Research Center was never a real tourist attraction, likely due to the isolated location. The part open to visitors was small and quiet, but surrounded by stunning, lush mountains. Guests on the day we visited included the flight crew and us. That’s it.
By the time we visited Wolong, San Diego’s prized panda baby, Hua Mei, had been relocated there. She, however, was off in one of pastures that was off limits to the public. Oddly, I took great comfort in knowing that she and I were in the same place at the same time! Before we moved overseas, my husband and I would make regular visits to the San Diego Zoo just to see her cute self.
After meandering inside, we reached a staff member quietly sitting at little table outside of a major panda enclosure. Using our sparse Chinese reading skills and awkward gestures, we figured out that there was an opportunity to take a photo with a panda. In fact, I’d seen photos online of others who had done this at Wolong.
Excitedly, I said, “Ok!” and paid $1000 RMB or approximately $128 USD for the opportunity. I was helped into scrubs. In Hong Kong, my husband and I participated a rather pricey panda keeper for a day program at Ocean Park. The closest we got to a panda (while also dressed in scrubs) was throwing a biscuit through a plastic tube into his or her enclosure while the panda was sitting directly on the other side. It was amazing, because though we were separated by glass or plastic, we were inches away from a Giant Panda–and I accidentally tossed my biscuit on his or her head.
The Wolong staff member opened up the door to the famous (to me) panda enclosure seen in documentaries on National Geographic, PBS and more. She motioned for me to go in and, basically, let me loose to pet, play, hold and hug baby pandas. If memory serves me correctly, there were 12.
Multiple baby pandas, at my disposal, for what felt like a really long time. Though my husband was only given booties, he was motioned in to take pictures of me. All the little panda below wanted to do was climb up his leg for a hug. Trust me, they are stronger and more affectionate than they look.
I’m not going to lie. This will go down as one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had. I know that I can’t repeat it, nor can you, for the time being.
Hugs, playing, rolling around in the pasture–it was all I could do to stay upright with sometimes three at a time charging at me for more hugs.
Why I’m Conflicted
On hindsight, it’s not the best thing in the world for an endangered species to snuggle with someone bearing foreign germs. But, I’m sure the fee I paid covered a decent amount of expenses.
If you know anything about the Wolong Panda Research Center, you know that they have been instrumental in successfully breeding the endangered Giant Panda, partially in partnership with the San Diego Zoo. The staff and researchers at Wolong (Dr. Li, in particular) were truly dedicated to saving the Giant Panda from extinction–spending much time away from loved ones, in order to do so. Some gave the ultimate sacrifice.
My heart aches to know that the center is gone, that people died, and that roads as well as terrain were so badly destroyed that parts of the province are inaccessible. The government has pledged to re-build Wolong Panda Research Center, however.
What happened to the pandas at Wolong Panda Research Center? Most were moved to the Bifengxia Panda Base. San Diego’s Hua Mei and Mei Shing are now located there, too.
This Part Of The Story Will Spontaneously Combust…
A year or so later, my husband’s secretary (we were still living in Hong Kong) nervously showed him a photo in a popular Chinese newspaper. The slanderous, yet fictional article, was about a tall, wealthy, unnamed American who was happily visiting a chained-up panda in a small Chinese zoo known for mistreating the national treasure (Giant Panda).
Someone had taken a photo from exactly where the European flight crew was standing, while watching us in the enclosure, and doctored it a bit. There was no one else at Wolong standing in a manner that could have captured that angle, trust me. They either sold the photo to the Chinese newspaper or, perhaps, the newspaper got their hands on the photo and twisted it into a fictional story. The man in the photo? You guess.
I’m not sure if it’s a weird karma, but it sure is unfortunate. We have donated quite a bit of money and time to animal welfare causes over time, including the Giant Panda. I may delete this part of the story eventually, not sure.
Chengdu: Our Favorite City In China
A lot has changed in China since 2006, especially in Chengdu. The 2008 earthquake didn’t harm the city center too much, thankfully. Unlike Beijing (which I love), for example, the air in Chengdu is clean and it lacks that big-city, hectic feel. Chengdu hospitality is warm and the food is out of this world. We love Chengdu so much that we considered buying a vacation house there shortly after this visit. However, it’s actually not that easy for an American to own property in China (at least back then), so out of frustration, we gave up.
We also visited the Animals Asia Moon Bear Rescue Centre, another cause I’ve supported for years, along with the Chengdu Panda Base. Mandarin Oriental is slated to open a Chengdu hotel in 2015, when my daughter is 7 or 8. I intend to return to Chengdu with her then, as it’s about the right age for her (hopefully) to fully appreciate what she’s seeing and stay with one of her favorite hotel families.
There is something about the Giant Panda. I can’t quite explain it, but I know others share my love for them, too.