Posted May 15, 2013 by Steve McDonald in Bizarre

Going South on China: A Panda Hunt

Before I try to rationalize for you my ill-conceived quest into the bamboo forests of Sichuan, I’d like to clarify that I harbor no secret vendetta against the Giant Panda.

I just simply couldn’t understand why the world fetishized an animal that spends its days languishing in the rainy woods, binge eating fistfuls of sticks on sixteen-hour lunch breaks, staring at nothing, farting, and pushing out turds the size of paint buckets with thirty-minute regularity. Somewhere in this busy routine lies the animal world’s most brilliant PR campaign.

So for this week’s special Photo Travelogue, I’m bringing you on an epic journey from Shanghai to the rugged heart of Sichuan, on the trail of the Giant Panda. But before we get to that, I need to take you back a couple thousand years or so, to the ancient age of the Middle Kingdom…

It may come as a surprise, but throughout the long, turbulent history of China, the Giant Panda has been staunchly ignored. The first reference of the creature wasn’t made until the Qin Dynasty, with the medical encyclopedia Er Ya—in which the author optimistically suggests that drinking panda urine might melt swallowed needles.

The author never explains how he came to this conclusion—nor why people were consuming needles—nor what inspired him to stalk down a panda and drink its urine—but his work remains a historical milestone. It is (shockingly) the only artistic or literary representation of a Giant Panda that pre-dates the 20th century.

Our exuberant, international panda orgy is a new phenomenon.

The Shanghai of my imagination was a timeless place of slanted-roofed teahouses, stoic warrior monks, and dragon-shaped fireworks.

However, stepping off the Korean ferry and into the flashing metropolis, it was only a matter of minutes before these romantic notions met a murderous end—trampled pulpy underfoot by neon, litter, traffic, and prostitutes.

The People’s Republic boasts the world’s fastest growing economy and Shanghai is its throne. While China’s cities reflect this progress, the south remains mostly rural and underdeveloped, defiantly clinging to the past. That’s where I was heading—on a 2,561-mile quest through ancient trading routes, strange wildernesses, and tribal heartlands, to decide for myself whether all the sentimental panda fuss is warranted. But to do so, I would need to find a wild panda.

Fun Fact! The insidious panda is responsible for America and China’s economic co-dependency!

Sort of.

In the mid 1970s, the People’s Republic of China reached over the “Bamboo Curtain” for the first time when Chairman Mao loaned pandas to the United States and Japan. This act of ‘Panda Diplomacy’ was the first exchange between Communist China and the West. President Nixon became the first US President to visit China, when he flew to Beijing to personally thank Chairman Mao and discuss the possibility of future relations.

And the rest is history: Happy Meal toys, knock-off handbags, and $10 trillion of American debt.

Keen to further ravage America’s economy, the panda is the most unfathomably expensive animal to keep in a zoo—ten times more costly than the second most expensive, the elephant. A Giant Panda must be received on loan from the Chinese government, which extorts an annual fee of $1,000,000 per goddamn panda.

The environmentalist Chris Packham suggests that, “the panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century.” He angrily accuses the breeding efforts of being “pointless,” claiming, “there is not enough habitat left to sustain them.”

The embittered curmudgeon concludes his tirade by personally volunteering to “eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me to do more sensible things with.”

Embarking from Shanghai, I drift south along the Li River into the craggy expanse of Guanxi Province.

The jagged, “karstpeaks of Guanxi are caused by falling rainwater reacting with CO2 in the atmosphere, creating corrosive carbonic acid. Thanks to China’s reckless zest for pollution, there’s plenty of carbonic acid in Guanxi—the air here is so choked with CO2 that it would drive Captain Planet to suicide.

The carbonic acid forms cracks in the limestone, which erode and widen to form caves whose roofs eventually collapse, leaving only the precipitous walls: the karst peaks of Guanxi.

Guanxi’s sulfurous, industrial smog has a silver lining: the soil has higher carbonic acid levels than the rain, so the base of the peaks is eroding faster than the bulk. As a result the peaks appear to be growing taller, craggier, and even more breathtakingly gorgeous.

From the town of Yangshuo, my route cuts east, following the Ancient Tea Horse Trail—the historical trans-Himalayan trading route to Nepal.

The mountains ascend towards the Tibetan Plateau as the trail winds into Yunnan Province, a rich ethnic kaleidoscope of Tibetans, Yi, Qiang, and most beguiling of all—the Naxi.

Naxi Tribal culture is bewildering enough to give the most jaded anthropologist a monumental hard-on. For starters, they’re one of the last matriarchal societies on the planet; men are usually relegated to hunting and fishing, if little else. At the head of each household is the Ah Mi—the thick-wristed, dictatorial female elder who manages the money, jobs, and lives of each family member. The Ah Mi, from my observation, is a bull with lipstick, wielding absolute power and enforcing her supreme word on all decisions with a shrieking, iron fist. If you cross her she might just neuter you with a broken steamer basket and then casually send you out back to polish her bedpan. Diminutive bachelors be warned.

Even more intriguing is their custom of Walking Marriages…

The Mosuo-Naxi Tribe practices serial monogamy: males and females are allowed—nay, encouraged—to get balls-deep and buck-wild with as many partners as they wish, without any societal inkling of marriage or exclusivity. When I asked how many partners the average villager might have in their life, the auspiciously old Ah Mi of my guesthouse leaned forward conspiratorially. “Fifty,” she grinned, before adding, “I, fifty-sixty!” She then gave a proud, vigorous nod and did a weird sort of half-wink with her eyes that seemed to say, “Oh yeah, baby. Gimme daps.”

Even if a couple births children, the man and woman will never move in together, but remain with their extended matrilineal families. It is the woman’s job to raise the child, so for this reason Naxi fathers often give more care to their nieces and nephews than their own children.

Ironically, the Naxi language has no word for ‘jealousy.’

The Naxi language, called Dongba, is the last hieroglyphic language in the world that is actively maintained—though it’s future looks choppy. The one-thousand year old language was staunchly discouraged during the Communist Revolution, and in the late ‘80s the Chinese government phased it out of schools—perhaps they couldn’t translate Crime & Punishment into stick figures. Even if they could, no Naxi teenager would even be able to read it—it takes about fifteen years of study to grasp all 1,400 symbols. Consequently, there are only sixty people left in the world who can still read and speak Dongba, most of who are well into their seventies.

Last bit about the Naxi and then I promise to stop obsessing and move on—up until the 1950’s, the Naxi were fierce practitioners of shamanism, sorcery, and exorcism. Their religion, Dongba Jiao, preached that all things have spirits and that those spirits are eternal. While some Dongba Jiao shamans still reside in Yunnan, the Naxi have mostly turned to atheism or China’s mind-bending spiritual cocktail: Taoist-Buddhism.

The south of China is peppered with elegant pagodas, temples, and shrines. Some are for Buddhism, others for Taoism—two neatly separate religions. However, due to China’s strict, ancient tradition of complicating and confusing everything, most religious people in China somehow follow both faiths.

The philosophy of Buddhism originated in India and discusses the issue of human suffering—conveniently something of a ‘hot topic’ during China’s Warring States period. It preaches that everything is impermanent and that our suffering stems from our desire and attachment to these things. The purpose of meditation is to free yourself of all desire and suffering, thus achieve enlightenment.

Taoism is a philosophy indigenous to China. In its scripture, The Classic of the Way and Its Power, the great thinker Laotzu addresses dao, an unknowable, nebulous principle of the universe, or something, before he starts talking about how we should let things occur without interference, and then he talks about a lotus floating in a pond for like twenty pages.

I don’t understand any of it at all, sorry.

Perhaps this why 53% of China is non-religious.

In AD 713, a Buddhist monk named Hai Tong set out on a mission to make the deadly, dangerous currents of the Dadu River safe for boaters. His solution? Build a giant, expensive Buddha statue, of course! Through meticulous engineering and research, the monk figured that if they built the statue large enough and faced it towards the water, it would scare the water spirit into submission. And so the clever Hai Tong embarked on a 95 year building project, transforming a sheer cliff face over the Dadu River into what is now the world’s largest Buddha statue, featuring nipples the size of helicopters.

The deadly torrent of the Dadu River slowed to an agreeable amble and the boatmen were saved.

As it turns out, the builders had dumped so much chipped rock into the river that they had unwittingly dammed it,  altering its current.

A short bus ride from Leshan, and I reach my final destination, the misty, bamboo-clad mountains of Sichuan—the lair of the elusive Giant Panda.

Did you know bamboo is a grass? Bamboo is awesome.

Bamboo poses a number of mysteries for scientists—the most scintillating of which is that every 65-100 years, an entire sub-species of bamboo will flower and then die en masse.

What makes this so unbelievable is that regardless of each plant’s geographical location—be it in the forests of Sichuan, an arboretum in Amsterdam, or a hippy’s bathroom in Williamsburg—every single member of that species will flower and die at the exact same time, in perfect synchronicity, as if by hocus-pocus Jesus trickery.

Scientists are positively dumbfucked.

One theory suggests a sort of cellular alarm clock, but nobody knows for certain. All we can observe is that when there’s a big pile of dead bamboo, somewhere nearby there’s a big pile of dead pandas. The last mass-flowering occurred in the 1970s, decimating the panda population.

Environmentalist blame deforestation and poaching for the demise of the Giant Panda, but consider this alternative: the panda is a solitary creature that rarely reproduces. Even in captivity, breeders need to bribe them to mate (some have gone so far as to spiking their food with Viagra and forcing the bears to watch panda porn).  In the lucky occasion that the bears do mate, the clumsy female panda makes Kathleen Bagby look like Mother Of The Year. Baby pandas have a 50% mortality rate, partially due to disease, partially due to mama pandas accidentally rolling over and flattening the babies into a fur pelts. Additionally, the panda is evolutionarily designed to eat mice and lizards—its stomach isn’t suited for eating bamboo and only 20-30% of its nutrients are absorbed. Here’s a thought: maybe pandas wouldn’t be starving to death if they got off their asses and chased down a fucking lizard. It doesn’t matter that they’re practically blind; the only excuse for this is terrifying stupidity.

Some scientists have recently proposed a shocking new theory: that the Giant Panda might be a remnant species­—that maybe they’re going extinct naturally, on account of their own astounding ineptitude.

Honestly, it’s a miracle the species has made it this far. The Giant Panda is a living fossil, first diverging from the Ursidae genus over three-million years ago.

I quickly realized that tracking down a wild panda would involve lots of hiking, lots of sweating, hiring a private jeep to access remote backcountry, and paying for a guide with tracking skills. Even then, successfully finding a wild panda and getting to see it up close would be just shy of a Vatican-certified miracle.

I figured I’d have better luck with a panda reserve.

The Giant Panda has a modified sesamoid bone below its wrist that acts as an opposable pseudo-thumb, allowing the panda to pick up and hold objects. This gives them an eerie humanoid quality, so that they look less like cuddly stuffed animals and more like obese, sausage-fingered, grotesquely hairy midgets.

As I beheld my first panda, I felt an exciting satisfaction from its ungainliness. I realized that I was fully expecting to be disappointed. In fact, I was hoping to be. I had made this whole journey with the unspoken intention of finding some provocative truth, to blow the lid off Panda-gate, as if I were doing some eye-opening service to the public. “ATTENTION WORLD: PANDAS ARE MEDIOCRE,” I’d write in the sky with jet trails.

But as I stumbled upon more pandas, I found myself increasingly captivated. They’re surprising wily and nimble for their size.

I watched one panda oafishly scurry across a bowing branch upside down.

I watched one panda playfully toss another panda out of a tall tree.

I watched one panda repeatedly doing cartwheels—CARTWHEELS!—for no apparent reason other than its own, smug satisfaction…

And the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.

Giant Panda’s are like sentient teddy bears with autism. Everything about them is pitifully comical: the way they shamelessly rest food on their fat, wobbling guts, the way they clumsily hop around as if struggling against gravity—even their appearance is wonderfully absurd, as if the bear had tried to apply Goth makeup with oven mitts.

In retrospect, I would have saved a good deal of time and money if I had just accepted the panda craze and not traveled all the way across southern China. But the journey was well worth it.

Perhaps conservationists like Chris Packham are right in calling pandas a drain on funds, but they’re just so endearingly hopeless people can’t resist wanting to help them. I don’t care about saving the Glorious Corn Owl. Nobody does, I’m pretty sure. Nor can I recall the last time I heard someone say, “Man, I could really use a couple thousand more rare spotted salamanders.” The Giant Panda deserves to be saved because it stirs and inspires people to care about the environment.

I have a challenge for Mr. Packham. I invite him to stare into the eyes of an adorably blundering panda, pick up a fork, and then actually try to eat it.

If he succeeds, well… that would be really entertaining—but wouldn’t make him any less of a delusional troll.

I guess he can get back to me when the Glorious Corn Owl learns to do cartwheels.


For more tribal shenanigans, check out the Photo Travelogue from Pakistan, “The Joshi Festival.”

To hear tales from China’s Silk Road, head over to “Silk Road Ramblings: Lost Empires, Gobi Fugitives, and the Secret Meth Habit of Marco Polo.”

For a travel story about Burma’s Long-Necked Paduang Tribe, check out “The Human Zoo.”


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Steve McDonald

Writer and photographer. Adventurer and didactic prick. Guru of globetrotting, sensei of savings. PhD in ADHD. Staunch opponent of the mundane. Avid fan of sunrises, playing with fire, and pretending to know what I’m talking about. Casual existentialist. Bus stop gypsy. Dirty jeans, plastic sunglasses, whimsical death wish. Rudyard Kipling on mushrooms. Smells of goat.