When in China, I succeeded in getting to the Dengchigou Catholic Mission, the official starting point for the giant panda’s historical journey.

I spent about four hours in a car, being driven up into the mountains north of Ya’an City (which is a couple of hours west of Chengdu, which is the capital of Sichuan Province, which is about 2000 km southwest of Beijing, and you all know where that is so I’ll stop). It was my only journey outside a big city, so it would be a mistake to generalise about life in rural China, but I was mesmerised and terrified in equal measures by the sheer industry of the people I passed by that morning.

In the first biggish town we came to – Lushan – it was the industry of individuals I noticed, mainly men busy making, making, making things out of the world around them to make something of their lives. The speciality here seemed to be tree roots. There were workshops open to the street in which men were busy sawing, chiselling and sanding gnarled woody sculptures or varnishing the root system of what had once been a massive tree, presumably to adorn the entrance hall of some plush urban firm. Their sculptures were at once stunning and tragic.

The bust of Armand David in Boaxing marble

In and around Baoxing, the next main town and the administrative seat of Baoxing County, it was not the industry of individual people that caught my eye. There was plenty of it on show, but it was hard to see amidst the full-scale mining industry that consumes this region. The raw material here is not tree roots but rock. In the industrial zone to the north of the town, factories line the street, with diamond saws spinning raw boulders into perfect table-top slabs. Trucks overloaded with vast hunks of white marble rumble in and out of urban centre. Artisans hone more manageable blocks into dragons, Buddahs and the occasional panda. Road-side boutiques boast shelves of these wares. Passing cars whisk up a film of white dust that coats everything.

Ruth Harkness bottle-feeding a baby panda

At what must be a kind of town square, there are several sculptures celebrating the importance of Baoxing County in the panda story. There is Armand David, the Frenchman who “discovered” the first giant panda in 1869. There is Ruth Harkness, the American woman who brought the first live giant panda from this region to the outside world in 1936. In addition, the vast majority (69%) of the pandas gifted to other countries between 1957 and 1980 came from this one county. Beneath these sculptural shrines, the deathly Baoxing River carries its pollution slowly toward the Yangtze.

The Boaxing River

There was not a dull moment on the journey. At one point, north of Baoxing, my driver rounded a hair-raising bend on the road way above the racing Donghe River to find one of the aforementioned marble boulders sitting right across our lane; presumably it had tumbled from one of the aforementioned overloaded trucks on its way down from the mines at Guobayan. We swerved calmly around the lump of bright, white rock and veered carefully back to the precipitous edge as if nothing had happened. On our return journey a couple of hours later, the marble had mysteriously gone, another example of Chinese industry.

Yong Deng

Driving up to the Dengchigou Catholic Mission was a little like driving back in time. As my driver Yong Deng – a very cheerful trilingual Tibetan gentleman with an impossibly soft and husky voice – turned the steering wheel of his 4-by-4 up the Dengchigou Valley, the clock stopped and the hands began to go in reverse. Over the next ten minutes, we travelled back 140 years.

At the bottom of the valley, where the Dengchi runs into the racing Donghe River, a large dam revealed we were still in the 21st century. The road, though not smoothed with tarmac was nevertheless straight and relatively free of potholes. We sped quickly through a cluster of half a dozen houses with all the hallmarks of late 1990s construction. One of the buildings might have passed for a shop but it was shut. There was no sign of life, save a chicken that sped across the road just ahead of our thundering wheels.

I wielded my only weapon, my camera, and the crowd of happy faces quickly fled indoors

As the pothole quotient began to increase, we slowed to a stop to wait for two men to move a 1970s-style truck. It was loaded with rubble, possibly from a nearby quarry, perhaps to fill in the potholes. As we went higher, the road got worse. A very small, old man walked wearing a cloth cap trudged stoically along the road, a large basket strapped to his back. A straggler from the Long March? The steep south-facing slopes on the northern side of the valley were cascades of scree.

The road, now a track, doglegged back, taking us higher up the north-facing southern slope. We passed another village, in which the entire community had come together to build someone’s house, perhaps that of a newlywed couple. They pointed and laughed. Embracing my role as preposterous tourist paying homage to pandas, I wielded my only weapon, my camera, and the crowd of happy faces quickly fled indoors.

Further up, further back in time, a man with a cow-pulled plough came to a standstill to stare. We passed a stand of lush bamboo. I looked back down the slope to see terraced fields. There were more houses, now made from timber, with shrivelled leaves of some sort pinned up like washing. Then, rounding a bend, we came upon the Dengchigou Catholic Mission.

The Dengchigou Catholic Mission, from where Armand David packaged up the type specimen of the giant panda in 1869 and sent it to Paris

It was locked up and there was not a soul to be seen. Yong Deng, whose voice would not have been heard, opened the car door and leaned unceremoniously on the horn. Eventually a young woman appeared and walked over to where we were standing beneath the Mission’s massive double-door. Above it, a sign read: “To serve the people,” something the woman did very well, handing over two tickets in exchange for 40RMB or £4 (above).

She sorted through a bunch of keys and unlocked the double-doors. I expected it to creak and it did not let me down. I stepped over the threshold and into a large and empty courtyard. Bar the absence of Armand David, his fellow Catholic cronies and some cultural relics that had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, I felt as though I had stepped back more than 140 years to 1869. For it was then that David lived and worked in the mission and collected four panda skins widely acknowledged to have been the first pandas collected in the name of science.

Some of this journey contributed to an article I wrote for the FT Weekend Magazine in October 2010.

The journey begins
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