My daughter Aidan’s trip back in March was constrained by real-world responsibilities. Not so much my work – no one seems to care if I’m around these days – but rather by her graduate school schedule. There was an extra day in the mix but we agreed that it was probably in her best interest to have a day back in the US before going back to school. And on our last day, she and I of course woke up to the biggest orange sandstorm of the year and so our time was even further reduced. Gwynn did not have this problem, her school year was over and so the constraint fell more to my schedule. But, we were able to take one extra day, and that day was dedicated to the zoo.

Both of my kids are “zoo people” and I’ll admit that I am one too. While I think that they are certainly not the best thing I the world for the animals, they are what they are and not going to them isn’t going to make them go away. Rather I think our patronage allows the zoo management to make the best of the fact of their existence. More money can equal better care and conditions, at least in the right hands. I’ve been to zoos all over the US and to several in China. In general our zoos are okay. In general Chinese zoos range from okay (Shanghai) to deplorable (Dandong) to inexplicable (the Harbin Siberian Tiger Preserve.) Until Gwynn proposed the visit, I didn’t even know that Beijing had a zoo, and an aquarium to boot (world’s largest “inland”, of course). I did the research in the guide book assuming that they couldn’t be too far off base with something as basic as a zoo but of course they were, taking a snarky approach about “teaching children that shrimp don’t have to swim in garlic sauce” and by missing the subway station that is right outside the main entrance. I’ll give them the latter, the subway around here changes hourly.

We decided to treat ourselves to a taxi, having ridden far too many miles below ground on this trip. After 7 days, the last two roasting in the capital city, the thought of sitting for the ride to the other side of town was very appealing. The route took us through the heart of the city, even allowing us to sit a long time in bumper to bumper traffic in the center of Tiananmen Square. Our destination was just beyond the historic district and was originally the wild animal park of the last empress. It took about an hour, we paid and went in.

The main attraction naturally is the collection of Giant Pandas and most of the people we walked in with headed straight there. We opted to take the long route and so went off to the left just inside the entrance. The first thing that struck me was the beauty of the grounds – shady winding asphalt lanes neatly framed in brick. And the roads were spotless. Overhead tall, leafy trees provided enough shade to make the walk cool and friendly. There were not many patrons in this part of the park, mostly elderly sitting on benches visiting in the morning light. We toured the Reptile House and honestly the worst thing you could say about it was that the building was a bit shabby. The animals though had roomy, clean cages with clear water and no trash.

The Penguin exhibit was closed so we went on passing a large lake teeming with native waterfowl. The herd of Zebras was right up against the rail fence that formed their enclosure. They were so calm and tame that you could scratch them behind the ears. As we walked away a young child started screaming and I guess that it was probably due to a mishandled attempt to feed one of them.

The apes and their kin had nice outdoor pens stocked with trees and ropes. Coming around the bend we stopped to watch a couple of Asian Elephants work over their breakfast. On the far side of their house, the most amazing thing came into sight – a place where everyone could hand feed two of them. The guard told me to go to the ticket office where I surrendered 10 kuai ($1.50) and we were handed two large armloads of bamboo. We took a spot down on the end and the fun began. I was able at first to let one of them slobber on my hand as I put a bunch into its trunk. On the second pass I was able to put my hand fully around its trunk as it took another bunch. What an amazing thing that trunk – you could feel the strength, power and dexterity as it curled around the bamboo and shoved the pile in its mouth. It liked the leaves and didn’t care for the stems so it delicately stripped off the good parts and spit out the bad. At this point I didn’t care much about the black and white star attractions; I was in love with these two guys.

A few more stops at this and that and we had made our way around to the back of the Panda section. Here I’ll digress for a moment to talk about Chinese behavior – it was pretty bad. It was not uncommon to see men pounding on the glass of enclosures to get a rise out of the animals. One stood there banging with his umbrella, much to the delight of his young son – another lout generation in the works. It was annoying and embarrassing at the same time, and it got worse inside the Panda house. Unfortunately they were not outside so seeing them meant fighting our way up to the windows and elbowing people aside. It was hot, it stunk and it was not much fun. Once in view of the big bears we found that most of the people hogging the glass were not even looking in, they were standing there in true Chinese fashion having their picture taken by someone on the outside of the mob. This is true of everywhere I’ve been in this country – the thing they came to see takes a weak second to taking each other’s pictures every ten seconds. While I don’t care too much about such cultural nuances, it did make it really hard for those of us that had come to see the bears. I took far pictures than I normally would have simply because I knew so many would be ruined by the jostling and the reflections of faces and clothing in the windows. I waited for 10 minutes on my last pass for the girl in front of me to stop reading her text messages from a perfect vantage point. In a country where I have first hand come to know that personal space is totally non-existent, this was a new level of rudeness. I suppose in the end that the sight of that big plush toy shoving bamboo in its mouth was worth the battle, but it seemed a tall price to pay at the moment.

It was a short walk to the aquarium which was very, very nice. You start in a rainforest and move to a shoreline. From there to a coral reef and then up an escalator that passes through the bottom the big tank to an overlook down into sharks and turtles. Aquariums took an interesting design turn in the last 25 years with Monterrey and Georgia, and this one was right in their league. As we walked past the dolphin tank, a grandfather lifted up the grandchild he was minding, split open his pants and let him pee on the floor. Gwynn was a bit shocked, for me it’s just another one in a list of thousands. The urinary habits of the Chinese are appalling by our western standards. If we see a guy standing by the side of a busy street peeing on the curb in New Mexico, it’s noteworthy. We assume he’s drunk or mentally disabled. I see that ten times on every commute. No bushes, no standing behind the car. Just standing there with the car door open, peeing on the road, stream and all. Children here are generally not tucked into diapers – they wear special pants with a giant split from the front to the back. They need to go – whoever is minding them opens the split and makes them squat. No matter where, although I will say it’s normally outside. If it’s more than a pee, the parent will spread a plastic bag on the ground under the kid. On this day though, the blue polished floor of the aquarium was fair game. I once saw a mother instruct her child to let go between the rows in the theater where I attend classical music concerts. Outside in the zoo, once it got crowded you basically walk past puddle after puddle in spite of the fact that there are public bathrooms every ten yards.

We did note that the better dressed children were in diapers and riding in nice strollers. I suspect that the emerging Chinese middle class sees this al fresco bodily function behavior to be a thing of the past. At least I hope so.

The biggest unexplained oddity of the day though was the huge number of little girls with shaved heads. Cute little things in bright pink clothes with a dome that had clearly just seen a straight razor. Accompanying them were their slightly older cousins with hair perhaps two inches long, the product of a recent removal. I theorized that the Chinese do this in the belief that it will make their hair grow back in thicker, and I confirmed this subsequently with a coworker. The same class divide played itself out here too – the wealthier baby girls had a full head.

The thing that finally drove us back to the cabs was the huge crowd of Chinese schoolchildren that were visiting the park. They were nothing like the little automatons we’ve seen on TV, neatly lined up and standing silently in their little Cub Scout neckerchiefs and beanies. These kids were wild, and the din was only made worse by the teachers that stood there screaming at them. Outside it would have been bad enough, inside the darkened, low ceilinged room of an aquarium, it was intolerable. We left and made our way to the taxi stand, fully gorged on our lessons in Chinese culture for the day.