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Published: July 19th 2007
Well that was without doubt three of the coolest days of the trip so far. Just finished volunteering at the Giant Panda Centre in Wolong, Sichuan Provence and it was an unforgettable experience.
Arrived in Chengdu on an overnight train from Xian (Terracotta Warriors were cool but was far too hot and sick to enjoy the rest of the city). Imaginative Traveller, being cheap bastards, have us in the cattle truck section of the train - three bunks per row where you can't even sit up on the bed and completely open compartments. We were the only non-Chinese on the train and therefore the source of much attention and amusement (wearing my Chairman Mao PLA hat may have exacerbated this). The nice enclosed 4 bed compartments like on the Trans-Sib were full of westerners. Managed to have half a pot noodle despite having sworn never to go near one again - seeing three live chickens in the restaurant car (a la Borat) didn't inspire confidence.
Took a bus straight from the train station to Wolong and miracolously survived the trip despite a driver insisting on overtaking around bends up a mountain and the fact that the second half
of the trip was on a road that didn't really exist. It was all worth it when we arrived though - Wolong village is in a stunning setting, in a narrow vally surrounded by steep tree-lined mountains. And so much cooler than the sweltering cities.
Next day we donned our overalls and headed for the Panda Centre. Really cool place - there's over 60 pandas there of all ages, a 5 month old in the nursery (ridiculously cute jumping around his cot) to a 21 year old (LayLay) which is apparently seriously old for a panda. The adults all have their own enclosures (outdoor area and big cage) while the youngsters have big outdoor enclosures where they can play together. There's also breeding pens and a "maternity ward" type area - was interesting seeing a panda have an ultrasound exam - lots of bamboo needed to keep her distracted.
We were seperated into groups of three and assigned on the the staff to show us what to do. Me, Phil and Tasha (who bizarrely live very near Canterbury) ended up looking after two pandas - Ooga (not sure of spelling), a 7 year old male panda and LayLay
who had her paw amputated in a trap. We spent the mornings cleaning the cages of used bamboo and panda poo, washing them down and then providing them with new food. They go through literally tonnes of bamboo and also a panda cake/bread which the staff have developed that provide them with all the extra nutrients they need. Hand-feeding Ooga panda cake was the highlight of the first day.
There was plenty of free time throughout the day to wander the centre and watch the pandas - watching the kids playing with each other was great. On the third day, we got to spend five minutes playing with the 1 year olds (for the tidy "donation" 1000 yuan, 100 euro!!). It was manic, trying to grab the pandas, pose for pictures and get as much into the time as possible. Probably one of the best experiences I'll ever have though - hope the pictures (when I can post them) show how much fun it was.
On the last day, one of the pandas also gave birth to twins. The first was born at 6.30 before we arrived and while we were watching the mother on CCTV take care
of the baby, sudddenly the second arrived. The staff rushed in to remove the first on as the mother would have killed it otherwise (she thinks she's unable to raise both). They'll keep swopping them over though so they both get cared for by the mother. We saw the first baby in the nursery later on - how such an adorable animal can have such an ugly baby is amazing, it's like something out of Alien.
Was absolutely gutted to leave Wolong in the end, but what a fantastic time. If the Orangutans are half as good, I'll be happy. there are places I'll remember all my life
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