Good-bye to my panda’s

In my final day, I said a tearful goodbye to my panda’s, who I had gotten really attached to in such a short time.

Mason – The young smaller panda from the San Diego zoo, who you can hear suck in air as he’s gobbling down his food, always hungry and loves to make a bed out of his bamboo while eating it. I totally relate.

Lilly – The only female panda in my enclosure who didn’t have a baby to nurse, is constantly licking her stubby tail and being told off for this habbit by Du, the friendly and informative keeper who I had developed a great admiration for.

And Shymon – The big daddy of the crew. At 17 years old, he’s earnt the right to make me wait while he gets into his sitting position and slowly places each paw on the bars, the only position that allows him to be fed. Shymon’s quirk is to rear up on his hind legs and do a pirouette exciedly when it’s feeding time. Again, I relate.

It was a privilage to get to know these very special creatures.

How to accept free food and learn from those around you – Final night at the Panda Base.

I was having dinner with Anton who had become my newly appointed best buddy at the panda base.

Usually what happens at feeding time is, I order what ever I want from the menu and pay for it because food wasn’t included in my deal(?), and Anton gets served 2 dishes, normally a meat and a veggie.

This Friday night was special. Having already received Anton’s 2 dishes, and the 2 that I had ordered, we were pleasantly surprised when a third dish of yummy beans landed on our table.

T, urgently on the hush to Anton as he started to tell the lady that this wasn’t ours – ‘Don’t ask any questions! Just smile, say thank you and start putting your chopsticks into it so they won’t take it away’

Anton, nervously as we start swishing the beans around with our chopsticks in an obvious manner – ‘ Is she still watching us?’ referring to the waitress who seemed to realise her mistake.

T – ‘No, I think she’s just tired and her eyes have rested gently on our table’

After dinner I convinced a shy Anton to come ‘hang with the younger crowd’ at the hostel bar.

Sven, a well-traveled 21-year-old from Norway – ‘I have an ant problem’

T – ‘You personally?’

1,2,3,4.. finally Sven laughs – ‘yeah, but I had a shower and it went away’

Sven is an exceptional young man, who has GREAT taste in music, and whose goal is to complete the Axis of Evil within the next 5 years – Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Libya and Syria – all countries without diplomatic relations to the U.S.A.

What did I learn?
1) Beer Pong – A game which I think involves hitting a ping pong ball in the direction of 7 beer cups then sculling the beer in which it lands? I may have this completely wrong..

2) Tourist are not allowed to enter North Korea unless they purchase a super expensive tour package, (eg; 10,000 yuan for 5 days), and that all the tour companies are owned by the North Korean government – Which means the money goes directly into Kim ll-sung’s pocket.

3) That everybody knows what blood type they are. Besides me, I had no idea.

4) And cleaning panda poo when hung-over is good for the soul.

The Bifengxia Panda Breeding centre – where the Wolong panda’s are post earthquake.

I enthusiastically swept up large panda droppings, cleared out old bamboo from my assigned enclosures, mopped floors and fed the panda’s 4 times a day.. which took a total of 2 hours actual volunteering time at the Bifengxia Panda Breeding Centre. There were no other educational sessions and some of the volunteers were assigned to panda keepers who did not speak english so were unable to have any answers to their questions. As this was a paid volunteering program, (and it aint cheap to sweep panda poo!) I was pretty disappointed on my first day. In the in-between time, volunteers were just hanging around the base waiting for another 60 minutes to pass so they could spend 10-20 minutes, depending on how many volunteers were assigned to your enclosure, preparing panda cake, carrots and apples to feed the pandas, which happened 4 times a day.

T – ‘So why did you chose to come to China?’

Amy, a 20-year-old british volunteer assigned to my enclosure – ‘It’s just somewhere to go.’

Amy seemed to disagree with most things about China, the cuisine, the language, the weather and (dare I say) the culture.

T – ‘… but you love animals?’ Thinking we had to have something in common having both volunteered at the Panda base.

Amy, brightens – Yes! (Bingo!)

It was by great fortune that I met Anton, a biologist and researcher from the Vienna Zoo, who had been working at the Bifengxia panda base for the last 2 weeks researching the different types of vocals of the panda babies.

Anton – ‘Last night a female panda gave birth with 6 guys nearby talking loudly and smoking while she was having contractions, like the event wasn’t stressful enough for her’

Anton had access to areas of the base that only staff could enter, like the actual breeding centre which accommodated panda mothers caring for pink newborns, newly fluffy panda babies, and expecting panda mothers. He encouraged me to be his ‘associate’ and accompany him into this exclusive area where I was able to observe Anton running back and forth between maternal enclosures with all his sound gear trying to catch every baby panda’s vocal, all the time keeping me involved and informed with the different types of calls, answering all my questions, and providing a brief history of mother and baby.

From then on, I knew that every volunteer needed to have their own personal Anton to make their educational experience at the Bifengxia Panda Base well worth it.

Don’t bite me, I’m only here to help

The time had finally come for me to be with my beloved panda’s. I moved into the Panda breeding centre in Bifiengxia and got ready for my first interaction with the 1-year-old panda’s. Walking into the enclosure, I was greeted by the eight of them lazing around, eating, making mewing noises, and slapping each other on the backs. It was amazing.

I scratch a few on their heads and start giving them some bamboo to eat, lazy things were just lying there on their backs waiting for me to hand them their food. Making them even more gorgeous!!

A little guy came over to me and put his paw on my knee

T – ‘Hey fella, awww, you’re so beautiful!’

He then lifts himself up from my knee and wraps his decent size jaw around my left shoulder.


The pressure on my shoulder was so painful that it caused me to jump up with it still attached. He let go just as I’m fully upright and casually waddles off while I’m left there furiously rubbing my shoulder and calling him names. The keepers were not impressed. But one of the helpers managed to snap a photo.

My final day in Chengdu – Dumplings and tea?

On the way back from Juizhaigou, in a heated food discussion, Leon told me about these amazing volcano dumplings that I just had to try.

We meet at noon, seedy, with the perfect hangover for consuming dumplings.

T, after informing Leon of Rolands knock on my door this morning – ‘Did a couple of guys follow me out of the bar last night?’

Leon – ‘Just one’

T – ‘Really? who??’

Leon with a smile – ‘Roland’

T – ‘of course..’

Leon takes me to this small open chinese eatery and orders 24 dumplings which were just steamed dough stuffed with spicy rice, heavy but very tasty. We can only eat 6 in total, and I was impressed with Leon’s serious miscalculation of how much he thought I was going to eat.

Leon decides to accompany me to the Tea markets where I was on a quest to find this special flower blooming tea.

As we sit at the tea tasting table, the tea serving ladies are asking Leon all sorts of questions, and it wasn’t only because he could speak enough chinese to get by, but also because he was tall, blond, and easy on the eyes.

Smittened serving lady to Leon – ‘Where do you come from?’

Leon – ‘I am from Israel’ then points to me and says ‘ she is from.. how do you say Australia in Chinese again?’

T – ‘They are not interested in me’

The lady ignores me through the whole tea tasting process addressing all her questions, answers, and smiles to Leon.

Leon, the hard-edged guy from Israel, is softened by the amazing flower blooming tea and decides to get ten buds for his Mum.

Leon – ‘I hope this gets through customs’

T – ‘Just put it up your arse and you’ll be fine’

Leon – ‘I think I will’

T, to the serving lady – ‘I’ll get (counts in head) 30.’ (smugly shitting all over Leon’s 10)

Suddenly, our serving lady turns and looks at me for the first time, then smiles to me that brilliant smile that had only favoured Leon in the last 20 minutes.

It was all the encouragement I needed to walk out of there with more tea than anyone about to spend 2 months in India really needs to have.

Lesson – Money does buy happiness.

Last night in Chengdu – The interesting people you meet.

We were relaxing in Sim’s Cozy’s balcony bar, having a drink and a laugh when Leon, an Israeli guy we had met in Juizhaigou whips out his guitar and starts playing to the chatter around the table. This attracts a couple of wanderers called Roland and Laurna from Latvia.

Roland and Laurna have been traveling for 6 months throughout India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Tibet, and now China as street performers. They are totally wacky, eccentric, lost marble types who had perfected being both crazy and witty, easily becoming the centre of attention in any crowd.

We start singing the usual folk songs that break out once the guitars appear. Everyone felt free, relaxed, and happy singing along to Paul Simon’s Cecilia, Bob Dylans Rolling Stone and a shuffle of Bob Marley tunes.

So it was an unexpected twist when Roland started to test the limits of humour by cracking Jewish jokes aimed at Leon.

Leon – If you’re not Jewish, don’t joke about the holocaust.

Roland and Laurna smiling – ‘Oh, we have plenty of Jew jokes, but you’re not really a Jew anyway, you were born in Russia’

Leon – Israeli’s don’t take jokes about Jews well. So I’m telling you to stop.

Roland – picks up his guitar and starts singing ‘ I’m a poor Jewish boy’

I stop breathing and brace myself for the impact.

Leon, after a tense pause with some serious eye-contact – ‘If you don’t stop, I’m going to have to take out my penis’

Relief, laughter, and the tension eases as the German guy next to me cries – ‘Oh come on man, we don’t need to see it, we already know it’s like this’ and slams down the large black phallic like percussion shaker.

More laughter, and Roland eases off on the Jewish jokes now that Leon has made fun of the situation. I realise he reminds me of ‘Borat’

We hear an American accent coming from the lounges next to us. Roland again with the Guitar starts singing enthusiastically ‘Lets take our part, in Jihad! Lets take our part, in Jihad! Obama its just karma so lets take our part, in Jihad!’

Aussie guy from the group next to us – ‘Have some respect guys’ while the muscley American man stands up and turns around to give us a threatening stare.

Roland smiles in a Guru like fashion – ‘ Wasn’t Jesus an American?’ followed with ‘Let’s sing a positive song’ and starts singing a song about being HIV Positive. Followed by a tune titled ‘ Free Sichuan!’ Then surprisingly the Tasmanian man requests a ‘Free Tasmania’ version.

All of this was ridiculously humorous as Roland pushed the limits of everyone political correctness, until comments like ‘your mothers a whore and you should just hang yourself because you’re a bum and the Dutch economy would be better off without you’ became perfectly acceptable, and you were either quick with a comebacks (in jest) or had to leave.

In the early hours of the morning, all of us had become great friends through gass-bagging, joking around, and copious amounts of alcohol when Roland asks me ‘Are you staying in this guesthouse’

T – ‘Yes’
Roland – ‘What room number’
T – ‘On the 5th floor’
Roland – ‘But what room number’
T, not wanting to divulge this information but not being able to think of anything else to say – 504
T, .5 seconds later when the correct response comes to mind – ‘why do you need to know my room number?’
Roland – ‘Just asking’ then starts asking everyone else about their room numbers to which everyone freely replies.

By 4.30am my eyes were stinging from the cigarettes, and I had a bad taste in my mouth and gut from the Chinese vodka I was drinking. I excused myself from the party, said my good nights, and promised that I would see everyone tomorrow with it being my final day in Chengdu.

In my room I immediately pass out but was awakened by a knocking on my door. Thinking I had left something important, like my passport, in the lounge, I open the door slightly and squint through my sleepy eyes.
Roland – ‘Can I come in?’
T – ‘No’ goes to close the door.
Roland – Puts his hand on the door to push it open ‘have you got someone in there?’
T, loudly – ‘No, I’m sleeping, go away.’ Tries to push the door shut.
Roland, backs off – ‘Im sorry, it’s not what you think, when you left a couple of the guys followed you out and I just wanted to make sure that you were ok’
T – ‘Sure. I’m sleeping. Good night.’ Pushes the door shut and locks it.’

Luckily, Roland really isn’t a bad guy, but it was another lesson about needing to be better at deflecting certain questions. And not opening doors.

Tips on how to catch public transport in China – The perilous bus ride to get to Heaven

I heard through the grapevine that in China, at a place called Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong there is the most beautiful scenery on Earth, and having worn in my traveling feet in the last 30 days, I did something I would have never done a month ago – I spontaneously decided to make the 12 hour trip to Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong by public China bus, by myself, without having booked any accommodation on the other end or knowing what I would do. This may seem like a small feat for some, but this was a massive deal for me, especially because it was China, and China aint no walk in the park. Most travellers I have encountered leave China to the last leg of their journey so they can warm up to it..

Must do’s when catching public transport in China.

1) ALWAYS find out what the numbers on your ticket mean – For example, the bus ticket has 3 sets of numbers; the date of departure, terminal number, and seat number. The date was obvious, and I had a 50% chance of getting the bus terminal number right, luckily, if you do happen to be in the unlucky 50%, the friendly ticket collector will inform you of your incorrect decision by publicly, and loudly, refusing you entry onto the wrong bus.

2) Make sure your iPod is fully charged – Public transport is noisy, with the people in the bus chatting away and the sound of traffic and horns beeping every 5 seconds, which is every time an accident is avoided.

3) If you need to pee – If it’s not an official toilet stop, make sure that the bus driver is aware that you have gotten off the bus, so he doesn’t start driving off without you but with all of your belongings, leaving you no choice but to run after the bus while still zipping up your jeans yelling with your arms waving about for him to stop.

4) Help people help you – Make sure early on that everybody knows that you can’t speak chinese and that you have no idea when to get off, and that you are their responsibility.

And finally,

5) Sleep though the scary parts – if you can.

Even though the bus route went high up through the mountains on sometimes unfinished windy narrow roads, past guard rails which had obviously been broken through a number of accidents, with rocks and stones falling from the mountains hitting or narrowly missing the bus, on roads that have been weakened and are crumbling from the rain, all of which was like a horror movie while ‘Stir it up’ by Bob Marly was playing on my iPod as background music in what felt like the scene in which Tiara dies.. Considering all of this, it was the most thrilling, scenic, FUN bus ride ever!

The Tibetan prayer wheel experience

I’ve been visiting this Tibetan cafe in Chengdu, not ony because I love their momo’s ( Tibetan dumplings), but also because the owners have always been so warm and friendly, and I’ve taken a particular liking to the owners mother who sits in the cafe all day, everyday.

I love old people – They can sleep anywhere, and they’ll talk to anyone, even if you don’t understand them.

So when it was translated to the old lady (I’ll call her Grandma) that I haven’t been able to sleep for the past three nights, she immediately gives me some prayer beads, and a tiny portable prayer wheel, and said something I imagine was ‘ That’ll sort you out.’

This morning, after my first night of rest since arriving in Chengdu, I excitedly went to visit Grandma to tell her the good news, bringing with me the tiny prayer wheel to help demonstrate my story. However, while I was motioning how I used the prayer wheel and that I was able to get to sleep, she got really agitated and started saying a whole lot of stuff to me, hands flying about excitedly while she seem to communicate something of real importance.

Her daughter came over to help translate the message which was ‘You must not (demonstrates). Devil. You must like this (demonstrates the difference), good.’

In essence, you have to swing the prayer wheel around clockwise for your prayers to be heard by God. If you swing the prayer wheel anti-clockwise, which seemed natural to me, you’re praying to the devil (yikes!)

So the prayers and scriptures that rest inside my tiny prayer wheel were said backwards to the devil resulting in a great nights sleep.

Mark – Let me know if our bad tenant has started paying rent?

Kidding! From now on I’m going to pray clockwise 🙂

Tea picking for T?

The act of drinking tea, and Tea houses are a valuable part of the Chinese culture, so I decided to enjoy an afternoon of visiting an old-school chinese town called Ling Pe and experience the highly recommended art of tea picking.

Accompanying me on this tour are 2 German men, Bernard and Christoph, and a couple from the UK, Helen and Ed.

Our Chinese driver, who can speak only chinese, takes us to Liz’s Courthouse, which accommodates a lush green tea plantation up on a hill surrounded by bamboo forests with an amazing view over the countryside. He begins informing and instructing us on how to pick a good tea leaf as we all got to work.

Priding myself on being the kind of person who appreciates all sorts of cultural activities and has a keen interest for a vast range of topics, I listen intently with the ears of a dedicated student and went about my tea picking with a forced enthusiasm.

Unexpectedly, after my initial questions (How do you harvest? Is this green tea? How much do you sell it for? and Can you smoke it?) and after 5 minutes of practical, I found myself getting distracted, the mosquito’s were bugging me. I wondered fearfully if there were any venemous snakes or spiders lurking near my feet? I was irritated that my trekking shoes were getting extremely muddy.

T, thinking – Ok, you’re not getting into the experience, just calm down and try to see the joy in it that everyone else can. Be one with nature. It’s like meditating, just breathe and do the activity. Be one with the picking. Yoga zen yoga zen yoga zen..tolerance tolerance tolerance… (Tummy growls) God, I’m STARVING!

I shamefully and disappointedly admitted to myself that I had no interest in the activity and was completely and utterly BORED, and starving because I was bored. I was done pretending to be a happy tea picking hippy and could have easily learnt this from television as I flicked past the tea harvesting channel.

I broke the (supposedly) tranquil silence and ask Bernard, who I admired for his ability to speak 4 languages and the fact that he was in China to perform as a musician at a charity event, to ask the driver how long more did we have to do this for and, more importantly, when was lunch going to be served?

Bernhard – ‘Now. He must have heard your prayers’

T – ‘I started praying an hour ago’

Bernhard, laughing – ‘I know, 20 minutes would have been enough’

T, smiling but thinking – More like 2 seconds.

What I have learnt about myself? I enjoy drinking the tea that other people skilfully cultivate and harvest. And that learning to meditate in India could go either way, but if I can master it, will be an extremely handy skill to have.

Beware of the Sichuan hotpot

One of the first things I did in Chengdu was seek out the famous Sichuan hotpot at the recommended ChongQing QinMa Hotpot Restaurant.

This Sichuan meal is a broth of stock, oils, spring onion, Sichuan peppers with lots of chillies boiling in a hotpot usually resting centre of the dining table, while additional ingredients such as tender beef, shrimp dumplings, noodles and veggies are thrown into the boil during the course of the seating.

First bite – OMG. Delicious! Yum!

Second bite – Hot searing pain in my mouth.. But I like it.

Third bite – Everything taste like metal.

Fourth bite – My mouth has reached a numb nirvana.

I end the meal fully aware of a low burning heat that accompanies my gut out of the restaurant. The sensation intensifies during my walk through Chengdu town, and strangely creeps closer to the point of volcanic eruption with each passing hour.

My body was still hosting this inferno at 4am that morning, and my internal organs were so inflamed that I was wondering if I could still have children(?)

In hindsight, when the waitress asked me how I wanted my hotpot – Mild, Medium, or Hot – requesting ‘HOT HOT’ was way too ambitious.

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