Phil Roeland

Bear Hugs

Observations from Chengdu

One of the major attractions of Chengdu is the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, a pleasant zoo in the northern suburbs of the city. I don't know if the word zoo is appropriate, since the only animals on display are giant pandas and red pandas. Although this panda zoo is a so-called must-see sight, I guess you could skip it if you've already had the pleasure of seeing live pandas. Then again, you probably won't have seen that many at once (there are 60+ there).

As if seeing and admiring these gently beasts from afar isn't enough, i.e. from just outside their enclosures, animal lovers are now also given the opportunity to cuddle a real panda. Don't get overly excited yet, as holding these black-and-white icons doesn't come cheap. A photo op with a giant panda cub - undoubtedly the cutest - will set you back a cool 1,000 yuan (about 150 US dollars), a sub-adult costs only half, while the raccoonish red panda fetches no more than 100 yuan. Call it a rip-off or a once-in-a-lifetime experience, pandas seem to get cuddled whatever the cost.

Anyway, I'm not criticizing the price of the experience. I was just wondering if all these ‘animal lovers' who seem to be willing to shell out big bucks for this realize that what they are cuddling are wild animals and not some teddy bear or other soft toy. Why can't they hug a tree or a kitten instead? By the way, cuddly pandas can pack a mean bite and even maul idiots intruding in their pens, as several huggers found out over the last few years.

The Panda Base has dedicated a lot of efforts and money on getting these undersexed mammals to procreate, not a small feat when Mr and Mrs Panda seem to have perpetual headaches. Giant pandas are endangered and face a high risk of becoming extinct in the wild in the near future. Depending on sources, only 1,000 - 2,500 remain in the wild, so a breeding programme might make sense.

On the other hand, reintroducing pandas bred in captivity back into the wild has been so far problematic at best and a failure at worst. There seem to be too few pandas left to sustain the population in the wild. Even if they suddenly started humping as if possessed, they'd be doing it with siblings, parents and cousins and produce inferior offspring.

Maybe the Chinese should focus solely on maximising the income from hugging instead of trying to reverse the impossible and aim for a large captive population. Apparently, there are plenty of suckers willing to pay, as this post on a message boards showed: "I would love nothing more than to hold and take a picture with a panda and I'm willing to pay whatever the cost." To make matters worse, this was posted by someone in vet school. My message to him/her: unless these pandas are in need of medical attention, please keep your germy paws off my bears.

Apart from the panda-experience, Chengdu has some other aces up its sleeve. I won't bother you by listing all the tourist attractions but limit myself to what you may not find in a run-of-the-mill guidebook (just have a look at my photostream on Flickr or do a Google search if you want to know more about all interesting attractions). If you ever visit this megalopolis, beware of King Car. Indeed, motorists are blissfully unaware of perambulating pedestrians and wouldn't think twice if running one over would get them quicker to their destination. Their honking is annoying as well but at least not life-threatening. Other safety concerns in Sichuan include drinking the incredibly foul local firewater known as ‘baijiu', which may turn you blind.

Contrary to Thailand, nobody seems sexually confused, so there is no need to continuously wonder if tall or well-endowed stunners are really women. Quite a relief, I'd say. Also, the Chinese have grasped the necessity of reducing pollution, so shops and supermarkets have stopped handing out plastic bags. Although they remain available for a small fee, most - if not all - shoppers carry their own cloth or plastic bags, or just carry stuff in their hands.

Fares on city buses can be paid by a refillable magnetic bus card, which is not only convenient but also lets you transfer to other buses for free within a two-hour window. On top of this, bus card holders get a 50% discount on the already low fares. The underground which is due to open in 2010 will be the icing on the transport cake. By the way, visionary transport policies are an absolute necessity in a city (or country) where more and more families have started earning enough to afford a car. Where five years ago Chengdu traffic was moderately light, some parts of the city now suffer day-long congestion.

China hasn't escaped globalisation. Multinational chains or franchises can be found in every big city and most foreign products are readily available. Restaurants like McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway and the like have become popular but thankfully make up only a small portion of the thousands of restaurants. There is even a Hooters in Chengdu and the ultimate Chinese beer, Tsingtao, sports NBA advertising! German and French cars as well as Japanese electronics are in vogue as well, though most of those are made or assembled in China. Shopping can be done at Carrefour or Wal-Mart.

Chengdu is situated in the Sichuan Basin and thus enjoys a fairly mild subtropical climate with hot summers and fairly mild winters (it rarely snows or freezes). The city is often enveloped in fog (or is it smog?), except on sunny days. There are definitely four seasons in Sichuan though, which manifests itself in the abundance of seasonal fruits and vegetables and trees turning all colourful and shedding their leaves in autumn. I hadn't eaten peaches or leeks for a very long time.

Finally, if you want to experience the real or old China, big cities are not the place to go. I'm under the impression that most metropolises have been almost completely torn down and rebuilt over the last ten years. Some cities still have old quarters with original buildings, but those are usually run-down and dilapidated blocks of flats or warehouses. To see the original China (if there ever was one), you'd be better off visiting one of the many Ancient Towns around the country. Beware of the tourist hordes though if you go on a weekend or national holiday, as more available income has made China the country with the fastest growing tourist population.


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