Travel: It was like a giant panda’s tea party - Andrea Powell looks back at a once-in-a-lifetime trip to China

Relaxing together

Relaxing together - Credit: Archant

Andrea Powell found her trip to China to help care for the pandas at the Ginat Panda Research Base in Chengdu was a childhood dream come true.

For me it was the stuff of a childhood dream.

I still remember the time my poor Dad had to go all the way back to grandma’s one evening to get my scruffiest favourite toy ‘Panda’ before I would go to sleep.

I had previously been to San Diego to see the Pandas there. Despite having a whole zoo with Koalas, Orang-utans, Polar Bears and even the elusive Snow Leopard for me there was only one place to be – from the minute it opened until they practically frogmarched us out of the place – the Panda Enclosure. ’Don’t you want lunch dear?’ said my husband after, um, three hours. ‘Not really but you go,’ was my absent-minded reply.

So when it came to planning for a ‘big birthday’ (no, I’m not revealing which one) there was only one thing to be done: Giant Panda Keeping.

I had read about the Giant Panda Research Base in Chengdu, world renowned for its breeding programme and also where the Edinburgh Pandas were born. They had an ‘Internship Programme’ where the students allow a limited number of people to ‘get up close’ to the pandas – as well as learn more about the work there.

The Big Birthday Holiday incorporated both time in Chengdu and a week in Singapore. However, it was not the jet lag or the thought of being another year older that contributed to me being wide awake at 3am. Rather the childlike feeling of waking up on Christmas morning with butterflies of anticipation.

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Knowing the traffic in China I allowed plenty of time for the half an hour trip from our hotel. Taxi booked for 7.30am despite the tour not due to start until 10. Well, I wanted to make sure I was not late.

At 8am sharp, with hardly anyone else there I was eagerly awaiting the park opening - first in the queue. The pandas are kept in enclosures but the park is extremely well laid out and there is plenty of space for each group of pandas to roam around both inside and outdoors. The hardest decision was which enclosure to go to. Panda’s everywhere!

Settling on the closest, I stood enthralled for the next hour watching as the pandas munched through the pile of bamboo not in the least bit bothered by the attention of onlookers. They just looked so unreal. It almost felt as if a man was going to ‘jump out of the suit’ and burst my bubble. But this was really happening. And then it was time for the ‘Special Bit’.

Our activities were to include a tour around the panda base (including the panda nursery, which was unoccupied), learning about giant pandas and how to perform panda behaviour research, feeding the pandas, cleaning panda enclosures and collecting and weighing the pandas’ faeces (mental note –husband’s experience at dealing with dogs and rabbits at home will be invaluable).

We met our programme manager, Ruth, who gave us a briefing about pandas including the types of food they are given (unlimited bamboo) and special treats they enjoy (apples and Panda Cakes are favourites).

Then it was out into the enclosure. Finally, my moment had arrived.

Oh the eyes. To actually be close enough to touch, to see those kind and cuddly (if eyes can be such a thing) eyes. But also the sharp teeth and claws and the fierce sound of the tearing of bamboo.

The keeper experience allowed us to visit and feed four adult giant pandas, including a pair of twins. Placing small pieces of apple at the end of a long stick we then held it in front of their noses, just out of reach. We were told to lift the stick up and down while saying a command to encourage them to stand on their back legs to help mimic movements they would naturally do in the wild, and keep their leg muscles strong for mating.

After the feeding, the pandas were released outside and it was time for husband to step up to the plate – the cleaning of cages. This involved clearing bamboo and panda poo off the floor and sleeping area. I wanted to leave their beds covered with a nice fluffy bale of hay or something. But apparently, the sparse sleeping area was ‘comfortable’ to a panda. We gamely put on scrubs, gloves and plastic shoe covers and tackled the task at hand. I elected for the washing the floor bit which left hubby with the shovel and bin. It took us more than half an hour to do what one panda keeper does in five minutes. We were also asked to separate the poo from the bamboo so that it can be weighed. This allows a monitor to be kept of how much the pandas are eating. Although it sounds a dirty job, it was only a little stinky, not exactly glamorous, but interesting nonetheless.

A panda’s favourite treat and also part of their nutritional needs is panda cakes, made of flour, soy bean, cornflour and oats. They tasted a bit dry, more like wholewheat bread to me. Personally if I was a panda I’d go for the apples! Anyway, time to feed them again. It struck me that pandas really do spend all their time either sleeping or eating. No wonder they look as if they have life sussed.

Feeding them panda cakes was similar to feeding them apple slices. We took turns putting the cakes at the end of a long stick and encouraged them to stretch their legs. Being outside other park visitors looked on enviously (or so I told myself as I felt that slight prickle of ‘look at me!’). The pandas also put on quite a show making cute noises and playing to the crowd.

But all too soon my special part of the day was over. Sighing contentedly, saying goodbye to my two new cuddly friends I was reluctantly led from their enclosure. It was onto the year old cubs, so playful and mischievous. Their behaviour resembled that of a Giant Pandas’ Tea Party as they all gathered round in a circle to munch yet more bamboo.

Once finished, they were off, chasing each other and playing around, until the next pile of bamboo arrived.

After what seemed like about ten minutes, but was probably nearer four hours, the ‘final sweep’ of the park was being made by the wardens. My day had come to an end. Feeling even more like a kid than ever as the tears welled up, I took one last look back and reflected on my privileged day. I had lived my childhood dream and experienced something that few get to do. Not a bad day I suppose – even if it did have to end.

As for the next special occasion? Well that would be an anniversary so I think there may have to be a bit more of a say for the poor beleaguered ‘other half’ who dutifully carried the luggage and swept the Panda poo on this adventure. As for the next big birthday, well it is several years away but I do have a few ideas….. And of course there is always the possibility of a return to Chendgu!

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