I did not expect pandas to be as interesting as they were. This is prime panda territory because Chengdu sits in a geographic bowl and the weather is cool and foggy – foggy 300 days a year, imagine. I was so relieved when I understood the half-kilometer visibility wasn't all air pollution.
First of all, pandas are big: the adults weigh about 350 pounds.
Because bamboo is not very nutritious – how did they evolve to like it?? – they have to eat a lot of it. The shoots are full of water so if they're eating shoots they have to eat about 40 kilos per day. Leaves and stems are more nutritious: only 10 kilos per day. That's a lot of bamboo poop! (They're carnivores but their main food is bamboo.) At the breeding station we visited, choice bamboo is trucked in for them from six or seven hours away every day.
Pandas are an endangered species partly because their habitat is disappearing, partly because they're unsociable by nature and finicky when it comes to partners – and there isn't that much choice to start with – and partly because the babies are born unable to survive if the mother isn't attentive. Babies can't even regulate their body temperature, and pandas have no pouches like kangaroos.
They go into estrus early in the spring and have babies in early fall. First-time panda mothers often swat around their babies, maybe because they look like overgrown bugs and fun to play with. Obviously the babies can't survive this. If twins are born, a common occurrence, the mother ignores the weak one, which promptly dies. The ones that survive in the wild are cradled constantly by the mothers. Now the animal keepers dart in to save a baby in trouble, and this year was an all-time record for surviving babies here: fourteen. The newborns look like large baby mice. They weigh only five ounces and have pink skin and sparse white hairs that only start to grow black hairs in the right places starting at a week or two. They look like they need to grow inside a uterus for many more months.
So how do the panda scientists increase the birth rate? Artificial insemination is one. They used to use only electrical stimulation but discovered that electrical stimulation plus massage improves semen collection. What a surprise. And what also turns out to increase panda libido is showing them movies of pandas mating. Panda porn! I love knowing this.
An odd thing is the variation in gestation time, very weird: average is five months but pandas have been observed to be pregnant for as many as eleven months. I cannot understand the biology of this. They are born without placentas, like kangaroos: pathetic. But they improve quickly. Here's what the babies look like at two months. All five are fast asleep.
Unlike all kinds of cats, pandas climb back down a tree butt first, not head first. We think that pandas are a type of bear but it's not so. DNA analysis reveals that they share most of their genes with dogs and few with bears. Pandas, it turns out, are pandas.
There was another panda-looking animal there they labeled “lesser panda” – a lovely reddish color and much smaller with cute ears. In fact it's related to a raccoon, as you can tell by the tail.
Watching the pandas was another type of local fauna.
The breeding center itself was beautiful. As everywhere in China, plantings are done carefully and maintained; in this season I see marigolds, red salvia, petunias, and celosia. There were many bamboo plantings, including tall trees that overhang the path. So lovely.
Okay, enough pandas. Walking to lunch I asked Mike about something I've seen all over China: in sidewalks, airports, train stations, everything. Can you guess what it's for? I couldn't.
It's for blind people. They follow the straight lines with their canes and when they come to the circles it means either a driveway or a street or that they have to change direction. In the second picture, that's in case the manhole is open.
In the afternoon we went to a central park in Chengdu (pronounced CHUNGdu, by the way – so why is it spelled Chengdu?). It is the annual chrysanthemum festival.
There were tables of specimen chrysanthemums the likes of which I have never seen before, like fireworks!
Here are men playing mah jongg.
And a cart selling nuts and dried fruits.
At one place in the park you could see many written pages, some laminated, some just hand-written. These are written and posted by parents who are starting to despair that their children, busy with careers and modern life, will never get married and give them grandchildren. So they write up their sons' and daughters' attractions and provide their own phone numbers.
When parents feel they might have a good match, the children are introduced. This woman was reading the notices intently.
This way of finding a husband appealed to the oldest woman in the group. Seventy-five years old with a taut face lift, she described all her attributes and attractions to Mike, who translated them for a person who wrote them down in Chinese on a poster. She used Mike's phone number, and for the rest of the trip she kept asking if he'd gotten any responses yet.
Another popular activity in the park was dancing.
We passed two or three of these dance groups, a cacophony of loud clashing musics. Among the people watching the dancers were this woman and her baby.
This was a lot of walking for one day, and despite the walking stick I am aching. I am very happy to be sitting here writing this!
After dinner I went to a performance of the Sichuan Opera. Again, sheer spectacle.
I absolutely love it that I saw some of the acrobatics and dancing first practiced in the Peking Opera School in Beijing, because now I know how they got to be so skilled. Acrobats did five somersaults across the stage and the last one was entirely in the air. Dancers used long sleeves in colorful fabrics to create circles and spirals in the air. There was an acrobatic aerial couple who held themselves up by long fabric wrapped around their wrists and swung in circles over the stage and the audience while they danced together in the air.
The pièce de résistance was the final act when they changed masks in a fraction of a second behind a fan or a piece of fabric, really a fraction of a second, so fast it was not possible to see it happen. Like magic. I couldn't understand how they did it. Afterward Mike told us he finally figured it out one night when he stood in the wings. The masks are made of thin silk and have a string attached, which they pull so fast it is invisible. I didn't realize that I had to watch their hands after each mask change, when the mask was hidden in a fold in the costume. It was really an amazing thing to watch. Now I understand why masks are sold, along with pandas, at souvenir shops all over town.
Do you think I might perform in the Sichuan opera?
Tomorrow morning we take an early plane to Lhasa and meet in the hotel lobby at 5:30 AM. Good night!