Northeast of the city center lies the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding - the most famous local attraction, and rightly so. For the equivalent of $10, it's probably the only place in the world where you can see dozens of pandas from cubs to adults up close.
I arrived at the park not long after it opened in the morning, and watched the keepers set up for the day's first feeding, sticking bundles of bamboo shoots upright in crevices ground into the wooden platform where the adult pandas lounge during the day (essentially a viewing stage for visitors). After a while they lumbered out of their overnight enclosures, and proceeded to eat...and eat and eat. Often lying on their backs and using their paws to bend branches over their faces and munching the leaves, the pandas rarely moved except to defecate or to attack a new clump of bamboo after they'd exhausted one.
The cubs were more active but clumsier too - scurrying over the grass and each other, but constantly falling onto their bellies as they tripped or their legs gave out. The adorable, physical awkwardness of trying to figure out one's own body reminded me of my hosts' 20-month old son.
For a large "donation" fee you can have the volunteer experience, consisting of a presentation about the park, cleaning bamboo shoots for the cubs, receiving a panda swag bag, and cuddling with a cub while the staff snap pictures of this bucket list moment. In preparation for the photo opp, the keepers lured a 1-year old female inside with an apple. But because she was still groggy and slow-moving, a keeper hoisted her up under her arms - like a child carrying an oversize teddy bear, and brought her over.
Being herbivores, pandas aren't a threat to humans, but they do have sharp claws that can be dangerous if they're feeling playful. So, to keep the cub distracted during the shoot, her keeper smeared honey on her paws, which she happily took to licking and smacking her lips in front of the camera.
What was it like to hug a real panda? Well, she didn't smell at all like I anticipated. And while her thick fur was fluffy, in terms of texture it was rough like a dog's rather than silky like a cat's. I pressed my cheek against the top of her head, wistfully thinking how therapeutic it would be if I had access to one all the time. Reluctantly I gave her a last squeeze, somewhat consoled by the fact that at least I had photos document the moment.
See more of the pandas and Chengdu here.