“Panda-monium” in Chengdu

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.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

10 thoughts on ““Panda-monium” in Chengdu”

  1. And I hope your leaving Sierra FoodWineArt in bundles wherever you go? Lots of questions about China right now. Do people on the street talk about tariffs? (we’d better get a taste for tofu, cause were about to drown in our own soy beans) The unrest in Hong Kong? How much is the latest iPhone 11 in the city where they are made?

    1. Ha! This week, the locals are all caught up in #70 for the People’s Republic. The mass parades with military gear are in full swing. I watched more on TV tonight. No one on the street acts “big,” but with the celebration, I can perceive a quiet confidence. I see few Americans. I am being treated well and am warmly welcomed. I think they’re glad to see an American tourist with all that’s going on!

  2. I am really enjoying these posts. I spent 10 days in Beijing (北京) about 5 years ago and I’m looking forward to going back to China for a longer stay at some point soon. Keep posting…these are very interesting.

    1. Steve,
      I remember your trip to 北京. I landed in Bejing this afternoon and will stay until the end of the week. This is my second trip to mainland China (Shanghai in November 2018). And Shannon and I visited Hong Kong in March. China fascinates me. Being here for the People’s Republic #70 has been a hassle from a traveling standpoint (more traffic jams and crowds than usual) but a rich and unique learning experience.

      We’ve been fortunate to have traveled a lot (Mexico, Canada, Caribbean, Europe, Australia/New Zealand, South America). But until we visited Tokyo in November 2015, we hadn’t been to Asia much. The dynamics of the region and its relationship with the U.S. become much clearer when viewed firsthand. There is much more to it than the “us” versus “them” narrative we are exposed too. And it becomes clear how Trump and Navarro are not them best “team” for “us.”

      I lived in the International House when I went to Cal in 1976-81 — during the Iranian hostage crisis, no less. I have made lifetime friends with foreign students I met at Cal, including ones from Asia. It’s was an important educational experience. We have exposed our son to a lot of world travel too. “The State of Jefferson” is God’s gift to nature but not the best place to form a world view.

      BTW, Shannon and Mitchell are touring out-of-state colleges this week, including a stop in Chicago (my alma mater Northwestern and University of Chicago). We included Rice U. in Houston into the mix, and he liked it (a strong engineering program). Also going East.

      Our families are in different directions this week. Thank goodness for Jackie, our dog sitter. Ha! Exciting times.

  3. Regardless of the inevitable kvetching of small minded locals about traveling to “Red China” it is a trip I would recommend every American who can should take. I found it an easy country to travel in, the people warm and welcoming, the culture fascinating and enriching, and the culture shock enlightening.

    China is transcendent in the world today largely because of the very high level of control its government exerts over the economy, infrastructure, central planning, and political activity. That enables a flexibility and speed of action that the western world could simply never match.

    Nor would I wish to match it–I value the freedom of our system too much.

    The lesson to be learned, in my humble opinion, is that each culture or society is going to use its particular attributes, its strengths to compete in this world, and our strength is our freedom, innovation, an individual stake in the success of our society, our diversity, science, technological skills and democratic values.

    This is why protecting, stewarding, defending and supporting democracy and democratic institutions is so vitally important, and why when democracy is challenged, whether from without or within, is critical.

    Traveling to China actually taught me as much about the United States and the western world as it did the eastern world.

  4. Well said! BTW, the Rosewood Beijing is over the top. The Donald could learn a thing or two about the hotel business from it.

      1. I think it was a bit over a year ago I read that there were only two or three commercial occupants on the ground floor and their businesses in the building were doing very badly.

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