After my first night in Beijing, I still had a full day before meeting my tour group at the hotel in the afternoon. I knew that once I met up with them, most of us would want to do the major things in Beijing such as the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so I decided to find something else to do that might not as be as popular among the group. After collecting a city map from hotel reception and studying a guide to the Beijing subway system, I discovered that there was a station not too far from the hotel, and also one located right next to the Beijing Zoo. Figuring it would be a quick and easy expedition to manage by myself, I set out into the streets again to tackle Beijing in the daylight.
Getting to the first station was a mission in itself. I thought I was going the right way, following the major roads, but I ended up at Wangfujing Station, which was in the complete opposite direction from my desired destination of Tiananmen East Station. It was only one stop difference, so I just considered myself lucky I’d found a station at all and descended into the underground subway system. Every entrance point has a security check and bag scanning conveyor belt, just like going through customs at an airport. When I finally made it down into the station, I tried to buy a ticket to Beijing Zoo Station. It took my a while to realise the fare for the subway was just 2 yuan – less than a dollar – no matter where you were going. The train system was also clean, fast and efficient, much like the public transport I’d used in Bangkok and Singapore, and I found myself internally cursing Sydney for still not lifting its game. I had one stop to transfer to a different line, but soon enough I had arrived at the zoo.
Given that I was in China, it was very clear as to what was the major attraction at the Beijing Zoo. On top the entrance fee into the zoo, there is an additional charge for admittance into the Panda House – the exhibit that in home to the zoos five panda bears. Once you make your way past the billboards of panda history – of which the English translation was almost too painful to read – and the scores of iconic panda merchandise, you can actually get a glimpse of the animals. I have to admit they are cute, and their colouring definitely lends them a cuter appearance and reputation that almost all other bears lack. Yet like most animals in zoos, they didn’t do a great deal. Even wild pandas are known for being particularly lazy, so I wasn’t surprised to find that all the pandas were either sitting by themselves, chewing away on bamboo, or sleeping. All around me were crowds of Chinese tourists, squealing with excitement and posing for photos with the pandas in the background, and while I appreciated the rare sight, I didn’t exactly share their enthusiasm. After all, for all that the bear was doing, it could have easily swapped places with me in a day in my life back home, and I don’t think anyone would have really noticed.
The rest of the zoo was, to be completely honest, quite depressing. There were some nice sculptures and some beautiful scenery, but on the whole the zoo was quite dirty. A lot of the animals exhibits looked quite inadequate too. While the pandas were treated to luscious floral fields, I found wolves who were living in no more than a red dirt landscape with a few burrow holes, and no real space to run around. One on the two pools in the polar bear exhibit was a foul green colour, though one of the bears did put on a bit of a show swimming around in the other, less filthy body of water. The highlight of the whole complex was probably the aquarium – obviously newly built, and incurring another entrance fee of its own. It provided the chance to get particularly close to some of the marine animals, though again I wondered if there was adequate space for some of them – four turtles circled around a small, shallow rock pool, seemingly trying to mount the rocky walls and escape. There was also a show with the beluga whales and bottle nose dolphins, and though I couldn’t understand any of the commentary, I watched and enjoyed the tricks that they performed, including synchronised jumping, and one of the animal trainers riding a dolphin like a surfboard.
I’ve never known how I really feel about zoos. I know they play important roles in the conversation of endangered species, but I sometimes feel great sympathy for the poor animals locked away inside less than adequate exhibits. When I visited the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo last year, I learnt that some of the animals that won’t breed are castrated to keep them under control. I was horrified – I pictured some science fiction scenario in which humans were the animals in a zoo, and myself being castrated because I refused to mate with the other female “animals”. I found it a little disturbing, and have ever since found it hard to pinpoint where zoos stand on my moral compass. Pandas might be content to sit around and eat and sleep, but my heart goes out to those captive wolves, locked in a glass box when they should be running free in the wild.