A visit to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, wouldn't be complete without viewing the great pandas. It's a cliched touristy thing to recommend, some might sniff, but really, where else would you see well-cared-for pandas in their native habitat, housed in beautifully minimalist buildings and in immaculately maintained and well-designed, green surroundings?
Panda lovers, bypass the (rather dismal) Chengdu Zoo and head 10 km north of the city to the Chengdu Research Base of Great Panda Breeding. Or the other newest Panda centre in town which opened in 2013 - the Dujiangyun Panda Valley. A visit there has to be specially arranged through specialist agencies, or through your luxury hotel - if you stay at the newly opened St Regis Chengdu, for example.
While the research base might be focused on breeding pandas, Dujiangyan, according to a travel agent, is part of efforts to reintroduce pandas into the wild.
Dujiangyun is 50 km north-east of central Chengdu, in Qingchengshan county, and nearby, there's the World Heritage Qingcheng mountain featured in the animation, Kungfu Panda 2.
Interestingly, six giant pandas have already been reintroduced into the wild after their "transition wildness training", but currently there are some 10 giant pandas in the centre. When Dujiangyan is completed, it'll have space for 30 to 40 giant pandas, 50 to 100 baby pandas and other wild animals.
In a trip organised by St Regis Chengdu which hosted a media contingent at its recent grand opening, we were shown around Dujiangyan by enthusiastic guides working there, most of whom were in their 20s. As facilities go, the country's love and pride for the panda couldn't be more obvious there, over and above the political will behind China's effort to preserve its panda population given their effectiveness in international diplomacy.
The pandas get the run of the place in their grassy enclosures simulating their natural habitat while lounging in classy grey-tiled housing modelled after a typical Sichuan folk house. Sichuan, incidentally, is home to 80 per cent of the wild giant panda population.
The government's efforts to take care of the pandas are impressive and an unexpected display of its "softer" side.
The pandas were really in their element there. Unlike at the Chengdu Zoo where they were brought out just to feed, or so it seemed on a visit a few years ago, the pandas at Dujiangyan got up to all sorts of things. There was the four-year-old female Zhi Chun, for example, who showed off her acrobatic skills clambering up a tree when we stopped at her compound.
Then there was the "stud" of Dujiangyan - about half of the pandas in the base were related to him, said our guide - chomping away on his bamboo while gazing at his own reflection on the glass window of his house. A number of them were napping of course, but in all kinds of positions designed to elicit "Aw, how cute!" gushing from visitors.
Another panda which caught our attention was one with an amputated leg, and he seemed to be doing his own rehabilitative exercise, pacing up and down in his compound on three strong legs.
"Why are the pandas kept separately in their own houses?" is a question commonly asked. Apparently it's because they're fiercely territorial and both males and females won't tolerate another panda in their territory. "But they will often steal glances at their neighbours when they climb a tree," the guides told us.
A handbook given out to visitors held nuggets of information including how the two sons of US President Theodore Roosevelt started hunting giant pandas in the wild in 1928.
According to official Chinese statistics, more than 200 foreigners had gone to China to investigate, hunt, kill or buy living pandas between the years 1869 and 1946.
Sixteen living giant pandas had been taken from China during the 10 years between 1936 and 1946, and at least 70 giant panda specimens are stored in museums outside of China.
This year marks the 145th year since the scientific discovery of the giant panda, and the Chengdu Research Base, set up only in 1997, has made great strides in panda breeding and conservation.
The smaller-sized Dujiangyan has less of a theme park feel but it still has the requisite brooks, ornamental green lawns, and wild bamboo forests. Within the pandas' compounds, man-made dens, rocks, caves and plant pits, and climbing apparatus abound for the enjoyment of the pampered occupants.
As far as eco-travel goes, the panda centres in Chengdu seem to have gotten its act in place - balancing the need for research, but also building affinity and creating awareness among the public.
The St Regis Chengdu usually organises panda visits to the Chengdu Research Base for its guests under its Family Traditions programme, but could on request, arrange visits to Dujiangyan. For bookings and information, please visit stregis.com/aficionado or email to email@example.com
This article was first published on Jan 3, 2015.
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