Up close and per­sonal with China’s na­tional treasure

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In the space of just a few hours, it’s im­pres­sive how much a gi­ant panda can defe­cate. I’m in­side five-year-old Yoaxin’s en­clo­sure, us­ing a shovel to chase enor­mous float­ing pel­lets of com­pressed orange mush around a pond.

As skil­fully scoop the mess into a bucket, won­der if US First Lady Michelle Obama, who re­cently vis­ited the Sichuan province’s most fa­mous res­i­dents, opted to roll up her sleeves to pick up panda poop as part of her of­fi­cial du­ties. Prob­a­bly not.

But hav­ing en­rolled at the Bifengxia Panda Con­ser­va­tion Cen­tre as a vol­un­tary panda-keeper for the day, I’m ready to get my hands dirty.

As one of the world’s most en­dan­gered species, whose ex­is­tence now de­pends heav­ily on con­ser­va­tion ef­forts, the rarest mem­ber of the bear fam­ily has earned ado­ra­tion from wildlife lovers world­wide.

Ear­lier this year, in Scot­land’s Edinburgh Zoo the res­i­dent gi­ant panda Tian Tian, on loan from the Chi­nese govern­ment, was ar­ti­fi­cially in­sem­i­nated, with hopes she will give birth this month or in Septem­ber. But panda fans ea­ger to see the an­i­mals in their home­land can now do so with greater ease, thanks to in­creased flights from a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent air­lines to the panda cap­i­tal, Chengdu.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2003 cen­sus by the Chi­nese State Forestry Bureau, there were 1,596 gi­ant pan­das in the wild with 83 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion found in the Sichuan province. (More re­cent fig­ures are ex­pected soon, but have not yet been pub­lished.) Three hun­dred of those bears can be found in re­serves such as Bifengxia and Chengdu’s Gi­ant Panda Re­search Base.

See­ing pan­das in the wild is al­most im­pos­si­ble; soli­tary creatures that roam in ar­eas of 20sq km, they’re of­ten only cap­tured by cam­era traps. Plans are un­der way to re­open the moun­tain Wo­long re­treat, de­stroyed in a 2008 earthquake, but in the mean­time, a good al­ter­na­tive are the bam­boo hills of Bifengxia in Ya’an, 150km from Chengdu.

At 11am, I pre­pare Yoaxin’s sec­ond snack of the day – a chunk of steamed rice bread, car­rots, ap­ples and a stick of bam­boo. Pan­das are no­to­ri­ously fussy eaters, eat­ing only ar­row bam­boo in the wild, and their stub­born re­fusal to switch to new food­stuffs is partly re­spon­si­ble for their steady demise. But keep­ers in the re­serves are hav­ing some suc­cess at con­vert­ing them.

Legs splayed like a small child, with those dis­tinc­tive dark eye smudges

mak­ing her look like a hag­gard in­som­niac, Yoaxin ap­pears quite sad and help­less.

Far more lively are sev­eral baby pan­das, which emit high-pitched squeaks as they tum­ble on top of each other and scram­ble up trees.

Lo­cal tourists dressed in ridicu­lous fluffy panda hats snap hap­pily on their smart­phones be­fore rac­ing off to sou­venir shops to buy tat em­bla­zoned with the sym­bolic mono­chrome bear.

Even cen­turies ago, soldiers would wave flags dec­o­rated with pan­das, which they be­lieved rep­re­sented power. There’s no doubt these creatures have be­come a na­tional treasure.

How­ever, given the coun­try’s con­tro­ver­sial track record for us­ing en­dan­gered species in tra­di­tional medicine, Chi­nese an­i­mal wel­fare al­most sounds like an oxy­moron.

When I ask my guide, Jack, why pan­das are one of the few en­demic an­i­mals to have sur­vived, he par­tially jokes: “Be­cause they don’t taste very good!” But there is some truth to his words; his­tory books re­count tales of lo­cal peo­ple at­tempt­ing to cook pan­das in pots with highly dis­sat­is­fy­ing re­sults.

“Chi­nese peo­ple like to put things in their mouths,” he adds, as we drive to­wards the Chengdu Gi­ant Panda Re­search Base.

Lo­cated in the mid­dle of the city and eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, this is the most pop­u­lar re­serve for for­eign tourists. Walk­ways wind around spa­cious en­clo­sures, in a set-up sim­i­lar to a zoo.

Dur­ing my visit, the tem­per­a­ture is mild, but in the sticky summer months, pan­das sleep on ice beds in air­con­di­tioned rooms and eat wa­ter­melon and car­rot lol­lies to keep cool.

Posters ad­ver­tise the op­por­tu­nity to hold a panda, if you’re pre­pared to pay 1,330 yuan (about Dh790) and dress up in an over­coat and sur­gi­cal mask.

The money, I’m told, is needed for the ex­pen­sive up­keep of the pan­das and in­vest­ment into the ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion unit, cur­rently the main method by which the slug­gish pan­das are able to re­pro­duce.

A morn­ing spent watch­ing them shred sticks of bam­boo, then slump lan­guidly in the tree­tops is enough for me.

For­tu­nately, Chengdu has much more to of­fer than its cute and cud­dly bears. Green spa­ces, ex­cel­lent cui­sine and a strong tra­di­tion of tea houses has earned the 2,000-year-old Sichuan cap­i­tal a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing the most re­laxed city in the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic.

Green spa­ces, tea houses and ex­cel­lent food mean Chengdu is known as China’s most re­laxed city

“Peo­ple come here to spend money rather than make money,” says Jack, tak­ing a swig from a flask of loose green tea, which, like most lo­cal peo­ple, he car­ries with him and re­fills through­out the day.

At one time, there were 10,000 tea houses in Chengdu, to­day, 1,000 are still in op­er­a­tion. One of the big­gest is the Hemin tea­house in the Peo­ple’s Park, where groups of old men and univer­sity stu­dents gather at bam­boo ta­bles to play the tra­di­tional Chi­nese game, mah-jong.

Com­peti­tors are locked in se­ri­ous con­cen­tra­tion, their ex­pres­sions as

blank as the flat sky over­head. (On av­er­age, the sun only shines in Chengdu 100 days per year.)

I step over tea urns and the dis­carded shells of sun­flower seeds – a pop­u­lar snack for game­play­ers – and wan­der over to a cor­ner where lo­cal artists are sell­ing Chi­nese paint­ings.

Jack tells me this is a place to re­lax, but the sight of a man us­ing metal tongs and a head torch to “mas­sage” a woman’s ears clean looks more tor­tur­ous than leisurely to me.

Else­where in the park, re­tired women wear­ing over­sized glasses and pouts like a ba­boon’s bot­tom amuse them­selves by parad­ing up and down on a makeshift cat­walk in a bizarre pub­lic fashion show, while oth­ers per­form tra­di­tional Ti­betan dances. The only pur­pose is to en­joy them­selves. Aside from the 17th cen­tury Qing dy­nasty wide and nar­row al­leys, now re­vamped as an up­mar­ket com­plex of restau­rants, bou­tiques and street food stalls, much of the high-rise ar­chi­tec­ture in Chengdu is mod­ern.

As peo­ple from ru­ral ar­eas seek bet­ter health care, ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment, the pop­u­la­tion of the city is swelling. Yet many would agree that their hearts still lie in the sur­round­ing scenic countryside.

Used in the 1950s to carry coal from mines, the Jaiyang rail­road now takes tourists on day trips through peace­ful farm­lands, while a sep­a­rate car­riage still car­ries lo­cals and their live­stock to mar­ket. A jour­ney on the small steam train pro­vides wel­come con­trast to the grey smog and con­crete of the city; fields of bril­liant yel­low rape­seed flow­ers ra­di­ate colour in a place where the sun rarely seems to shine.

Although China is a coun­try that’s rapidly in­dus­tri­al­is­ing, with new roads and build­ings spring­ing up like weeds and chok­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, there is the glim­mer of hope that peo­ple are begin­ning to ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tent of what they could lose. It’s true that, cul­tur­ally speak­ing, the Chi­nese are not a na­tion of an­i­mal lovers, but ef­forts to pro­tect the gi­ant panda, their na­tional treasure, are ed­u­cat­ing a new gen­er­a­tion.

Like many par­ents, Jack hopes to take his son to a panda re­serve when he’s older. “I’d like him to be a panda keeper for the day,” he laughs. But his voice takes on a more se­ri­ous tone. “Be­cause if peo­ple learn to love an­i­mals, I think they could learn to love ev­ery­thing.”

Chengdu is known as the panda cap­i­tal of the world

If you travel to the South of Sichuan, you can see why the gi­ant Bud­dha of Le­shan draws such crowds

Pan­das are not Sichuan ’s only at­trac­tion; Emeis­han Jind­ing tem­ple boasts in­cred­i­ble views

The calm at Green Ram Taoist tem­ple in Chengdu re­flects the na­ture of the city it­self

Much of the ar­chi­tec­ture in Chengdu is high-rise

Chengdu has its own an­tiques shop­ping area

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