China

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!

IMG_2677

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 🙂

IMG_8281 IMG_1663

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.

IMG_8149  IMG_1658

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

IMG_8158IMG_1749

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!

bob t panda's tea ceremony

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!

IMG_2678

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!!

IMG_7264

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!”

IMG_7484 IMG_7519 IMG_7537

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.

IMG_7619 IMG_7646 IMG_7658 IMG_7757 IMG_7748

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.

IMG_7809

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.

IMG_8275 IMG_8119 IMG_8197 IMG_8181 IMG_8089

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.

IMG_8426

Day 4 – Chengdu Pandas

IMG_6310

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!

IMG_6188 IMG_6182

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!!

IMG_6451

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.

IMG_6743 IMG_6727

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.

IMG_6782

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.

IMG_6947 IMG_6998 IMG_7040

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.

IMG_7193 IMG_7196 IMG_7201

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. 🙂

Day 3 – Getting To Know Chengdu

We started day 3 at the Qingyang Temple. As soon as I smelled the incense and saw the decorative iconography I began rummaging in my bag for aIMG_6072 jacket to cover my bare arms. Our guide said it wasn’t necessary but I just felt uncomfortable walking around bare armed and tattooed in this ancient place of worship. My early childhood experiences of Eastern European Orthodoxy were rearing their oppressive heads – again. So I covered up, stepped over the threshold and entered the beautiful Taoist Temple.

Qingyang Temple is small and intimate. Although much, much older than Eastern Orthodoxy, I’m surprised at how similar this place of worship feels. I smell incense, hear chanting and see images of fantastical deities and holy people. Food and drink are left as offerings and there is a quiet and peace all around. It doesn’t seem that different to the Orthodox Churches I remember from my youth. But the architecture is different. Pagodas, one of my favourite architectural forms, replace the Cathedral like structures I’m used to.

IMG_6064The larger Wenshu Monastery is our next stop. This has a very different feel to me than Qingyang Temple. Although there is still incense, chanting and similar iconography, it doesn’t remind me at all of my youthful Orthodoxy. This is more what I was I expecting. Stunning pagodas, beautiful trees and a lake. The scenery is breathtaking and peaceful.

In direct contrast is the next place we visit, ancient Jinli Street. Bustling with people it is full of sound, colour and action. There is so much to see and do.

IMG_6088

IMG_6206Paul was so excited when he found a shooting arcade featuring an ancient design, lever operated, repeating crossbow. He naturally had to give it a go!

From the bustling Jinli Street we move onto the much quieter Tibetan Quarter. Chengdu is the gateway to Tibet so it’s not surprising it has a Tibetan Corner. The streets are dotted with shops selling traditional Tibetan wares and elaborate religious iconography. It is a very interesting part of Chengdu and well worth a visit.

IMG_6156Our final stop for the day is Baihuatan Park. Unlike the People’s Park, Baihuatan is less crowded, quiet and tranquil. Bird life and butterflies are abundant. There is a delightful bonsai garden and a stunning pagoda perched near a river. After our exhilarating day it is a pleasure to just sit and observe nature. It makes me think I need to include more quiet time in my life back home.

We return to our hotel and stop by the bar for a pot of tea. No sooner do we sit down when we hear excited voices say “I know those accents – Australians!” Thinking some fellow Aussies are about to befriend us we are surprised to find two Malaysian men introducing themselves. They ordered beer and chips as they thought that what’s Australians drink and eat! They’re not wrong 🙂 Their wives join us and we soon learn all about each other. What I wasn’t expecting was the political turn the conversation took. We groaned when asked about our newly elected Prime Minister. Realising we were not fans they comfortably asserted that he was “an idiot.” Sadly, we couldn’t argue, especially when we realised what they were mainly objecting to was his anti-climate change policies. They were architects and, like us, environmentalists so it was a subject close to all our hearts. We ordered more beer and this time spring rolls and an evening of informative conversation followed. As exciting as the evening turned out to be we were way more excited about where we were going the next day –
Chengdu Panda Base!!IMG_6093

China – Day 2

Leshan Buddha

IMG_5869One of the things I really wanted to see in Sichuan was the Leshan Giant Buddha, the largest stone Buddha in the world. Carved into a cliff face at a river junction you can climb the roughly 71 metre (233ft) statue or, for a more relaxed viewing, catch a ferry. I chose the ferry option! One of the advantages of the ferry is that you can see the magnificent statue in its entirety. Although I knew how big it was, nothing can prepare you for the spectacle of seeing this huge Buddha slowly come into view as the ferry leisurely flows along the river. You can see the people climbing the Buddha and they look like ants.

One of my favourite sights was seeing a Buddhist Monk standing at the feet of the Buddha, looking at the tIMG_6101ourists on the ferries and taking photos of them. I couldn’t help taking a photo of him! In fact a few of the Chinese tourists were taking photos of themselves posing as the statue with the statue behind them. I had to laugh. At one point I realised I was getting in the way of peoples’ photos so I moved. Paul discreetly came and told me that the couple had been lining me up and they were disappointed that I had moved. They wanted to be photographed next to the purpled-haired woman with the panda tattoos! I discreetly went back to my spot and sure enough the wife came next to me and had photos taken then her husband stood next to me and had his photos taken. I made sure I moved my arm into different positions so they could get shots of all the tattooed
pandas 🙂

IMG_5901

We realised we weren’t going to make it back to Chengdu without a toilet stop and that’s when the fact that our driver couldn’t speak a word of English and we couldn’t speak a word of Chinese became a real issue. As we tried to mime needing to go to the toilet using hand gestures, I was beginning to think that not getting to a toilet wasn’t going to be a problem as we were more than likely about to be arrested! Luckily one of the women selling tickets for the ferry understood our dilemma and we were soon being guided to the much needed facilities.

Relieved, in more ways than one, we sat back for the two hour trip back to Chengdu. I made sure to keep my eyes open for the pug we had seen sitting outside a store on our drive to Leshan. I was convinced it was a statue, Paul was convinced it was real. Sure enough the very live pug had moved and was now sleeping on its side. I was so happy to see it as we had only recently lost our beloved pug Wolfy. With bittersweet memories we arrived at our hotel.

IMG_5997

We had a few hours to spare and decided to walk around the neighbourhood. The noise and the traffic – featuring swerving buses, cars and bikes  – has to be seen and heard to be believed. Crossing the roads was a real challenge but we just followed what the locals were doing. We went into shops looking for panda souvenirs and weren’t disappointed. Again we found the people to be friendly and helpful and extremely curious. We felt safe in our environment and were happy that we ventured out on our own. In fact the only scary thing about Chengdu was just how much panda paraphernalia they had for sale!

IMG_6010

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.

IMG_6134

A Personality Of Pandas

1988 was a pivotal year for me; I started university, met my long term partner Paul and the Giant Pandas Fei Fei and Xiao Xiao toured Australia. We went to see them at Melbourne Zoo because they are Paul’s favourite animal. The one stuffed toy that Paul has kept since childhood is a bedraggled panda. He has always loved this very special black and white bear. I would also come to love them but in a most unusual way.

panda ball

panda ball

Into The Darkness 2000 was another pivotal year for me. I graduated from university and promptly caught a flu that would plague me for years and would almost destroy my mind, body and soul. After years of antibiotics and no respite from the flu I contracted Post Viral Syndrome – PVS (a form of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Not much is known about PVS, in fact doctors didn’t diagnose me, a naturopath did! But it took me a while to get to a naturopath. First I sank into a deep mental and physical depression. I was semi bedridden for over two years. Those years are still painful to remember. Weeks would go by in a blur. I rarely left the house and exercise was a thing of the past. Being intensely private I didn’t want anyone to know how sick I was so when I was invited places I would drag myself out of bed, get dressed and go. I would have a good time and then spend about three weeks in bed to recover. This went on and on. I couldn’t see an end to the misery or the pain. And then an amazing thing happened. A television show changed my life!

happy dance!

happy dance!

onwards and upwards

onwards and upwards

Through the Bamboo Forest I remember Paul asking me if I would like to watch a documentary on giant pandas. Since it required nothing more of me than to lie on a couch and keep my eyes open I said okay. One hour later I was a changed person. What happened? Those damn pandas broke my heart. I watched as mother pandas groomed their fragile and precious cubs; cubs fighting for their survival and the survival of their species. I watched as the world fought to stop this precious creature from becoming extinct. Panda reserves and panda breeding programs had been established in China and with co-operation and participation from the rest of the world, the fight to save the panda was in full swing. I wanted to be part of that fight! The documentary ended with a cub making its first climb into a tree. As the dainty little cub struggled, I saw my own struggle reflected. There are plenty of humans on the planet but only one me – I was nearly extinct and I wanted to survive. When the documentary finished I started sobbing, for the pandas but also for myself. Like Scarlett O’Hara I vowed I would never be brought down so low again. Taking that image of the triumphant baby panda with me I began the slow process of getting healthy. Walking With Pandas I wasn’t alone on my journey. I had always had the support of my partner and I was lucky enough to find a naturopath who could diagnose and treat me. Through a combination of homeopathic medicine, meditation, diet and exercise I slowly regained the ability to live. I wanted to make something of myself but mostly I wanted to be able to give something to the animal welfare movement. So each day I would get up, get dressed and put one foot in front of the other. I began daily walking, some days I could only walk past two houses other days I travelled further. I began walking around the block and was soon walking 20 minutes to the local shops and 20 minutes back – with a coffee break in between! One day, after coming back from my now routine 60 minute walk, a neighbour called me over and told me how proud she was of me. I never knew that she had been watching me from those early days. She had watched me go from hobbling wreck to a – well not a power walker – but a walker with a surprising turn of speed! What she hadn’t seen was that I wasn’t alone on those walks. I had company – and what strange company they were.

a special scrunch

a special scrunch

The companions on my journey were pandas. You see the pandas came with me after that documentary. I was surprised, and slightly disturbed to find I had a cast of panda characters in my head. They had names, personalities and different voices. Some were old, some were young, most were female. They inspired me when I thought I couldn’t go any further. I even had an inner critic panda who would mock my valiant efforts! I’m a writer so I’m no stranger to insanity but this didn’t feel like I had gone crazy. Bizarrely it felt like I had evolved. Ancient Pagan Deities were often pictured with animals and some were depicted as animal or half animal themselves. That’s how I felt: part human, part panda and for the first time in a long time, all me. Not long after the panda invasion Paul and I saw a stuffed panda that had a scrunched face with a grumpy expression. He laughed and said it reminded him of me. And then he bought her for me – my first stuffed panda!! She’s my favourite and runs my pack of stuffed pandas with an iron paw. Unlike real pandas my stuffed pandas have bred – a lot! And I never leave home without a panda. I used to take a stuffed one with me but now I have panda tattoos – no chance of forgetting them when I go out!

miaow miaow & me

miao miao & me

Full Circle 25 years after Fei Fei and Xiao Xiao delighted us in Melbourne, Paul and I celebrated 25 years of not being married in the most symbolic way – we went to China to cuddle a panda! As I waited in line at the Chengdu Panda Base a few thoughts crossed my mind. Excitement was one! A few years earlier we had done the VIP tour in Adelaide to meet the pandas Wang Wang and Funi. We got to pat their heads but that was through bars. Now I was about to sit next to a baby panda! My inner critic panda popped up and suggested it was exploitive to pimp pandas out for pats. But then one year old Miao Miao was carried out and all legible thought was erased. All I could think was – baby panda!! When my turn came I eagerly sat next to the little panda princess who seemed to delight in greeting her fawning subjects. I patted her and held back the tears. I wanted to thank her and all the pandas for what they had done for me. I promised the little cub that I would continue to fight for the survival of all animals, especially pandas. If I had any doubts about the process they were allayed by the staff at the panda reserve. They graciously and enthusiastically thanked everyone who had paid for the privilege of patting a panda. They assured us the money would be used to keep the panda dream alive. And I know it will.

bamboooooo!

bamboooooo!

Our guide was waiting for us and he too thanked us for our support of the panda. He took us around the reserve and his love and knowledge were breathtaking. He knew the names of all the pandas and kept track of their progress. We couldn’t believe it when we saw a group of baby pandas laid out sunbaking on a plank of wood. That is the photo on my banner. Later we saw the same baby pandas asleep in their crib. Everywhere we looked we saw adorable pandas doing what they do best – eating, playing and sleeping. We ended the day walking with red pandas. Chengdu Panda Reserve was a great day out but we wanted more!

don't! wipe! my! face!!

don’t! wipe! my! face!!

The next day we went with our guide to the Bifengxia Panda Reserve. He was delighted at our reaction when he showed us Tai Shan!! We squealed – 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. Next we were treated to some amazing baby panda antics. We were just in time to see two baby pandas about to be fed milk in metal bowls. They were so cheeky. One panda didn’t want to have its mouth wiped so it rolled on the ground and then rolled in spilt milk! We saw other baby pandas playing on plastic toys. These were images we had often seen on Pandas International and now we were seeing them live. We ended our day watching a group of five young pandas eating, playing and then chasing each other up trees. One panda climbed up a tree all on its own and put on quite a show. I was reminded of a little baby panda climbing a tree in a documentary; a baby panda that had given me the courage to get up and climb my own trees. Meeting the pandas in their homeland was a life changing experience. They gave me the courage to continue my journey in a new and wonderful way. This journey would involve an American artist, cartoonist and writer. It is a journey that has only just begun. And it is no surprise that the stars of this journey are pandas.

panda kindergarten playing UP!

panda kindergarten playing UP!

The Anne Belov Connection I first came across Anne Belov and The Panda Chronicles through Pandas International, a fantastic organisation dedicated to the giant panda cause. One day I noticed a panda cartoon from Pandas International on my Facebook feed. Intrigued, I clicked to see what it was. That’s when I met Bob T. Panda! If you love quirky and witty cartoons you must go and visit him. Needless to say I was hooked. I quickly bought the Panda Chronicle Books and followed The Panda Chronicles blog. Through this blog I met their delightful creator Anne Belov. We began interacting and I found her to be funny and generous AND she was as crazy about pandas as I was! I loved her pandas so much and I dearly wanted to become more a part of the Panda Chronicles. I noticed that her pandas, especially the endearing panda kindergarten, had a fondness for cupcakes, or as they call them – cuppycakes 🙂 I hatched a plan! Emboldened by my visit to China, I threw caution to the winds and emailed Anne with an idea for a collaboration. Luckily she said yes!! Anne has happily agreed to be my guest blogger so you can read all about her, the pandas and our planned book next time. Not Everything Is Black & White My beloved pug Wolfy passed away nearly a year ago. He was my Chinese panda dog and I miss him dearly. I was too devastated after his death to buy him his own memory box so I stuffed all his mementoes and condolence cards in mine. For Southern Hemisphere Halloween (April 30th) I finally got him his own red memory box. I started going through my box and pulling out his things. I cried as I re-read his cards and remembered his life. But then I stopped crying. There at the bottom of my box of memories was an article I had cut out. It was about the giant pandas visiting Melbourne in 1988. Way back then those peculiar black and white creatures had cast a spell on me and when I needed them most they came out of the bamboo forest and offered their help. My childhood search for a favourite animal has finally ended. I can think of no better animal than one that wasn’t chosen by me but that reached out with its own furry paw to touch and heal me mind, body and soul.

nap time

nap time

not a panda suit

not a panda suit

      I’ve always talked to the animals,

     but the giant pandas are the first ones who talked back

and they’re still talking!