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Beijing - Pandas are notoriously elusive – you’d probably get similar odds for spotting a mountain yeti in the wild. And even in captivity, you have to time your visit very carefully.
I’m told to get to the Chengdu Panda Reserve early as its prized residents tend not to venture out after lunch. So when fog delays my early-morning flight by more than four hours I don’t hold out much hope of coming face-to-face with its star attraction.
For a while, all I can see is thick vegetation as I join a group of tourists peering over the barriers at one of the panda enclosures. Then a flash of black and white appears between two trees and a furry form lumbers into view.
He is joined by two of his playmates and the trio ambles towards us, padding along sleepily, one behind the other.
We hear shouts from the far end of the enclosure and the pandas prick up their ears and pick up their pace, breaking into a trot as they cross the bamboo platform in the direction of the cries.
Another five pandas emerge from their concrete shelter and head for the pile of fresh bamboo that has just been thrown to them by park staff on a spot carefully chosen to give waiting tourists the perfect view.
There is a chorus of “oohs” and “aahs” as dozens of smartphones and cameras are whipped out in unison and trained on the cute ensemble as they begin to demolish their mid-afternoon snack.
The bad weather may have delayed my flight from Jiuzhai Huanglong, in the north of Sichuan Province, but it has also kept the pandas cooped up all day and now they’re making the most of the break in the rain.
Chengdu Panda Reserve isn’t China’s biggest panda research centre (Wolong Nature Reserve is a massive 200 000ha) but it does boast the largest captive-born giant panda population in the world, thanks to a very successful breeding programme.
Remarkably, techniques to give nature a helping hand include showing the bears videos of other pandas mating, and dishing out, apparently, Viagra.
When that fails, the researchers turn to artificial insemination and the hi-tech incubators in the Sunshine Nursery House to ensure that even the most vulnerable panda cubs survive.
There are estimated to be just 1 500 giant pandas left in the wild, a handful of which live in the mountains of Jiuzhaigou National Park, in the far north of the province.
The park is a major attraction for tourists – the site draws more than two million visitors a year and around 10 000 people visit each day during peak season – so it pays to get there early.
When I arrive at the park entrance at 8am, crowds of Chinese tourists are spilling out of coaches and joining lengthy queues, which snake down the hillside.
This 72 000ha Eden of fertile forest, vast mirror-like lakes and thunderous waterfalls in the Min Shan mountain range was only “discovered” by the Chinese in the late 1960s.
Incredibly, it was earmarked for mass logging until environmentalists stepped in.
Now its preservation has been guaranteed thanks to its Unesco World Heritage status.
Inside the park there are shrieks and loud cries as the visitors get their first glimpse of their spectacular surroundings.
My guide, Irish expatriate Kieran Fitzgerald, has to ask one enthusiastic visitor politely to keep the noise down for fear of startling his fellow tourists.
“Sorry, I’m just so happy to be here,” he beams.
For those who haven’t ventured far from Chengdu’s smog-filled concrete jungle, this is Paradise Found.
Miles of wooden boardwalk guides visitors through the park, with designated stop-offs for that key photo opportunity.
Eventually I get a glimpse of what the park is like before the tourists arrive, pausing in the sunshine at the Nuorilang waterfall to enjoy the calm.
Here, my only companions are a litter collector and a bride in a yellow dress posing for her wedding photos and all I can hear is the sound of water rushing down the rock face. - Sunday Tribune