| The Chinese sanctuary with pandas at play|
|Whump! Two panda cubs fall from the bamboo platform where they've been playing. Cheng Shuang and Cheng Dui are seven months old and without doubt the cutest animals I've ever seen. It's 8am at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in western China, and for a few precious minutes I'm alone watching the two youngsters. It's like a real-life cartoon, with all the sound effects – thump, thwack, bang, crash, eek, splat – as they roll, bite each other and tumble slowly off their bamboo platform on to the grass. Their mother, Cheng Ji, keeps on chewing her bamboo breakfast, unconcerned.|
Panda tourism is big business in China. Each year 800,000 people visit the country's best-known centre at Chengdu – which is almost 2,000km southwest of Beijing. If you like your animals black, white and unabashedly cuddly, this is the place to be. There are 41 panda reserves across China and seven are open to the public, including the zoos in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. But Chengdu is the easiest to get to, and it will get even easier when British Airways begins direct flights.
To reach Chengdu, we drive through the Qin Ling mountains where, we are told, a small number of pandas still paw around the forests. But they are so threatened that they are heavily protected and it is virtually impossible to see pandas in the wild. The closest we get is spotting a sign saying: "Home of the Panda".
According to the Chinese State Forestry Bureau there are only 1,600 pandas in the wild, with some 300 in captivity, but even those figures may be optimistic: the United Nations reports just 800 wild pandas remaining. So Chengdu, with its 70 residents, is panda central (40 more are on loan around the world). This could soon be the only way to see pandas – research published last November claimed that global warming is set to wipe out much of the bamboo the bears rely on for food.
Chengdu wouldn't necessarily strike you as a great place for a nature reserve. A city of 14 million people produces a lot of pollution, and a yellow haze hangs over its valley. The locals joke that dogs from Chengdu bark when they see the sun because they don't know what it is. But once we've inched through traffic for an hour to the panda base, the smog lifts. The 100-hectare site is built on the hillsides, and we walk through bamboo groves and little woodlands of cherry and almond laced with winter jasmine.
Spring is a great time to visit – Chengdu is basking in a balmy 20C, and everywhere trees are in blossom. Pandas dislike temperatures over about 25C, when they retreat to their air-conditioned cave cages. But at this stage of the year they're at their most lively, out and about, climbing trees; as pandas are born in mid-to-late summer, it is also the time to see the youngest cubs at play.
I arrive at the Sunshine Nursery House, home to the baby pandas, as the gates open. The animals live in large enclosures made as much like their natural habitat as possible, with trees, rocks, streams and pools. Neither am I watching from behind glass: the enclosures have a ha-ha to keep the tourists out and the pandas in. So I'm standing, alone, with Cheng Ji and her cubs less than 10ft away.
The juveniles are not dissimilar to a group of human teenagers, jumping on each other in a bundle and trying to beat each other to the best food. They often stop doing something – climbing, playing, fighting, eating – midway through and fall asleep, as if their batteries have run out. One of the centre's educationalists, Bo Xiang, tells me that pandas absorb just 20% of what they eat. That requires hours of eating: a typical day is a heady round of eating, sleeping and pooing.
Acting as a volunteer for the morning gets you closer to the pandas, so I sign myself up for some poo picking. Robed fetchingly in turquoise overalls, with plastic shoe covers and gloves, I set to work on the morning clean of Ouu Ji's cage.
Ouu Ji is a bit of a celebrity; when he was born six years ago he was the smallest baby panda ever to survive. Part of my job is to feed him treats of apple on a long bamboo pole, and he squeaks with excitement at his ration as I reach it towards him.
We head for Renmin Park, in the centre of Chengdu, a great destination for people watching when you've had enough of all things furry. A cacophony greets us even before we've walked through the gates, and the reason is soon apparent – the park is home to one of China's favourite pastimes: square dancing. Eight groups, each with enormous loudspeakers, are competing to be the loudest. In the centre of the park 60 elderly Chinese men and women are strutting their stuff "Gangnam Style", po-faced with concentration.
Round the corner, on bamboo poles, are posted details of people available for marriage. Relatives and friends charged with finding them a partner guard the poles, and, flatteringly, I'm propositioned several times. Later we head for Kuan and Zhai Lanes, streets that were once part of a Qing dynasty garrison. Their ornately tiled roofs are a whisper of the old China that's largely been bulldozed. They're full of tea shops and bars, and a great place to unwind.
But, however memorable that Gangnam dance was, it's the pandas that are going to stay with me. With the species's future in the balance, Chengdu's visitors help to fund a new reserve where it is hoped pandas will ultimately be reintroduced into the wild. "We want future generations to see the pandas," Bo Xiang says to me. Having seen these engaging, charming animals up close, so do I.