“A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. ‘Why?’ asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder. ‘I’m a panda,’ he says, at the door. ‘Look it up.’ The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation:
Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” -Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
When I say a trip to Chengdu, China is a once in a lifetime trip, I mean it like this: It should only happen once in a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, the place is beautiful, with rolling mountains and rich culture everywhere you turn, but it only offers so much to do, and it can all be done in one stay.
For my sixteenth birthday, like my typical atypical self, I asked for a summer volunteer trip instead of having a sweet sixteen, and my parents, not wanting to turn down such a genuine request, reluctantly agreed. It was up to me to choose a travel company and trip so long as it stayed within my budget. I decided that I would travel with Rustic Pathways, as my best friend had done so the year before and had nothing but good things to say about them, and narrowed down my options to two trips: one in New Zealand to work on a Kiwi farm or one in China to work at a Giant Panda conservation center. After seeing the cost of airfare to New Zealand, my choice was made. I would be heading to China the following summer.
In mid-June, after the completion of my junior year in high school, I hopped on a plane in Newark bound for San Francisco to meet up with a group of people whom I knew nothing about. After some serious delays and several minor freak-outs, I made it to SanFran and met up with my luggage a few short hours later. Upon meeting my group, we went through security together and boarded a plane to Hong Kong with a flight leader. Much to our surprise in Hong Kong, our flight leader said his goodbyes and told the nine of us that we were on our own for our several hour layover before heading to Chengdu. Fortunately, we managed to navigate the airport pretty successfully for a bunch of American teenagers.
After landing in Chengdu, we met up with our in-country leader, who would essentially be our tour-guide and guardian figure for the next twelve days. We left the airport and headed for a small hostel in the heart of the city. For those of you who don’t know, Chengdu is basically in the center of China, and therefore subject to extreme humidity with regular gray skies and torrential down-pours. Needless to say, the city didn’t take my breath away like New York would, but it was definitely a place I’m glad I’ve seen in my lifetime. If staying in the hostel taught me one thing about China it was this: The Chinese like their beds extremely firm. My two roommates and I entered our room after our long journey and all proceeded to collapse onto our beds, only to be unpleasantly surprised by the lack of cushioning provided to us. Regardless, we managed.
In journeying the city center, we discovered that this particular area must not see many white people, especially blondes. Not only once, but multiple times, people in our group were approached and asked if they would take a picture holding someone’s baby. Where those pictures ended up still baffles me. But for the first time in my life, I was a foreigner, and it was cool. People were interested in me, and the way I live, and my story.
At some point during the night in Chengdu, a few other stragglers connecting from other trips met up with our group to join us for the remainder of ours. We woke up and ate our first real Chinese meal, then boarded a rickety bus headed towards Ya’an, where the Bi Feng Xia panda reserve is located. Our bus ride through the winding mountain roads had me convinced I’d never see my family again, but luckily I was wrong. We made it to the place we would be staying for the remainder of the trip. I would say the place was somewhere between a hostel and a motel, situated in a small village and across from a restaurant that seemed to be open only to people staying there.
Each day we woke up and headed for a quick breakfast which consisted of white bread, white rice, and bread rolls (shockingly, I lost weight). Our guide brought a jar of peanut butter with him and would put it out each morning. I’ve never seen peanut butter used in so many creative ways, but with all the bland food we were given, it was a delicacy. Then we hiked up and back down part of the mountain over to the reserve to do our work for the day, dressing in heinous flood-length, brown jumpsuits and gloves. During the morning shift we would clean the panda’s cages, prepare their panda-cake, which was made with some highly secretive government-issued recipe, feed them, collect bamboo, brake it, and place it inside of their cages. We spent our lunch breaks eating quickly and returning to the reserve to teach some of the employee’s English. This was not part of the trip’s requirements, but we enjoyed doing it and it passed the time. For the afternoon shift we followed the same schedule as the morning. If we had time after the last shift, we were usually permitted to explore the grounds, visiting panda cages. Rustic Pathways had set up one day for us where, after dressing accordingly, we were permitted to enter a cage with a panda for a quick photo-session. One evening we were even able to see the baby pandas being fed and playing on their playground.
We spent the evenings cooped up in our rooms because the weather was so rainy and gray. My roommate and I pushed our beds together to serve as a sitting place for everyone, since our room was the hang-out of choice. Everyone would come to play cards and share stories from home. One night we were taken in small vans to a local village to shop and dine. We were told never to ask what it was that we were eating, just to eat it. We visited a restaurant featuring highly popular Chinese-style dining called “hot pot.” We were seated in front of a pot with boiling water and given chopsticks and some raw foods that we were supposed to cook ourselves. Again, we were looked at with wide eyes by the locals as if we were some alien species. One night we were permitted to spend time in the local restaurant learning to make traditional Chinese foods and play games there.
When our time in Ya’an was finished, we packed up the bus and headed back down the mountain for the two hour trek to Chengdu. We spent our last night in the ancient part of the city, dancing with locals and perusing their shops. The next morning we were off to the airport to begin our 52 hour journey home.
Despite the trials and tribulations presented on our journey, my experience in China was a wonderful one. The culture shock was exactly what I needed as a teenage girl who had only ever been outside of the country to go to the Caribbean. The Bi Feng Xia panda reserve is a place I hope that everyone can make it to at some point in their lifetime, since it is open to tourists as well as volunteers. Just make sure when planning a trip to the Sichuan Province that your stay will be long enough to see everything there is to see, as the area only really needs to be visited once to do it all.