I fidgeted in my seat like an impatient child, completely unable to conceal my enthusiasm. “We’re in Chengdu, we’re in Chengdu…” I repeated breathlessly to Sam and JR, who were seated on either side of me in the plane. I glanced at Brian and Kayleigh (seated a few rows ahead of us) and we exchanged excited smiles. I had been researching, preparing for, and anticipating this trip ever since I found out that it was possible to hug a panda in Chengdu. I had always dreamt of petting a panda, but I assumed that it was illegal to touch an endangered species. But hugging one? That seemed too good to be true!
We deplaned in a hurry because our flight had been delayed and a driver from the hostel was waiting to pick us up. The five of us immediately dozed off in the van, waking up at Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel an hour later. The hostel was a really neat place, complete with serene Zen gardens, friendly cats and rabbits, and a delicious restaurant. We stayed in an eight-person dorm room, complete with bunk beds, bathroom, and shower. I had a bottom bunk adorned with pink silk curtains for privacy. All of us were exhausted from traveling and a long day of school, so we knocked out as soon as our heads hit the pillows.
The following day, I woke up bright and early with my mind in panda-monium. Although I felt like my heart was fit to burst with excitement, I was my usual slow-moving, non-morning person self and missed breakfast. Completely undeterred, I grabbed a tangerine as we ran out to hail a couple of cabs. After just a short half an hour ride through the city, we arrived at the Chengdu Panda Base. I had been in contact with a private tour guide for weeks before the trip, and we met her near the front entrance at 8:20 AM. I had hired her for the day and paid out of my own pocket as a gift to my friends; I wanted all of us to get the most out of our rare opportunity. Our guide’s name was Vanessa, and she was incredibly knowledgeable and helpful. She had pre-purchased our tickets and passes for us so our day went very smoothly, and she was able to answer any questions we had.
We first signed our lives away on waivers, then were led behind-the-scenes for our “volunteering.” The volunteering was essentially the chance to be “panda keeper for a day,” and cost 700 kuai per person to participate (so therefore wasn’t exactly volunteering…). The five of us were lucky enough to be the only ones volunteering that day, and thus had a longer, more intimate experience with the pandas. The first panda that we saw was a dashing fellow named Dian Dian, pacing about in his dark enclosure. I almost cried in pure joy and disbelief because I was actually getting the opportunity to be so close to one of my favorite animals. The next two pandas we met were Da Da and Xiao Xiao, the twin teenage sisters. We fed apple slices to the pandas off of a long stick of bamboo, watching delightedly as the bears gobbled them up. Xiao Xiao was my favorite; she would delicately bite the apple off of the stick then cover her mouth with a paw, as if trying to be polite while she chewed. We also fed them “panda mooncakes,” which were essentially mooncake-shaped wads made of wholesome ingredients. We were given a few slices to sample, and it tasted exactly like damp cardboard. I was so hungry from skipping breakfast, though, that I finished my piece and ate my friends’ ones too. We would dangle the mooncakes right above the pandas’ noses so that they would stand on their hind legs, which was extremely adorable. The twins were good at it, but Dian Dian was so lazy that he would just sit halfway up, swat the mooncake into his mouth, then sink back to chew sprawled on his back.
After the fun part came the dirty work: cleaning up the panda enclosures. Upon entering we were asked to wear shoe covers, plastic gloves, and blue protective gowns. Although they made us look goofy, they came in handy when dealing with soggy bamboo and panda poop. We used teamwork to clean out the twins’ enclosure, forming a train to pass the dirty bamboo from person to person before finally loading it onto a cart. Then we scooped up the poop, which really just smelled and looked like bamboo. I learned that giant pandas only digest about 18% of the food that they intake, which is why they must eat so much but also why their poop is essentially just clumps of chewed bamboo. Despite the fact that we were shoveling dung and sodden leaves, we actually had a lot of fun with this part of volunteering. How many people can say that they have scooped panda poop?
When we had finished with the cleaning and feeding, it was time for the most exciting part of my day! We pulled off our soiled gowns, thanked the panda keepers, and headed over to the Sunshine Nursery area. Brian and I were the only ones who were willing to drop 1,300 kuai on panda hugging (in my opinion a small price for my wildest dream come true). The others explored the nursery area while Brian and I filled out forms and suited up in the blue gowns again. We were last in a long line of 外国人 (foreigners) waiting for the ultimate panda experience. At last, our torturous wait was over and the keepers carried out an adorable black and white bundle of fur named 双喜 (Double Happiness/ Fortune). Although only a year old, the little girl already weighed about 90 pounds. One of the keepers had a jar of gooey honey and was dunking sticks of bamboo inside, handing them to 双喜to keep her occupied. Brian and I decided to use my camera for pictures and his for taking a video, as to maximize our souvenir memorabilia. I watched as the people before us carefully sat beside the baby panda and posed for tentative pictures, only nervously inching closer if urged to do so. Finally, it was my turn. I felt my heart fluttering as I walked up to the baby giant panda and sat down beside her. Our eyes met for a second then 双喜 went right back to gnawing on her snack, completely indifferent to me cuddling right up into her soft fur. I literally had my face pressed up against her fluffy cheek, which seemed to surprise the keepers because the other people had been so hesitant. At one point 双喜 yanked off a chunk of bamboo with her teeth and accidentally hit me with her face, to the amusement of everyone watching. I was so happy that I was actually hugging a real live panda that I could scarcely contain my excitement. Talk about my wildest dreams come true! And to my utmost delight, pandas are indeed just as soft and cuddly as they look. The keepers seemed to give me a longer amount of time because I was enjoying my time with 双喜 so much. After my time was up, I still could not believe that I had just cuddled with one of the cutest, most endangered species in the entire world. Even now I still can’t believe that I actually hugged a real panda!
We received official certificates and panda sweatshirts as a thank you for our donation to the Panda Base. I was so excited that I was literally jumping up and down with an absurdly large smile pasted on my face. And my excitement only grew when Vanessa showed us the nursery with five little baby pandas sleeping in a crib. Some were no larger than a loaf of bread, and all of them were heart-meltingly adorable. They looked no different than the stuffed animals being sold in the gift shops. We stopped off for lunch after that; I was so famished that I finished a whole plate of egg fried rice. Then Vanessa led us to the red panda exhibits, where were so much fun! Red pandas are just bundles of playful, fluffy adorableness. The red pandas were chasing each other around, pouncing on each other, rearing up on their hind legs, and leaping from tree to tree. They were so entertaining to watch and their antics spread contagious laughter to all of the spectators. I took so many pictures that I used up an entire 8-gigabyte memory card at the Chengdu Panda Base alone!
We took a van from the Panda Base to downtown, where we visited the famous Jinli Ancient Street. All five of us were out cold for the entire hour-long drive, exhausted from our early morning start and all of the day’s excitement. Jinli is a refurbished ancient street that sells many traditional specialty crafts including shadow puppets, eggshell artwork, spicy peppers, hand-made jewelry, straw weavings, sugar art, and of course pandas. So of course, out of all the neat shops to choose from, the first place we ducked into would be a Starbucks. Although not exactly the most traditional choice, Kayleigh and I had been craving the holiday peppermint hot chocolate for weeks. It’s a personal tradition for me to get what I call “Christmas in a cup,” which heralds the arrival of the holiday season. And it was definitely nice sipping a warm cup of Christmas as we wandered the chilly alleys, exploring every fascinating nook and cranny. The street was a lot of fun to ramble through because of the beautiful cultural context, and we spent several hours weaving in and out of shops and stands.
Hunger kicked in at around 8:00 PM and Vanessa brought us to eat famous Sichuan hot pot. I was worried because I have zero spice tolerance, but luckily Vanessa ordered us a huge pot of “超辣” (the most extreme level of spiciness) with a smaller pot of clear broth in the center. Sam and JR absolutely loved the dangerously spicy concoction, but Kayleigh, Brian, and I were more content with cooking our food in the plain soup. However, JR made a tempting wager with me: if I ate a big piece of 白菜 (Chinese cabbage) that had been soaking in the spicy soup, he would give me 300 kuai. The stipulations were that I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything for five minutes afterwards. Still hesitant, I didn’t agree to the bet until Sam upped the ante to 500 kuai total. I tentatively stuffed the hot vegetable into my mouth, chewing slowly and swallowing the fiery juices. As the heat blossomed in my mouth, I began to realize just what a mess I’d gotten myself into. My mouth had never before been in so much pain, and I hope it never will be again. There was searing fire in my mouth and throat, and even on the skin around my lips. I literally had tears and snot running down my red face, and my mouth was salivating like a waterfall. Those were probably the most painful five minutes of my life; every second on Sam’s phone timer felt like an eternity. Finally five minutes was up and I shoveled white rice into my mouth then chugged an entire bottle of water in one go. The spicy pain in my mouth was just barely assuaged by the sweetness of the cash in my hand. But it was definitely a memorable spicy Sichuan experience. We took cabs back to the hostel after that, bidding farewell to Vanessa. Sam and Brian bought burgers from the hostel restaurant because they were still hungry, and the rest of us just tucked in for an early night.
I had the hardest time waking up the following day, but eventually Sam and JR’s efforts succeeded. I groggily showered and washed up, then we all headed down to the hostel restaurant for a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs on toast. We headed out at around 11:00 AM, flagging down a taxi outside of the hostel. JR and I said we would hop in the next one we found so Sam, Kayleigh, and Brian got in and headed to the People’s Garden. But there was no next one. Out of the few empty taxis that we were able to hail, all of them turned us down. JR and I were forced to find and figure out the bus system, asking police officers and strangers for directions. Although it was a bit troublesome, it was great practice for my Chinese and I was really proud that we were able to communicate and find our way. We finally found the famous People’s Garden, which was gorgeous with its bright yellow ginko trees. There were many activities going on in the park like small shops (I bought a turquoise stone bracelet), group dancing, karaoke, finger-painting, water calligraphy, photography, and much more. Some of the more unusual sights included a man sitting with a beautiful rooster perched on his lap and a lady in a pink ball gown and very hairy armpits singing terrible karaoke. JR and I wandered around taking pictures until we located the Teahouse, where we found the others relaxing with some fresh tea. I ordered some Oolong Tea and sipped it as we lounged in the garden on a lovely, blue-sky day. When we had finished several cups of tea (and subsequently visited the restroom), we found a small stand where a woman was making sugar syrup art. She would take hot syrup and pour it into a design, then press a stick into it to make an elaborate lollipop. I requested a dragon one, and the complex and delicious sugar art was only 4 kuai.
After leaving the People’s Garden, I pulled out a map I had taken from the front desk of the hostel and we oriented ourselves with the nearby roads. We found that we were actually very close to our next destination: Kuan-Zhai Lane. Only about a ten-minute walk away, Kuan-Zhai Lane was another place that was great for souvenir shopping. As hungry and responsible adults, we decided to have dessert before lunch. We stopped at a gelato placed called Koko and indulged; I had one scoop of matcha and one of fresh milk gelato. After shopping around some more, we decided to stop for a real meal at a small Sichuan cuisine restaurant. I ordered 白味(non-spicy) Chengdu dumplings in soup, which ended up being very good. We found another Starbucks afterwards and I got my same peppermint hot chocolate to warm up. Then we explored the alleyways lined with little shops. I ended up purchasing a set of panda silverware for my roommate and a panda ice tray for myself.
When I walked out of the panda store, I found Brian, Kayleigh, JR, and Sam sitting perfectly still on a wall in front of a restaurant. This was one of our silly games that we’ve named “manikin-ing,” in which you sit as still as possible to try and get people to notice. Kayleigh and Brian got up to leave, but Sam and JR continued sitting still as statutes. Instead of forcing them to move, I handed my DSLR camera to Kayleigh.
“I blend in,” I whispered excitedly, “I’m going to pretend that I’m a local!” Brian was immediately in on the plan and took out his camera to record the whole episode. Suppressing my laughter, I made a big show of running excitedly towards Sam and JR squealing, “哇！好帅啊！帅哥！老外！可以帮我拍照片吗？” (“Wow! So handsome! Handsome guys! Foreigners! Can you help me take a picture?”) Kayleigh snapped pictures while I did my best to dramatically fawn over our frozen friends, making a big deal out of the situation in hope of attracting attention. It worked. People began curiously stopping to investigate, laughing at the two handsome young white boys sitting motionless on a wall. Eventually the Chinese people, especially young girls, began gathering enough courage to take pictures with JR and Sam as I had done. Every time there was a lull in the crowd, I would hand my camera to Kayleigh and repeat my ridiculous fan girl dialogue. It was absolutely hilarious! We couldn’t have guessed how big a crowd we would attract, though; the lane literally became clogged with people struggling for a look at our manikin-ing friends. JR and Sam did a surprisingly excellent job of staying perfectly motionless, not even cracking smiles (except for a couple of slip-ups). They later explained their methods: Sam was biting his tongue very hard and JR was doing complex quadratic equations with square roots in his head. I eventually urged the crowd to be bolder by running up to the two of them and touching their faces, repeating, “好帅!” (“So handsome!”). One young lady shoved her camera into her boyfriend’s hands and essentially fell in love with Sam, using him as a prop to model on and cupping his chin to gaze into his eyes. Another lady put her fuzzy leopard-spotted hat on JR’s head and used her finger to slowly draw down his bottom lip (to our amusement and horror). Following my lead, many other Chinese people (including children) ran up to the two frozen foreigners and posed with them, often trying to make them laugh. At one point Brian put his coffee in Sam’s hand, and the crowd went wild with laughter when Sam moved it to his mouth and took a sip. After about half an hour, a crowd of at least seventy people had amassed around JR and Sam. People were holding cellphones, video recorders, and cameras above the heads of the crowd to get pictures of them. It was strangely bizarre to see our friends become immediately famous in a small Chengdu lane. Eventually, I heard Sam and JR complaining out of the corners of their mouths about being in pain from sitting too long. Handing my camera to Kayleigh yet again, I took each of them by the hand and pulled them off of the wall. In my mind, we would have just made a clean escape by walking away without looking back, but that’s not what happened at all. Somewhere in that half an hour I had tied JR’s shoelaces together to make the crowd laugh, and Sam’s legs had gone to sleep. Both boys nearly fell when I pulled them off of the wall, and we had to fumblingly gather our belongings and stumble away. It was still such an amazingly memorable and purely unforgettable experience, though. I was laughing so hard the entire time!
We took a bus back to Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel and rested for a little bit in our room. We grabbed a quick dinner of pizza at the restaurant, then were picked up at 7:30 for a Sichuan Opera show. Again, I knocked out in the van so I only remember waking up at the small theater. The show was a really wonderful experience! It contained acts like Sichuan opera singing, shadow hand puppets, traditional Chinese instruments, goofy comedy, mask and clothes changing, balancing and acrobatics. It was actually a very fascinating show and I am glad we got to go and see some traditional aspects of Sichuanese culture. The only terrible part about the night was that Brian got terrible food poisoning, and I felt really bad about that. The van took us back to the hostel and Brian went straight to bed, while the rest of us took a taxi to the bar district just to explore. It wasn’t very interesting so we headed back rather soon afterwards, trying to catch what sleep we could get because we had to head back to the airport at 5:30 AM.
The following morning, we got up at 5:00 AM to pack and get ready to leave. We loaded into the van and naturally fell asleep instantly. About an hour later, we arrived back at the airport. I was really sad to be leaving Chengdu because the carefree explorations were so much fun, and we had just barely scratched the surface of this fascinating city. Sam, JR, and I said goodbye to Kayleigh and Brian because they had a later flight, then the three of us sleepily made our way through check-in and security. JR and I bought red bean pancakes and a matcha and red bean pastry roll from Ganso, which we munched on while sitting at the gate. We groggily boarded the plane a half an hour later and I stared out of the window, half hoping that the plane would break so that we could stay in Chengdu for one more day. As we took off and ascended through the cloud cover, I watched color bloom into the dim sky as the sun peeked over the clouds. I leaned back in my seat with a contented smile perched on my lips, laughing to myself as I replayed memories from the trip in my head. I could not have asked for a better Chengdu expedition; it was everything I had fantasized and more. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to take this dream trip with some of my closest friends, and that we were able to share this extraordinary experience. This semester has honestly been one of the biggest blessings in my life and I will never, ever forget it.