This will have to be part one of Day Five, since it's 11:20 p.m. here and I have a 7 a.m. wake up call. But I'll cover the best part of the trip now.
I got a nice 7 1/2 hours of sleep last night which was just tremendous. Mentally it felt so much better to wake up the first time and see it is 6 a.m. and not 1:30, 3:00 or 4:15. Breakfast here was good but the further we get from Beijing the more Chinese and less Western breakfast seems to become. I still managed to carb up (cereal, pastries) and balance that with protein (yogurt) and juice before we headed out.
Our first stop of the day was Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Facility. There was a heavy mist to the start of the day, which made everything seem rather ethereal. We walked up a path and immediately into a wooded area surrounded by bamboo. David, our local guide, asked how many of us were interested in the panda photo opportunity, and all of us except Dan did it. David took us right to the area where the photos were to be done and told us to kill some time looking at the panda nursery nearby. The panda nursery is just like one for humans, with incubators and the cutest darn little pandas ever. Since pandas breed around the same time every year (January-ish), all the cubs are born in the summer, so these little guys were all about 6 weeks old or younger. Actually I think the oldest in the nursery that I saw was born on 7/24. Their eyes are closed, the have a thin layer of fur and they are doing what they do best at this age: sleep. We made two passes through the line and more than a few of us were talking baby talk to them. No photos were allowed so this part of the day has to stay in my memory only. Finally, David called us over for the photo opportunity.
All of us were taken into a room where we put on a surgical gown and booties. We gathered together like nervous school children behind the line in front of a big wooden throne. What seemed like ages, but probably was just a few minutes, passed and all of a sudden the keepers came from the hallway on our right and they were escorting in our panda baby. He wobbled in like a little toddler would. He was just about a year old and ready to get to work. So one by one, we each handed our camera off to a keeper, sat in the chair and they plopped this bundle of fur on to our laps. From there on, I cannot explain to you what it felt like. I know I was talking to him, I know I put my cheek on his head to feel his fur (coarse, damp) and I know that I didn't want to let him go. This was just so much more overwhelming than I ever imagined. I don't remember now how I thought it was going to be, but however good that expectation was, this was better.
Much too soon, the keepers lifted the panda off my lap and my time was up. I made it about 5 paces away before I broke down and cried. I was not alone in that feeling either. I couldn’t believe what I had just done and felt truly blessed by such an amazing experience. When we talked about the whole thing as a group, we all agreed and others said that I just exploded with happiness holding that bear. I’ve seen their photos of me as well as my own and I have to agree.
We spent the rest of the morning touring the facility. We tracked a pair of pandas as they worked their way through tall grass seeking out more bamboo for breakfast. We saw some cubs snoozing peacefully up in trees. We saw Mei Lan (formerly of Atlanta Zoo and Po’s big sister) napping on a platform. We laughed as one panda dove head first down a ravine and into a ditch in search of breakfast. It was all just so amazing to see them in such a good, healthy environment. I cannot believe I still have three days of this to go!
I’m heading into the Sichuan mountains tomorrow and am unsure of when I’ll be able to connect again. It may not be until Saturday, but I’ll update the blog with everything when I get connected.