CHENGDU — The People’s Republic of China was founded 70 years ago, and I rolled into town just in time for the weeklong celebration.
The traffic is greater than usual when China goes on vacation. Roads are blocked for celebrations, parades and other public gatherings. It’s 100 times worse than navigating around Pasadena during the Rose Parade — the closest comparison I could think of with a jet-lagged brain.
On the way to my hotel — the Ritz Carlton Chengdu — the driver abruptly stopped at a gridlocked intersection, hopped out of the car and started talking (with real vigor) into his cell phone. I soon found out that the road to the entrance to our hotel was blocked off, so a hotel bellman met us at the mini-van to walk the last few blocks — not exactly a ritzy arrival. Ha!
I was greeted warmly at the front desk, apologies were extended, and I was allowed to check into my room at 9 a.m., much appreciated after a 14-hour plane flight. I took a quick nap before my first “excellent adventure”: A visit to the world-renowned Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Chengdu is one of China’s most popular cities behind Beijing and Shanghai, thanks to two hot draws: The Panda base and spicy Sichuan food. (Chengdu has been named a UNESCO city of gastronomy). Apple iPhones also are manufactured here.
I had set up a tour of the Panda Research Base before I’d left home, and the tour guide “Kate” and driver”Mr. Jiang” met me right on time and took me to the Panda base, just outside of town.
In the 1960s, when four panda reserves were established in China, only 30 percent of infant pandas born at breeding centers survived. Now the figure is 90 percent. The Chengdu Panda Base is relied on throughout the world. This fall, breeding experts from Chengdu traveled to Berlin to help a panda named Meng Meng look after two newborn cubs.
Kate, a recent college graduate who showed me around, was well versed on panda lore. She was impressed that I had some knowledge. I’d been around pandas before: At the National Zoo in Washington, and at the zoos in Tokyo and Mexico City. What’s not to love about a panda? They’re cute, furry, cuddly and herbivores.
Chengdu’s Panda Research Base is a remarkable place. It has been ranked as one of the 15 “happiest places” in the world, according to CNN. Over 80 pandas are now in residence. We saw a dozen of them swinging on rope swings, galavanting about or just snoozing — all in natural surroundings.
We also saw two newborn panda cubs in a cute wooden playpen in one building — a real treat that even excited Kate, who was a regular at the Chengdu Panda base.
The Panda base was crowded because of the national holiday. Families were milling about the grounds, and children were wearing panda t-shirts or panda ears (like Mickey Mouse ears), or hauling around stuffed panda dolls.
All of the visitors were having a great time. I noticed many of the families had arrived on big yellow buses, painted with pandas.
On the ride back to the hotel, Kate showed me some of her photos and videos she has stored on her cell phone — including the unusual red pandas — and offered to email them to me later in the week.
While resting up at the hotel, I looked out my window and saw hundreds of people gathered in a nearby square. Giant TV monitors showed parades that were going on throughout China, including the biggest one in Beijing, where I’m headed later.