I forgot to mention Yifan in my last post. Yifan was my host in the city of Ya-an, or he would have been had he stayed there. Instead he met and greeted me, took me to dinner with a group of his fellow students and then left me with the keys to his room while he went off to the earthquake zone to do some relief work with a volunteer organisation. As I could not speak Chinese, and for the fear of a foreigner getting hurt, I was not allowed to join in. But I was not left alone. Alex, a French woman that I first met in Lijiang with fer boyfriend Mika, was also coming to stay at Yifans place. We had bumped into eachother again in Shangri-La when they walked past the window of a restaurant where I was eating, and then again in Litang at the hostel I stayed at. This would now be the fourth time we met. Quite bizarre given the size of the country and the lack of foreign tourists, at least in this region. Mika had left for Urumqi before they meet again in Mongolia, so she was also glad of the company. She hitched a few lifts from Chengdu in order to see the Panda bears at the Bifengxian breeding centre. I had wanted to visit Pandas at Wolong, the largest reserve, which was on my planned cycle route, but when I heard it had been closed for renovation since the 2008 earthquake I decided to tag along with her and so I began my first hitch hike in China.
A twenty minute walk brought us to the road we wanted and it wasn't long before we got a lift all the way to the gate, 15 km away. We were a little disappointed when told we would have to pay the full 120 Yuan (£13) entry, as Alex was counting on them accepting her student card for a discount. Unfortunately it had no photo of her so they refused it. It's a shame I hadn't thought about getting one myself. Before we could take a look at the Pandas we went on a walk around one of the valleys in the park, waiting for the afternoon viewing session to begin. Even though there was a light drizzle the entire time we were there the valley was a magical combination of waterfall, rock pools and overhanging greenery.
A quick lunch in the overpriced restaurant and it was on to the main attraction. The breeding centre is attempting to reintroduce Pandas to the wild, in an area that is fast becoming overpopulated with humans. There are reportedly one thousand Pandas still roaming free but their living and breeding habitats are becoming scarce. Where once they roamed across about one fifth of China, moving around to newer pastures as their food became scarce, they are now found (very rarely) in limited areas where the valleys make it too difficult to build houses and to farm. There are about sixty Pandas in Bifengxian, including about twenty babies and young Pandas.
Normally I don't really go in for captive animal parks but the chance of seeing a Panda anywhere else in the world is remote. China is the only country in the world that has Pandas and are extremely protective of them and for good reason. Any application from foreign zoos are stringently vetted both environmentally and financially. Pandas are available for hire at $1 million each per year, on a ten year lease only. That's a ten million dollar investment per Panda. oh yes, I forgot to mention, you have to take a breeding pair. That means $20 million dollars in total. No wonder there aren't many abroad. And even if the pair breed the offspring remain the property of China.
It has to be said that they are not the most energetic of creatures, and to see one pad around its enclosure is, once you get over the awe that this is a real Panda, a bit of a non-event. That's not to say that they are a let down. It's just that they aren't the most entertaining creatures. And that is both the problem, and the bonus, with these types of parks. The Pandas are there for one purpose only, to breed a new generation that can be re-introduced to the wild. Even though there are reportedly about one thousand in the wild, and seeing one there would certainly be something to talk of, I'm sure that I would never catch a glimpse of one no matter how long I spent looking.
Pandas are solitary creatures, the young staying with the Mother for just two years before leaving to fend for themselves. The three young that we saw were in a separate section of the park. They look so cute and cuddly that it is hard to believe they will grow up to the size of the parents. Bur being fed by hand, it's hard to believe that this will enable them to be released into the wild to fend for themselves.
Once we had completed our circuit of the park it was time to begin our hitch back to the city. It began well enough when we go a lift (three up) on a motorbike ridden by one of the park keepers. I wasn't sure if we would make it all the way back to town as we wound our way down a steep and twisting driveway to the road. Alex then lost her headscarf in the wind and signaled the rider to stop so that she could go back for it. The first car stopped and only had room for one so I waited for her on the road side. Within five minutes she was back, together with her headscarf, in a van which took us almost to the city. Soon after we completed the journey on the back of a farm quad, hair blowing in the wind. Alex now has the dubious honour of being the person I have met the most times on my journey through Asia. Four times in about six weeks. I wonder whether we will meet again before I head home ?