Panda volunteering in China

Yes, this was as amazing as it sounds! This time I was not a lone traveller I had roped in very good friend from school who had also gone on to do the animal care course I had done at college. She wasn’t at the time working with animals but she had been to Africa for a year working on an elephant research project. (Also as amazing as it sounds!)

Both being a bit crazy we decided a week was best again due to both our work commitments, basically my constant fear that all my customers were going to leave me and go somewhere else if I took any time off. We got sent some flights to either accept or decline I immediately accepted as I wanted my visa accepted and my passport back! It was my friend who spotted the nine hours we had to wait in Bangkok airport on the way back in between flying back to London. Oh dear. I was glad I had some company!

Before all of this we got sent a health questionnaire to be filled in and signed by our doctor. Simple enough I thought and when I phoned the doctors they said to drop it round and leave it with them there would be a small charge. What then followed was a sort of constant frantic too ing and fro ing by me to and from my doctors surgery back home to phone the travel company because they didn’t understand and they didn’t do any x-ray stuff and I would have to go to a different hospital and it would be a three figure sum to pay and it would also be a three figure sum to book in to have a doctor examine you. And the travel company seemed to be leading me more astray telling me the wrong thing and then telling me to put normal in all of the boxes which of course the doctors refused to sign without seeing me! I was just about weeping as a huge queue was gathering behind me, as all doctors surgeries do, I knew they would all begin to hate the sight of me, yes I was very nearly crying! I’m used to people thinking I’m mad in fact most people I meet I manage to accidentally give the impression I am mad, and here we go again, I can see everyone in that doctor’s surgery giving little smirks.

My friend of course got it done without any such embarrassment, it did take a very long time for her doctors to do it, but there was no getting stressed out causing a world record long queue in the doctor’s reception have the whole village think your crazy (let’s face it, they already know me as the crazy dog groomer!) and no practically crying down the phone at the travel company, absolutely no stressful, endless too ing and fro ing, she had a drama free experience!

Our China trip finally rolled around, it seemed so long away then all of a sudden, it crept up before we were ready for it! We both couldn’t believe we were off to China, all of a sudden! I did my last dog groom, and then another (it was an emergency involving a matted dog and finally I had broken up from work and it was time to get excited!

We pretty much sailed through our trip going to China. We had the excitement of what lay in store, well come on, Pandas!, all the movies (the new jungle book which we had both wanted to see!) and we had the good fortune of sitting next to a really nice guy who had been before. Like one of my customers he warned us about how they like taking photos of western ers! And if your taxi needs petrol they make you get out! They’re not abandoning you they’re just not allowed to have you in there while you fill up!

We changed at Bangkok, we finally arrived in Chengdu with zero sleep so it was lucky there was no recurrence of the Sri Lanka disaster where I was left stranded- in fact we were met straight away by the lady who was looking after us volunteers. She also had to meet another volunteer. And so we had the pleasure of meeting the lady who looked after us all week (very well too!) and fellow volunteer who came from Switzerland but who had been travelling around China herself for a month already! She was younger than me and she had also been travelling South America for seven months! I was impressed, not just at her bravery of travelling by herself all that time!

It wasn’t long before we discovered the glorious squat toilets in fact it was straight away at the airport! Luckily my cubicle had toilet paper though although I had some in my bag just in case! “That was interesting,” was my friend’s first words!

We were shown lots of panda photos to show us on the way to our hostel making us very excited.

I was very happy to see our hostel was also home to a pretty cat and lots of pretty kittens and dogs! I was worried as I had heard that people weren’t kind to animals in China, luckily all I witnessed while in China was good things, the cats climbing up trees at our breakfast table for one thing and helping themselves to our scrambled eggs!

As you can imagine we had a very early night due to no sleep, so the poor other two volunteers sharing our room had a bit of a shock coming back after being out to two sleeping strangers. The next day when we met a retired school teacher and a girl who was from China but lived in America we heard how they had just gone straight to their beds not getting changed or anything because they were too scared to wake us! Bless them! They were lovely people!

The first day began with all of us volunteers bundling into a collection of taxis and visiting the panda breeding centre. My time in Sri Lanka came right back to me, the driving was just as bad or possibly worse! Yet people never seem to hit each other despite no rules of the road and everyone just overtaking and getting into whichever lane they fancy without the use of indicators or any form of checking said lanes!

While this eventful drive was taking place the volunteers got more acquainted. “Oh,  your mum’s hair must be white!” exclaimed one volunteer as she heard about another’s travel adventures!

So anyway, what an amazing place the panda breeding centre was! We didn’t realise this was different to the place we were volunteering that was the conservation and research centre for the giant panda. Our first glimpse of pandas in their lovely huge enclosure was breath taking. I had never seen a panda in real life before. It was also very funny. They were very playful and one in particular was having great fun annoying his companion who did not want to play and wanted to lie down! And one was getting in the way of his friend trying to climb! We could all have watched them forever. And everyone obviously agreed as we lost some of the volunteers! They came back to us safely luckily! We went to an indoor enclosure where we were under strict instructions not to use flash photography. Inside were the cutest cutest babies, pandas only a few months old! I’ve said it before I saw them in real life baby pandas really are top of the list of cutest baby animals. I felt like Agnes in despicable me “So fluffy and cute I’m gonna die!” yes they were that cute!

The panda breeding centre was also home to red pandas. Their enclosure was a walk through type enclosure, and it wasn’t easy to spot them. There were lots of notices about not chasing them or annoying them because they will attack you. Good, I thought, its about time there was an animal that could teach stupid people a lesson if they annoy them! We caught a very short, fleeting glimpse of a red panda, but that was OK, it was great he had such a lovely enclosure with lots of places to hide.

To sum up pandas in three words, stunning, funny and (sorry) lazy. But every kind of beautiful. Even though they spend most of their time sleeping and eating we could have watched so many of them forever. Especially the young ones, in both panda places there is a panda kindergarten enclosure, with lots of toys, I especially remember a children’s outdoor slide and little rocking horse! I wasn’t lucky enough to see a panda play with either! I was lucky enough to see a kindergarten panda sit in his tree for a long while and he had one back leg dangling down and it was so simple but so cute and he decided to go to the bathroom without the need to leave his comfy spot. “Aw, he’s pooing,” we all cooed as the stuff hit the floor and the little panda just stayed put living the good life. So I was lucky in lots of ways that so made up for him not going down his little kiddies slide!

We finished up at the panda breeding centre, the rest of the first day in China was sightseeing in Chengdu mostly some interesting shops down a couple of alleys, the peoples park and the tea house!

The lady was lovely, fantastic guide and great at looking after all of us I can’t sing her praises enough, but she wasn’t the best at waiting. Some of the volunteers managed to get lost and left behind! With EVERYONE with us, we went onto the sightseeing!

When I read the hostel leaflet that gave a bit of information about the peoples park and the tea house I thought I was hallucinating. But one volunteer had already played tourist and been there and confirmed that yes while you are at the tea house sitting drinking your tea, these men come round with bells they ring offering this special ear cleaning service! They put threads in your ears and pull them out with the wax! Well I suffer with my ears and have to regularly book in with the nurse to have them syringed so I thought blimey that will clear the tea house if I have a go! No one will want to drink or eat and see that! I seriously thought I was seeing things when I read sit in the tea house and have your ears cleaned!

My friend was just saying to me when we were out how she noticed that there were a lot of police about but it was a good thing! Well one of the volunteers probably didn’t agree as they pulled him over while we were walking along and demanded a passport check! He must have looked shifty! Our poor guide had to rush over, trying to help.

I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I embarrassed myself. It was that hot pot they had planned for us in the evening! It was basically like a huge hot bowl of tomato soup in the middle of the table and you put vegetables or tofu or for the meat eaters meat in then when they are ready you take out and eat. There was a table for spicy, a table for non spicy. Well my friend went brave and went spicy, I was not and went non spicy. Apparently it was just level one spice but they said it was like a volcano! Or a vindaloo. Whereas I was having troubles of my own this was something I couldn’t gracefully eat if I wasn’t dropping the veg on the table with my chopsticks I was spilling the sauce over myself! 25 going on 5 I think sums up me during the hot pot! And there I was trying to make friends with all the other volunteers!

We had a very early start the following day to catch the couches that were taking us to panda base! It was goodbye to the first hostel and time to get more excited! It was three hours to get there but finally we arrived to be told to leave our suitcases and to go this way for breakfast. We were taken in this building upstairs where a delicious but random buffet was laid out. I ate a lot of random but yummy non breakfast food and one of the brave spicy goers was eating some tasteless porridge (I know it was tasteless because I tried some later on in the week) and saying it was soothing after the volcano! He turned to one of the girls who worked alongside our guide helping the volunteers and blurted out “where are we?” we all burst out laughing. We then had to lug our huge suitcases onto a much smaller and very crowded bus that took us to our accommodation by panda base! That was not a pleasant journey! But who cares, pandas!

Anyway this was our induction day. We got our room at the accommodation, complete with squat toilet and see through bathroom doors so if we really wanted to we could wave at each other while each of us has a shower!

So we all met back in the activity room where the induction began. Our guides were talking us through our next few days as panda volunteers!

“Your keeper might not smile. Some of them don’t smile. Don’t worry its not you, that’s just how some of them are. And they can’t speak English.”

“Ask your keeper or whoever else is working with you if you want to take photos while your feeding the pandas. Don’t try to take a selfie. That’s not a good idea while your holding the food and the panda is trying to take it!”

Just some of the instructions given that I had to remember! Plus the fact that we had to make sure we asked what time to be back each day to feed the pandas. Pandas had their routine and if you are not there they will just feed the pandas without you they will not wait for you. I seriously hoped I’d be working with one of the volunteers who could speak the language!

We got issued a form to sign with the terms and conditions on, and also our uniform overalls and panda volunteer cards that hung around our necks. My overalls came above my heels and I wailed that I didn’t think I was that tall. The other girl said so that everyone can hear “Do you want a bigger size!” and I nearly cried. Luckily everyone agreed that the bigger size swamped me and you could have fitted two of me into one so small overalls that made me look overgrown it was to be. In amongst all of this everyone had managed to fold their overalls back and move on…leaving me and my friend who had politely waited for me behind and two other Chinese volunteers behind! What then followed was our own self explanatory tour of the panda sanctuary as we tried to find everyone and wondered how they had managed to get so far away from us! We ended up going back to the hostel for lunch!

And the other volunteers said to us “Where did you go?” I practically screamed what you left us!

My friend and I had been debating whether to go on the hike or not. We weren’t the fittest of girls and were both a bit worried about being left panting at the back. Or getting left behind again! In the end though we were told it wasn’t too much uphill and I thought I would regret it if I didn’t go. It was absolutely beautiful. The views and all the waterfalls had breathtaking beauty. It was a lot of step climbing. What wasn’t beautiful was when I put my hand out to hold the banisters to find it was crawling with caterpillars! Some huge and fat, some the super long hairy kind! All looking a bit on the capable of causing irritation side. Well I wont use the banisters then, I thought.

At least I felt good at the end. Like my leg muscles had really been worked, it was a very long hike and it was to carry on that way all week as getting to and from and around the panda sanctuary was a lot of walking. I was so tired and I was indeed unfit girl at the back panting, but it felt good! I try my best to work out for a short while every day but I’m sure any personal trainer would scoff at my pathetic attempts! But this, I really felt like I had had a long work out and I missed it when I got home, despite all the panting and trying to keep up!

Another great thing about this particular volunteer project was that they kept us all amused. It wasn’t just your done for the day, that’s it, on this particular evening they had organised volunteer games for us. It was very typical team work games to get us to work together in our teams and help each other. Charades. Always funny. 007 which had lots of us confused at first. “I’ve got to say Oh?” asked one volunteer, in a very confused tone!

What possibly wasn’t so great for so many people (feel free to contradict me here) was Uno. I had never played before and ended up second to last and it seemed to go on forever! Our started off teaming up with one girl to help her as she had never played before then ended up helping me. Despite losing to so many people our team had the most points and we all got a great souvenir sports bag which said China on it!

Finally, time to volunteer and have a day in the life as a panda keeper. I was in luck, first of all they separated who was only doing a week. That was me, my friend and the other Chinese volunteers. Basically no one else was silly enough to go such a long way for a week. They put us into twos with putting both me and my friend with someone who could speak Chinese!

Then it was time to meet our keeper. Our keeper was a hugely pleasant surprise- on the contrary to what we were told he had a lovely constant smile and chatted nineteen to the dozen-to of course the girl I was working with as he couldn’t speak English.

“We have a mum and baby panda!” said my fellow volunteer, excitedly to me. It was now time to meet our pandas that we were to be looking after for the week. We had a ten year old male, and a mum and baby panda. The baby was just under a year. We had to clean out their enclosures, getting rid of all the faeces and old food mopping down and making room for a lot of bamboo. The smiley keeper kept up a constant chat, none of which meant anything to me and I could join in with, until my fellow volunteer said to me “he wants to know why Britain left the EU” That was pretty funny. I had to say I had no idea. The next question was how many immigrants are in England. I’m sorry I couldn’t help with that either. Our keeper did find my job funny though, so I showed him a collage I had on my phone of a mixture of some of my doggie customers. I think it was a point of interest for most people but in China and Sri Lanka I think a few people found it a rare thing.

In between the morning routine of cleaning and in between all the feeds, we could explore the panda sanctuary as we pleased. We could visit the panda kindergarten! Where some very tiny pandas, that looked like puppies were cuddled up in bed.

On the contrary of what some people say about China not treating their animals well and making me a bit nervous about going there, there were quotes all around the panda sanctuary saying things like “Be kind to animals and treat them like our friends.” Oh, I love the panda sanctuary.

And we could have watched those young pandas forever despite pandas not being very on the go, everything they do is so cute!

I think the highlight of the week would probably have to be feeding the pandas, I don’t have to explain why, it was an amazing experience! Apart from all the bamboo, we fed them apples, carrots and “panda bread” or “panda cake” made of certain grains (we all tried the tiniest bit, it just tasted very bready!) Our pandas make cute eating sounds too! Our male panda loved everything however the mum panda didn’t like fruit or veg! Baby panda spent most of her time up in the trees. When we clean the outdoor enclosures we shut down the barrier leading from inside to out so the pandas are inside while we were out and vice versa. Its hard to imagine one of the pandas attacking us, we all know they seem so relaxed and content but they aren’t domesticated pets of course! On our last day of volunteering I said to Zoe “I don’t remember seeing the baby come inside with mum.” We were cleaning the outside enclosure while the baby was sat in the tree watching us! Actually I don’t think she was watching us, she was really high up and I don’t think she could care less but it made us ecstatic!

And on the second day our male panda wouldn’t come in he was hiding out in the bushes (it was good the pandas have so many places they can hide out and get away from the public if they want to), anyway we couldn’t persuade him in , but as soon as we put the barrier down and started cleaning inside first instead of out, his gorgeous panda face appeared in the window where the barrier was, and stayed there for the whole duration of the cleaning. He wanted his breakfast! Our male panda loved his food , reminding me of my gorgeous mini schnauzer back home!

One volunteer’s assigned panda was a real diva, turning away the panda bread! She was working alongside a volunteer, from Sweden who had already been there a month. She was finishing at the same time as us and was in love with their male panda, it was clear to see why. On her second to last day, she was unlucky enough to fall over. It was a slip and she sprained her ankle. So she was crying, being a bit hysterical and her panda was just there right up against the bars of his enclosure like a dog, seeing if she was OK, and despite not being there and not seeing it, it sounded so sweet. It was lucky our guide was there to accompany her to the hospital where they confirmed she had sprained her ankle. Well better at the finish than the start, how unlucky would that have been.

In the other evenings, we were treated to Chinese language lessons, dumpling making, calligraphy and a trip to the supermarket in the nearest town (for me to stock up on coffee and for the others to stock up on snacks!) and a trip to the Panda bar, aka Tom’s bar which was just up the hill from our hostel. Tom is awesome! He spends his days at the panda sanctuary working and he gives all the volunteers his panda bar cards, says he looking forward to meeting all of us and gives out free shots in exchange for a drawing of a panda! (he gives us free shots anyway!) I love Tom’s bar there are panda pictures everywhere, and there are lots of cute dogs in his bar! Its small but its awesome we had two great evenings there, one of which was our last night, a great way to finish the week with the pandas.

The funniest part of the week however was when we taxi ed to the nearest town for the supermarket. They said one taxi would seat eight of us that were going, when it showed up it was three seats across the back then in the middle two seats and two tiny tiny stools, the sort you imagine a milk maid milking a cow on! So two of the smallest of our group had to take those seats! And on the way back, the taxi driver stopped the car to speak to a man. We wondered what was going on. He went to the back of the car and opened up the boot. Was something of his in there? Nope, he climbed in and spread himself across the boot and the driver drove on. He was getting a lift and lack of room wasn’t going to stop him! I was silently laughing all the way back to the hostel at this guy behind us, just riding in the boot! Its like days I’ve been really busy and I’ve really crammed dog appointments into the day and said “I can’t turn down the business.” This taxi driver was taking i can’t turn down the business to a whole new level!

I normally find with any long journey, be it a flight or a train journey, one runs very smoothly and the other is horrible. Its always much preferable if the journey there is the horrible one as at least the chances are wherever your going its for somewhere nice for a good reason, a holiday, a weekend away. When its the way back and its all over and you just want to get home, (or do the holiday/weekend away all over again!) its then a nightmare and the absolute pits to have a rubbish journey home. Our journey to China had run so smoothly with even being lucky enough to sit next to a friendly man who had been there before, it was too much to hope for that the way back could have been as good. We had shop assistants tailing us making us feel uncomfortable, a man who wouldn’t leave us alone until we both put our headphones in our ears! The menu in the restaurant had us giggling with one page saying ‘rotten meat’ and one page saying ‘baby food!’ We’ll pass on those! Both flights were delayed and they kept getting my ice cream order wrong when we were in between flights! But we were able to laugh about it and play lots of rounds of twenty questions! I was so glad I asked my friend to come with me, we both had such an amazing week!

The journey back may have been a nightmare but the week was one of the best ever (sorry I said it again!) .


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