“Late last year, I found myself waiting on a bench, waiting for my date. I’d been excited about this meeting for weeks, telling all my friends about it ever since it was confirmed. Really, I’d been waiting for this all my adult life. But what, I suddenly worried, if he doesn’t like me? I shuffled nervously in my plastic blue scrubs and then the door opened and a woman beckoned me in. He was ready to see me.
I should probably admit at this point that I was not having a romantic assignation; I was not even waiting for another human being. Rather, I was at the Chengdu panda research base in central China, which is also known as the holy land among panda fans.
Chengdu Panda Base turned out to be, much to my relief, nothing like a zoo. The pandas have 240-odd hectares (600 acres) of parkland in which to scamper. And while the centre is very much a tourist destination (don’t go on a national holiday or you will find yourself fighting for space with what seems like the rest of China), it is primarily a conservation and breeding centre. The pandas I saw, mostly black and white ones but some little red ones, too, all looked well cared-for, plump and relaxed, happily playing with members of staff (another tip: go in the morning to see the feeding).
After watching the bears loll around and lumber about – and those do seem to be the two main forms of panda action – I joined the long but fast-moving queue to peer into the nursery at the litter of three-week-old cubs. Lying in their cot, they were so small and sweet I had to shove my hands in my pockets to stop myself stealing one.
Just next to the main enclosure is a little villa where, for a fairly hefty fee (about £95) you can hold a panda. As far as I know, this is the only place in the world where you can do this: I would have paid three times that. The one-year-old I already thought of as “my panda” was sitting on a wooden bench, like a small round emperor upon a throne, chewing on bamboo. I nervously sat down and immediately felt his heft and warmth as he leaned up against me. He continued to munch his bamboo thoughtfully and soon turned slowly, sweetly towards me and I looked into his panda face. We had our moment. I had my Panda Watch. And, as an experience, it was more than compelling and rich.”
(Source provided by: The Guardian)