Tai Shan and Mei Lan beat us into the airport serving the south-western Chinese city of Chengdu by about 24 hours. Their arrival represented living proof that - trade and Taiwan apart - China and the United States can occasionally get along with each other. It helps that all the world seems to love giant pandas. To no one's surprise, big crowds had flocked to the airport in the hope of catching a glimpse of the adorable travelling companions, hailed in one banner headline as the "new superstars" of Sichuan province. Though born in captivity in the US, Tai Shan and Mei Lan are regarded internationally, in common with all members of their species, as no less Chinese than the president, Hu Jintao. Their delivery to the People's Republic was the product of an amicable arrangement between Washington and Beijing.
Rather less fuss was made next day of the arrival in Chengdu of the small group of western tourists to which I belonged. No reporters turned up to scrutinise our demeanour or ask about our flight as we wheeled our luggage trolleys towards the waiting coach. It had been quite different for the pandas; China Daily noting that Tai Shan was "calm and at ease", while his fellow passenger seemed restless. With excessive attention to detail, the newspaper also noted that the animals, their aircraft's cabin and "their droppings" had to be sprayed with disinfectant before the pair could disembark.
The pandas were quickly dispatched to separate breeding and research centres where, China expects, they will find mates and procreate. Accustomed to American English, they will apparently be taught to understand rudimentary phrases in Chinese. Mei Lan preceded our group to the Chengdu centre. She was immediately placed in quarantine, a readily understandable procedure that did nothing to spoil a morning spent roaming the 100-hectare site.
There, we gazed in admiration at her future chums as they messed about on climbing frames or wrestled with bamboo. We also learnt a little about China's efforts to protect the endangered giant panda. Even allowing for Mei Lan's temporary seclusion, it was one of three outstanding features of my introduction to China, along with enthralling visits to the Great Wall and the site, near Xian, of the terracotta warriors.
But pandas were not the only creatures on my mind, and I am not referring to the new Chinese year of that other endangered species, the tiger. In Beijing, I had been intrigued by the exotic fare at the Donghua night food market. One stall offered fried scorpions, crickets and centipede. As a seasoned consumer of snails and frogs' legs, I decided to try a scorpion. Not wishing to ruin dinner, I postponed this until later in the holiday. But after leaving the capital, we never came across the delicacy again.
In the interests of professional thoroughness, I affected disappointment. "No need," said our effervescent guide, Joy. "I've tasted it and it's oily, crunchy and horrible." One narrow escape was quite enough. I decided against volunteering for a plate of raw bamboo shoots. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org