There was a panda waiting for me when I landed in Chengdu.
Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, and I felt like I couldn't leave China without seeing these guys in their natural habitats.
Last time I'd seen a live panda in China, I'd been 10 years old, and we'd just arrived in Beijing. A giant panda was huddled like a prisoner in a concrete cell, bars over the window, scraps of bamboo at his feet. I'm anthropomorphizing, but he looked deeply depressed. He was alone. The hospital green paint on the walls didn't help.
I saw something about China's improved panda habitats on National Geographic's "Wild China" series (which I highly recommend) and felt inspired to visit Chengdu. I had never intended to go to Sichuan, honestly, though. Huajiao (Sichuan pepper) is famous for numbing your entire face, not just your lips and tongue, and I must confess I preferred cuisine from Hangzhou or Xi'an, both of which are full of flavor without making the skin of your tongue peel off. One of my students encouraged me to drink lots of water, and her classmates nodded enthusiastically.
I was going to stay with a friend who was teaching in Chengdu and who had offered his guest bedroom free of charge. I hadn't seen Kristopher since last July, but I was sure his reddish-brown hair would make him stand out in a crowd of 5'5", black-haired Sichuanese.
I was finishing my photos of the panda man when a tall, somewhat shaggy figure approached. Canvas loafers on bare feet were topped by shorts and a parka and scarf. On his head was a tam-o-shanter-like hat. A white mask hid most of his face.
"Heather," he called.
"Kris! Yay!" I exclaimed.
"Welcome to Chengdu," he said as we hugged. He took a step back and held out a second mask. "Put this on." When I laughed, he went on, "PM 2.5 is two-fifty today." (Shanghai, for reference, averages a particulate matter level of 150.) "Oh, God," I said, putting the mask on immediately.
"I'm also coming down with something," he said regretfully. "I may not be much fun."
"Well, you sounded busy," I said. He was lead teacher at his center. I hadn't been sure of his schedule, but he said he'd go with me to see a few sights.
We caught a cab to a Tex-Mex joint near his apartment. Chengdu has only two metro lines, so it's more of a bus/cab town than Shanghai is. We caught up on gossip and made plans. We agreed to see the pandas my second full day in Chengdu.
Due to seeing another friend and staying up quite late, it felt painful to get up before 7 a.m. My schedule teaching adults means I never have to be up early these days. But I'd been advised by no fewer than five people that the pandas were fed at 9 a.m. They were supposedly asleep or very lazy for the rest of the day, and I was hoping to see something entertaining in the way of panda behavior.
We met Kris' friend T.J. at the red panda enclosure. Red pandas remind me of cats--if cats had come from a marriage between red foxes and raccoons. They seemed to want only to rub their posteriors on things or to chase each other, but they were fun to watch.
First up were the "juveniles". I thought the term was hilarious, as I'd had many experience teaching "juveniles" and even "juvenile delinquents". And, typical, the juvenile pandas weren't that different. They seemed incapable of sitting upright, preferring to lean against wooden poles or each other, gnawing on snacks or pushing at each other. Give those juveniles a cell phone and some girls, I thought, and the picture would be almost human. They were adorable. Eight of them (probably on purpose, as it's a lucky number in China) sat on weathered bamboo platforms, eating fresh bamboo. T.J., Kris, and I acted out conversations ("Hey, that's my stash, man!") when one juvenile tried to steal a friend's food, and giggled. We made jokes about them smoking bamboo joints and made funny voices for them. I felt like a little girl seeing a pony for the first time. I hadn't expected to be so giddy about it, but there they were!
Next were the giants of the giant pandas. I expected more laziness, and the first big guy I saw seemed to confirm it. He was laying on his back and eating, he was so lazy! In the next paddock over, though, a curious guy emerged. He climbed a tree--slowly, to be sure--as Chinese and foreign tourists snapped pictures, rolled video, and babbled quietly and in awe, pointing and smiling and posing. When he got about halfway up the tree, he hung upside down in a crotch, pivoted a bit, and began rubbing his butt on part of the trunk. A couple of times we could hear small grunts of pleasure, and we all laughed. Taking his time, the panda clambered down, panting, and proceeded to climb up another, thinner tree. A few branches snapped off, and the "audience" gasped as the main branch bent like a fishing pole, but Kris was an old hand. "Just watch. He won't fall. They never do." And he didn't. He turned the same trick, though, hanging upside down like a kid and scratching his butt on a branch, grunting. He came down a few minutes later, panting heavily, but I swear there was a big grin on his face. He moseyed over to small pond lined with smooth, round stones, plopped himself in it with his back finally turned to us, and sighed. The performance was over.
My first full day, Kris and I had gone to the JinSha Museum. I had plans to meet up with a friend from my intake group in the People's Park for drinks later that night, and Kris gave me a few recommendations for the area. I'd be on my own, since he'd be resting up.
"Oh, by the way," Kris said with a grin, "Watch out for ear cleaners!"
The metro put me down at Tianfu Square. Poppies were blooming everywhere, months ahead of their North American cousins. There was a huge statue of Chairman Mao across the street, holding his hand up like a command and a blessing. I felt obliged to take a picture, but I'd grown tired of the Chairman's smug mug on every piece of paper money, to say nothing of the plain-style Communist propaganda statues in every city.
It was later, after the pandas, before I learned what Kris had meant by "ear cleaners".
T.J., Kris, and I were sitting in a fabulous teahouse. We'd just seen DuFu's (famous Tang Dynasty poet) Cottage, and I'm sure we all felt poetic, wanting to continue our journey into Chinese traditionalism. We ordered a pot of cinnamon tea and a few Sichuanese dishes that tickled my palate without leaving me screaming.
The clear glass cha hu (teapot) sat over a candle and was often refreshed with steaming kai shui from huge copper kettles nearby. Teahouses are comforting, I find, and often extremely pleasant. Many are open to the sky, or let natural light in from skylights. Bamboo and other plants grow up to this light, mingling with cigarette smoke, steam from cups of tea, and the chatter of Chinese dialects. This particular teahouse offered sunflower seeds, and the snap and crunch punctuated every conversation.
Totally satisfied and relaxed, I gazed lazily around at books on shelves and noticed a bronze statue of two Chinese men. Each wore traditional robes with frog clasps. One was seated, with his head titled to one side. The other was poised to clean his ear with a long metal rod.
T.J. laughed, shaking his head. "You should see them in Tianfu Square. They rub those two metal rods together like they're selling them. And they'll follow you across the park!"
"They're wiped but not sanitized," Kristopher warned, then added wryly, "I don't see myself taking 'em up on the offer any time soon."