Sichuan – Land of Pandas (2014)

Sichuan – Land of Pandas (2014)

Travelling through Sichuan is like playing hopscotch on a colourful mosaic. One moment you’re in a valley dwarfed by the stunning barren snow ranges whose crowns are hidden in cotton-wool clouds; in just a few hours you’re cruising amidst the verdant conical hills of the lowlands where a youthful Yangste or one of her lesser siblings leaps through the gorges and play hide and seek; another step takes you to the most fashionable pedestrian-only shopping district in central Chengdu where the trendy come to shop for the latest designer labels. A few hops away from the city take you deep into a bamboo forest where you imagine a giant panda behind every bush, although all you see are rogue macaques blocking your way, demanding bananas. Yet another move and you’re enveloped by the serene silence of a Buddhist temple where you just catch a glimpse of a silken yellow robe disappearing down the cobblestones of the courtyard in an ancient monastery.

Our Sichuan journey had begun long before we had reached Chengdu, the capital. We had taken the fancy high-speed train from Lhasa.  All trains emanating from Lhasa traverse through the Tibetan plateau upto Xinning and diverge in different directions from there.  The journey from Xinning to Chengdu had served up rectangular steel frames of verdant Sichuan countryside. Shiny bottle gourds hanging from vines on shingly rooftops, lush paddy fields cultivated in a series of meandering terraces on the mountainside, arched bridges faithfully reflected in the silvery waters of a gurgling stream below, the Sichuan countryside is exquisitely beautiful, even better than Tibet where the scenery, though stark and stunning, is somewhat unvarying. Sichuan farmers are busy planting, weeding or fishing in shallow waters. Occasionally, one comes across a lone farmer taking a break, puffing away contentedly.

However, from time to time, as the train hurtled through Sichuan countryside, this pastoral paradise was punctured by a jungle of concrete commercial and housing blocks.  Towns with obscure names which even the Chinese are not familiar with, emerge out of the rice paddies, sprouting high-rises, flyovers and underpasses, signs that ‘development’ has reached remote interiors of China.


Chengdu, of course, is a modern city like any other. It has its own metro and a sprawling city square large enough to land a Boeing Dreamliner.  There is a steady stream of shoppers in trendy clothes. Sichuan has a university and a lovely museum, both located in Chengdu.  The delights this city offers are myriad, but my friend and I are here for a specific purpose – to see the giant pandas in the Panda Breeding Station located on the outskirts of Chengdu. We make our way through a steady drizzle to the ‘Resarch Base of Giant Panda Breeding’, home to dozens of adult and juvenile black and white giant pandas.

Giant Pandas are bears native to south central China – Sichuan, Gansu and Shaánxi provinces. They inhabit the broadleaf jungles perpetually shrouded in mist. No one knows how they came to have such an attractive white and black coat, but it is surmised that their coat evolved as a camouflage in snow and rock which also form part of the landscape they inhabit between 5000 and 10000 meters.


Pandas are an endangered species under the Red List of the World Conservation Union.  Like in the case of other wildlife, panda habitat is getting threatened by relentless urbanisation.  Not only have their numbers dwindled, they have also retreated into the interior jungles. It is quite difficult to spot a panda in the wild; one may camp for a week and still come back disappointed. Originally, we were going to the nearby Woolong nature reserve to see the pandas in their natural habitat, but were told that many of them were killed by the earthquake that shook this region in 2008;  the survivors were relocated to this station in Chengdu. It is estimated that there are less than a couple of thousand pandas in the wild and a few hundreds in breeding stations and zoos of which this one is the largest .

Once you enter the formidable gates of the Panda breeding station, you’re enveloped by a man-made bamboo forest. As you stroll through it, you’re in veritable pandaland. Enclosure after enclosure entertains you with the antics of these cuddly animals which seem to be conscious of their star status. They put up a virtuoso performance as the paparazzi click away.  Some are sprawled on the grass, others climb trees. One swings from a branch while another chases a butterfly.

A wheel barrowful of chopped bamboo arrives to great excitement and they sit down to savour their meal.   While their main diet is bamboo, they are carnivores which would also eat small rodents or birds.  Bamboo is not very nutritious and the pandas have to eat more than 20 kilograms everyday just to keep alive.  In fact, eating takes up the better part of their day. How they manage to extract all that fat from unyielding bamboo to become so cushiony and cuddly is a mystery.  Their eating posture – sitting upright and stuffing bamboo into their mouths with their front paws has a startling resemblance to humans. They look cute no doubt, but they could charge like any other bear.

The next day we go to see Sichuan Museum which has a lovely collection of local tapestries, pottery, paintings, statues and handicrafts. Entry to the museum is free,  a surprise considering that even temples charge a hefty entry fee in this town.  We ride the metro to the Wenshu temple, a tree-shaded retreat of peace and tranquility in the midst of a bustling Chengdu.  Monks in yellow robes hurry past purposefully while locals lounge in one of the many ornamental pavilions.  The shrines are arranged in the middle of concentric quadrangles.  The trees are slung about with prayer sheets so numerous that you can hardly see the branches.  The ponds are full of turtles and herons. The streets around the temple have become tourist savvy, offering fusion cuisine and trinkets.

(Published in Frontline dated Dec 26, 2014)


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