Guest Post from Chengdu: Panda Pilgrims and Rabbit Heads
Fleeting vistas come into focus before the speed of the train tears them away from my line of vision. Cloudless skies, mountains that appear as if carved by skillful hands and lush green fields as far as I can see, all drift by in the blink of an eye. China rapidly expands and reveals its secrets to me; new buildings miraculously shoot out of the ground, burgeoning cities rise and flourish; people walk, live and breathe as they go about their daily business.
I’ve been living in this country for a year and a half. It’s taken some time, but China is starting to feel like home.
Two weeks earlier……
An early rise at the most ungodly of hours to beat the crowds proves warranted as we join a rapidly growing throng of PP’s, (“Panda Pilgrims”) mostly composed of exasperated parents and tearful, impatient children. In all directions, near and far, we are surrounded by reminders of and references to Chengdu’s emblematic beast; murals adorned with fleets of pandas run parallel to the road leading from the metro to the Panda Breeding Research Base; many female pp’s queuing wear their anticipation in the form of hairbands adorned with panda ears. We make our way in as the rain continues to sprinkle from above and amble to an adult panda enclosure where we wait to catch a glimpse of these famously procreation shy creatures.
We do not have long to wait before suddenly, a rumble grows from the expectant crowd and rises to a clamor. My friend calls out excitedly and I dash to the adjacent enclosure where I spot two pandas emerging to tuck into a breakfast of bamboo. A short moment later, a third panda comes out to join. (Interesting fact: The collective name for a group of pandas is known charmingly as an “embarrassment,” a “bamboo” or a “cupboard.”) I had anticipated being underwhelmed but found myself awed by these rare, photogenic creatures as they lumbered into my line of sight; they are after all the poster boys (and girls) for endangered species across the globe. They are not without good reason, the symbol of the animal conservation charity, WWF. (The inspiration for the WWF logo came from Chi Chi: a giant panda living in London Zoo in 1961, which was also the same year the WWF was created. It was drawn by Sir Peter Scott, one of the founders of the WWF.) According to worldwildlife.org there are just over 1,800 pandas left in the wild; their extinction risk is defined as “vulnerable.”
My friend calls out for a second time, from the enclosure where I was standing only a few moments earlier, where excitement is gently simmering. He points in the direction of a panda rapidly ascending a tree with astonishing dexterity and speed. Despite their languid movements on land, they climb trees with unexpected agility. Amusingly, this particular panda slumbers after reaching the top, his limbs flailing off branches in all directions. Part of the appeal of these creatures is how anthropomorphic they are; this is never more evident than when they sleep. Like humans, they often fall asleep in highly undignified poses and in what appear to be very uncomfortable positions.
They appear blissfully unaware of the crowds but it’s clear that over time they have grown accustomed to regular attention. Often, they almost seem aware of their photogenic appearance and “celebrity” status. Each time I turned away and refaced it was as if they intentionally and swiftly adopted new poses or positions (lounging over a sharp, seemingly inhospitable rock, sleeping on top of a tree) to prompt me to take more videos and photos.
During the course of the day, amid the humidity and light rain, we move between enclosures following paths canopied by solid, curved bamboo. Placards are dotted around the perimeters of enclosures with names of resident pandas with amusing, corresponding descriptions of their distinctive personalities.
Late in the morning we stop for a brief coffee break, before making our way to visit the unsung heroes (the bridesmaids if you will) of the breeding centre: the red panda. Immediately on entering the enclosure, a red panda scuttles under the fence and calmly darts down a wooden path which curves to the right. As we follow suit, my eyes catch a duo of red pandas taking a nap in the foliage above; this is surprising as red pandas are known to be solitary. Shortly afterwards, we see a pair walking in tandem before hastily shimmying up a tree (where they prefer to spend most of their time), one after the other. They strongly resemble raccoons who are distant relations but although they bear few physical (they appear much smaller and have cinnamon coloured fur) similarities to giant pandas, like their two-tone cousins, they also have a tendency to snooze in trees. (They primarily in sleep trees, more so than the giant panda.)
We leave satisfied with what we have seen. The crowds have visibly swelled since our arrival and we leave with the intention of visiting Dufu’s cottage where Dufu, one of China’s most famous poets during the Tang Dynasty, once resided.
Our ensuing time in Chengdu consists of a visit to Jinli Street, where I consume spiced rabbit head and send a picture to my utterly horrified sister, a meal at a hot pot restaurant with the appetising name of “Toilet,” a jaunt through Wide and Narrow, where I send some postcards to family members (HEY MUM AND DAD I SAW SOME PANDAS THIS WEEK. THEY WERE LIKE TOTALLY AMAZING PS I CAN SMELL DURIAN FROM WHERE IM WRITING THIS CARD. IT SMELLS LIKE SOMEONE’S DIED.) Much to my consternation and mainly due to my slightly nonchalant attitude to the sun, I catch sunstroke, which causes me to itch and scratch uncontrollably like I have rabies and my phone dies, so I purchase a Chinese phone for the first time, the Xiaomi Mii 9. This decision bears fruit immediately. It has an excellent camera which allows me to take an array of beautiful photos. The model is a reasonably priced, aesthetically pleasing and ultimately, fine piece of tech.
Our agenda for week two is a trip to Xi’an. We intend to walk it’s majestic city walls, visit both The Drum Tower and The Bell Tower, the Muslim Quarter and eat oily but delicious roujiamo. (Roujiamo literally translates as “meat sandwiched in bread.” It’s a type of Chinese street food known as the “Chinese Hamburger.” It originates in the Shaanxi province and most commonly contains shredded pork, combined with various spices, although lamb and beef versions are also often available. It’s normally served between two pieces of round, crusty flatbread.) However, our first port of call will be Huashan (“Hua” means flower, “Shan” means mountain), one of the five sacred mountains of China where Taoism is famously practiced. It’s located around 120 km from Xi’an. After catching a train, a bus and a cable car, we eventually find ourselves at the foot of south peak. With our backpacks laden and the sun in our faces, we begin our ascent.
My ten favourite songs this month/ A Shenzhen playlist:
1. Royksopp: Circuit Breaker
2. Dario Marianelli: Awaken- Jane Eyre (Music From The Motion Picture)
3. Frank Ocean- Provider
4. Still Corners- The Trip
5. Arcade Fire- Rebellion (Lies)
6. Tycho- Daydream
7. Red Hot Chilli Peppers- Road Trippin’
8. Olafur Arnalds- Particles ft. Nanna Byrndis Hilmarsdottir (Check out the video)
9. Janelle Monae- I Like That
10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs- Turn Into
Teacher Guest Post written by Shehan Nithiananda. Shehan is an English and Drama teacher living in Shenzhen. He studied Drama at Exeter University, followed by Law at Cardiff University.
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