A panda was holding my hand.
We were palm to palm. It was not quite the “holy palmer’s kiss” that Romeo invokes on his first meeting with Juliet, but the panda’s right paw, wide and flat, was definitely grasping mine. His four middle fingers, or maybe hers, were folded over mine while his “sixth finger” – an extension of the wrist bone that works as an opposable thumb, according to a sign at the Ya’an Reserve in the mountains of Sichuan Province — was holding tight to the base of my thumb. And then he started pulling my arm toward his mouth.
Not to worry: an attendant hovering on his left distracted him with a carrot, and he let my hand go to concentrate on chomping it. A minute later, though, his right hand reached out to make a grab for my ankle. The attendant came through again, this time with a short stalk of bamboo. Now both paws were safely occupied.
A five-minute opportunity to play with a two-year-old panda was the centerpiece of a weekend trip to Sichuan province, Hunan’s neighbor to the west, run by the China Culture Center, a Beijing-based organization that caters to the English-speaking expatriate crowd. I’ve experienced such moments of closeness with large, more-or-less wild animals once or twice before, most notably on a game reserve in New South Wales, Australia. A very tame kangaroo saw that I was carrying a bag of feed pellets, hopped up to me, then delicately curled his front claws around my index finger, and for a moment, we moved in tandem as if dancing. It’s a magical feeling, this sense of communing with another species, and you can’t get it at Disney.
A dolphin encountered during a supervised swim in Bermuda surprised me with the texture of its skin: it felt like hard plastic rather that the pliable softness I had expected. And so it was with the panda. His fur was not soft and plushy like my childhood teddy bear, which happened to be a panda, but stiff and coarse like the bristles of a brush. And in real life pandas are not exactly black and white, but black and yellowish – perhaps their natural coloring, or perhaps a result of living outdoors in constant contact China’s red-clay soil, whose dust in the wind often turns the white underside of my fingernails a similar shade.
Until last weekend, I hadn’t seen much of the Chinese landscape beyond the road to Changsha, Hunan’s provincial capital an hour’s drive from Xiangtan. But even that stretch, which is rapidly sprouting high-rise apartment and commercial buildings, offers glimpses of a still largely agricultural region: small farms with flooded rice fields; the occasional water buffalo moving languidly among them; most spectacularly, the west side of the Xiangjiang River, where the bright-yellow flowers of the rape plant cover a wide stretch of riverbank this time of year.
Like Hunan, Sichuan is very green this spring, as seen from a bus on a triangular bus route that first took me south from its capital, Chengdu, to Leshan (home of the world’s largest Buddha, carved from the native rock and suitable for climbing), then northwest to Ya’an before turning back to Chengdu. Every available square meter of land seems to be under cultivation, with rice paddies, rape fields and the occasional vineyard nudging right up to the roadside, where a curvy-horned ox may be caught napping, undisturbed by passing traffic. Even the flat roadbed of an old bridge not far from Ya’an has been converted to a sort of agricultural High Line and was displaying heads of cabbage and other leafy greens just about ready for the wok. As the altitude began climbing toward the mountains, a new crop begins to dominate: low, rounded hedges of tea, their tiny leaves ranging from bright green to reddish-brown. Row after row, they draw lines in the landscape like the vineyards of Europe, some straight, some curved, some flat, some climbing hills, some forming borders, and all serving as a reminder how central they are to the life of this country, and to mine.
But bamboo dominates the mountain vegetation, and a good thing, too. These highlands are the natural habitat of the giant panda, which eats its weight in bamboo – and adults weigh somewhere around 200 pounds — every day. Since few survive in the wild and reproduction is not the panda’s greatest talent, reserves like this one may be their best chance of avoiding extinction. And so the donation required for admission to the panda playpen seemed a small price to pay.
Perhaps a dozen from my tour group suited up in blue plastic hospital gowns and shoe coverings and clear plastic gloves, all required to protect the pandas from any risk of infection. (Surgical masks had been rumored but never appeared.) Inside the gate, we could meet the pandas, tickle their bellies and, in my case at least, shake their hands, all to the snapping of camera shutters. Afterwards, we couldn’t help browsing the all-black-and-white gift shops and leaving a few more yuan behind. Yes, there’s kitsch tucked in among the nature; the wide array of panda toys and gifts is unavoidable, both outside the reserve and – last chance! — at the Chengdu airport. (Outside the airport, revolving atop a tall red column, a cartoonish panda figure greets travelers coming and going.) But even on the last day of a holiday weekend, attandance at the reserve was so comfortably light that we could stroll the wide paths through the forest, watching the pandas climb trees and snack on bamboo sticks and take mid-morning naps, all the while breathing the freshest, cleanest air I am ever likely to find in China. Civilization, such as it is, seemed very far away.