I just came back from visiting my mom and while there I came across an amazing archaeological find from the year 1996!
That year, I was living in China, working as a "foreign expert" (外国专家 wài guó zhuān jiā) at the magazine "China Today" (今日中国, jīn rì zhōng guó). I was also studying kungfu (功夫, gōng fu) with an informal class that met under a bridge in Beijing. One of my classmates there was a student at Beijing Film Institute, and mentioned that a film crew from Beijing Television was looking for a few foreigners to be in a TV show about the Long March (长征, cháng zhēng). It was the 60th anniversary of the end of the Long March, which was a massive military retreat across 10,000 km of Chinese countryside by the Red Army (红军, hóng jūn), as they were evading the Nationalists, aka KMT or Kuomintang (国民党, guó mín dǎng).
Never one to turn down weird opportunities, I agreed and went to check it out.
The result was a 40 day journey into the heart of rural China, complete with film crew drama, wacky drunken dinners, loads of propaganda and a cute panda named Didi.
This time visiting my mom, not only did we discover the tape of the show that finally aired on BTV, Mom found my journal from the trip, which I had assumed was lost with the rest of my stuff which I left at my friend's house when I left China in 1999. Needless to say I will try to write this up as an anecdote. Here is a teaser:
On the way to the chain bridge crossing (泸定桥 lú dìng qiáo), we decided to stop by the Wolong Nature Preserve (卧龙自然保护区, wò lóng zì rán bǎo hù qū). It wasn’t actually part of the Long March, but everyone was tired and we all needed to do something fun. The other option, actually more tempting, was to visit Jiuzhaigou (九寨沟, jiǔ zhài gōu) a truly wild place, with basically no people. Several tourists are lost there each year, it was said.
But Wolong turned out to be one of the most memorable places we visited. The cages and offices were not very upscale, and it was really a question of not having enough money. But you could tell that the guys who worked in the place really cared for the bears. They had their protein cookies and milk porridge, and they all had names.
The main caretaker warned us not to reach into the cages, because although the pandas look very cute, they can be violent. He said that a tourist came to Wolong a few years ago and tried to play with a panda—and got half his face ripped off by the big teddy bear.
But there was one panda on the premises who had been brought up in captivity so was fairly docile and familiar with people. Her name was Didi.
The most exciting part was when we were allowed into the cage with Didi. There she was, sitting on her concrete pedestal, holding a stalk of bamboo and munching to her heart’s content. She looked harmless enough. Actually she was the cutest thing I had ever seen. The keeper was very specific in his instructions about what we could and could not do.
“ONLY pet her on the back, and from top to bottom,” he said.
But the reality of the situation was much more difficult than that. When you are standing in a cage with a panda bear, you realize how unbelievably cute and cuddly they really are. Didi was about four feet high while sitting, and she sat just like a teddy bear, with pads facing out, sitting up, and front paws grasping the bamboo shoots.
I maneuvered around back of her, and the guy gave me the OK to begin petting. Her fur was a little oily. I noticed her ears, round furry medallions that needed a scratch, and would just fit in the round part of my hand. My hand drifted up toward her head…
“Don’t touch the ears!” the guy yelled into the cage.
All right, all right. I moved my hand down her back. But then her paws were so inviting, the scaly pads and furry toes called to my fingers. Surely, if I just …
“Don’t touch her paws!” he snapped.
Grinning like an idiot, I went back to her back, but then it was time for me to get out of the cage. I posed for one last picture with Didi, and then I had to say goodbye. She seemed completely unfazed and continued chewing her bamboo. I left the cage but I will never forget her and her beautiful, forbidden ears.