The road to Chengdu, winding along the same river valley for 300 kilometres, is being rebuilt. The whole length of it at the same time. There's signs of the 2008 earthquake damage on some stretches - landslides and collapsed bridges - and we travel through new unfinished tunnels. Well, obviously they're finished, otherwise we wouldn't come out the other end, but they're crude, long, unventilated tunnels. For ten hours we drive along a buildng site. Along the way there's signs of new towns that have sprung out of the ruins of old ones.
Chengdu is at first appearances quite uninspiring. It's China's fifth largest metropolis, sitting below the mountains to the west and on the edge of the Sichuan basin that spreads eastwards around the Yangtze. The journey across town to the guesthouse seems endless. Everything looks like it was built in the last thirty years. It probably was. But Sim's Cozy Garden Guesthouse turns out to be just that - an oasis in this pitiless urban environment. Sim, a Singaporean, and his Japanese wife have created a wonderful comfortable hostel in an ugly modern building. There are two garden courtyards, lots of communal space and the rooms have been furnished for travellers. Look - hooks for clothes, somewhere to stash rucksacks, a DVD player. There's also a steady flow of punters of all types and ages e.g. the young Americans on a 3-week tour of China and South East Asia, an older Aussie/Canadian couple ambling through from Central Asia. We meet Jan who is cycling from the Netherlands to Australia. He's full of stories and enthusiasm and joy for cycle touring (it's his first time) and he scratches our cycling itch. Then there's Phil, a Brit, who's on a visit with his Sichuanese wife, Yan. While he's here he's buying chunky Tibetan jewellery to hawk back at home when he's not teachng English. We're also very happy to see Jurek again and having spent a few lazy days doing nothing but laundry and watching a few films we've missed whilst travelling, we're keen to get out and see the pandas with him.
On the outskirts of the city is China's Panda Breeding Research Centre and an easy place to see these wonderful animals. The panda is native to Sichuan, living in the mountainous bamboo forests - they eat a lot of bamboo. As their natural habitat gradually disappears so do the pandas. Their survival as a species is more remarkable considering their mating habits - pandas only get it on once a year and tend to live a solitary life. In an attempt to keep the species gong the Chinese have spent years on research and at the centre in Chengdu we learn a little of how they have successfully bred pandas in captivity. In an attempt to find compatible partners the scientists first placed small ads in the local papers. Next they organised 'Speed Dating' events. In a remakable example of diplomatic detente, a specialist from India was invited to help. Dr. Virender Sehwag runs India's leading matrimonial agency in Uttar Pradesh, when he's not opening bat for the Indian cricket team. After years of failure the Chinese scientists went back to basics, rolled up their sleeves and gave the pandas a 'helping hand'. So far, hundreds of pandas have been bred successfully by artifical insemination and none have been reintroduced to the wild. As we wander around with Jurek we can understand why. The place is really just a zoo. The pandas live in concrete jails and are ejected each morning to sit in their enclosures and chew bamboo for our enjoyment. They are lovely creatures to watch. One happy looking panda picks up a fistful of bamboo and as he puts it to his mouth rolls backwards in a universal gesture of satisfaction. You can almost detect the smile. We have been advised to visit in the morning to witness this morning ritual so it's disappointing to discover afterwards that we missed afternoon sports time. Apparently the pandas are encouraged to play ping pong, badminton and even kung fu in order to keep themselves in trim. Fooball had been tried too, but the pandas kept mistaking each other for the ball. The Centre is a green oasis in Chengdu, but it's hardly a substitute for their wild origins.