The First Lady’s Travel Journal: Pandas!
Today is the last day of my trip, and I couldn’t leave China without seeing the Chengdu Panda Base. Pandas are an endangered species — fewer than 1,600 pandas remain in the wild — and that’s why a place like the Chengdu Panda Base is so important. Here at this base, scientists work to increase the panda population through breeding, conservation and researching how the bears live and grow. The base covers almost 600 square miles, and it’s located right in the heart of pandas’ natural habitat. The area surrounding the base is the only location in the world where you can find pandas in the wild and in a research center. Right now, there are about 50 pandas at the Panda Base ranging in age from infancy to full-grown adults.
We started our visit by viewing a group of five giant pandas who were about 18 months old, and we got to feed them (we attached apples to the end of a long stick, and they reached up and grabbed them with their hands and mouths). Next, we got to see some baby pandas that were about eight months old which are referred to as “yearlings,” a term used to describe pandas less than one year old. They were so tiny — like stuffed animals — and later, I got the chance to hold one of these little guys! Finally, we walked through an area filled with red pandas, a different, smaller species of pandas that look sort of like raccoons.
As we learned about these pandas and their future, I also spent some time reflecting on their past. Believe it or not, pandas have actually played a leading role in world events over the past few decades through a custom known as “Panda Diplomacy.” It’s a tradition that dates back at least to the seventh century, and over the past few decades, panda diplomacy has been part of how China has reached out to other nations. Since the 1950s, China has given pandas to countries like France, Japan, Great Britain, Mexico, and the United States. It’s a goodwill offering – a way to reach out and build a connection between two countries and their people.
That was certainly the case when China first offered America pandas back in 1972. At that time, there was extremely limited contact between our two governments. From 1949, when the communist party assumed power in China, up until 1979, the United States did not officially recognize the government of the People’s Republic of China.
But in the early 1970s, President Nixon believed that we could rise above our differences and begin to open relations, so in 1972, he reached out to the Chinese and became the first U.S. President to visit the People’s Republic of China. On that trip, after Mrs. Pat Nixon mentioned how much she enjoyed seeing pandas at a Chinese zoo, the Chinese Premier offered a pair of pandas to the people of the United States. The original pandas – Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing – were housed at the National Zoo, and Chinese pandas have lived there ever since. In fact, just last fall, a new baby panda – Bao Bao, which means “treasure” or “precious” – was born there, giving new life to our growing relationship with China.
First Lady Pat Nixon views the Pandas_February 1972
Mrs. Nixon is wearing a red coat.
Beijing Zoo_Beijing, China, February 1972
I believe that this history is instructive for us today. It shows that even for nations as big, complex and different as the United States and China, small gestures can mean a great deal. They can bring people together and help them form bonds that can stretch across the globe – and in our modern world, where we can connect with someone on the other side of the world with the click of a button, we all have an opportunity to make those small gestures in our own lives.
1972 photo of Mrs. Nixon via Camille
“I learned that a long walk and calm conversation are an incredible combination if you want to build a bridge”.
~ Seth Godin
Chinese artist Dong Honh-Oai create a series of amazing photographs that look like Chinese traditional paintings by using a style known as pictorialism,
The First Lady’s Travel Journal: A Taste of Tibetan Culture
Chengdu is sometimes known as the “Gateway to Tibet” because it is located just a few hours from the towering mountains and rich culture of Tibet, which is a region of China. There are roughly 6.5 million Tibetans in China, and they are one of the largest and most well-known minority groups in the country.
For centuries, Tibet was largely unknown to the outside world — but today, Tibetan Buddhism (the main religion in this area) and its spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama, are known across the globe for their teachings on compassion, forgiveness and tolerance. Tibet is also known for its beautiful, majestic landscapes. Some of the world’s tallest mountains are located there – if you want to scale Mount Everest, you can start from a base camp in Tibet.
To experience some of the rich culture of Tibet, we headed to the Zangxiang Village Tea House for a traditional Tibetan meal that included the following items: truk ja (yak butter tea), yak soup made with highland barley, sha pa le (yak pie made with minced onion and celery), boiled yak ribs, samba (a dense bread made with barley) and steamed vegetables with barley.
Before we ate, we had the chance to spin a traditional Tibetan prayer wheel, a device used by the Tibetan people to spread spiritual blessings. Tibetans believe that spinning this wheel helps one accumulate wisdom and merit (known as good “karma”) and purify themselves of bad things (known as bad “karma”).
We were then greeted by a group of Tibetan students who placed beautiful silk scarves called “khataks”(which symbolize purity and compassion and are thought to bring good luck) around our necks –– this is considered a welcome gesture. The students then displayed magnificent paintings they had made called “thangkas.” Thangkas traditionally depict images of Buddhist deities, retell myths or describe historical events.
I am incredibly grateful that we had the chance to learn a little bit about Tibetan traditions. The Tibetan people have struggled to preserve their unique religious and cultural traditions, and this visit was a powerful reminder of how important it is for each of us to treasure what makes us special, even when it makes us feel different from everyone else. I know that’s not always easy, especially when you’re a minority in your school or community. But in America, our diversity is what makes us who we are — it’s what makes our country so vibrant, strong and endlessly interesting. So don’t be afraid to celebrate where you come from and whatever it is that makes you who you are — and don’t hesitate to share that with others.
This visit was such a wonderful way to end our journey here in China. It has been a tremendous honor for me, my daughters and my mother to experience this fascinating country over this past week. I’ve especially enjoyed speaking with young people in China, learning about their hopes and dreams, and sharing your stories with them and their stories with all of you. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about your peers on the other side of the globe — and I hope you find ways to keep on learning about China and other countries around the world in the years ahead.
Thanks for traveling along with us!
First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters visit the Great Wall of China – ”The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” ~ Lao Tzu