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The Shaanxi Province Rare Animal Breeding Centre, two hours outside of Xi’an, offered an excellent opportunity to see pandas in their natural habitat…or so we thought!

Leaving the hostel at 7.30am we joined another fifteen or so bleary eyed, yet eager, travellers on a cramped coach. There was even an overspill car laid on as the tour had been so popular.

The trip promised us a great chance to meet our new furry friends and get an early morning view of them in their natural habitat. We would get to see Pandas feeding before they spent the remainder of the day sleeping. Our English speaking guide would also show us around the other rare breeds being researched and nurtured for generations to come. . .how exciting!

As we drove through one derelict village after another and entered what looked like a construction site, we pulled up at the sorriest excuse for a “zoo” we had ever seen. The signs were faded from several years of sun damage and the whole place was filthy. It had the feel of a once popular theme park that had been closed under cover of dust sheets for years and was now undergoing a slow makeover – bank rolled by Scrooge. 

Naively thinking that perhaps the expensive entry fee actually went towards the welfare of the animals, rather than the upkeep of the common areas, we followed the dirt track and hoped to find a beautiful, lush panda friendly environment just around the next corner.

Sadly not. The whole place had a concentration camp feel about it and none of us had ever been to a more desolate, depressing, down market zoo!  The caged animals (unidentifiable in the main) looked dirty and dangerous, many sat in their own faeces or in a cage so small they could not move around properly – not really the right environment to encourage any kind of reproduction, so not sure how many rare breeds were spawned each year.

We jumped across a ditch that ran the full length of the road to see the “stars” of the show. The Guide rattled a eucalyptus branch along the railing for half an hour in a vain attempt to get the pandas to come out and perform. One sat under a tunnel in the dark and refused to come out (couldn’t really blame him) and another (which I am still convinced to this day was a man in a panda suit) ran up and down a dusty slope twice and then retreated back under ground.

After another half an hour our guide signalled that we had more to see and we would return, so we traipsed behind him for an uncomfortable look at a type of mountain goat, a peacock, a brown bear and some ugly, angry-looking, shrieking monkeys.

Returning to the panda pit we witnessed even more prolonged coaxing and clattering of eucalyptus and eventually viewed four forlorn looking pandas playing in a tree and being taunted to taste a branch of food.

We were back at the hostel by lunchtime, freezing, hungry and thoroughly disgruntled about the welfare of the animals and the inflated trip price. Costing about £20 (almost as much as a trip to the Great Wall and VERY expensive by Chinese tourism prices) we all chuntered that we could have bought four nights extra accommodation – and even made room for the panda’s! 

So, if you want to see pandas that don’t make you feel sad to your soul, make the trip to Chengdu instead!


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