Arriving in Chengdu
I had travelled quite a bit, especially around Asia, but I had never been to China. I was very excited for my trip to Chengdu, although a little nervous as I do not speak Mandarin at all! The 10 hour flight was long and tiring, but I was greeted at the airport by three beaming and friendly supervisors, Elaine, Cynthia and Guo, who definitely helped lift my spirits. I was shown where the nearest metro station and supermarket was, followed by a lovely lunch at a restaurant next to Lazy Inn Hostel where I was staying.
I landed on the Saturday and although I was the first one in my group to arrive, the supervisors made sure I didn’t sit in a hostel room all day. I spent the first weekend with a Care & Community group who had just finished their first week in China. We saw some of the sights in Chengdu including the People’s Park and a monastery. We also climbed a mountain which was fun, but nearly killed me! It was unbearably hot; there were also a lot of stairs and I was jetlagged.
Working at the panda base
We first took an hour-long bus ride to a smaller city outside of Chengdu. We stayed in a lovely small family run hotel, and there were western toilets in the rooms which was wonderful to see.
On the first day at Dujiangyan Panda Base we had an introduction and were given a tour around the base. We then got to spend some time watching the pandas, although they just sleep and eat a lot. Over the next four days we cleaned out the pandas indoor cages and outdoor enclosures twice a day, smashed bamboo (which was great fun but I wasn’t great at it) and made panda cake. Pandas are actually surprisingly messy creatures, there were bamboo shoots everywhere. They are also very fussy about their food and only eat the best pieces of bamboo. The highlight was feeding the pandas twice a day at 11am and 2pm, it was amazing to see them up close. They are incredibly humanlike, especially in the way they hold the panda cake and carrot sticks with their hands.
It rained pretty much everyday and we all wore these ridiculous purple and blue ponchos! The staff at the base was lovely and fluent in English, so they were able to answer any of our questions, and teach us more about the pandas and the work the base does. The base is only open to volunteers and group tours. Often while working, the Chinese visitors would take pictures of me and the other western volunteers. One lovely man even asked if he could take a picture with me and another volunteer, Clare.
Working at the care centre
In the second week I worked at Chengdu Wuhou Disabled Persons Centre. This was quite a challenge as none of the kids or staff spoke English, however, hand gestures and smiles went a long way. Luckily in our group there were five other volunteers who spoke Mandarin so they were able to translate. Mia, another volunteer (who spoke Mandarin) and I helped a group of teenagers with activities such as reading, puzzles, and arts and crafts. One day we also helped with a music lesson, they sang a song and everyone had to pretend to be a kettle, but I didn’t really have any idea what was going on!
It was a very rewarding experience and I bonded with a couple of the children, especially one girl who wanted me to go everywhere with her. Many of the kids were very talented at things like Chinese chess, and several played the piano beautifully! On one of the days there was a big birthday for everyone who was born in July. We performed for everyone, including playing the piano and performing a dance to a catchy Korean song, and then we all did the Macarena! We weren’t all in time with each other but it was fun to do.
Free time exploring Chengdu
On the weekends and in evenings we would all go out for meals at local Chinese restaurants, and try new and exciting foods. It was great because our supervisors would often order for us, and make sure we ate some of the best dishes around. We would also use public transport like the metro and buses to visit local attractions such as Wide and Narrow Alley. I really liked doing this as it felt more like we were living and working like the local people. One of the great things was that the supervisors would ask us what we would like to do and were quite lenient on activities, so if we were really tired we could have a rest in the hotel.
We also went to the more financial district of Chengdu to do some shopping. The area was very modern and developed, with huge designer shops like Gucci! It was so different to the older more traditional buildings seen in other parts of the city, and it was quite a shock seeing how much of a contrast there was.
One of the real highlights for me was KTV (Karaoke). I was lucky enough to go twice, once with my group and once on my first weekend in Chengdu with the Care & Community group. Both nights were hilarious; there were some very memorable performances and we all belted out tunes without a care in the world. Some Korean and Chinese songs were also attempted which was hilarious! I have so many great memories and videos from these two nights.
The places we all went the most were the supermarkets. I went nearly every evening. It was really convenient as there were several next to the hotel. It gave us the freedom to go in and find foods that we hadn’t tried before, and then try and pay for them without any help.
I absolutely loved my trip to Chengdu, and I really fell in love with the city and the pandas! Leaving and saying goodbye to everyone was so sad. It was really hard because I had become so close to so many amazing people, even the supervisors were more like friends. I am still in contact with Cynthia and Guo, and many of the other volunteers from America, Spain, China, Korea, Belgium and France. I have made some lifelong friends and we are all thinking of having a reunion in Chengdu in the future. I had an absolutely amazing experience and have so many wonderful memories to look back on, although I do still miss the city and the people.
I would definitely recommend this trip to people who are interested in animals and care, or to anyone who wants to experience a new culture, make friends from around the world, have a bit of an adventure and go somewhere new. I am so glad I went, it was honestly one of the best things I have ever done and I am already looking at where I can go next year!