We got downstairs in time to eat breakfast at a normal pace in a huge, multi-story dining room we practically had to ourselves. I appreciated the more leisurely pace because there was a buffet with a lot of interesting choices. No, there weren't the 57 variations of tofu or black hard-boiled eggs we'd found in Nanning, but there were lots of tasty-looking baked goods and (as I soon found out) no dish spicy enough to damage anyone attempting to eat it. It took a couple of minutes to work out an arrangement that would let everyone eat at the same time, but soon Miri was learning the joys of banana bread while her mommy reached over & around her (and her uncle tried to help by moving any grabbable/flingable object out of the Pipsqueak's astonishingly broad reach). As we left I got a quiet chuckle from the hotel's extremely diplomatic version of the "please take only what you can eat" signs found at so many buffets back home.
We had another milestone moment after breakfast... after returning to our room to get ready for the day's outing, AJ put her daughter into her new stroller for the first time. That peaceful vignette lasted all of about 15 seconds, at which point the Pipsqueak realized she wasn't being held, she wasn't on the bed, but she also wasn't going anywhere... (How can such a little person make such a big noise?!?!) We quickly discovered the secret: keep the stroller in motion and the kiddo doesn't mind. Stop the motion... and everyone within a radius of, oh, let's say a quarter mile will know about it.
It was also the first day of our group's Green Stroller Parade -- since we had all bought identical strollers at Wal-Mart and they were less wear & tear on the mommies in the group, from this day forward we would move in some variation of a formation of alternating man with baby bag & camera / woman pushing a baby in green stroller, with the two older girls somewhere near the middle (where at least one each mama & papa could keep an eye on them). It sounds silly, but it worked well...!
Our first stop for the day was Seven Star Park, a major park/zoo/research center known locally for its attractive scenery and... pandas! AJ and I remembered the hoopla when Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing first came to the National Zoo as part of the original "ping-pong diplomacy" in the early 1970s, and have enjoyed visiting Mei Xiang & Tian Tian (and little Tai Shan) more recently... but now we'd have a chance to see these amazing animals in their homeland. It may sound silly considering the presence of my new niece and all that we were seeing & experiencing, but for me there was just a so cool! aspect of actually seeing pandas on Chinese soil.
In any case, our departure taught us a valuable set of lessons in how to board a bus with strollers. It took a few tries, but we all learned a few key points: don't attach anything to the stroller that you need close at hand while on the road; do attach something to the stroller that won't interfere with it folding but will allow quick & easy identification of your stroller at your destination; don't let the little one get too deeply settled in the stroller if it only takes a couple of minutes from the room to the bus; and do be prepared to feel like a pack mule as you climb (using all available handholds!) into the bus. Once we were all aboard, we met our local guide (who'd be working with Lisa): Effie, who managed to keep her energy at a level sufficient to prevent any of us from dozing off. During the trip to the park -- and pretty much every drive thereafter -- Effie would teach us a little about the local area and then quiz us later on (if you ever hear me muttering, "Osmanthus," it's her fault).
We made it through traffic to the park's entrance with no trouble, passing under a roof on which some workmen were placing clay tiles by hand, and our guides took care of buying entry tickets. (Part of the park's popularity is the fact that admission is free before 7:00am, so many locals start their day with a walk or al fresco workout there.) There was a very large map, complete with some English labels, made up of embossed concrete tiles on the ground not far beyond the entry gate, but we soon found a prettier ceramic map on a nearby wall. Nearby was the park's signature "Camel Rock" formation -- just squint a little bit, and you'll see the camel. :-)
We made our way along the wide garden-like walkways, enjoying smiles from some of the local folks we passed and taking in the carefully landscaped scenery; there were some plants I'd never seen before, even in textbooks. It was warm, and humid, and despite many shaded portions of the walkway we were all soon sweating as we walked. We were distracted from the dampness at one curve in the walk when we came across a small bench flanked by live peacocks. There were a few moments of concern when some members of the group sat & took their own photos before finding out there was an attendant nearby with the job of charging visitors a few Yuan to do just that, but our guide Lisa got all the ruffled feathers (some quite literal) smoothed. Meanwhile, I noticed something else interesting nearby: a pretty young woman in local (Zhuang?) tribal costume posing for a photographer. There weren't doing The Tourist Thing; it seemed to be an actual professional photoshoot, and I was happy to shoot a couple of photos of my own from the side.
After wandering through more of the park, complete with a guy doing his morning exercises hanging from a tree and batches of people cooing over the little ones in our parade, we spent some time at the monkey enclosures (the glass wasn't very clean, so no photos, sorry). We oohed and aahed at several very young babies and watched them interact with each other while keeping an eye on the adults hanging partway out of the cage above our heads. (Dude, you pee on me and there will be an international incident...) We then pressed on through the heat & humidity and finally reached the panda enclosure.
The panda enclosure at the National Zoo is designed on the outside to mimic their native habitat, while on the inside it's usually very crowded... neither factor making it easy to actually see them unless the conditions are just right. In Seven Star Park, the enclosures were smaller and set up to allow a better view of the pandas lounging around (plus there weren't the crazy crowds we've always encountered here at home). The result is that I shot off several dozen photos of both (mainly the male, since he was a little more active). I'm not going to use up that many megabytes of storage space, but here are a couple of the better shots:
The kangaroos were interesting; I'd never seen a white one before, and there were actually more albinos in the enclosure than normally-tinted individuals. Of course, this being China... if the kangaroos were sort of the "opposite" color of what you'd expect, so were the swans! By this point we were all reaching our melting points, and were thrilled when Effie & Lisa pointed out the big geodesic ladybug nearby (still under construction) that housed a shop selling cold drinks and ice cream. I'm sorry I didn't take a picture of the place, because those cold snacks were probably the only thing that staved off multiple cases of heatstroke in our group... and the ice cream was really good! We sat in the shade of some nearby trees, listening to a live variety show going on at the nearby amphitheater, and cooled down while giving the little ones their bottles.
It wasn't long after we were back on the move before AJ excitedly asked me, "Look over there... are they real?" and pointed through the trees. I didn't see anything for a moment, and then... giraffes and elephants! (Wow, that's cool... but something... is... hmm...) The realization hit us both at the same time: we'd been watching the giraffes for at least a minute, and they hadn't moved a muscle, not even a little twitch. As we got closer we could see that the giraffes and elephants we'd been so excited about were actually life-size statues of printed cloth on wire frames. Lessee... pandas, albino kangaroos, black swans and fake giraffes... This was definitely one of the most unique zoological parks I'd ever been to!
The zoo got even more interesting a short distance further down the walk... They got dinosaurs! Okay, so maybe Stegosaurs weren't fuschia, and Tyrannosaurs didn't have neon-yellow bellies... but who's to say they didn't? [Note to those readers who know me well: Did you really think I could go this long without mentioning dinosaurs at least once?] Both AJ and I took several pictures of her with Miri in front of the dinos (angled carefully to minimize the view of holes in their sides)... gotta get the kid started off right at an early age! [Note to those readers who don't know me: I was teaching my classmates about dinosaurs during Show & Tell back in 1st grade, so yes, I was excited to see them.] Just past the dinos was a sign with the full name of the facility... and after reading the full GSEBOCCARCFTGP, I realized why they just called this "Seven Star Park." Of course, by this point the Pipsqueak had decided she'd been paying attention to all these strange adults around her for long enough and, in a move her mommy & uncle wished they could emulate, scrunched farther down into the stroller and took a nap. (Dinos, schminos... it's hot and this is hard work for a 13-month-old!)
As we neared the exit, we came across a small glass & wood building nestled into some of the fanciest landscaping we'd seen yet. The sign out front got a few chuckles from the group; apparently this was the "tea pavilion" where President Clinton met with members of the Chinese government in 1998. (I'm still trying to figure out why the Chinese-language sign seems to say so much more than the English-language sign.) We finally reached the baking-hot exit where we paused just long enough to take some photos of the small boulders that had all the animals of the Chinese zodiac carved into them, then headed for the merciful coolness of the air-conditioned bus. As we pulled out of the lot, I noticed that the tiling on the roof was more than halfway completed, with one of the workmen still braving the blazing sun to carefully place each tile just so by hand, as has been done for centuries. I thought it was an interesting counterpoint to the modern research facilities we'd caught glimpses of just on the other side of that same gatehouse...
Coming up next: everything you (probably) never knew about silk...