Two words: Giant pandas!

Today was one we had been waiting for: we got to visit the Chengdu Panda Base. There are only about 1000 giant pandas in the world, 90% of which live in Sichuan Province. Of the 1000, about 60% live in the wild and 40% live in captivity. The Chengdu Panda Base is not only a tourist attraction (think panda zoo), but it is also a research facility and breeding program.

We once again had some rain, but our guide, Kevin, said that is good because pandas like the coolness. That meant they were out in the trees rather than hiding inside in the air conditioning (I’m not kidding). Kevin described them as very spoiled and lazy. They sleep most of the day and only eat bamboo that comes from the mountains; not what is grown at the panda base. He said the government pays peasants to pick the bamboo and bring it to the base. The caretakers also make cakes for the pandas and hide them in the trees so the pandas get some exercise finding them. The cakes are made of honey, corn, vitamins, et cetera, and are suitable for human consumption.

We started our viewing at the “teenagers” and then worked our way to the “kindergarten” and the “retired” pandas. Teens can live in small groups, but adults are separated as they are territorial and can be aggressive. In captivity, pandas can live up to 25 years (about 15 years in the wild). We didn’t see any rat-like newborns as it is mating season, and they will be born in late summer/early fall (panda pregnancy is only 3 months!). We were fortunate to get to see two adults feeding on bamboo. It was a thrill to watch!

We also saw red pandas, which are actually in the raccoon family, as well as some pheasants wandering around. Kevin said you used to be able to pay about $350 to hold a panda, but the government discontinued the program a few years ago when the pandas got sick. He also added that parents of adoptees like Abbie would always pay for it (he added that he thinks they’re quite spoiled, just like the pandas!).

After the panda base, we returned to the city for a famous Sichuan hot pot lunch. It was not only delicious but quite an experience as well. The boiling pot of chicken and vegetable broth is in the middle of the table and ingredients are brought to you for cooking. Locals have the spicy pepper broth mixed in, but for westerners like us, they have a separate pot in the center for dipping, otherwise it is too spicy. Kevin selected our ingredients – nothing “strange” (his word), like innards of various animals. We stuck with veggies like bean sprouts, cucumber, tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage, and meats like sliced beef, pork meatballs, and shrimp dumplings. We also took tofu, and Kevin was surprised because westerners don’t usually eat it.

Each person mixes their own combination of sesame oil, garlic, cilantro, and green onion in a small bowl, and that’s what you put the food in once it’s cooked in the large hot pot. Since the pepper pot was separate, we dipped our items in it as much as we wanted the spice level to be. Kevin said we did a very good job for westerners, both with the spice and the chop sticks. πŸ™‚ Oh yeah, you also drink hot tea with this meal – and it’s nearly 90 degrees here today with high humidity, so we all were sweating up a storm by the end of the meal (Kevin included)! It was an experience we will never forget (Reed and Jackson, Abbie thought you would’ve loved it).

After lunch, we visited Jinli Street and Kuan and Zhai Alleys. These were very crowded pedestrian streets lined with shops, crafts, and “local snacks.” Kevin moved us through fairly quickly, but he would stop along the way to explain some things to us. The local snacks ranged from pineapple sticky rice to black tofu to various items on a stick: heads (duck, rabbit), tongues, feet, tentacles, innards, and that thing on top of a rooster’s head. We were glad we had already eaten. πŸ™‚

We had a little time to rest in the hotel and cool off (the ice cream bars helped!) before setting out for the evening. We began with a traditional Chinese medicinal (herbal) dinner. We again enjoyed rolling roast duck, sauce, cucumbers, and onion in little pancakes. We also tried Kung Pao chicken, which originates here, but we didn’t enjoy the “numb” peppers. They weren’t spicy hot but rather were a type of peppercorn that literally numbs your tongue. After dinner, we went to a Sichuan Opera variety show, including the famous changing masks, which Kevin said only a few people know how to do as the government keeps it a secret. It was colorful, musical, and quite entertaining. The highlight of the day remains the giant pandas however. πŸ™‚

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