Beijing Zoo

I remember my own first trip to Dublin Zoo, petting the donkey at the Children’s Corner and posing at the Wishing Seat in a little pink coat to have my photo taken. I can’t have been more than four years old.
When Shane and Claire were young we had a family membership and we used to visit often. On Shane’s first visit, at about the age Dermot is now, he had blonde hair, chubby cheeks reddened from teething and spent much of his time dozing in his buggy. His second visit was to see Ming Ming the Giant Panda on loan from Beijing Zoo. Maybe something seeped into his subconscious that day that led him to China years later and to calling his business Enter the Panda.
When Dermot was in Dublin in January I took him on for a walk in Phoenix Park and I was sorely tempted to introduce him to the Zoo but I resisted, knowing his parents would want to share that moment. Today he turned 15 months old and Shane and Shan decided to repay my restraint by taking us to Beijing Zoo.
We were joined by Shan’s cousin Jing Jing, who had come to Ireland for their wedding, and her two year old son Xiao Jiu. (An aside here – Xiao Jiu means “Little Nine” and he is so called because nine is the largest number and signifies longevity. He was born in the Year of the Rabbit and the Chinese have a saying “as short as a rabbit’s tail”. His pet name is intended to bring good fortune and counteract the risk of a short life because of his birth year. Dermot’s pet name is Teng Teng which symbolises the wavy motion of a dragon’s leap as he was born at the tail end of the Year of the Dragon). Jing Jing greeted me with hugs, smiles and delight at meeting again so soon. She is one of my favourites in our new extended Chinese family.
Beijing Zoo is located in the west of the city close to the northwest corner of the 2nd Ring Road beside the Beijing Zoo Station on Line 4 of the Subway. We stepped through its gates from a wide and noisy city street lined with skyscrapers into a leafy oasis of calm – another one of those unexpected green lungs in this city full of surprises. The Zoo covers about 220 acres and has over 450 species of animals. It is laid out like formal Chinese gardens with dense groves of willow and bamboo trees, a river, streams and grassy stretches making it a pleasant, well-shaded spot to spend a sunny day. On a Monday the place was not too crowded and all the visitors seemed to be Chinese apart from us, parents and grandparents with young children.
It has been a zoo in some shape or form since 1906 but by the end of the second world war had only 13 monkeys and one old, blind emu in residence. It’s renewal was interrupted again by the Cultural Revolution but it has developed again rapidly in recent years and is now home to several rare and endangered species  including of course the Great Panda.
For the most part the animal enclosures look well kept and the animals content with their lot. One polar bear looked rather depressed turning in circles but may just have been waiting his turn for the swimming pool next door where another was turning tricks with a metal oil drum and using it to create a makeshift shower. Indeed some of the toys for the animals to play on seemed a bit bizarre to our western eyes but the monkeys were very partial to their rocking deer.
The star attraction, the Giant Pandas, were all having their morning nap when we passed through their enclosure prompting Shane to consider renaming his company “Enter the Giraffe” but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Still we got to see lions and tigers and bears as well as giraffes, zebras, rhinos and monkeys. Dermot was just old enough to appreciate them, staring in wide-eyed amazement at their size and their antics. He was especially taken with the fast moving young cheetahs and the many multicoloured ducks and birds including flamingoes and cranes. We even discovered a bird named for Gao Shan – a Himalayan Griffon to be precise. Watching the ducks and swans kept him happiest of all and I liked to think he remembered feeding the ducks with me in Stephen’s Green in January.
There are plenty of cafes inside the grounds and we found one improbably named the Australian Style Cafe – this seemed to be because it had a few boomerangs on its walls. Still it served decent coffee and edible Chinese takeaway which we ate outside in the afternoon sun.
Beijing Zoo is definitely worth a visit. Jing Jing has an annual family pass which covers it and other Beijing attractions. Shane and Shan plan to follow suit, in keeping with family tradition.