Pandas

Pretty in Red

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Saturday September 17th will be International Red Panda Day. I’ve been celebrating IRPD since it first began in November 2010. Zoos around the world will be celebrating with special events and red panda themed fun. If your local zoo has red pandas, ask if they are celebrating. If they aren’t, see if they can next year. Information on IRPD can be found at Red Panda Network!

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On December 10th, 2015, Melbourne Zoo’s red panda mum Roshani and red panda dad Seba became proud panda parents to two adorable male cubs, Mandu and Keta. Mandu is short for Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city and Keta means boy in Nepalese.

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We decided that we would visit them as often as we could and make a photographic journal. We visited the zoo often throughout December, January, February and March but with no sightings. Finally, in early April, we saw them for the first time. And they were worth the wait! Two little bundles of fur clung to their tree branches whilst devouring an enormous amount of bamboo. Mum watched over them protectively.

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Since April we have visited them 6 times 🙂  It’s hard to pick a sample of best shots as they are adorable in almost every shot but I have given it a go. I hope you enjoy this small sample of the journey of Mandu and Keta, so far!

For my tasty Red Velvet Cupcake recipe created especially for IRPD and an hilarious panda cartoon by Anne Belov, please click here 🙂

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The Not So Absent Mother

For Mother’s Day 2014 I wrote about a panda movie.
A year later I explored that movie further.

So it’s not surprising that this Mother’s Day I will be discussing another panda movie – Kung Fu Panda 3.

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Among the many themes in Kung Fu Panda 3 is the theme of fatherhood. In Kung Fu Panda 2 we learn of Po’s history. His parents sacrificed themselves to save him from an attack designed to kill all pandas. In flashback we see Po’s father defend his wife and child so they can get away. We then see his mother place Po in a crate of radishes and then run away, luring the deadly Shen army away from Po and towards her. It is a traumatic scene and I don’t mind saying I cried – a lot. The crate of radishes is delivered to a restaurant owned by Mr Ping, a goose. He finds the hidden baby Po and adopts him, raising him as his son. In Kung Fu Panda 2, Po starts having flashbacks about his panda parents. At the end of Kung Fu Panda 2 we see that Li Shan, Po’s panda father, is alive and living in a secret panda village. Li looks up, somehow sensing that his son Po is also alive.

Kung Fu Panda 3 continues this story. Li Shan comes to Mr Ping’s restaurant, looking for his son. Li takes Po home to the secret panda village, much to the sadness of Mr Ping. But being the protective father he has always been, Mr Ping stows away in Po’s luggage and ends up at the secret panda village too. There Li and Mr Ping resolve their differences and accept the fact that they are both Po’s father. So what does this fatherhood journey have to do with Mother’s Day?

One of the more poignant scenes in Kung Fu Panda 3 is when Li takes Po into his home. There, on what appears to be an altar, is a drawing of baby Po in his mother’s arms. There are two red candles burning, a vase with a sprig of bamboo and sticks and stones holding the drawing in place. Po gingerly reaches for the drawing while his father talks about the panda he calls the love of his life. Po’s mother was “the total package.” She was smart, beautiful and had a tremendous appetite. She was also brave. She sacrificed her life for her baby. Considering Po is a master warrior and saviour, that is a very important sacrifice.

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Kung Fu Panda 3 shows us how alike Po and Li are, but what it also shows us is how alike Po and his mother are. Po and his mother share one key, one very important trait – the gift of self-sacrifice. Through the three movies Po is never afraid to sacrifice himself for the safety of others. Yes, most of the other characters are warriors and therefore happy to lay down their lives in battle as well, but Po does it in a way that is innocent, filled with trust and imbued with grace. It is reminiscent of his mother, who leaves a vulnerable baby in a crate of radishes and hopes and trusts that he will survive. When Po sacrifices himself it is not as a warrior bested in battle but as a spiritual being who is happy to die so others may live.

Although she is not named, the spirit of Po’s mother hovers around the movie. The film is imbued with her maternal spirit, her love and the tragedy of her loss. The power of her sacrifice is reflected again and again through Po, her self-sacrificing, warrior saviour son. For a character that has only had minimal screen time, Po’s mother is one of the most powerful characters in the Kung Fu Panda franchise. I know I’m not the only one who hopes we find Po’s mother alive and well in Kung Fu Panda 4.

In Kung Fu Panda 3 we learn that Po’s birth name is Little Lotus. In honour of his name I have made lotus seed steamed buns. They would make a great Mother’s Day treat 🙂

Lotus Seed Buns

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Special Equipment
2 large bamboo steamer baskets with lid

Ingredients
1 teaspoon dried yeast
1/2 cup warm water
1/4 cup caster (granulated) sugar
1 + 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup lotus seed paste
lotus leaf tea for serving

Method
Place the yeast, 2 tablespoons of warm water, 1 tablespoon of caster sugar and 1 tablespoon of flour into a bowl. Whisk with a fork until lump free. Cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rest in a warm place for 15 minutes or until frothy.
Sift the remaining flour and baking powder into a separate bowl. Add the remaining water, sugar, yeast mix and melted butter to the flour. Using a wooden spoon, stir until combined. Using your hands, mix the dough until it comes together. You may need to add more water to get a smooth dough.
Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Knead for 10 minutes or until smooth.
Place the dough in an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Allow to rest in a warm place for 1 hour or until the dough doubles in size.
Cut 6 pieces of baking paper into 10cm (4 inch) squares.
Divide the lotus seed paste into 6 and roll into balls.
Remove the plastic wrap. Punch down the centre of the dough.
Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 5 minutes or until smooth. Divide dough into 6 balls.
Roll a ball of dough into an 8cm (3 inch) disc about 1cm (1/2 inch) thick. Place a lotus seed ball in the centre of the disc. Wrap the dough around the filling to enclose, making sure the bun is sealed.
Place the bun seal side down on a square of baking paper. Repeat with remaining dough and paste.
Fill a wok or shallow frying pan with enough water that it touches the bottom of your bamboo steamer but doesn’t touch the food. Bring the water to a simmer.
Put 3 buns in each steamer basket. Stack together and cover with the bamboo lid.
Place baskets in the wok. Steam for 15 – 20 minutes or until the buns are puffed and cooked through. Check often to make sure there is enough water in the wok and top up as needed. Repeat with remaining buns.
Serve warm with tea.

A Wonderful Life?

I don’t really like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. I mean it’s a great film but I really feel sorry for George. There were so many things he wanted to do, like travel and build things, but he repeatedly puts his life on hold for the benefit of others. While noble, the hedonist in me always asks – what does he get for his sacrifice? Well he gets family, community and the knowledge that he has saved many, many lives. But the one life he doesn’t really get to live is his own. Well that is my brief take on this xmas classic that was based on a short story that was made into a xmas card. The story behind It’s A Wonderful Life is as fascinating as the film.

Equally fascinating is It’s A Wunderful Life, the story of San Diego’s giant panda cub Mr Wu, as told through the talented eyes of Anne Belov, creator of The Panda Chronicles. Mr Wu laments the birth of so many panda cubs in America as they are taking attention away from his cute self. When he wonders what the world would be like without these new panda cubs, the angelic Bee the Bear shows him what the world would be like if no new pandas were born – including Mr Wu! Whats follows is an extraordinary tale of cat domination, shady petting zoos and beer drinking pandas. A world without baby pandas is grim indeed. You can find It’s A Wunderful Life at the Panda Chronicles or you can read about Mr Wu’s many adventures, including my personal favourite The Wizard Of Wu, in The Panda Chronicles Book 4: The Book of Wu.

As many of you know, Anne Belov and I are working together on The Panda Chronicles Cuppycake Cookbook: Favourite Recipes of the Panda Kindergarten – a cupcake (or cuppycake) cookbook based on The Panda Chronicles.

Inspired by the thought of beer drinking pandas I have also created this very special beer cuppycake topped with a butter and cream cheese frosting and decorated with candied bacon. And this is the cartoon that inspired me!

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Beer Cuppycakes
After a hard day eating bamboo, some pandas like to put their paws up and relax with a refreshing beer cuppycake.

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This recipe makes enough batter for 24 mini cuppycakes and 2 full sized cuppycakes. You can make them all full sized but I’m not sure how many they make 🙂

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Ingredients
for the beer cuppycakes:
1 + 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup pale ale
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

for the candied bacon
3 shortcut bacon rashers
2 teaspoons brown sugar (approximately)

for the buttercream frosting
3/4 cups (170g) cream cheese, softened
3/4 cups (170g) unsalted butter, softened
1 + 1/2 cups powdered (icing) sugar, sifted

Instructions
To make the mini beer cuppycakes, preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 24-hole muffin pan with 24 paper cases and a 12-hole muffin pan with 2 paper cases.
In a small bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar together with an electric mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes or until combined.
Add the egg and beat until combined.
Add the beer and vanilla and beat until combined.
Gradually add the flour mix and, using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix until just combined.
Spoon the batter evenly into the 24 mini paper cases and the 2 larger paper cases.
Bake mini cuppycakes for 10 – 15 minutes and the 2 larger cuppycakes for 15 – 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cuppycake comes out clean. (I like to bake the mini cuppycakes first and then the 2 larger ones.)
Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cuppycakes are cooling make the candied bacon by preheating the oven to 200C / 400F.
Line a baking tray with with baking paper.
Place the bacon rashers on the baking tray and sprinkle brown sugar evenly over each rasher. Depending on the length of the bacon, you may need more or less sugar.
Bake for 5 minutes then flip the bacon over and drag through the sugary liquid so both sides of the bacon are covered in sticky sugar.
Bake for another 5 minutes. Repeat until the bacon is dark brown.
Allow to cool on a wire rack before cutting into small pieces.

While the bacon is cooling, make the buttercream frosting by creaming together the butter and cream cheese in a medium sized bowl with an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar and beat until frosting reaches a piping consistency. Spoon frosting into a piping bag and pipe onto cuppycakes.
Decorate with candied bacon.

Pregnant Paws

Every year the panda faithful gather around their computers for the annual Panda Pregnancy Watch. Eager fans from around the world share news of which pandas are presumed pregnant, which aren’t and which have had cubs. It’s both a fun and stressful time.

Phantom pregnancies are common and determining if a panda is pregnant is also very difficult. Panda ultrasounds are posted, sometimes confusing the non-panda faithful as to whose ultrasounds they are! Then the moments we wait for – panda births captured on panda cams. The panda faithful hold their breath until the incredibly tiny baby panda starts an incredibly loud and ear-piercing squealing. Then the celebrations begin! And some more waiting as there’s always the possibility of twins and even rarer triplets.

In the midst of all the excitement there is also fear. Baby pandas are incredibly fragile and some don’t make it past their first week. But from the moment they are born they are welcomed, celebrated and loved. It is a happy and heart wrenching time. Sadly, as I was writing this piece, one of the recently born twin cubs died. The panda faithful have gathered together to mourn the loss. It is the cycle of life – birth and death. But it is amazing how sad a death can be for a little creature who had been with us for such a tragically short time.

I was going to end this post with a cupcake recipe I created to honour the time of the
Pregnant Paws. But the news of the passing of the baby panda has turned me down a different path. I will save that recipe for another time when we hopefully have something more to celebrate. I would like to share instead a recipe from my childhood.

Halva was served at many of the funerals I went to as a child. The making and eating of halva always brings back memories for me of shared grief and shared celebration for a life that is no longer.

Semolina Halva
A traditional sweet served at important milestones in life such as births, weddings and
funerals.

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Ingredients
for the syrup
1 cup sugar
2 cups water
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cinnamon stick

for the semolina
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup semolina
4 dates, chopped (optional)

Method
Place sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Stir over medium heat to dissolve the sugar. Bring to almost the boil. Add the saffron and cinnamon stick. Cover and keep warm while preparing the semolina.
Heat oil in a large saucepan over low heat.
Add semolina and stir to form a smooth paste. Continue stirring and cooking for 10 minutes or until the paste has become golden in colour.
Remove cinnamon stick from syrup. Pour syrup into the semolina paste. Be careful as it will splash. Once the mixture stops bubbling, begin stirring until the grains fully absorb the liquid. Add the dates and stir through. Continue stirring until the halva begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and starts forming a ball.
Working quickly, carefully fill large or small moulds with the halva, pushing down to make sure the moulds are tightly packed. Unmould onto plates while still warm.
Cover and chill until fully set.

Achoo! – Revisited

Just over a year ago I saw a movie about the famous sneezing baby panda that became a YouTube sensation. No one really knew the identities of the sneezing baby panda or the mother panda who nearly drops her cookie in shock, although there was much speculation and many guesses. The film “Sneezing Baby Panda: The Movie” suggests the mother panda is Mao Mao and the baby panda is Chi Chi. You can read my review of the movie here.

But now, thanks to the wonderful Pandas International, the real identity of the sneezing baby panda and startled mother have been revealed. Why was it so hard to find out who these pandas were? The main issue was that the video was released on YouTube in 2006 and the assumption was that the footage was from 2006. But the footage was actually from a documentary filmed in 1998. This has caused much confusion and incorrect assumptions about who the pandas are. After much consultation and research, Pandas International recently revealed that the mother panda is Xue Xue and the sneezing baby panda is Mei Xiang!

If you know anything about famous pandas you’ll know that Mei Xiang is big news. Mei Xiang lives at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC and is the mother of two very famous pandas; Tai Shan (Butterstick) and Bao Bao.IMG_7812a

Ironically, Tai Shan is one of the stars of “Sneezing Baby Panda: The Movie” and plays the role of the sneezing baby panda Chi Chi. As we now know, the sneezing baby panda is not Chi Chi but Mei Xiang, Tai Shan’s mother. So the lovely and talented Tai Shan actually played his mother in the movie 🙂

Baby sister Bao Bao is also a sensation in her own right. She has been a Smithsonian Cover Girl and was voted the Smithsonian’s Most Iconic Item. Both Bao Bao and her parents have had silver coins made in their honour.

Bao Bao is also famous for her incarnation as Princess Pinky in The Panda Chronicles by Anne Belov. Princess Pinky is currently running for President of the United States in 2016. You can follow her exploits at the Chronicles and also her reaction to finding out that the sneezing baby panda is actually her mother! You can read Part One here and Part Two here.

So sit back, grab the popcorn and indulge in some pandamonium! And what better way to enjoy popcorn than in a cuppycake. From the (coming soon) cookbook “The Panda Chronicles Cuppycake Cookbook: Favourite Recipes of the Panda Kindergarten” by Anne Belov and me, is this delicious Popcorn Cuppycake. The Panda Cam Cuppycake is dedicated to all the wonderful pandas who have made us laugh and cry at their onscreen panda play and especially to the sneezing baby panda Mei Xiang and her mother Xue Xue.

Panda Cam Cuppycakes
Popcorn studded cornmeal cuppycakes with butter and cream cheese frosting are the perfect food for watching panda antics.

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Ingredients
for the cornmeal cuppycakes
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup almond meal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup sunflower oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten

for the butter and cream cheese frosting
1 cup (8oz/225g) cream cheese, softened
1 cup (8oz/225g) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons powdered (icing) sugar
freshly popped popping corn, cooled

Method
Preheat oven to 220C / 430F
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 12 paper cases.
In a medium sized bowl, mix together the cornmeal, almond meal, baking powder, salt and sugar.
In a small bowl mix together the buttermilk, oil and eggs.
Add milk mixture to cornmeal mixture and stir until just combined.
Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon the batter evenly into the 12 paper cases.
Bake for 10 – 25 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the centre. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cuppycakes are cooling, make the cream cheese frosting by creaming together the butter and cream cheese in a medium sized bowl with an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar and beat until frosting reaches a piping consistency. Spoon frosting into a piping bag and pipe onto cuppycakes.
Decorate with popped corn.

Living China

As we sat in the hotel lobby, waiting for our driver to take us to the airport, I had time to reflect upon my days in Chengdu. Many people go to Chengdu just to see the pandas and then leave! But we wanted to see the other sights this beautiful city has to offer. I’m glad we chose to focus on one small part of China, rather than do a crazy dash around a very big country!

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What made the trip so easy and unforgettable was Haba, a tourist guide we booked through Trip Adviser. Haba’s love and pride for the beautiful city of Chengdu was a pleasure to experience as he took us around town. He paced everything to our comfort, stopping when we wanted a rest and making sure all our needs were met. But Haba’s passion is giant pandas and his knowledge was invaluable to us on our trips to the Chengdu and Bifengxia Panda Bases. Haba’s love for the pandas was evident as he talked about them and photographed them with us. He seemed to know the names of all the pandas and he knew where all the overseas pandas were born. Without Haba we would not have known that one of the handsome pandas we were photographing was actually superstar panda Tai Shan! While we chatted to him about pandas he told us one of his favourite animals was the koala. He had been given a stuffed koala as a gift and it had ignited his curiosity and love for our native cutie. We had to laugh as Paul and I have always thought of koalas as Aussie Pandas. While koalas are not bears, they share similar characteristics – they are unbearably cute and climb trees 🙂

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On the days Haba wasn’t able to guide us he arranged for others to take us where we needed to go. This allowed us the opportunity to meet some local people and gave us an appreciation of the people of Chengdu. From the young Kuan, who took us on a bus and to a local restaurant he liked, the driver who took us to Leshan and whom we communicated with through gestures, to the other drivers who drove us around Chengdu and Ya’an, all of our guides and drivers were charming and friendly. They were also proud of their home and happy to show us around.

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I highly recommend getting in touch with Haba if you are going to visit Chengdu or the Pandas!

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We left Chengdu early in the afternoon and made our way back home and back to our dogs. I expected to be blown away by the pandas but I wasn’t expecting China to change me in fundamental ways – but it did. We really admired the public places and parks in Chengdu and the way the Chinese people used them. Everywhere we IMG_6173looked there were locals using the public spaces for tai chi, dance, singing, creating art, sport and just simply relaxing. Our local area has public facilities such as basketball courts and table tennis tables but we had never used them. One of the first things we did on our return was buy table tennis bats, balls and a basketball. We then went out there and started using our public places. Ironically, our sporting time is often accompanied by Chinese music as groups of our Chinese neighbours are out there doing tai chi and dance. It feels like being back in Chengdu!

Another change I’ve made is to my diet. I noticed that my body really responded well to rice based meals and, with the guidance of my part Malaysian naturopath, we have devised a predominantly Asian based diet. For years I’ve struggled with finding a breakfast I like but for the past year my main breakfast has been congee – a rice based savoury soup! It’s one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had 🙂 It also reminded me that I lived on a mainly rice based diet when I was young. Being allergic to the chilli family, I couldn’t eat the paprika packed Eastern European stews my mother would often cook. But I could eat the plain boiled rice – with a good dollop of butter!

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For me, the most important thing I brought back from China, apart from really great panda souvenirs, was a reinvigoration of my spirituality. Amidst all the noise and traffic in Chengdu there was also a deep sense of peace and tranquility. The parks, pagodas and bamboo reminded me of a time before modernisation and frenetic activity. It made me remember quieter times and I wanted to reintroduce those times back into my life. I’m now enjoying regular relaxing baths and pause often throughout the day to sip on green tea in my own bamboo garden. And yes, I do have a bamboo garden – you never know when pandas may visit! What has surprised me most is the slow re-embracing of my religious roots. I’ve been on a religious “sabbatical” for quite a while. But deep within my soul I hear the call to return to my old time religion. That’s a topic for another time – but not that far away – for one of the most important holidays for me is coming up – Halloween 🙂

As I finish writing about my Chinese adventure I realise just how much I deeply miss Chengdu. I miss the people, the place, the lifestyle and I especially miss those precious little pandas!

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Day 5 – Bifengxia Pandas

IMG_7282Bifengxia Panda Base is in Ya’an, approximately two and a half hours drive from Chengdu. Originally built as a research facility, it only became a tourist spot after the devastating earthquake in May 2008 destroyed the Wolong Panda Reserve. The pandas from Wolong were moved to Bifengxia and where the pandas go, so do the people!!

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We arrived at Bifengxia just as it opened and were treated to the sight of empty enclosures – we were so early the pandas weren’t even awake yet! We waited at one enclosure and saw a panda poking its head out of its den. It ventured out but when it saw there was no bamboo, it went back in. The attendants arrived armed with bamboo and the hungry but happy panda got down to the day’s business – eating! We saw a few more of these older pandas before arriving at the much anticipated Panda Kindergarten!

In the first Panda Kindergarten enclosure we were greeted by the vision of two adorable cubs playing and rolling around. There was even a yellow swing in their yard. They were eagerly waiting for the attendant to bring them milk in metal bowls. After slurping down their drinks, the attendants used a tea towel to wipe the face of one of the baby pandas. When they went to the next panda it decided to resist them and rolled around in the spilt milk instead. The attendants were laughing and trying to grab and clean up the cheeky cub. I thought “what a hard job they have – and how do I apply!”

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The next Panda Kindergarten enclosure contained five young cubs. Their enclosure also contained toys including a plastic slide and rocking horse that have been featured in many adorable photos! There was fresh bamboo and the pandas were munching away. We watched them play, frolic and then eat. Typical pandas, they weren’t in the mood to do much more than eat so we thought we would check out the rest of the park before returning to see if any antics would be on display.

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The next section we visited was the overseas born panda section. One of the pandas housed there was Tai Shan Butterstick! He was nicknamed Butterstick after a zookeeper at the National Zoo in Washington said that he was the size of a stick of butter when he was born. We were so happy to see him. We snapped photo after photo of this handsome bear. We visited all the other overseas born pandas before returning to the Panda Kindergarten.

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And we are so glad we did. The five young pandas had finished their bamboo and were ready to rumble! They fought with each other, chased each other, rolled around together and then, to the delighted gasps of everyone watching, they ran up trees and showed us just how arboreal pandas really are. We watched spellbound as one daredevil panda travelled along a tree limb and then kept walking along, even though the limb was getting thinner and thinner. Then, graceful as a tightrope walker, the nimble panda turned around on the limb and promptly sat down. We all screamed as we were terrified that the little bear was going to fall. But the panda settled into a koala-like pose and amazingly didn’t fall. The pandas settled into the trees where they would spend most of the afternoon. It was sadly time to leave and my heart broke a little as I realised this was the end of the panda part of my trip to China.

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Bifengxia Panda Base is in a mountainous area with spectacular peaks, deep gorges, waterfalls and beautiful forest. There are trails through the gorge for either short or long walks. Paul and our guide Haba chose to go for a short one hour trek through the gorge which Paul said was spectacular. I chose to stay behind in the car with the driver and meet Paul at the end of the track where there was a waterfall and a 91.8 metre tall elevator that takes travellers from the bottom of the gorge up to the carpark. It is apparently the tallest sightseeing elevator in the world. The view from the top down over the waterfalls was spectacular. After an extraordinary day, we returned to our hotel for our final night.

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Day 4 – Chengdu Pandas

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As we jumped into a taxi and rode towards the Chengdu Panda Base, we couldn’t contain our excitement! We had seen pandas only twice before. In 1988 giant pandas Fei Fei and Xiao Xiao toured Australia and we went to see them at Melbourne Zoo. In 2010 we did the VIP tour in Adelaide to meet the pandas Wang Wang and Funi. Now we were about to see pandas in their homeland, in their natural environment – and we were going to hug one as well 🙂

We arrived at the base and our guide quickly secured our spot for the panda cuddle. With time to spare we saw our first pandas in China – 5 baby pandas in a cot! We couldn’t believe how cute and fluffy they were. We could have spent the whole day watching these sweet little cubs sleep but there were more pandas to see and we wanted to see them!

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We walked along beautiful paths surrounded by bamboo to the next group of pandas – a mother and cubs. The playful pandas entertained and delighted their spellbound audience. They ran around, dropped from trees and structures and one young panda even suckled on the mother while she reclined on her back. It was breathtaking to see them in these beautiful enclosures surrounded by their natural habitat. We got to see quite a lot of the park but the time had come to meet the little panda!!

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We were taken into a room and shown an informative video about pandas. Then we were taken to the hugging room 🙂 We were given a protective coat, booties and gloves to wear and waited in a line before an exquisitely carved bench. Next to the bench was a tray with a jar of honey, slices of apple and bamboo. A keeper arrived carrying the young Miao Miao and settled her on the bench with some of her treats. She had a good look at her adoring fans, then proceeded to lick a honeyed apple slice. When she was finished she turned to the keepers and stared at the table. They ran to assist her, offering a sweetened bamboo stick. She graciously accepted it and happily munched on it while she prepared to be greeted by her spellbound audience.

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One by one we took our turn to sit by the little princess. When my turn came I was overwhelmed with emotion. I sat next to the little panda and cuddled her. She looked up at me and munched away at her bamboo. So many thoughts were going through my head – how lucky I am to be sitting next to her, how cute and adorable she is, how soft yet wiry her fur is, how pinchable her ears are, can I take her home with me? – were some of my jumbled thoughts. Mostly I thought about how endangered pandas are and how important it is to protect them and do all we can for them. I was also surprised at how much time we had with her. I was expecting to sit down and then jump up a few seconds later but they let us sit for a good while – of course I would have liked longer, like maybe a few years! It was Paul’s turn and they let him sit next to me for a few photos as a couple so I got extra Miao Miao time 🙂 I reluctantly left Miao Miao and the bench so Paul could cuddle the precious little cub. We said farewell to Miao Miao and went back to exploring the reserve.

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One of the next things we saw was a group of tiny baby pandas sun-baking on a plank of wood. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing – our brains nearly stopped working! As we watched these sleeping cuties one panda woke up and bravely wandered off the plank. When it wandered off too far it stopped and started squeaking. It was too much cuteness for me. I wanted to jump into the enclosure, take the squealing cub, and smuggle it home with me and Miao Miao. But before I could jump in an attendant came and rescued the cub, placing it back on the plank. A few minutes later he returned with a bucket and scooped up a couple of cubbies and left. We were told some VIPS were going to have their photos taken with them. Not long later the bucket returned and the celebrity pandas were scooped out and promptly went back to sun-baking. Later in the day we were lucky enough to see these baby pandas asleep in their cot in the nursery.

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We ended our day with red pandas. They were in a part of the reserve where they could wander around freely. The fence along the walkway had holes for the red pandas to wander through. I stood, stunned as I watched a red panda climb down a tree, go through a gap in the fence, walk past me, go through a gap on the other side, and then sit next to a bowl with food. It was surreal and heaps of fun! Chengdu Panda Reserve surpassed my expectations. It was incredible and I’m glad we chose to spend a whole day there. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow and our trip to Bifengxia Panda Reserve.

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Note: Neither Miao Miao nor any other cub were smuggled out of the panda base onto a plane to Melbourne. The bamboo in my backyard is for decoration only. 🙂

A Glimpse Of China

One year ago my partner Paul and I celebrated 25 years of not being married by going to Chengdu in China to hug a panda! I can’t believe a year has passed so quickly and I can’t believe I haven’t written about this extraordinary trip. So I’m going to do something different. If all goes to plan I’m going to do a daily travelogue recounting each day in China only one year later 🙂

Day 1 
Discovering Chengdu

We left Melbourne just after midnight and landed in Chengdu early that afternoon. We wanted to hit the ground running so arranged for our guide to pick us up from our hotel not long after we arrived.

IMG_6066Our first adventure was to catch a local bus which would take us to the People’s Park. The ride was fun although my purple hair and panda tattoos were getting lots of attention! The park was a huge, wide open space where the locals could ride canoes, dance, sing and play games. A stunning Tea House by the lake offered refreshments. One of the more IMG_6062fascinating things we saw was an unusual form of dating service. Laminated A4 sheets of paper containing personal ads were hung on bamboo stakes. Prospective daters could stroll leisurely through the park while perusing the ads. What I loved most about the park was that it had the sense of really being a people’s park. The locals used and enjoyed everything on offer.

IMG_5776After the park we went for a walk down some old parts of town. Our guide took us to see a 3D art mural wall which was fascinating. It was time for tea and a few locals watched as Paul tried to work out payment. Fumbling with the Chinese money, he finally got it right and was rewarded with a round of applause! I found the locals to be curious but friendly, shyly asking if they could touch my hair and my tattoos. It didn’t take long for me to bond with them and within a few hours I had fallen in love with Chengdu.

It was time for dinner and I was a little nervous. I love Chinese food but am allergic to chilli. Chengdu is in the Sichuan Province known for its hot and spicy food. Our guide took us to a place where he would eat so we were really looking forward to sampling truly local cuisine. I played it safe and ordered plain rice with a dessert – sweet cornmeal fritters! They were divine. Paul could be more adventurous and the dishes he ordered, according to him, were delicious.

IMG_5815After dinner we were driven to Tianfu Square in the centre of the city, famous for its giant statue of Chairman Mao. Like many major cities, Chengdu came alive at night with lights and people. We sat by a fountain and watched the nightlife. It was a picturesque place to spend time while waiting for our next adventure – a night at the opera!

I had read all about the Sichuan Opera and couldn’t wait to see the face changing magic the shows are famous for. As we waited in the theatre for the show to begin I could feel jet lag creeping up on me and actually started to doze off. But then the lights came on and the performers came on stage. I woke up immediately. The colourful costumes, singing, dancing and music were enough to keep me awake! We couldn’t follow the story lines but we enjoyed the show. What amazed me most was the face changing spectacle. It is hard to describe but one moment they have one face and then they wave or flip a hand and another face appears. It was so quick and yes, so magical. The actors came close to the audience so we could see them up close but it was still hard to see how they did it. One performer had a head piece with little puppet faces on it and with one movement his and the puppets faces all changed!! I’ll never forget that show. We left exhausted but exhilarated, happy to see a guide waiting to drive us to our hotel.

We had a great night made all the more special by the adorable stuffed panda waiting for us in our room. Chengdu Panda – as we named her, was a welcome gift from hotel staff and the perfect way to end our first day in Chengdu.

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