Panda trekking in Shaanxi, China

Anyone can see pandas in Chengdu's famous breeding centre, but spotting them in the wild is a tougher – but more revealing - proposition

5 mins

It’s tough being a twin. Having to share your mother’s attention. Fighting for your portion of the food. Making do with half the space in the womb and, later, the room. Then there’s the risk that your mum will ignore you, drop you or simply crush you when she rolls over in bed. As if being one of the world’s most endangered species isn’t hard enough; truly, the lot of a giant panda twin isn’t a happy one.

Not that any deep-seated psychological scarring showed on the faces of Ya Guang and Ya Xiang, the six-year-old male twins I was admiring in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. But then you can’t read a lot from the expressions of a panda (although hunger is a regular theme). An endlessly uplifting creature, it’s no wonder it’s been appropriated as an emblem by both the WWF and China itself.

The breeding centre isn’t a zoo; its long-term aim is to boost the wild population by freeing captive-bred pandas – a process fraught with problems. The first such attempt saw five-year-old Xiang Xiang released in Wolong Nature Reserve in April 2006; in February he was found dead, apparently after fighting with other male pandas.

Clearly, life on the outside is more complex than simply finding and eating bamboo, which is why a training area is being developed at Chengdu to help instil guile and resilience.

I watched Ya Guang and Ya Xiang contentedly munching bamboo. Loveable, charismatic, hilarious? Sure. Guileful and resilient? Couldn’t see it.

Fortunately, things are looking up for the estimated 1,600 wild pandas. Since 1998, remaining patches of habitat in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces have been protected. A string of reserves has been established along Shaanxi’s Qinling Mountains: prime destinations for wildlife-watchers hoping to catch a glimpse of this elusive creature in its natural habitat. Including me.

Doing the doo

For would-be panda-watchers, a bamboo-heavy diet has one big advantage: any creature that chomps through almost 40kg of fibrous plants each day produces a lot of poo.
Very visible, bright-green poo, deposited frequently and generously – a handy Hansel-and-Gretel trail laid for trackers to follow.

My first lesson in panda digestion came just inside the gate of Changqing Nature Reserve. A panda had been spotted here the previous day on relatively open ground near the river; two of Changqing’s most experienced trackers, Xiang Ding Qian and Zhang Yong Wen (known as Jack), brought me to scan the area. Early morning rain glistened on the moss-clad boulders and a herby smell, a little like tarragon, seasoned the damp air.

Crouching among discarded bamboo splinters – panda sweet-wrappers – Mr Xiang picked up a dropping the shape of a sweet potato, crumbling it in his hands. “You can tell the age of the panda from the size of its dropping, and what it was eating from the texture and moisture,” he explained.

I’m no panda expert, but I took a wild stab: bamboo?

Mr Xiang laughed. “Yes, but you can see this is moist and lumpy – this young panda has been eating fresh shoots at a low level near here. After eating leaves the droppings are drier and more fibrous.”

“These were left here yesterday,” Jack told me, pointing up into the denser bamboo away from the track. “We need to head higher to find him now.”

On paper, we had a fighting chance of tracing the deed doer. Changqing, established 300km south-west of Xi’an in 1995, is a former logging concession with a network of tracks leading into the interior, providing access to the heart of the reserve. In addition, of the 200-300 pandas roaming the Qinling Mountains, possibly a third live in Changqing’s 300 sq km – a density of a panda every 3 sq km gives pretty good odds.

However, the odds I was calculating as we hauled ourselves up a vertiginous ridge ten minutes later were the chances of any panda nearby not taking instant flight at the crash of a clodhopping Englishman. I was beginning to understand why winter is the best time to spot pandas: the animals venture lower down the mountains in search of food, while for trackers a stealthy approach is easier tramping through soft snow than this springtime crunchy layer of dead branches and brittle bamboo stems – a highly effective intruder alarm.

And if you thought spotting a rounded, black-and-white shape moving against a backdrop of vertical green lines would be easy, think again. The effect of brushing through thick bamboo stands was incredibly disorientating; it was hard to be sure what lurked among the shifting shadows – leaves quivered like hummingbirds’ wings, magpie squawks echoed monkey-like through the coppices and branches cracked in a fair imitation of a panda preparing a bamboo snack.

Jack halted to examine a patch of stripped bark on a young pine tree, picking off a couple of stiff white hairs.

"We call this an ‘information tree’ – by gnawing the bark and marking the trunk with scent, strong males show off to females and warn rivals to steer clear. Only a young panda with good teeth can bite off this much bark.”

Somewhere nearby, that macho male was waiting to get lucky.

High in a side valley, a succession of cracks echoed above the stream’s soothing gurgle. Mr Xiang turned excitedly to us: “Panda,” he whispered, and beckoned us on.

We forced our way through the bamboo stands sprouting among fir, maple, oak, larch and birch, creating a scratchy, springy barrier; tired of doing the limbo under low-hanging branches, I gritted my teeth and took to using my forehead as a battering ram to force my way through thickets.

As one hour turned into three, I learned to interpret Mr Xiang’s silent gestures: “Wait here;” “Come this way;” “Go left;” and the all-too-common: “No, a panda hasn’t been eating that split bamboo shoot – you just trod on it.”

Meanwhile, Mr Xiang slipped noiselessly along, pausing every few steps to cock his head and listen. Each time we halted the panda’s munching was fainter; eventually the only sound was our own hoarse panting. Mr Xiang turned and shook his head.

Down but not out

We descended to the trail in the late afternoon, the day’s tracking over, and climbed forlornly into our 4WD. I was sweaty, tired and disappointed, but captivated by the changing vistas as we wound our way through the reserve. At 2,300m Daping Peak, clouds did what clouds are supposed to do in this Crouching-Tiger-like landscape: clinging in candyfloss wisps to rock outcrops, tumbling from peak to peak, the veil lifting occasionally to reveal glimpses of waterfalls, pink rhododendrons, veined rock faces, trees in hues of emerald, rust and racing green.

Though the panda is the holy grail of a visit, Changqing boasts the other three of China’s ‘four treasures’: golden monkey, crested ibis and golden pheasant, a gaggle of which scattered into the bushes as we drove by. Jack pointed to a clearing across the valley, from where Bullwinkle’s ugly brother contemplated us: a takin.

“It’s been described as a cross between a yak and a golden retriever,” Jack grinned. After a minute of staring at us, the takin tossed its head and ambled off into the forest. We just burst out laughing; with its shaggy blonde coat, stocky body, buffalo horns and big nose, it looked like a pantomime cow who’d lost one too many boxing contests.

Back in the nearby town of Huayang, I took a stroll from the reserve’s hotel through the warm evening air. A small square dominated by an ancient-looking open-air opera house signalled the start of the old quarter, a single street of low-roofed houses. Doorways were adorned with bright gold-and-red New Year banners, huge braids of maize and old men slurping noodles; one responded to my curiosity and invited me to look around his home. Through the woodsmok e haze in his dim kitchen I made out his makeshift rat-barrier of thorns strung around hanging food, his simple stool and clay stove.

Outside, a small girl practised her calligraphy; seeing a laowai (foreigner), shyness overcame inquisitiveness – she grabbed her paper and ran inside. Voices from one or two TVs spilled out into the street; otherwise, little has changed here for at least a century.

How long Huayang, and the reserve itself, retains its heritage and tranquillity remains to be seen. Last year Changqing welcomed fewer than 1,000 visitors, under 30 of them foreigners; with the imminent construction of new roads, numbers are sure to rise, although access to much of the reserve will be limited to researchers and wildlife enthusiasts.

Compared with Changqing, though, adjacent Foping Nature Reserve is practically invisible, conspicuous by its absence from guidebooks and tourist itineraries.

In panda country, I pondered, less is definitely more: less tourism activity, more chance of spotting wildlife. At least, that’s what I hoped – because I was heading to Foping, and running out of time to bag that elusive panda.

Let there be light

I jolted awake in the pitchest of blacks, and I couldn’t have been more disorientated. Then the cockerel that had woken me crowed again; the sack of grain – my pillow – shifted under my head, and I remembered where I was: a ramshackle farmhouse, which had been our home in Foping for three days.

I pictured the smoke-blackened kitchen next door, where we’d huddled nightly around the stove, hunks of fatty pork hanging from the ceiling; the mirror hung over the front door to deflect bad luck; chickens scratching around in the yard outside, legs tied with rubber bands making them look like their pants were round their ankles. And I recalled why I had to get up at 5am.

The previous two days’ exploration had helped me appreciate the Qinling Mountains’ botany and diverse scenery. Unlike Changqing, there are no roads in Foping; I’d hiked down into the heart of the reserve with expert guide Jia Hui, following a stream interrupted by waterfalls, blossom-strewn glades and mossy boulders. Our walk was enlivened by excited asides from Dang Gao Di, an enthusiastic botanist. Every flower, leaf and branch was designated a purpose as he dashed from stalk to sprig, assuring me of the remedial qualities of plants used to treat inflammation, snakebite, diarrhoea.

Any number of flowers were touted as herbal Viagra – or, as Mr Dang chuckled euphemistically, ‘good for men’. But the plants that interested me most were the foot-high bamboo shoots – tender, tasty, sweet: panda snack perfection.

But 12 hours of tough hiking up and down valleys, grasping bamboo stems to hoik ourselves up 45° slopes, had yielded nothing more than panda droppings, romantically derelict farmhouses and temples, and very tight calf muscles. So this pre-dawn expedition was my final chance to claw a panda encounter from my last few hours in the mountains.

“Hopefully, because the paths will have been quiet all night, some pandas might have ventured down to the edge of the forest,” Jia Hui yawned, as we laced up our boots.

We had stumbled no more than a kilometre when Jia Hui motioned me to stop. Just steps from the path, a snap, rustle, pop announced panda breakfast time. We crouched down, trying to restrain our breathing and keep movements slow and silent. An indistinct monochrome shape gradually emerged from the evaporating murk: panda. At last.

I cursed my carrot-impoverished diet and prayed for the gloom to lift quicker, straining eyes drinking in the splodges of white and black through jail-bar stripes of bamboo.

My aching knees creaked oh-so audibly, threatening to match the volume of the splintering munches. The encounter turned into a race: which would arrive first – full dawn and clear vision, or the panda’s awareness of its audience?

I couldn’t win. As cramp tweaked my calf, I had to move – just a fraction, but enough to rasp some grit on the path. Instantly there was a roar, and the bamboo thrashed wildly as the alarmed panda lunged off down the slope, its call subsiding into a yelp as the crashing subsided into the distance.

We followed, of course; and just as inevitably, I stumbled on rocks, trod on branches, slipped on leaves and made it simply impossible that we’d find him again.

But I was reconciled to the fact that my moment was already past perfect. Not just because I recognised my good fortune at (briefly) seeing one of the world’s rarest animals in its natural habitat, and not because it wrapped up my trip so perfectly. (It did happen like this – it’s not just a convenient narrative device!) I realised that a naïve part of me had been expecting a fantasyland pieced together from epic films and ancient paintings, all impossibly rugged peaks, wispy-bearded sages and feathery dragons. That tantalising encounter with an animal that looks so much a creation of the imagination gave me just a glimpse of the mystical country we all want to believe is China.

The author travelled with Discovery Initiatives (

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