Nihao from China!
We made through our flights—first 7 hours, then another 14—with the usual sore necks and cries of “how much longer?” The kids gorged on movies, an unprecedented move for our household. The first delight of China for the kids was in the Chengdu airport, where we found multiple displays of stuffed pandas roaming among plastic flower and grass. (“Look, pandas!”) It made for lots of squealing and jumping around while we waited for our luggage.
The Chengdu Conservation Panda base is a remarkable place. Three hundred pandas live here, where they are aggressively bred to increase their numbers and preserve their genetic diversity. The pandas are rather picky about their mates, which leads to more babies being born through reproductive technology than traditional mating. There is a film in the visitor center that discusses their breeding in rather explicit terms, so that we had to define some new reproductive vocabulary for Miranda. We watched pandas making pandas, and some extraordinary footage of baby pandas being born. The obstetrician in me is quite perplexed. First, the gestational age varies from 84 to 320 days—what?? How on earth is that, a variable gestational age? And second, how could nature approved of delivering these premature weaklings that weigh just 1/1000 of their mother’s weight? Why not develop for another month or two before emerging into the world? There was a clip of a mother without motherly instinct who just batted the squealing baby around on the cement floor until the keepers rescued it, and another mother who grasped the just born pink naked thing between her teeth and delivered in into her cradled arms. The mothers who grasp their maternal role parent until four months, and when all the babies of the same age are grouped other. They stick together as adolescents until about five years of age, at which time they enter into solitude as they would if they lived in the wild—with their own territory, their own enclosure.
We strolled through acres and acres of bamboo and trees on walkways that weave through the enclosures. There is no glass, but rather just waist-high fences and a small moat between the visitors and the pandas. The joy of a March visit is the lack of crowds. We had the place nearly to ourselves, scoring direct views over and over again in front of the pandas as the munched, scratched, and wandered. The babies were adorable, snuggling together and batting each other in play. They nap up in the tree, wedged into the most awkward forks in the branches where they pass out in total relaxation. Miranda and Phoebe declared the pandas, “Great! Fluffy and furry and cuddly. So cute!”
Phoebe donated her birthday money from her “5 & 5 party” (where each guest brings $10, $5 for Phoebe to shop for herself and $5 to donate to a good cause). In exchange, the Panda Base gave her and her sister two huge stuffed pandas, in complete disregard for their mother’s careful international packing job. So be it. The girls were delighted.
Then we explored old town Chengdu, through tiny narrow passageways made hundreds of years ago, classily restored. We saw cooks making the rope-like noodle for “one noodle soup” and a bare-handed man stirring tea leaves in a hot wok with his. An old tree was decorated with thousands and thousands of little red silk bags, each one filled with a wish of the person who hung it. A man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth was doing a photoshoot of a woman in traditional Chinese dress with a parasol near a flowering tree. There were ponds and bridges, and Chinese roof lines. It was a beautiful place full of crowds.
By the end, Phoebe was near collapse. We headed to the airport on the early side, where this jetlagged family enjoyed some deep sleep while waiting for boarding time. And then off to Guilin!