Subtitled: Who Knew They Look Into Your Eyes, Mr Hard To Get, A Nice Chinese Red Wine
Today would be our first official day volunteering at Bifengxia. We got our wake up call at 6:15 in order to be on the bus by 7:15 and working by 8:15. Last night I managed to sleep most of the night in good order until the loudest rooster in the universe started to crow at 4:30 a.m. I just can’t win here when it comes to getting some sleep!
This hotel, Moonstar Hotel, is on one of the highest hills in Ya’an. It is so isolated that walking to Ya’an for a night out or even for dinner or the supermarket is just out of the question. The hotel has its own restaurant though and we ate there last night; another lazy susan meal with dish after dish of interesting or wonderful things. I am in love with what I think is called Ma Po Tofu, which is a really hot and spicy tofu and meat dish. I put it over sticky rice and it is quite a meal.
Anyway, the restaurant doesn’t open for breakfast until 7 so that left us little time to eat this morning, but we managed to sneak in early. Since I just can’t stomach noodles, rice or anything Chinese at that hour, I hit the pastry table and had something that looked like jelly roll, two shortbread cookies and toast with some sort of fruit flavored gel. The chef showed up and fried eggs for all of us. I’m still wondering about the orange juice (like Tang at this hotel) that was boiling hot. Hmmmm.
We made it to BFX and got split into two groups, one of four and one of six. I volunteered to get off at the first stop with Bev, Tracy and Kim. They then split the four of us to work with other volunteers, for some reason. This proved problematic later in the day when the other volunteers seemed to be getting special treatment from their keeper, but the keeper Kim and I worked with seemed nice enough for sure and treated us well. We got paired with two girls from Ireland who were here to work for two weeks.
It was time to don our keeper clothes (ok, I’ll admit I put the jumpsuit on in the bus) and get to work. First stop was an enclosure that needed to be mucked out. Each enclosure holds two pandas separated from each other by a wall inside and fence outside. They are indoors overnight, so we first cleaned the outside, scooping up any poop and cleaning up the shedded outer layers of bamboo that the panda had eaten on his patio the day before. Then we pulled weeds on the patio, swept everything up and dumped it into big buckets. The keeper would then transition the panda outside, locking us back inside, pushing panda out and locking it outside. We’d then sweep and de-poop the inside of the enclosure. It was not sunny but it was about 80 and humid and I broke a sweat fast. We’d lay out fresh bamboo for the day and off we’d go to do another. We did enclosures this morning and helped with another one, getting done about 10:00. Then we got to take a break until 11 but Stanley and David had arranged for us to sit for another photo with a 1 year old panda and play in the kindergarten with 2 year old pandas, so off we went for that.
I am, apparently, an expert sweeper. I somehow managed to avoid scooping poop if only because I can sweep with these bundles of sticks they call brooms here. I swept the fronts of a couple enclosures as well as a long path from the main road up to an enclosure. It felt good to break a sweat but I do wish I’d gotten to do something else.
The whole time you are cleaning within eyeshot of a panda, there is a very good chance they are watching you. We were outside the first couple of enclosures and I was down pulling weeds on the floor and I’d look up and the panda would be inside at the round door watching me, as if it were overseeing the whole thing. I will say, it was satisfying to go back by the places that we cleaned during the morning and see them enjoying their newly laid bamboo and freshly cleaned and weeded terrace!
What really amazed me is how the pandas respond to their keeper. One female panda, Ho Bao, was way out in her enclosure, high up in a tree. Apparently she’d been there all day yesterday and they couldn’t get her down last night either. Her keeper didn’t seem concerned at first, but when he stood for almost 15 minutes calling her name and she didn’t come down, he started to tell the other keepers about her. What was fascinating though is that when he called her, she lifted her head and looked in his direction, so she knew he was calling her. Not that she was going to come to him, but she obviously realized she was being called. All of the pandas, when being summoned in or out, respond to their names.
The difference between this photo shoot and the one at Chengdu is that the panda does not sit on your lap. They brought out a little one and put him on a set of chairs (that so closely resembled a bus station!). One by one we each got to go sit with the panda and pat him while he was occupied by a carrot or cookie. The encounter lasted all of 30 seconds this time (rather than a minute in Chengdu) but this time I managed to get video. It was not as overwhelming emotionally this time because I was prepared for it all. I just remember patting him and looking into his eyes as he ate away. I also scratched his neck and his chin when he lifted his head up. The whole thing went by so fast though it seems like a dream.
Very quickly we got driven up to another panda kindergarten, different from the one yesterday. This one was for the 2 year olds. We were gowned up again and led into a courtyard where four pandas sat munching away eagerly on their panda biscuits. I moved towards one panda that was sort of off on his own and got to know him. This was just an amazing experience because I could spend three minutes getting to know this panda. What was just amazing about it is I did nothing but rub his back and scratch the back of his neck and talk to him and every few bites he’d squeak at me, like we were conversing. And when he turned to look at me, he made eye contact with me. I told Suzanne about it and she smiled and said that that was very common.
Right after that, David took us to the keepers’ dining hall, where he had arranged for us to have lunch. For 20 yuan (about $3.50) we had about five courses. It was all traditional Chinese but it was good and cheap and we didn’t have to go too far for it. What was interesting though was seeing how it worked for them. Each employee brings their own bowl, goes up to the buffet window and all five courses are served into the bowl. The employees all eat in the dining hall and when they are done, they go outside to communal sinks, scrape off the leftovers into a slop bucket and wash the dishes in the sink. It was actually sort of cool to see the behind the scenes action. Suzanne told us they don’t get paid much but they do get room and board on site.
After lunch with two hours to kill until we were needed back with our keeper, one member of our group convinced David to take us up to the mountain where the repatriated pandas are, specifically with an eye toward seeing Tai Shan, the panda born in DC. We made the long and winding trek there in the buggy (large golf cart) only to find that Tai Shan had hidden himself away behind a wall, but ever the diva, he did stick his head and one paw out when we called his name. I got to revisit his neighbor, Fu Long, who is just one of the most photographic pandas ever, especially when he sticks his uniquely white foot out. We also saw Mei Sheng roaming up in the hills amidst the grass. I think there is already a movement underfoot to get back there tomorrow in order to see Tai out and about rather than sticking his ears out from behind a wall!
Around 2:00 we went back to our assigned teams. The Irish girls we were teamed with showed us how to cut up the panda cakes, which to me seem a lot like Irish brown bread. David said we could try it, but I was still pretty full from lunch. We then went to visit the four pandas under our care to watch the keepers weigh them. They called to them and threw piece of apple and carrot on the large platform scale. The pandas being pandas, were interested in the food and would climb up to get weighed. Our pandas ranged from 125 kg to 94 kg. It seemed like the lower weighing pandas got the bonus of getting panda bread, which we got to feed them. It was the first time I got to feed a panda. Our keeper warned us in the morning to stay back about 3 feet, hold it out to them and when it seems like they have it in their mouth, let go so they won’t bite further down toward your fingers. With that in mind, I lifted some panda cake to the panda and he took it. I might have gotten a little too close on the second piece because I came away with panda drool all over two fingers. I’ll never wash that hand again….!
The last thing we did before the day was out was put fresh bamboo in the enclosures for the overnight. A few of the pandas got bamboo shoots as well, which I also got to hand feed them. There is just something so awe inspiring to have an animal like this take food from your hand and eat it while looking you in the eye the whole time. I really felt like I did something to make their day better today.
We left tired from being hot and on our feet all day. The work wasn’t necessarily hard but it was a long day to be outside in humid mountain air.
Dinner was not part of the tour package but because we are so far from the city, Stanley met those of us who were interested and took us to the hotel restaurant to help us order. I split a Ma Po Tofu and rice with Kim and a bottle of Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon with Linda. I also had an interesting little fried rice cake too. All in it was about $17 per person before the wine.
After a long day, it’ll be nice to go to bed to the sound of a gentle rain…hopefully it stops before morning and I don’t hear the local cock crow again tomorrow!