Take Two

Pandas.

They will be the alpha and omega of this post. They are to Chengdu what the Great Wall is to Beijing or the Egyptian Pyramids are to Cairo. People actually fly to Chengdu to stay for less than twenty-four hours, simply to stop in at our panda research base.  Some are even willing to pony up the nearly $300 (that’s USD folks!) to hold a baby for mere moments.

All of this means I wouldn’t be a CLO worthy of the city if I didn’t organize at least one community trip to see the monochromatic creatures of Sichuan. Due to our recent rocking and rolling, thanks to Mother Nature, the trip entailed an initial reconnaissance phase, followed by a twelve-hour panda-riffic adventure.  (The first attempt was not meant to be just an information gathering leg, but rather a real excursion that was abruptly called to a halt when the earthquake turned our winding, narrow road through the gorge into a lesson in dodging increasingly larger and larger rock slides.)

A month later, with our backpacks refilled with snacks (a lesson learned after a recent CLO outing that included what was possibly the worst meal I’ve been presented with in China), it was back to BiFeng Gorge and the pandas that awaited our much needed volunteering efforts.

Rather than bore you with the minutiae of my panda volunteering experience, I’ll rundown the schedule of the day and then provide you with what everyone really wants anyway, the pictures!

8:30AM- Arrive at the base, buy entrance tickets for our entire group, buy shuttle tickets for the entire group, hold on for dear life to not fall out of the shuttle I just bought tickets to ride

8:45AM- Climb out of the shuttle, say a little prayer of thanks for my safe arrival

8:46AM- Skim (barely, as nothing it says is going to deter me from getting up close and personal with the pandas) the safety waiver and sign away any liability on the part of the base for the loss of fingers, toes, and my life (apparently poisonous snakes are rather common in the area)

8:47AM- Shimmy into  a lovely gray jumpsuit lacking in all fashion sense, which instantly reminded me of my sister-in-law’s late grandfather, whom we lovingly called Grandpa Jumpsuit

8:48AM- Crack several jokes about needed a Bedazzler to add some serious bling to my jumpsuit

9:00AM- Join the fabulous Team Bam-poo for a day of panda cage cleaning

9:05AM- At the first moment we are left alone without the handler, reach into the panda cage and pet YuanYuan, breaking the first (and possibly only) rule of panda volunteering

9:06AM- High fives all around Team Bam-poo for the close encounter with our assigned bear

9:10-10:10AM- Sweep up panda poo, which is surprisingly fibrous and not too stinky, although it is clear the creatures don’t digest the carrots they are fed on a daily basis. Also, sweep up the tree leaves that litter the ground outside the cages. (This hour of work was interspersed with as much stopping to watch the pandas and to holler at the two other work groups as it was filled with actual exertion.)

10:30AM- By hand, feed the pandas their morning bread and carrots

Noon- Lunch at a wonderful farmer’s restaurant and then some basking in the brilliant sunshine

1:30PM- Visit the panda kindergarten to see the babies, which were all draped over tree branches, twenty feet off the ground

2:30PM- Again, by hand, feed the adult pandas their afternoon meal of panda bread and bamboo shoots

3:00PM- Return to the panda kindergarten in anticipation of watching the little ones enjoy their lunch. Instead, enjoy the comedy of two panda handlers chasing a six-foot long snake, whacking at it with a broom to defend their tiny charges who are munching bamboo leaves as if there isn’t a ridiculous commotion taking place just a few short yards away

3:30PM- Pick up certificates for all of my intrepid panda volunteers and head back to the vans for the return trip (or nap, as it turns out, for many) to Chengdu

It took two attempts to get there, but I have now officially touched China’s national treasure. Maybe it was just for a second or two, but it happened. It was awesome.

Pandas.

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My Lungs Are Whispering Sweet Words of Gratitude

Lungs like fresh air.  (It’s true. I looked it up on Wikipedia.)

To that end, a day out of Chengdu is a perfect “pulmo-cation” and so I did my CLO-duty and planned a trip to Luo Dai, an ancient city about an hour outside Sichuan’s capital that boasts a mini-Great Wall, horses that take riders around a lake and a tourist-filled street of shopping and photography. (That’s right, I’m making up words again. But, what better way to describe a day long holiday for one’s largest respiratory organ than “pulmo-cation?”)

While the idea was to give people a chance to get out of the city, see some of the surrounding countryside and enjoy the first fall-fall feeling day of the season, the bit of R&R for our lungs was also greatly appreciated. But, instead, some of us decided to punish our lungs with a hike up the small-Great Wall in Luo Dai.  (I always thinking hiking is a good idea. My brain thinks it sounds invigorating and refreshing, but about ten minutes in to whatever excursion I previously thought to be a positive experience, I am mentally cursing myself, with a few of those murmurs escaping my lips.)

As with many Chinese tourist-sites, stairs are the name of the game at Luo Dai. From the base of the hill, Thad and I could see the staircase straddling the ramparts of the wall, headed straight up the mountainside, with no respite until the first large guard tower, which lay at least a million stairs in front of us. At this point though, I was still gung-ho and ready to go! We were out of Chengdu, the weather was cool and misty and I was ready to tackle the challenge.

That all changed about twenty stairs in to the hike when my lungs were starting to ache from (possibly) too much fresh air, my thighs burned with each unevenly spaced stair and gravity started pulling heavier and heavier on my purse carrying our umbrellas, a water bottle, paper for the squatties and other necessities.

But, with more pride than brains sometimes, I continued up the mountain, taking it a stair at a time and pausing every ten or so to catch my breath, shed a layer or sip some quickly disappearing water.

The countryside surrounding the wall was beautiful. Because it had rained overnight, there trees were covered in dew drops and the air had the crisp feeling that tells you autumn is right around the corner. I would love to say it was somewhere we will haul all of our visitors, (you’re coming, right visitors?) but we were sadly disappointed in how commercialized the area is. As we stood to look back at the path we had already traversed (this being between the second and third guard towers on the wall, and really just an excuse for me to let my lungs simmer down a bit), rather than getting an expansive view of the wall, the forests and the sky, we saw rows of tents, set up on the pathway, hawking everything from ice cream and cold noodles to rubber snakes, plastic whistles and canvas shoes. (I think the canvas shoe business is booming on the wall, as I saw more than one Chinese woman ascending in high heels, but then all those coming back down the wall were shod in flats. Maybe one should consider their choice of footwear before undertaking such an outing?)

After the third guard tower, as we faced another steep climb up the final leg of the mountain, my lungs were crying “Uncle” and Thad’s disgust with the endless selling of random crap on the wall got the better of us. We decided it was best to call it a day on the wall and go ride horses instead. Not wanting to backtrack our entire journey (the wall in Luo Dai does not make a circuit, meaning once you reach the end, you must turn around and go back the way you came), so we drew on our Gansu roots and hopped of the beaten (mortared and stoned) path. After crawling down a slick, rickety ladder that went over the side of the wall, we passed through a hole in the wall and found a farmer’s pathway. We knew if we made it back to the lake we would easily find the rest of our group, so down the hill we went, with not quite the grace of mountain goats, but with neither of us ending up on our bums either. (Because of the rain the night before, the dirt path was a bog of red-hued mud that caked on to my tennis shoes, adding a good five pounds to my weight by the time we reached the foot of the hill. I spent quite a while this morning, squatting on the floor of my bathroom with the shower head in hand, trying to get the red-dye of the mud off my cute pink and gray kicks!)

After passing through what was clearly an outdoor chicken slaughter house (the blood and feathers were fresh enough for me to assume the recently deceased chicken was probably the same one staring back at me, comb and all, from a stew placed in the center of our table just an hour later), we came upon the lake and it’s bored looking horses. (Much like a NASCAR driver, these horses spend their days in a continual state of turning left.)

The day continued with a quick loop around the lake on a horse with an unintelligible Sichuan Hua named mount (local dialect, confounding for native Mandarin speakers, which makes it way beyond my subsistence level Chinese abilities)  for me and Thad’s hilariously named steed- Shui Bi (Sprite) and then lunch that included the previously mentioned, recently expired chicken. Then it was back in to town to stroll the “ancient street” in search of Luo Dai trinkets without which I couldn’t survive. (Not surprisingly, there was nothing that fell in to this category.) This old part of town is a hotspot where young women rent costumes from ancient dynasties and then pose in the various courtyards as if they were members of the ruling family. Thad and I were sucked in to numerous photo sessions while we wandered the street. Nothing says anachronism like a Chinese woman attired in a beautiful Qing dynasty gown, sharing the frame with a mud-covered, jean-clad white woman!

While the day ran a bit longer than I had expected, I am chalking this one up to as a CLO-success, as the hour long bus ride back to Chengdu was filled with open-mouth naps, not only on the part of the kids (most of whom scaled the mini-Great Wall as if they were close cousins with a gazelle family), but also by a number of both adults and tour guides. When that many Z’s are needed, I think it counts as a great Saturday!

(And, I am sure our lungs are giving us a standing, pneumo-vation.)

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