On the morning of my special day, I tried to keep my excitement in check when arriving at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base - but it wasn't easy!
Thankfully the next panda was sitting up and eating bamboo which was a bit more like it! It was so lovely watching him munching away but also very surreal and I don’t think I truly believed what I was seeing. It simply didn’t feel real, it was like I was staring at a 3D TV screen watching a panda documentary.
We had to book our spaces in advance as only 10 people were allowed in each session and we managed to take the last two spaces! For the privilege, we had to make a 2,000CYN “donation” EACH which is over £200/$323 USD EACH yes £400 in total! Strewth, that burnt a whole in our wallet …but what price do you pay for a lifelong dream? Exactly! It’s priceless.
We were given our “backstage pass”, DVD, t-shirt, sturdy bag, a book, “donation” certificate and a framed photo [NB There are no cash machines on-site and only cash is accepted so, to avoid any disappointment, you should check with the centre in advance to find out the cost]
So, now it was time to wash some bamboo – oh yes, this is stuff dreams are made of! We took it in turns pointing a high pressure jet hose at the pile whilst being informed that there are actually 1,300 different types of bamboo. Who knew?! Pandas are only fed bitter bamboo which apparently doesn’t taste like its name to a panda and, because their bodies only digest about 20% of it, their poop is like a chewed up ball of bamboo – hope that gives you a lovely mental vision!
After that mini bit of excitement, we were taken to the incubator room because a few weeks ago, a set of twins were born so that’s where we were taken first. Awwwwww! These furless pink rats weighed only 50g and 100g at birth – a fully grown adult male can be as much as 165kg! How can something so big produce something so tiny and helpless?
Pandas are born prematurely after a gestation period of between 82-200 days which means they are blind and deaf, this is why they make such a pitiful squealing noise ... so their mother can hear where they are and (hopefully) not squish them! When they are a little older, sometimes they need to be fed with baby milk and vitamins as the mother’s milk simply may not be good enough. We were told that apparently they love honey – just like Winnie the Pooh bear!
Next we were given special blue shoe covers, blue overalls and clear plastic gloves which we had to wear to avoid giving the panda any human germs. Not sure this look will catch on in fashion week; I didn’t feel it was my shade of blue.
The 10 of us lined up in order of the number on our “backstage pass” mine was #2 and Sy was #3.
Two keepers carried a one year-old and sat him on a wooden bench. OMG, the first sighting was just too much for me to take in and I was laughing and crying at the same time! I just couldn’t believe this was about to happen - a lifelong dream was actually about to come true!!!!
Finally came the moment I have waited for my whole life – to be near and to touch a panda! I gingerly took a seat next to the panda, avoiding the paws and ears as instructed by the keepers, and placed my right arm around his neck and the left on his arm... then I just hugged him!
Wahoooooo!! I was hugging a panda-bear! A real life, 100% bona-fide, black and white panda bear. WOW!! If only time could stop right now, I could stay this happy forever!
Sy and the keepers were snapping away with cameras and I just petted his course fur and squished its denseness like a big cuddly teddy bear. I couldn’t resist leaning in for a bigger cuddle and rested my chin and cheek on his little head feeling its fur against my skin – oh my gosh how magical this was and I tried to take it all in for those few short minutes. The only comparison I can give you of this special time was a wedding ceremony – you are trying to live the moment, taking in as much as you can because you know once this very special period is over, all you have left is the memory and how you felt (plus copious photos!).
Then it was over.
Very reluctantly I stood up and it was Sy’s turn. As soon as he sat down the panda put his paw into Sy’s hand as if to hold it and stayed that way. They looked like a couple on a date.
Sy said he could feel it’s warmth on his hand and he too couldn’t resist a cuddle and to feel the fur on his face. I snapped away as he “ooooed” and “aaaaaaahd” then the panda looked straight up at him into his face, bless, he thought he was going to bite him but he just wanted more honey! The keepers dashed over, squeezed more onto his paw then bopped his little head down and off he went again, licking like it was going out of fashion.
Sadly, Sy’s turn was then over and it was time for the next person’s experience and we watched the whole process repeated over and over adoring this bundle of cuteness in front of us. A couple sat together for photos and we suddenly realised that in all the emotion, we forgot to do this and I became a little teary! I wanted a photo of the two of us to display on our living room wall so we begged them to let us sit with our furry friend again, I even showed them my birthday badges! To our relief they agreed - phew, thank you guys!
Yaaaaaay!! We felt so lucky to have a second chance with the cutest and most adorable animal in the world and neither of us could resist putting our hands on his fur and giving him another cuddle for just a few more photos.
WOW!! Talk about the icing on the cake, this had cherries, candles … and fireworks!
Our experience didn’t end there though as we still had the rest of the centre to look around! Could I take any more excitement?? Absolutely!
The next stop was another incubator room with more pandas at various stages of new-born. Some only a few weeks old and some had a bit more fur on them and were starting to develop the distinctive black and white look of a panda. Awwwww, one was wriggling and squirming constantly as three others slept peacefully by its side.
Our time was nearing an end but we quickly stopped in the souvenir shop at the end where we tried on some ridiculous hats and mittens.
When we left the centre, I was chatting to Sy and asked where do I go from here now that I have achieved my life’s ambition and done the “one thing I wanted to do before I die”. I am a person of travelling ambition so what can top this? Nothing!
I have since decided what my next “top of the bucket list” item is – to go and see the pandas again ... only next time, I will volunteer with them! In my opinion, why do you have to have only one thing to do, why can’t you just do it again if it was that special!! So that is what I will do.
Have you ticked of the top of your bucket list? How did it feel? Do you now have something else you want to do? Share your thoughts with us
There is an information centre on-site filled with facts about these lovable creatures so I will share these with you.
• I was surprised to learn that, in all honesty, their lifespan on our planet has long gone! Pandas have been around for 8 million years and the average for any species is only 5 million. The Chinese actually refer to them as the "living fossil".
• Panda’s don’t exactly help themselves when it comes to breeding! They are unsociable animals and when they do find a mate, they don’t always get along and so don’t make babies. There are only about three days a year when they are receptive so in these centres, human help is needed to ensure the survival of the species. The explanation of how this is done is one I hope I will forget and don’t wish to share it! I wouldn’t want to give you the lasting vision that I had!
• If pandas give birth to twins they often choose to look after the strongest one leaving the other to die because they cannot produce enough milk via their diet to feed both.
• From about five years old when they are a full adult weighing 100kg, they are able to have babies. From the age of seven they become territorial and in the wild, will probably only live until they are 15 however in captivity, they can live as long as 25-30 years.
• In the 1950’s a pair were given to the USA but they have since realised how lucrative they are so started renting them out, although you have to abide by their rules otherwise the government will take them back! An example of this is Taiwan; the Chinese name the babies 100 days after they have been born and this particular panda was called “Reunion”, however the Taiwanese didn’t like this name so refused to call him that. He was taken back to China.
• Edinburgh Zoo have been loaned two pandas for eight years at a cost of £1 million per year.
*Unfortunately this base no longer offers the option to cuddle a panda (it was stopped in 2014). There are two other bases nearby which offer both hug and volunteer programs, however all centres periodically stop this in order to protect the giant pandas from canine distemper infection so you should always check in advance.
Dujiangyan Panda Valley is an hour outside Chengdu and at the time of writing, are offering experiences.
Bifengxia Panda Base is two hours from Chengdu and you can observe them more in their natural habitat but at the time of writing, they were not allowing close encounters with the pandas.
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