Tuesday, September 23, 2014

From Panda Hugs to Face Changing in Chengdu

Panda Research Center
Next to the color red, China's soul seems to reside in its Giant Pandas. They are not only entertaining, but miracles of nature, though the white part isn't as white as we think when they are in the wild.

To have a Panda moment is why I came to Chengdu, home of the Giant Pandas, and where their rescuers after the Sichuan earthquake re-located many of them. Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center, really cut out of the middle of this huge city of 14 million, covers 600 acres of jungle, trees, walls, moats, wooden platforms for climbing and playing, shared with a good number of voluptuous red pandas, which look more like giant raccoons with thick fox tails.

Older bear with bamboo
 Bamboo grows all over the place, but this is not used for feeding. Since the center is at the foot of a mountain, workers must daily travel high in the mountains to pick fresh bamboo, more easily peeled by the pandas and digested. Crowds are monstrous but as you walk the wide pathways and are always hidden by some sort of thick jungle it is not difficult to really SEE pandas in their natural environment. They seem used to the attention.

Hey dude, down there...
We saw pandas of every age group, from month old babies still in baby beds in a protective environment behind glass, to 6 month olds rollicking in a group on a hill, to one year olds and to the older ones which seem to prefer life sitting in trees, their fat buttocks somehow holding balance while they secure themselves and hung comfortably for a nap. They are comical and ignore all the flash bulbs and calls. Although signs flash on and off "Be Quiet" in various language, the public, 99 per cent Chinese, pays no mind. We were told that the pandas' ears are sensitive and noise can disturb them if it is something they associate with negatively.

Is this the life or not?
The best part was the VIP panda hugging experience. Beyond belief. Like standing in a forest of cherry blossoms in bloom, or riding the ridge of a dolphin, or rolling along on an elephant with my bare feet behind one's ears. iI's a touch of forever, of what I hope eternity will include. But first we were gathered into a group of 14. Only 40 people are allowed to have the experience in a day so as not to wear out the young year and a half old pandas still safe enough for the attendants to control. (Pandas in the wild live to about 20 but in captivity, a good organic captivity, they can live 38 years.)

Panda Nursery
A demonstration-video started the hour program. Pandas at birth are about as long as your middle finger. No hair. Completely pink. Helpless. If the mother has two or more in the wild, she will only take care of the stronger one. So in captivity workers are able to help all survive, in fact, one mom just had triplets. Workers do not hug and feel at ease around Pandas. A whop of the paw could be deadly. So trying to extract milk from the mom to feed the babies can be harrowing. The workers also feed the babies and have to rub their tummies to get the poop out, something the mother panda would do with her tongue.

Howdy to you
Once they open their eyes (about 6 weeks), then they must start building sitting and standing muscles. The crew have exercises that entice them to reach up to grab something. They must learn to climb. And they learn to peel green bamboo, to eat panda pancakes, and apples. Once released into the paddocks, they spend most of the day chewing up bamboo leaves and stems non-stop.

Heap big bamboo high
Our human group exited the educational part to dress in paper shoe covers, plastic gloves and paper blue doctor's gowns. And we line up to learn how to peel bamboo with plastic gloves on our fingers, which we do so there is plenty to stuff the panda of the day and keep him occupied while we humans attempt to show them love - for photos. I was last on the list (we are numbered), and feared by the time I sat down beside him on the ornate wooden bench, he'd be sick of all the hugging and tugging and oohing and cooing, or that he'd be too restless and bored by the constant feeding of bamboo shoots to get me in.

Red Panda
Each human was given about 40-60 seconds to sit and have pictures taken. But when my time came, and I pushed up beside the 18 month old miracle in the bear world, he looked me in the eye for a minute, his paws holding a bamboo stick, and I felt honored. I rubbed his belly and his head and felt the whole trip to China was worth this one single moment, bonding with a panda bear. I've held baby Russian bears in Petersburg, a baby lion years ago from Safari Land in Florida, swam with sharks of two types and on a dolphin, held baby gorillas and baby pythons, but this surpassed all connections.

Blue Roof Art Complex
When it was done, we kept on strolling and rolling up and down the hills of the reserve even though it was drizzling rain, as it does most days here, to get a glimpse of the red pandas, who were oblivious to the public as they romped and played and rolled and leaped on each other, also many hanging out of trees. Their thick hairy tails are long as broomsticks and under their bellies, they are completely black but a bright orange rust red on the topside with full long hair. Thank God the furriers haven't gotten ahold of them.

Chengdu Opera Theater
We made a futile effort to visit the new Blue Roof Art Community. It wasn't the best time, as activities with children were in progress and the galleries and studios were not attending the public. It is an ample area where the government has built 3-4 story condominiums in groups for artists to work in, I think. But it is so large, that, like 798 in Beijing, we needed someone who knew who the best artists were and where. So we headed back to the city for a late dim sum snack at a tea house in the old town. At least it was small servings in little dishes and not the monster portions if ordered individually, which always make me feel guilty because we don't near finish the many plates that are ordered for us. The tradition is that if you don't leave food on the plate, there wasn't enough and you are still hungry (in which case, an empty plate means fill it up again.).

Chenghu Opera
There is nothing quite so surprising is a night at the Sichuan Opera (as different as it can be from the Peking Opera except for the loud squawky sounds that make your ears hurt). The Theater is ornate with wicker chairs and small round tables on which "snacks" or a sort of variation on dim sum are laid out so one can eat dumplings while the action is on. And if you arrive sufficiently early, the guest can take a stroll to the costume and make-up area which is quite open, to photograph the actors decorating their faces and preparing their wardrobes (which include giant crowns with sweeping peacock feathers.) If it behooves you, a massage and an ear cleaning are offered for free (I refused.) But settle in your wicker chair and watch a series of sketch performances that entertain with the best of them, from fire spitting dragon (not spitting but flame thrower like), rolling lights, giant puppets in the air, a husband and wife fight over a bowl of fire, and the typical drama where each actor is in the most ornate and elegantly embroidered and glittered gowns and headdresses I'd ever seen.

Make-up preview
But the real draw is the "bianlian" or face changing performance at the end. Only in China can you see these masters who can change Sichuan opera masks quicker than I can say "boo!". Whip a fan own, flourish an arm, twist a head, lift a leg high, pass a flag, and in a mini-second, the mask /face has changed. When you think, Ok, Surely that's as far as he can go - (like to his real face with no makeup) - he does it again, and adds on masks. Really, it beats anything on America's Got Talent by a marathon-length. Wow, folks. Wow.

Face Change Master

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Pandas are adorable. We finally figured out how to save the photos of you and the Pandas. We are surprised you didn't climb a tree with one of these beautiful creatures. Are you going to bring one home with you? Geraldean cannot have a Panda.
Knew you swam with sharks, but we didn't know you held pythons. That is really scary! They can crush a human and swallow that person.
Your latest operatic experience sounds more entertaining that the first one. Being able to master the art of changing a face so rapidly is a real talent. Would like to see that.
We've sent around eight or nine comments. Hope you are receiving them.
By the way, how would you rate this adventure with the many others you have taken?
God bless you!
You are our precious friend and we love you very much,
Geraldean and Judge