|Giant panda in Chengdu panda research base, Sichuan, China.|
Late last year, I found myself waiting on a bench, waiting for my date. I'd been excited about this meeting for weeks, telling all my friends about it ever since it was confirmed. Really, I'd been waiting for this all my adult life. But what, I suddenly worried, if he doesn't like me? I shuffled nervously in my plastic blue scrubs and then the door opened and a woman beckoned me in. He was ready to see me.
|Hadley with ‘her’ panda. Photograph: Hadley Freeman|
Chengdu Panda Base turned out to be, much to my relief, nothing like a zoo. The pandas have 240-odd hectares (600 acres) of parkland in which to scamper. And while the centre is very much a tourist destination (don't go on a national holiday or you will find yourself fighting for space with what seems like the rest of China), it is primarily a conservation and breeding centre. The pandas I saw, mostly black and white ones but some little red ones, too, all looked well cared-for, plump and relaxed, happily playing with members of staff (another tip: go in the morning to see the feeding).