Save the pandas?

So here I am in one of the three furnaces (Wuhan, Chongqing and Chengdu) of Central China. The home of Chinese civilisation in a way (along the Yangtze river, that is), and, but perhaps I am wrong on this, one of the world’s most densely populated spots.Furnace is right. Every day is 35 degrees and seriously humid. It makes even Singapore seem like cool, and airconditioning is nowhere near as widespread or as fierce here as in the city state.

Lots of random events from my time in Chengdu. I went wandering through a public park and watching a guy getting acupuncture on his back. Just sitting in a chair, by the river. A woman in a blue coat standing next to him. He did not look like he was enjoying it, and my query after how it was going was limited due to the total lack of common language. A raised thumb could easily be misinterpreted, I guess. But he nodded away happily. I guess he was paying for the torture. So why not. I wasn’t exactly lining up to be next though. Neither was anyone else.

I watched hordes of old people playing mahjong. Everywhere. And Chinese chess too. Someone I met explained a few of the rules of chess to me, but did not know enough for a full picture. And the few minutes that I have spent watching have taught me that the most important thing is to bang your pieces on the board (usually just a piece of paper with squares and lines on it spread on something flat) as hard as possible. Mahjong continues to completely confuse me, but at least there I can claim that I can not read the characters on the tiles.

I espied lots of people sleeping on the job. This applies from the tri-shaw drivers, who clearly need something to do between rides (although they can’t make much of a living), through the staff at restaurants, all the way up to people working in banks. No one seems to mind or even to notice if a few of their colleagues have their heads in their arms on their desks, awaiting a few customers or a currency deal gone wrong to liven up the day. I am not sure I would be entirely happily if the staff at the National Bank in Wellington had to be woken up to deal with my banking business. But no one here seems to mind much.

I was told that everyone has other jobs, from which they make real money. And their day jobs are protected (so they can’t be fired), and over-staffed (so they are not needed). Most people use them as a chance to catch up on sleep. So there you go. I guess a bit like the teacher I met in Turkmenistan who taught during the week but sold carpets on the weekend for a living.

There is a square here called Mao Square. Unsurprisingly, it has a great big statue of Mao in the middle. I espied him in profile down a side-street, as I was wandering aimlessly along. So I decided to go take a look.

But no. I had wandered down a no-foreigner street. I knew this because there was a big sign saying foreigners could not pass, and a gate, with guards with guns who told me so many times. They were not inclined to explain why I would be threatening the stability of the Chinese state by walking the 50 metres or so of tarmac down to Mao, but it did seem that there was some kind of police building there, maybe government. In any case, denied. They would not even tell me how I could get to Mao by a different route.

So I went back and I took a chance. Left or right? I chose the former. Then left again, towards Mao. But no, this too, I shortly discovered was also no-foreigner street. Equally sure, equally unhelpful, and equally poorly explained.

As it turned out I took a great big detour (perhaps right would have been a better option?) and ended up not finding Mao at all. A taxi saved me from a lengthy walk in the sweltering heat and, as if to tease me, we raced passed Mao on the way back to the hostel, his arm raised as if to say “ha ha, goodbye stupid foreigner” or perhaps “over here, here I am, you are still it”.

I scored excellent dumplings and cold beer just around the corner from my hostel. The waiter, scared at my approach the first night, immediately enlisted the help of some of her customers who spoke a few words of English. My order was not complicated, and it was exactly the same the second night. But I got the same reaction. Questions like “how many dumplings would you like?” are unnecessary, of course. Once it is clear that I want dumplings and beer we can just serve some up. If it isn’t enough, I can order more. I like the restaurants where things don’t get too complex (i.e., where they make the decision for me).

I had a mission to change some Chinese currency back to greenbacks. I didn’t really want the reminbi at all, but they would not advance me US dollars, and they didn’t tell me they wouldn’t exchange them until after I already the Chinese stuff. And they couldn’t really recommend anywhere that would actually change it for me. Strange, I thought, in a city of 8 million souls that none of them ever want to change RMB to USD.

So I wandered about Chengdu looking for somewhere. At one bank they gave me the idea of hunting for a five-star hotel. They gave me directions. Then the incredibly helpful girl asked if I could wait one hour. “Why?”, I asked. “Then”, she said, “I will be finished work and I can show you where the hotel is”. Such service. And she wasn’t even asleep at her desk when I came in.

As it turned out, having politely declined the girl’s offer (I hardly felt I could put her out to such an extent), I found some black marketeers and after agreeing on a non-extortionate rate, getting my money, and then going back to explain to them that they had clearly made a minor arithmetical error in forgetting to give me all the money we agreed, I finally had some US currency.

I met later two Canadians who had spent the best part of half a day trying to change money as I did. In the end they wandered into a Bank of China and refused to move until the money was changed (a good strategy, I recommend it). So the bank officials called in the black marketeers on the cellphone (they were sitting just outside the bank when I met them) and arranged the deal inside the bank. A black market trade with the sanction of the Chinese government. They do things differently over here.

I wandered through a working monastery. Nothing much to look at, but the people having dancing lessons and the guys playing traditional instruments were diverting. And I liked the fact that the monastery was illogically laid out, hard to navigate and there were lots of alleyways that ended in dead ends, unexpectedly. Very true to life.

I went to see the pandas too. These are one of the big attractions in Chengdu. The panda breeding facility.

Facility does not really describe it. Pandas in fact find it really difficult to breed. The bamboo they normally eat is so low in energy that they spend most of the calories they consume just in digestion. This makes them listless and sleepy almost all the time. The male pandas are so poorly endowed that their chances of successful conception are very slim, even if they do somehow summon up the energy. Add to that their unfriendly-looking confines (concrete cells, black iron bars), zillions of tourists flashing photos in their face every day, and the fact that they live in the furnace rather than their normal habitat, around 2,000m higher (and therefore 2,000m cooler), and you begin to get the picture as to why breeding pandas is hard work.

The pandas themselves seem to have made some bizarre evolutionary choices. They gave up eating meat a while back, and instead they only eat one sort of bamboo. This bamboo naturally dies out every seven or eight years or so, requiring the panda in the wild to go find some of the same sort of bamboo somewhere else. Which is hard to do, of course, when you have so little energy to start with.

Of course the Chinese, being the super-efficient bunch of over-achievers they are, are desparately trying to save the panda habitat, and of course they are frantically trying to breed more pandas. Even if they die out in the wild, they might live on a while longer in the zoos of the world. Although the results are not very promising. Pandas are helpless at birth, become sexually mature at 5, and can breed till around 18. But they don’t breed much. And infant mortality is high. Even for the ones bred in captivity around 40% die.
I am sure the pandas don’t want to die out, and I am sure they are doing their best to avoid it at an individual level. I am also sure that efforts to save their habitat and keep breeding them are all very worthy. But having seen what they do to keep the species alive (high energy bamboo, encaged most of the time, in-vitro fertilisation to get round the messiness of actual panda sex, and round the clock doctors and nurses and handlers and tourists), I started to wonder whether it was really worth all the effort. Would the pandas, knowing what persecutions they would have to endure, choose this path?

All in all, very cute (if you can get away from the unfocused eyes and the bars of the cages). Yes. Big cuddly teddy bears. Yes. But probably doomed to extinction eventually.
And I took a cooking course. Discovering along the way that sweet and sour pork, made the Chinese way, is not orange and sticky. Come round for dinner some time, and I will show you.