International athletes participating in the 31st FISU World University Games visit the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan province on July 31, 2023. The base, located in the northern suburbs of Chengdu, is home to more than 230 giant pandas. The mascot for the games, Rongbao, is based on a giant panda named Zhima from the base. (Photo by Wei Xiaohao/China Daily)
Without a doubt, seeing giant pandas is on the agenda of almost every participant in the Chengdu FISU World University Games currently taking place in the capital of Sichuan province.
And being welcomed by the 6-year-old male giant panda Zhi Ma, who inspired the design of Rongbao — the mascot of the event — was a wonderful surprise for the athletes and officials from around the world who visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding on Monday.
A special area in the research base has been designated for participants in the Chengdu games. It was packed on Monday morning with athletes and officials taking part in a tour on the sidelines of the games, and they all found the cuteness of the giant pandas to be irresistible.
Zhi Ma was the first giant panda that the visitors met on the tour, and their excitement was obvious as it was also their first encounter with a giant panda.
Mario Del Basso, a water polo athlete from Italy, said he really liked Zhi Ma because he was very active and clearly knew how to charm the visitors.
Basso said it was the first time he had seen giant pandas in real life.
"They are much cuter than they are in videos," he added, pointing out that what made the experience perfect was "seeing them at the hometown of the animal".
According to the fourth national panda survey, Sichuan is home to 1,387 wild giant pandas, accounting for 74.4 percent of China's total giant panda population.
To attract the attention of the giant pandas, many athletes made an effort to learn how to say "come here" in the local Sichuan dialect, after the tour guides told them that they could get the attention of the pandas once they had mastered that skill.
Tomas Pihlajamaki, a basketball player from Finland, said the experience would be perfect if he could see Hua Hua, a female giant panda at the research base who has captivated the hearts of people around the world thanks to her mild temperament.
"Hua Hua is a household name in Finland and a true celebrity. The videos of Hua Hua always go viral on social media in Finland. I guess it's never easy to see top international celebrities like Hua Hua," Pihlajamaki said.
Mario Jo Vieira Ferro, deputy head of the Brazilian delegation, said he recommended the tour to all athletes as it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"I've taken many photos and videos of the giant pandas and I cannot wait to share them with my wife," he said.
The visit to the research base is just one of the tours organized for participants in the Chengdu games to give them an opportunity to experience the life and culture of the area. Other activities include visiting traditional neighborhoods and a nighttime sight seeing tour.