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Wolong Travel Blog

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Ailuropoda Melanoleuca (The Giant Pandas of Wolong) Part I: Dancing Bears

My plane lands in Chengdu. Finding the driver I have pre-arranged proves immediately troublesome. Several hours and many crackly phone calls later, he finally appears. We chain smoke and chat awkwardly. He explains in broken English I will be staying at a hotel in the city tonight. I spend the rest of the day exploring Chengdu, ever fearful of losing my way like a child in the dark. I watch a man spluttering and spitting before boarding a bus. I watch in contrast the cosmopolitanism take hold of pretty Chinese girls whilst sipping coffee in a glass café. Their faces are blush with expensive makeup, their wrists laden with logoed bags from designer stores.

The next day the driver is accompanied by a girl in her mid thirties. Her job back home is apparently to measure the sonar of bats – so as to count them for some reason or other.

The driver listens to overly loud comedy tapes on repeat as we climb the mountain. We stop for a bowl of salted beans and spring onions with pieces of ox that’s delicious. The driver picks up a lady-friend, and his Jedi reflexes somehow get us up the mountain roads, with only minor near death experiences to write home about.

The hotel is comfy and clean, if not a little bland. have a room with a chair and a table I can write on, and a little kettle and a variety of teas. We meet our administrator and get initiated into the Panda sanctuary and my feet are too big for the plastic covers they’ve given me to cover my shoes. The administrator tells us we don’t have breakfast included. We tell her we do and that’s the end of it. The administrator tells us we are to have lunch in the mess halls with all the workers.

I hold up my aluminium prison tray and the chef serves me a variety of different dishes in the little compartments. The food is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted – all infused with chili, ginger and spring onion. The meat is chopped into tiny pieces but still contains bone. A grim man I don’t like the look of that sits away from all the other staff. He reminds me of a Nazi officer, too good for the flock. As he chews each piece of meat from his tray he spits the bones out chorally on the table around him.

We feed some pandas with our keeper, Cho. The pandas I have been assigned to are called Ursula and Xixi. My keeper instructs me to clean up panda poo and it’s huge. I clean their enclosures and replenish the bamboo. I feed and get to know Xixi and Ursula over the next few days and film the younger pandas playing games.

Certain factions of the staff seem openly hostile to us outsiders being there, which to me seems incomprehensible since I’d paid good money to volunteer. Later I wonder if my volunteer placement had stripped a local of their employment.

To oversee security is a member of the communist party in a ripe green uniform. The communist always seems to be everywhere I go, always appearing around corners, or watching from a distance. He wears a wide, but not kindly, smile. Staff address him with the uppermost respect. However he seems to deem the foreign volunteers as inferior and regrettably I do not get the opportunity to find out more about him.

Sometimes I retreat back to my room, sitting in my little chair by the window. Outside the builders are extending the complex with blowtorches. I listen to the Arcade Fire and Lilly Allen whilst writing in a tiny leather-bound diary.

A panda is sent to the United States of America and there’s lots of posturing and shows. A small stage is set up and small children are bused in to orderly hold flags which line the path into the sanctuary. I ask the administrator how we can help but she brushes me off and warns us to keep out the way.

It rains heavily for a few days and very little else happens. The bat girl and I take a ride to a near village where there are three shops. I buy some strange looking alcohol that looks like it’ll taste like petrol. Later I find out it does. I ask the administrator for more hours or to do something else with the pandas. I ask her if I can see get anywhere else in the reserve to see wildlife which Wolong is renowned for. She says I’d have to hire a driver for three hundred pounds per day, but gives me no contact number. I ask to have the driver take me back to Chengdu earlier. She tells me there’s a bus. She’s beginning to get on my nerves. I take the bus the next day making it my daring mission to explore more of this vast and puzzling country alone. 

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Ailuropoda Melanoleuca (The Giant…
Wolong
photo by: chimera15