China’s Adorable Treasures

We arrived in the city of Chengdu before dawn, after a 17-hour train ride from Xi’an. It was so early that we couldn’t check into our hotel or even get our morning fix of pork dumplings. Of course, there was no point in rushing, as the morning’s destination wouldn’t open for another few hours. And so we sat in the lobby, stunned, taking advantage of the wifi, the chance to use a toilet that wasn’t moving, and air that wasn’t filled with second-hand smoke.

But, once we’d been fed and watered, it was off to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. For some of us, the research centre was the reason we came to China. For others, it was just another thing to tick off the list. Yet, as soon as we arrived, we all knew it would be an experience to remember.

After the crowds and pollution and smoke of Beijing and Xi’an, the bamboo forest paradise of the panda base was a glorious tonic. Pandas are China’s national treasure, and they are afforded the utmost luxury, including a smoking ban that is actually heeded by Chinese smokers. After 17 hours on a smoke-filled train with a head cold, breathing the air at the base was like mainlining oxygen. As we climbed the paths up to the panda enclosures, I was almost giddy with euphoria.

As we rounded the corner on the empty path (another reason to feel giddy in this uber-populated country), the first panda came in to sight. His back was to us as he munched on some bamboo, but he still brought a smile to our faces. Soon, our tour leader took us on a hunt for some panda action. The young pandas weren’t ready to receive guests, so we climbed on to the nursery and caught a glimpse of one of the newest additions to the brood.

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An adult panda enjoying his breakfast in Chengdu.

Later, before the park filled with people, I was able to stand and watch an adult panda dig into a pile of bamboo. And I was struck by the awkward majesty of these bears.

These icons of the environmental movement seem to lack the ferocity of their bear cousins. Their mannerisms can fool you into thinking that they’re actually Homer Simpson in a bear suit. But there is an undeniable nobility in these lazy creatures and it’s hard to take your eyes off them.

They look more like their toy counterparts than any other adorable member of the animal kingdom.

Eventually the youngsters were out and about, and I managed to elbow my way in to watch them eat—they’re so relaxed in their quiet bamboo retreat, without a care in the world, and it’s really hard to walk away.

But eventually, the crowds win out. We’d have been happy to watch these guys all day, but like any other tourist attraction in China, the sense of awe is soon doused by the feeling that you’re drowning in a sea of people.

When the serenity is lost, you know it’s time to move on, with a camera full of pictures and videos.

This post originally appeared on Travel + Escape.