We have just returned from Chengdu where we got up close and personal with China’s national treasure, the giant panda, at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The park is beautifully designed, with groves of bamboo and clever barriers that make it feel as though you are witnessing these rare animals in the wild instead of in captivity. Home to around 50 giant pandas, the center focuses on an advanced breeding program and conservation efforts. Visitors can also pay an extra fee to actually hold one of the cuddly creatures. But even without that extraordinary experience, the park is definitely still worth touring.
We read that the pandas were most active in the morning so we arrived around 8:30 am. We found a large cluster of young adult males having breakfast together, a feasting mother with her curious cubs and a few solitary pandas enjoying their meal in peace. It was truly amazing to see them so close and in such large numbers, and it was hard to tear our eyes away.
After admiring the gentle giants while they feasted on bamboo, we headed to the nursery to secure our place in line for the Panda Keeper Experience which would allow us to hold a baby panda. Registration begins at 9:00am and by 9:30 the line was long. We donned surgical gowns, booties and plastic gloves to protect the pandas from our human germs, received our “nurse card” and were ushered inside.
The first visitor took her seat and soon a large baby panda was brought out and placed in her lap, with plenty of bamboo to keep him occupied. Each person got to hold the panda for a minute or two and pose for photos (bring your own camera). Right before it was my turn to sit, the panda became fidgety and was taken back to his mother. We waited for what seemed like an eternity before another baby was brought in, having been coaxed out of a tree.
Every fiber of my being squealed with joy when the panda was delivered to my anxious arms. I held him in, well, a bear hug and tried to memorize every feature of his gorgeous face. He was warm and surprisingly heavy, and kept still as long as he had bamboo to munch on. Words cannot describe the feeling of having a live, rare giant panda cub in your lap! It is an experience I will never forget.
The park is also home to a collection of the small, but equally adorable, red pandas. While they lack the voracious appetite of their larger cousins, they were quick and agile and fun to watch. To my amazement, one came right up to me! It was a stellar day for panda encounters.
* The Panda Keeper Experience cost 1,200 RMB and had to be paid in cash. We received souvenir sweatshirts and a DVD about pandas and the breeding center.