The legends of the Qiang people come to life in the valleys and mountains surrounding Wolong. One story has it that, centuries before, a mighty dragon came wondering through the region, falling in love with the beauty of the Qionglai Mountains and the twisting, boulder-strewn Pitiao River. So enraptured, the dragon settled into a comfortable slumber and never woke up. You can almost see the outline of the dragon in the landscape around Wolong, which translates as “sleeping dragon”. The Sichuan province, a region of unique local civilizations, sits close to the heart of China, with history reaching back to the fifteenth century BC. As we descended to the capital city of Chengdu, the City of Hibiscus, we could see the vast agricultural expanse--a patchwork of lush green and yellow parcels-- that is the Chengdu Plain or ‘The Land of Abundance’. There was timelessness to this view from the small plane from Hong Kong. On the ground, moving from the terminal to a waiting car, the history was palpable and the cultural shift challenging but invigorating. Megan was here to continue research work on the Giant Panda at the Wolong Panda Reserve, with our 2 young children, Dante (then 3 years old) and India (not quite 1 years old), and me as her assistants. We were a 2-hour long, twisting, curving, and borderline treacherous car-ride away, up out of the Chengdu Plain—through improbable tiny villages and panoramic views--into the sparsely populated mountains of the Wolong National Nature Reserve where the pandas waited.
This was a defining family adventure. And it is hard to imagine that 10 years have intervened between the work-study trip and this recollection. The memories, fresh and vibrant still because of their uniqueness, are as diverse as the experiences. We were, at times, the only ‘residents’ of the small, humble, but ultimately comfortable ‘hotel’ compound. These were the winter months, a quiet time of year with few visiting tourists. The gates of the facility would be locked each evening. To reach the housing sites for the captive bears to conduct observations, we would sometimes need to climb out a window in the morning’s dark, crossing a footbridge over the burbling Pitiao River, our footprints left behind in the fresh, soft snowfall.
We were western foreigners, but the community that surrounded the care of the bears and the facility welcomed us from early on, helping us throughout our 4-month stay. Dante and India were main attractions, of course. Dante, being an active, on-the-run 3-year-old boy would disappear into the kitchen or hotel storage rooms to ‘interact’ with the workers around their little space heaters. And India was an adorable, cheerful, bright-eyed infant, bundled in layers of fleece, who would be whisked away by the staff as a show-and-tell prize.
The rhythm of our stay in Wolong was balanced by the regular scheduled observations and the scent study. The relaxed approach of the Panda caretakers provided an unusual, once-in-a-lifetime chance, not only for Megan and I, but, more importantly, for Dante and India. The young of the year Panda cubs were playmates for Dante when the sun climbed high above the Qionglai Mountains to melt the frost and snow, warming the pathways where the cubs would rest and explore.
A central feature of the reserve is a Panda breeding effort, allowing there to be multiple generations of Pandas living at the reserve. With so many Pandas, there was a lot of work to do. When possible, India would be watched by a local resident, occasionally visiting with caretakers and even with older, yearling Panda bears no longer living with their mothers.
Long walks were the main form of entertainment, exercise, and exploration when not ‘on the job’. We would wind and climb along steep trails in the hillside and mountains, ‘discovering’ dense bamboo thickets, narrow streams and waterfalls that fed into the river, and open meadows and skree fields. The region being a UNESCO World Heritage site, highlighted by unique habitats with iconic flora and fauna, there was always something new (we never did see a wild Panda, a Snow Leopard, or a Snub-nosed Monkey; but it was satisfying knowing they were there). The narrow mountain road followed the course of the river, and we could walk up to Sawan, a small, colorful village with a significant Tibetan influence. Nestled in the snowy peaks around Sawan was Wuyipeng, a remote study site for Giant Panda research made famous by the work of the naturalist George Schaller.
Wolong, unfortunately, was devastated by the May 12, 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake. Guards for the facility were killed by the quake, Pandas escaped cracked and crumbled enclosures, and one Panda was killed. Even now, almost 4 years later, there is much to be done to restore what the Panda breeding center had become.
Maybe the dragon had shifted in his slumber and spurred the quake to rock the area. But the dragon went back to sleep and is still there, sprawled through the peaks and valleys; and the beauty of this special place is still there, too. From the peak of Siguniang Shah, the Four Girls Mountain, where you might find takin in the meadows below the snowed peaks, to the rumbling Pitiao River, where the white-throated dipper flits about the jumbled rocks, there is so much to sustain and buoy one’s spirit.
Dante and India have grown up now, hearing the stories and seeing the pictures of the trip to Wolong, Sichuan Province, China. They have a younger sister now, too, with whom to share these stories. And, now, with Megan pursuing a PhD at UCLA, and a new study on Pandas approaching, maybe Dante, India, and now Stella will have a new collection of adventures with the Panda Bear and the bear’s beautiful home… And even play with a few new friends.