Sunday, 29 July 2012

#24 See a panda bear in China

I'm not sure Jenny's suggestion that I should see a panda bear wasn't planned to coincide with her trip to see me in China, although she assures me it was purely coincidence. Either way, as we didn't want to see the pandas in a zoo, we set off on what we thought would be a bit of an epic 36 hour round trip to see them at the Panda Research Breeding Centre in Chengdu.

As I said in an earlier post, there's nothing like travelling with good friends who you can just be totally silly with. I'm not sure, for example, that concocting a plan to kidnap a baby panda and name him Dumpling would go down too well with strangers. In fact, in hindsight, we probably shouldn't have discussed our scheming with the other people at our hostel as I think we may have gained a reputation as 'the mad English girls'. Ho hum. At the time it seemed like a perfectly valid way to spend a wish by asking for a baby panda when we let off our Chinese lantern (organised to celebrate the country's Dragon Boat Festival) rather than, oh let's say a job when I get home for example.

Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival.
Using our wish wisely.
We set off early the next morning with our plan polished and ready to go (it involved apples and rope ladders - and yes, before you ask, I am aware of the fact that I will soon be turning 30) and were the first to arrive. However we then had to spend the next 15 minutes or so body-pressed to the ticket office window as, like I've previously mentioned, there was no way anyone was going to queue to see the pandas. Clutching out first-into-the-park tickets we dashed to find the pandas eating breakfast and they honestly were the cutest/laziest things ever.They ambled out to the huge piles of bamboo before tumbling into a comfortable position (normally on their backs and not too worried if it was on top if one of their mates) to eat.

Laziest breakfast ever,
We were lucky enough to be able to watch them for five minutes or so before the tour groups arrived and, with their huge cameras and zoom lenses, quickly turned the place into some kind of red carpet media scrum. The pandas, completely oblivious to us all, continues with their munching, ignoring every single "ooh" and "aah" whenever they so much as moved a muscle.

A cute cuddly bear or a man in a suit??
We saw some very cute moments, including a mother who was interrupted when feeding her babies when another nosy panda decided to find out what was going on and fell on their heads. But there's also something a bit surreal about being so close to animals you've only ever seen in photos and, weirdly, the more we looked at them, the more they seemed to look like humans dressed up in furry suits. We decided to move on quickly before we uncovered some huge panda-related scandal and came across a baby bear who looked remarkably like we'd imagined Dumpling. He appeared to be stuck half-way up a tree, unsure whether it would be better to go forwards or backwards, which to be fair is exactly the kind of special bear we'd been planning to adopt.

"Hey guys? A bit of help here please!"
We spent a lot of time taking photos with him and then a lot of time with other tourists taking photos of us. So there were a lot of photos all round. Not sure what I'm going to do with 100 photos of pandas just yet. May have to consider cropping the batch at some point.

After deciding that there were many parts of our plan we hadn't though through fully (already heavy backpacks; strict customs officials; lack of bamboo in Brighton etc etc) we decided Dumpling would probably be happier in his current home. So we left him hanging out/stuck in his tree and headed for our train, which is when the next part of our adventure began...

The bunks on the overnight trains in China are on three levels, so the person who gets the top one is basically sleeping in the luggage rack. We attracted the usual attention as we bumbled down the narrow carriageway, whacking into everyone with our backpacks and discovered that the people in the opposite beds were three generations of a family - son, mother and grandmother. The son was about two and looked cute enough. How wrong we were.

I guess it's never ideal for parents to have to spend 24 hours straight on a train with a small child. But what always surprises me here is the lack of stuff parents seem to bring for their kids. At home I know my friends who are parents are super prepared when they take their children anywhere and a journey of that length would have been planned with military precision. In China they don't even bring a toy for them to play with, which leave two options. 1. Sit quietly and patiently until we arrive (which, to be fair, most of the kids do). 2. Run around screaming for hours. Unfortunately we had a screamer and the more he screamed, the more his grandmother (who seemed to be the main care-giver) screamed at him to stop screaming.

For the first few hours we humoured him as he hit us; tried to steal our food and repeatedly threw things on the floor. After 12 hours it had started to get a bit tedious and after 24 hours we were well and truly ready to get off. As 5pm approached we started to get our bags ready and were eagerly looking out of the windows for our first glimpse of Shanghai's skyscrapers. Half an hour later we were still sat in exactly the same position, wondering why no-one else seemed to be getting ready, when Jenny asked the fateful question: "Why did we think we arrived at 5pm by the way?" I got out my piece of paper I'd written all of the train times on and sure enough I'd written what the moody girl at the train station had told me: 5. Having already spent one night on the train we'd just assumed it meant 5pm the next day but suddenly, one by one, it dawned on us that it could actually mean 5am... We checked with the men playing cards next to us who confirmed our suspicions with a cackle of laughter. It was one of those travel moments where it you didn't laugh, you'd have cried. Despite having eaten all of our food; facing another night on the bunks (me in the luggage rack) and worse still, being stuck with China's most annoying child, we managed to see the funny side. Just about...

Discovering we had another 12 hours left on the train.

But #24 was worth the 48 hour round-trip.

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