China Trip Diary 2

China trip diary - October - Beijing, Chengdu & Wolong close Panda encounter
China trip diary October 28 to November 13, 2005
. This is a record of my first visit to the Wolong Panda Preserve. Over the next three years until the May, 2008 earthquake, I was fortunate to bring more than twenty groups to Wolong. I was in the Wolong Panda Preserve so often the staff gave me a Chinese nickname, because they cannot easily pronounce my real name.  2006, 2007 and early 2008 I was at the Wolong Preserve with almost unfettered access for 60 to 90 days each year.  I was allowed to roam freely behind the scenes, only barred from entering the interior of the nursery.  This was for me an idyllic and carefree time.

Yes I still lead panda volunteering trips each year.  Send me an email if you are interested in this experience.
October 28, 2005 :
I checked into the Hademan Hotel a few days ago. That way I had time to ensure all plans were still on track. The ambience here is friendly and very Chinese…just what I want in a hotel when I’m staying in China. I shun the large glitzy hotels that could be located anywhere in the world, but just happen to be in China. This hotel has over 200 rooms, but it only took the staff a day to learn my name and room number. (The Hademan Hotel was taken down in 2008/2009 as the renovation craze swept through Beijing during preparations for the 2008 Olympics.)
      The rest of our small group arrived today. Carol and Trina came in around 2:30 and dawn’s plane which was scheduled to arrive at 9:00 P.M. touched down around 10:00 or 11:00. We had dinner tonight at one of the top Peking Duck restaurants in Beijing. It’s been operating for several hundred years. The food was excellent and our group began to learn to use chopsticks. Thankfully I learned to use chopsticks while still in elementary school, so they are a normal part of Chinese dining for me.
   The weather was wet and overcast with light showers on and off for the last three days, but then today things cleared up and the weather was just about perfect.
October 29 : This morning we eat from the hotel breakfast buffet that is located each morning inside the hotel tea house. I spent a leisurely hour in the Tea Room one lazy afternoon and enjoyed the full Chinese Tea Ceremony. I recommend it.
   We start the day by taking a taxi in search of an open air relics and antique market. This has been moved inside because of the coming Olympics. Beijing is undergoing massive construction in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. I guarantee you that China will not be embarrassed by being late in their preparations or by having any segment of the games appear to be anything but first class.
    We also search for the old bird and flower mart. Because of the avian flu epidemic the birds are gone and the flower mart is like a swap meet for nursery products. We finally locate the antique market which has gone inside and gone upscale. It is all permanent store fronts now. There is another weekend antique market that I’ll visit in May, but we run out of time and must head over to Tiananmen Square.
   We return to the hotel and then ride the subway to the Tiananmen Square station. We visit the Forbidden City this afternoon. It is directly across the street from Tiananmen Square. Our hotel is at a subway station entrance so this means of transport is very fast. Traffic in Beijing can be snarled at any time. What takes us 15 minutes total on the subway might have taken an hour on the road.  
   Museums and restorations of old buildings are not my particular interest, so the afternoon while interesting, is a bit slow for me. I cannot help but be amazed at the crowds. Following our leisurely stroll through the City we go back to the hotel to prepare for our evening at the Chinese Acrobat Show.
   Helen has reserved us very good seats. We are in the 4 th row and stage center. The loads of tour buses have emptied their hordes of passengers into the many rows of seating behind us. This is an excellent show with feats of strength, flexibility and balance that are amazing, even in the world we live in today

October 30: Today we leave a bit earlier in the morning as we head to a section of the Great Wall known as Mutianyu. It is quite a distance from Beijing Central which is why the majority of the tour operators don’t bring their groups here. It still has plenty of tourists, but nothing like Badaling Simitai or other wall sections closer to Beijing. This section of the wall is the most picturesque of all the areas that can be reached from Beijing in one day.  Because of our early morning start time, we are able to walk on short sections of the wall with no other people in view. This is something almost nobody gets the opportunity to do - have a quiet moment alone on the Wall.
   We take the cable car from the parking area up to the actual wall. I choose to head directly west along the wall, while the other group members choose to first turn to the north and east. I leave our Chinese translator and local guide, Helen, with them while I walk west. I wanted to spend some time studying a beacon tower and taking photos.
   A couple hours later I arrive at the area of the wall where a sled ride has been installed. This is an amusement type ride and quite fun to take down for an extra $6 or & $7 USD. Trina and Dawn catch up and then along comes Helen, but Carol has disappeared from the wall! We didn’t think that was possible, but then Helen suggests that Carol possibly took the hiking trail down to the parking lot. That trail access is quarter mile or so back along the wall.
   Since Helen and I both have Chinese cell phones that are working here we split up. She goes down to search along the trail. Dawn and Trina ride the sleds down and will search the shopping and parking lot areas. I sit on the wall and enjoy the relative solitude tucked away in a quiet corner of one of the small branches that occasionally lead off from the main wall.
   Helen finally calls to report Carol is now with the group and had indeed hiked down. I jump on a sled and take a fun ride down the hill bobsled style, but without the ice.
   We head back to Beijing and stop at a local roadside inn for a late lunch. The food is excellent and the people very friendly. Although miles from any city everything is clean and very sanitary here.
   We all agree that walking on the Great Wall is very cool and something everyone should do when visiting China.

October 31: We leave Beijing on an early flight to Chengdu. I am sorry to say goodbye to the hotel staff. I’m glad we are staying here the night we leave China. The three cleanest and most modern airports I have ever been in are now all Chinese. Hong Kong is #1, Beijing #2 and Chengdu #3 in size and design ambience. They are all SPOTLESS. They make most American airports seem cheap and second class.
   We arrive in Chengdu at 1:00 PM. Had a good lunch on the plane. It is interesting that wine, both red and white, are offered as a free drink choice on our Air China flight. It is even more interesting to me that my 6’-0" frame fits far more easily in these economy seats than it does in any economy class USA airline I have flown on. China businesses seems to have just a little more concern for how the individual is treated than what we Capitalists are used to.
   Our Wolong local panda guide and Chinese translator is waiting at the airport with a big smile on her face. We load into the van and head north toward the mountains. If we were to drive far enough we would end up in Tibet, but our trip is quite a bit shorter.
   The trip to the Panda Inn takes us about 4 ½ hours. Traffic is heavy at some points due to massive hydro-electric projects being built along the river valley that we drive up. Without these projects the drive is only about 3 hours. We stop at a fruit and vegetable market and stock up on bananas and Mandarin oranges (they are the best!).
   At the Hotel we check in and meet for dinner. It doesn’t take the group long to realize that the accommodations here are a step down from the Hademan Hotel in Beijing. The Panda Inn is attached to the Wolong Panda Preserve and is the only logical place to stay. The 4 star (much nicer) Wolong Hotel is up the road 5 miles. Staying there would isolate us from the panda activity we have all come to experience. It is nice to be able to walk from the Panda preserve to our hotel rooms and then back to the preserve as we desire. As has been the case everywhere in China, the Hotel staff are friendly and cordial. The restaurant staff is more friendly. I become friendly with some of them during our stay here

November 1: In the morning we drive up the valley to do a half day hike in a steep valley that branches off from the large Wolong Valley. However when we get there the trail has suffered a landslide and I call off the hike up the canyon as being too dangerous. Instead I decide we will walk along the main road, visiting some of the villages along the way. This will give us the opportunity to see the local peoples homes and businesses up close. We also have the chance to talk with the locals as we walk along. The group members all agree that the roadside hike was more interesting than the valley would have been.
   A brief 1 hour stop at the Wolong Panda Museum gets us primed to see some real live Pandas! So we head back to the hotel for lunch and then walk to the panda preserve to register for our volunteer work and to see some live pandas.
   The first thing I see as we take a quick walk around the facility is staff members in the nursery attempting to take a group photo with all 16 baby pandas in the photo. These babies are the ones that were just born in late July and early August. They have never got all these babies together before, so we have a great string of luck going. Lining up 16 squirming baby panda cubs is a challenge that proves too much. They barely get them together in a semi-ragged line before the head keeper calls the project off and animal handlers begin carrying cubs back to their proper pens. What a treat to start our panda encounter. Seeing something that nobody else in the world has ever seen. Sixteen baby panda cubs all together in the same room! I love it.
   We then walk over to the "panda club" where Cindy Lo ( who speaks excellent English) hands out our work clothing and has us sign the work agreements. Of course a size large in Chinese isn’t designed to fit a guy 6 foot tall and 200 pounds, so my coverall is generally rolled down around my waist. I hope they will have some Extra large or XX large next time.
   Dinner is full of chatter about pandas and questions about what our work day will be like tomorrow. We are all anxiously filled with anticipation.

November 2: Breakfast is at 8:00 in the dining room as always. Our work day begins at 8:30 sharp, don’t be late because the pandas are hungry. We each meet our teacher for the duration. My keeper is named Zhang (pronounced sung). She has key responsibility for two panda males who are in training. Some keepers handle three to five cages others less depending on the level of care and attention needed for each animal. There are slightly more than 60 pandas here at the moment. This number can and will change as animals are born, die or are relocated to other panda preserves or zoos.
   Work for all of us this morning consists of cleaning up the old bamboo trimmings and cleaning the enclosures. Along with this there is feeding to be done. Some pandas get more of the special panda cake than others. Lately we are told that the bamboo supply hasn’t been the young tender shoots that the pandas really love, so many of them are not eating as much as they should. The panda cake is nutritious and tasty, but it affects their digestive system and makes the clean up operation more difficult.
   Zhang and I hand feed our primary adult male, Drong Drong. This is done as part of the training process. Zhang breaks the cake into bite sized pieces and the feeds these to DD one by one. First he must come over and sit on his scale to receive food. He does this and we weigh him in at 102 kilos. I get to feed him the small bite sized pieces. I notice that he sticks his tongue out as I hand him the pieces. I withhold the food slightly and he is forced to reach forward just a bit. As he does so he sticks his tongue out further and licks the bottom of my hand. We get a routine going right away, he licks my hand; I shove a piece of cake into his open mouth.
   I later learn I’m the only one to be tongued by one of their pandas. Drong Drong was very vocal. Everything he did was accompanied by moans and groans. 11:30 and lunch break time comes around too quick for me. Zhang advises me to be back at 2:00. She doesn’t speak much English, but my few words of Chinese and the pocket electronic translator allow us to communicate okay. She tells me that we won’t do any clean up in the afternoon, just feeding. And also a special training session has been scheduled for D-D and the vets of the center.
   Lunch is again multiple large dishes of food. We keep saying it is too much food, but surprisingly little food is left at the end of any of our meals. With all the food we eat on this trip, when I got back on the scale at home I discover I’ve lost 15 pounds during the 25 days I’ve been in China.
   After the lunch break I return to work with Zhang. We feed D-D and the other panda. Then we have some time off. 30 minutes of sitting are about all I have patience for and I take to roaming the compound. I find six baby panda laid out on the concrete in front of a wall, catching some sun. They are all asleep except for one who keeps trying to walk away. The keeper must continually run over and shoo him back into the sun with the others.
   Finally Zhang calls me over to observe the training session with Drong Drong. DD must crawl into a steel barred cage and lay down and sort of stretch out. Then upon command he inserts one arm into an area that projects from the front of the cage and that holds just his arm. This allows the veterinarians to inject his arm, draw blood samples or do other work to his arms or legs. When he has completed this task successfully for several minutes the second part of the training commences.
   This training is to allow the vets to collect sperm, which is used when a female must be artificially inseminated. DD must lay on his back for this operation. Then each of his four paws must grasp a specific bar on the cage. He must lay in this position, with his paws continuing to grip the bars while the vets go about manipulating him in order to collect the samples. As he is still being trained his rear paws occasionally come off the bars and take swipes at the veterinarians who are working on him. There is real danger involved in this part of the vets work. Everyone proceeds cautiously and with precise movements. Overall DD performs his tasks well and is continually rewarded by Zhang with panda cake and clicks from an animal training clicker.
   I decide to skip the next work day so I can photograph the others at work. We are not allowed to have cameras with us while working. The staff fears that too much attention will be paid to the photographing, which could put a volunteer into a dangerous situation. We must be careful to stay back from the bars, out of paw swiping range.
   Dinner tonight is very good. We have been having difficulty with hot water in our showers, so Jai, our local guide, goes off to see about getting us hot water. For the rest of our stay we have mostly luke warm water, sometimes only cold water and for me at least most afternoons with hot water. The last 4 days I have no hot water problems.  (NOTE: in 2007 the Panda Inn was remodeled and is much nicer with hot water all the time, new clean rooms and heaters that work well) (NOTE: May 12, 2008 the terrible earthquake struck and destroyed the panda preserve and the newly renovated Panda Inn)

November 3: Did I mention it was raining the day we arrived at Wolong, but rain had stopped before our arrival. During our stay the staff kept expecting more rain, but we had 9 rainless days. Several days the weather was almost hot at around 1:00 or 2:00 PM. But overall the weather was cold, down in the high 30s or low 40s in the morning and at night. Daytime highs might have topped out at 65 or 70, but generally were in the high 50s or low 60s. Long underwear was nice in the morning, but usually too much for the afternoons.
   Today the group begins their work at 8:30, while I wander around the nearly empty complex taking photos and enjoying my quiet time. The bus loads of tourists from the valley don’t usually arrive before 10:00 AM, so the early morning is a very nice time here. It is also the time when the pandas are most active. They know that they will see their trainers and that they will get fresh food.

November 4: Third day of volunteer work. Carol chooses to take photos instead of working. I continue to take photos. Yesterday and today I also went off in search of day hikes we could do. Because of the threatening weather conditions I cancelled our four day trek to Wuyipeng to search for the wild pandas. It was just too dangerous at that higher elevation, with the weather conditions so iffy at the moment.

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