Light rain is falling and raindrops drip off the bright green bamboo shoots making them look iridescent as emeralds; the mountains of Qingcheng are softened by mist, drawn with fine brush strokes against a white sky like ancient Chinese scroll paintings. It is the perfect setting for pandas. There are just about 1,600 wild pandas in the world today, found only in the mountain ranges in central China's Shaanxi, Gansu and Sichuan provinces.
I've always wanted to see a panda ever since I was a little girl and someone gave me a second hand book on Chi Chi the giant panda who lived at London Zoo. Children still love pandas although these days the inspiration is more likely to be the hugely successful DreamWorks movie, Kung Fu Panda. In fact the artists who drew the scenes for the cartoon actually came to China and based their drawings on Qingcheng Mountain and the temple at Emei Shan, perched like an emperor’s hat on the top of an impossibly high peak. This is one of the four most sacred mountains in China, scattered with Taoist and Buddhist temples. By the time I have made my way up the steep steps and winding paths I am puffing like Po, the fat panda in the movie. Luckily for those with smaller children (or unfit parents in the party) there is also a cable car that whisks you high over the curling green forest and up into the clouds.
In the distance I spot what looks like another sacred temple with a pagoda style roof but when I get closer I see it is a souvenir stall piled high with cuddly toy pandas. Pandas are everywhere in Chengdu and surrounds; on Hello Kitty style (Hello Panda?) handbags, on little painted bamboo boxes, on T-shirts, on tooth mugs and furry slippers. They even feature in the expensive artworks that adorn the walls of the lobby and ballroom at the five star Shangri-La Chengdu hotel. There is plenty to do in this part of China but for many the pilgrimage all about the pandas. There are two main bear reserves near Chengdu and I am scheduled to volunteer at Chengdu Research Base of the Giant Panda, a research centre supported by Abercrombie & Kent philanthropy. It is a once in a lifetime chance to see these shy and retiring creatures close up.
Children under ten are not allowed to volunteer to help with the animals, and realistically this something that older kids would appreciate most because this isn't about petting a big teddy bear; it is about chopping up their food (bamboo, bamboo and more bamboo) and cleaning up panda poo (lots of it…) as well as learning the facts about these bashful bears.
Volunteers are conscripted in to feed the pandas, not surprising really because the Pixar movie was right about one thing, pandas love to eat. An adult bear consumes up to 18 kilos of bamboo a day and eats for around ten hours. No wonder the full-time keepers get tired of chopping. The gentle giants remind me of massive koalas, lazing around eating and sleeping all day.
We file out along a bridge over the panda enclosure, decked out in blue plastic overalls like shiny Smurfs and feed the bears from long poles. I am glad of the poles because close-up they seem truly massive
The pandas sit eating upright; it’s a strangely human position. The one nearest to me looks like a fat, happy bear-Buddha, his tummy resting on his legs as he delicately picks bamboo out of his teeth. Pandas are as large as American black bears and can be dangerous but there is no doubt they look benign. Watching me, Buddha Bear seems almost to smile, his cheeks puffed out, and his black eyes mild. He lolls back against the grassy bank, a hand raised as if in greeting. It is easy to give him an internal dialogue in Jack Black's voice (he played Po in the movie); "Hey, how's it goin'. I could do with a snack if it's not too much trouble. I know you're admiring my awesomeness but I'm kinda hungry…"
They may look lumbering but pandas can climb. One proves it by shinning up the nearest tree in surprisingly quick time; his long dexterous claws lodge in the bark as he pulls himself up with all his black and white might.