Travel

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

In the Footsteps of Jonathan Harker

Jonathan Harker’s adventure in Transylvania takes up the first four chapters out of twenty seven in the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Yet this small part of the novel contains some of the most memorable scenes and lines from the book. When I went to Romania in 2005 I couldn’t wait to retrace Jonathan Harker’s journey from Bistrita to Castle Dracula. This was written shortly after I returned 🙂

In the footsteps of Jonathan Harker

Count Dracula had directed me to go to the Golden Krone Hotel

Jonathan Harker – Dracula

A hotel recommended by Dracula himself was definitely a place I wanted to visit. Luckily for me The Hotel Coroana de Aur, (The Golden Crown Hotel), which did not exist in Stoker’s time, has since been built in Bistrita to capitalise on the burgeoning popularity of Dracula tourism.Nine of Coins

As I arrive at The Hotel Coroana de Aur, I cannot help but feel that I am stepping into gothic literary history. At first the foyer of the hotel seems like any other until I spy the Dracula and Bram Stoker postcards, the hotel stationary which features Bram Stoker’s face and the store selling a variety of vampire paraphernalia. There is also a Jonathan Harker Salon.

As I step into my room I am disappointed to discover that they are standard hotel style, with barely a hint of the vampiric. But my disappointment is allayed the next day when I take breakfast in the Jonathan Harker Salon. Draped in the traditional vampire colours of black and red, and decorated with animal heads, flying bats and dripping candelabra the salon offers a feast for the eyes as well as the body. Devouring a sumptuous buffet breakfast, surrounded by such paraphernalia, is a real gothic treat. I am reluctant to leave the salon, but equally eager to continue my journey. Following in the footsteps of Jonathan Harker, my next destination is the famed Castle Dracula.

The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice

Jonathan Harker – Dracula

The road from Bistrita to Piatra Fantanele is the same road described by Stoker over a century ago. The long journey takes in the Borgo Pass, the place where Jonathan meets the horse drawn carriage of Count Dracula. After a long and fearful journey, Jonathan reaches the dreaded Castle Dracula. But I enjoy a relaxing car trip, not to a haunted castle, but to a modern hotel.

The HotTowerel Castel Dracula is another hotel created to take advantage of Dracula tourism. Built where Dracula’s Castle is described in the novel, the hotel is a curious construction. The strangely greyish purplish building is both gothic and comically vampiric. There is even a cemetery on the grounds. A small market on the hotel grounds stocks local souvenirs and Vlad Ţepeş and Dracula memorabilia. The hotel lobby also stocks an assortment of Dracula gifts.

After freshening up, the staff offer me a guided tour of Dracula’s Dungeon. I’m excited as I slowly walk down the stairs into the candlelit room. There is a coffin in the corner and I move forward to take a closer look. The staff have a surprise for me which I won’t reveal, but I screamed, loud and hard, but not before swallowing a few Aussie curse words. The staff are ecstatic at my response and after I catch my breath, we leave the dungeon for the next unsuspecting guest.

After dinner I return to my room which boasts beautiful views of the famous Carpathian Mountains. I sit and drink champagne, watching as darkness creeps along the mountain tops. It’s not hard to picture wolves, and other creatures, roaming free in the mountains. Finally I retire to sleep contented on a bed whose bedhead features the dragon motif of the Dracula family. I have enjoyed following in the footsteps of Jonathan Harker, but tomorrow my journey takes a different turn.

Good-bye, all!

Jonathan Harker – Dracula

In the novel, Jonathan jumps out a window of Castle Dracula and is eventually found physically and mentally traumatised in a hospital in Budapest, Hungary. I, not surprisingly, chose a different way to end my journey.

Four of CoinsHeading for Bucharest, the capital city, I spend my final night in Romania at The Count Dracula Club, a gothic club that truly caters to the vampirically inclined. Themed rooms and a downstairs dungeon are some of the treats that await the diner. I am lucky enough to be there the night of a Dracula show when the Count himself makes an appearance. Quoting from the novel in both Romanian and English the dashing Count cavorts around the restaurant, swishing his black cape and menacing the willing patrons. The menu contains Dracula themed dishes and vampire inspired cocktails are sipped between courses. I finish the meal with a glass of ţuică, the traditional plum brandy. My Jonathan Harker journey is almost at an end. Thankfully it is not with madness and despair that I end my trip but with an evening of food, wine and entertainment.

Three of Goblets

Like me, Jonathan Harker has a great love for food and drink. There are a number of passages in the novel where Jonathan describes the food and drink he is enjoying in Transylvania. He even writes the names of some of the dishes so he can get Mina to cook them when he gets home! When I returned from Romania I also brought home a love of Romanian food and a deep desire to know more about this cuisine. Below is my version of the classic Romania breakfast dish that both Jonathan and I ate and loved in Romania.

I had for breakfast more paprika, 

and a sort of porridge of maize flour which they said was “mamaliga,”

Jonathan Harker – Dracula

Mamaliga

IMG_8572

 Romanian cornmeal porridge with honey and sesame baked feta.

Ingredients
for the feta
225g feta cheese
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

for the cornmeal
2 cups water
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cornmeal
30g unsalted butter

Method
Preheat oven to 200C / 400F
Drain feta and dry with paper towel.
Slice feta in half.
Pour half the oil in the bottom of a baking dish.
Place feta side by side in the dish.
Drizzle with remaining olive oil and honey.
Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Bake for 10-15 minutes or until the feta is soft but not melted.
While feta is baking bring the water and milk to a low boil in a saucepan.
Add the salt and stir through.
Pour the cornmeal in a slow stream then turn the heat to low.
Stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and thick, about 10-15 minutes.
Stir in the butter.
Place cornmeal in bowls and top with baked feta.

This makes two very generous serves.

Artwork for the Dracula Tarot by the wonderful Anna Gerraty

If you have any Romanian dishes you’d like to share with me please do 🙂

An Archetypal Homeland

A friend of mine told me she is going to Romania this November. I am so excited for her as I think she will love it. While talking to her, the memories of my own trip to Romania nine years ago flooded back. I thought I would share what I wrote about it all those years ago.

I called my trip A Tale of Two Draculas. In case you don’t know who the two Draculas are, here is a quick rundown:

IMG_0002The first Dracula is the historical fifteenth century Prince and warrior Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula. While not a vampire himself, nor associated with any vampire mythos, Vlad Tepes is a colourful figure who has associations with many parts of Romania. His main haunting ground is the area of Romania called Wallachia. Six of Stakes

The second Dracula almost needs no introduction having been created by Irish author Bram Stoker in his nineteenth century literary masterpiece Dracula. Loosely based on the figure of Vlad Tepes, the famed vampire count has been a part of popular culture ever since. His main Romanian stalking ground is in the Transylvanian town of Bistriţa and the nearby Carpathian Mountains.

 

Below is Part One where I take you through the historical Vlad Tepes sites. In Part Two I’ll talk about my brief trip through what I call Stoker Land 🙂

An Archetypal Homeland

As an Australian-born child of Macedonian migrants it would be natural to assume that I have cultural ties to two countries; my ancestral land and my birth land. Yet even though my parents entertained me with tales of the “Old Country” I have never had much interest in visiting the land my ancestors called home. That is because at a young age I developed a kinship with another country. Fuelled on a steady diet of Count Dracula movies, the place I desperately wanted to visit was Transylvania – the land beyond the forest. After decades of studying the myths and legends of the vampire, my desire only grew so I decided to celebrate my fortieth birthday by travelling into the heart of Romania with my bemused partner.

Carpathian Mountains 2After a gruelling journey involving three planes and over thirty hours in non-stop transit I finally land in my beloved Romania. The excitement staves off the exhaustion as I eagerly rush to meet my first Romanian – the guy from the car hire firm. With guide books in hand and virtually no Romanian language skills, we jump in the car. Driving on the right hand side of the road, and the left hand side of the car, appears to be no major drawback for my partner, but the giant potholes, daredevil drivers and equally daredevil horse and cart riders are some harrowing terrors we face on the drive. It all adds to the mystery of the country which, having never been to Europe is almost overwhelming in its unfamiliarity.

tsel2 1As I relax into the drive I look out the window to observe a country that has haunted my dreams. The image of a gypsy careening at breakneck speed down the road in a horse drawn cart is so archetypal and so Romanian that I laugh out loud. Yet that image is strikingly juxtaposed with the sight of pristine green valleys vying with hideous concrete monstrosities for dominance over the landscape. The gypsies evoke the wild lands that Bram Stoker wrote about but the communist love of concrete and uniformity has certainly stained the land. In the process it has also tainted me.  By the time I reach my hotel room all I want to do is cry and go to sleep, but this is supposed to be a dream holiday, so I rally my spirits and step out into Romania.

No sooner do I step onto the pavement when I see a gorgeous stray dog holding a shrink wrapped sandwich in its mouth. It trots off to its lair, an ancient church in the middle of the suburbs. And that’s when I take a really good look around. Here, among the communist concrete blocks, history still survives. Like the dog nestling in the ruins, Romania’s true spirit has been buried, waiting for its time to re-emerge. For me, the dog becomes the key to understanding Romania. It shows me that behind the ugly communist façade, the spirit of the country and its people is alive and well. This is the reality of modern day Romania. It is a country haunted by a brutal past yet vibrant with future promise. It is also a land that retains a powerful link with its dark, vampiric heritage. How appropriate that the wolf’s closest ancestor, an animal with an intimate connection to the vampire, becomes my spiritual companion on this journey. With the Romanian dog as guide, I am happy to continue my journey through the land beyond the forest.

Targoviste - Vlad's Court 3 The first Vlad Tepes site we visit is The Princely Court in Targoviste. These are the first human-made ancient structures that I have ever seen. I am stunned at the constructions that have lasted over five hundred years. The archaic murals painted in the church are awe inspiring. I am so caught up in the magnificent history of the ruins that it takes me a while to comprehend that I am standing in one of Vlad’s ruling courts. The realisation that I am in a place where the real Prince Tepes once walked completely overwhelms me. His feet had once touched this earth, his hands had once touched these buildings. I am finally in the presence of the man who inspired Bram Stoker to name his infamous vampire after him. I am humbled.

 

Drac's Castle 4Our next stop is Citadel Poienari, the real Castle Dracula. This is the castle that Vlad Tepes actually lived in. To reach the top we must climb nearly 1500 steps, all of them uphill. For me, the climb is long and arduous. The only distraction is the surrounding forest. Ancient trees effortlessly climb the heights I seek, their tall gangly limbs swaying in the eerie breeze. Animals scurry in the bush and a field mouse runs across my path while a skink suns itself on a rock. This is the land Bram Stoker wrote about, wild, untamed and filled with life. I can almost hear the sombre howl of the wolves that still run free in these forests. After an eternity of huffing and puffing I finally come face to face with Vlad Tepes’ castle. Again I am awed by the sight. This is the castle that has haunted my dreams since childhood. I cannot believe that I am here. Once more I allow my imagination to run wild with images of Tepes ruling his kingdom from on high. Outstanding panoramic views of the countryside dominate the scene. Down below is the village of Arefu, where the proud descendants of Vlad Tepes’ minions still live. As I imagine talking to these descendants around a crisp bonfire, I realise that I have connected deeply with the Tepes siteDrac's Castle 6s but not with the Romanian people.

The next day I stop on my way to Sighisoara to pay homage to a statue of Vlad Tepes that guards the gateway to the village of Arefu. In the distance, towering above Vlad are the ruins of his mythic castle.

Cop1

 

 

 

As I turn to leave I slip and fall right in front of the bust of Vlad. I lie there looking up at him, knowing that I have badly twisted my ankle and scraped my knee. As my blood drips into the land in the shadow of that archetypal castle, I feel that I am paying due homage to the vampire prince. A scrape of flesh and a touch of blood will be left in the Romanian soil to form a blood tie with this ancient land. As my partner helps me hobble to our car I have plenty of time to ponder the severity of my injury.

The drive to Sighisoara is long and slow. We chose the Transfagarasan road where snow capped mountains and majestic forests compete with the sheer windy majesty of the concrete construction that is this road. My stress levels rise as the snow creeps closer to the car. It feels like a scene from The Shining. Just as we ponder whether to put chains on the tyres, the road stops, blocked by an avalanche of snow. This path to Sighisoara is cut-off. We have to turn around and try another route which will take us four to five hours to traverse. By now I am worried about my ankle and my enthusiasm to meet people is severely dampened. All I want is a good night’s sleep and a few painkillers.

But as we finally reach the fairytale spires and cobblestone streetclock 01s that is Sighisoara, my spirit is awakened. Leaning heavily on my partner and limping noticeably, I eagerly explore the craft market. Painted vampire masques and Dracula mementos vie with beautifully embroidered handicrafts and traditional souvenirs for table space. I stop and admire a delicate piece of embroidered lace, but before I can pick up the fabric, the black clad old woman running the stall waves her hands frantically, stopping me from touching the cloth. She gestures in sign language, pointing at my foot. I mime falling over and hurting my ankle. She laughs and pats my arm, gesturing for me to peruse her wares. As I wander away from the stall, I look back and see the woman pick up the only piece I had handled and make a complicated sign over it before placing it back. I recognise immediately what she is doing. She is warding off the evil eye. Even though my injury is only temporary, the old woman is taking no chances. If I am carrying a curse, she is prepared. It is a superstition I remember from my childhood.

As I take aSighisoara 2 good look at the villagers I see glimpses of my aunts and uncles, my grandparents and parents. I see a resemblance to my own Slavic relatives; a connection I did not feel till now. It is both physical and mythic. I see a tabby cat that looks just like the one down the road back home, complete with feline aristocratic attitude. SlowlySighisoara 1, unbelievably, I begin to feel at home. The bond I had so longed for is appropriately forged here. In the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, I finally connect to my ancestral roots. In the process I also connect with the Romanian people, so similar to my own family. It has taken a fall and an injury to bond with these people, but it is a price well worth paying. I enjoy a drink and a meal in the house Vlad Tepes was born in, secure in the knowledge that I too, have been reborn.

 

Fittingly our final stop in Romania is Snagov Monastery, the burial place of Vlad Tepes. The monastery is situated on an island and the only way to get there is by boat. As we are gently rowed to the island, I cannot help but feel that I am on the river Styx, about to enter the Underworld. As a blacSnagov 2k robed priest greets us at the door and welcomes us into his church I am transported to my own childhood. I remember the Orthodox churches of my youth with exquisitely painted interiors, framed saints and fragrant incense. It makes me yearn for a religion I no longer practice. But my reverie is broken by the sight of the altar. At its foot is a grave on which sits a plaque of Vlad Tepes. This is his final resting place. Vlad’s decapitated body supposedly lies beneath that slab of concrete. As I solemnly stand beside the grave, the priest stands next to me and, unbelievably, poses for a photo. I try not to laugh as his irreverent reverence so reminds me of the priests I grew up with. It is a deeply moving place to visit and the perfect way to end the Vlad Tepes leg of my journey.

I finally return home, butdoggy 2 not as the forty year old Countess Dracula I had hoped to be, but as Igor, the twisted servant of the vampire. I know I am deeply changed. Romania surpassed my dreams and the reality certainly lived up to the myth. Every time I look through my photo album I am stunned at the beauty of a harsh country that I nearly failed to see. The ancient ruins and archaic Dracula sites are breathtaking. But my favourite photo is of a small stray dog with matted fur. It brings back some of my most precious memories. Throughout the trip I had expected to see the stray dogs that so inspired and enchanted me being mistreated and shunned by the locals. But I was surprised at the tender way the Romanians treat their furry comrades. The images of school children sharing their lunches with the dogs, women bending to pat them in the streets and an armed and vigilant guard inevitably surrendering to the need to play with a stray puppy are unforgettable. These experiences bonded me to the people as I had always been bonded to the land, its turbulent history and gothic mythos.

Dracula brought me to this strange land, but its flora, fauna and people won my heart. I know that a part of me now lives in my archetypal homeland, and a part of my soul will always dwell in the land beyond the forest.

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!