The departure of the two American-born pandas, the four-and-a-half-year-old male Tai Shan, born at the National Zoo, and the three-year-old female Mei Lan, born at Zoo Atlanta, broke the hearts of millions of viewers who watched the seeing-off live online or via major American TV networks.
The FedEx Panda Express, a custom-decaled FedEx Express 777 Freighter, would fly 14.5 hours nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean to send the two lovely bears from Washington to Chengdu, Sichuan province.
Dozens of American people who were lucky enough to be invited to the Washington Dulles International Airport to wave Goodbye to Tai Shan, the Washingtonian celebrity creature, waited four hours in the cold windy winter morning to get the last glimpse of him.
Black and white were the colors of the day and the Panda look was in. Many people got addressed in black and white coats, wore black and white scarf and carried panda-shaped purses. A FedEx staff Jason Preston even painted his face like a panda head.
"I saw Tai Shan soon after he was born here," Preston told China Daily. "All the FedEx people are very excited and we feel privileged to have the last look of him today."
Andrea Davis wore a pair of self-made paper panda ear to show her support for Tai Shan. "He is the biggest attraction of the National zoo for sure. I wish he gets greener bamboo at hometown and come back to visit us," she said.
The six-year-old boy Jack Dougan has visited Tai Shan many times and he was eager to share his airport experience with his classmates.
The plane carrying giant pandas Mei Lan of Atlanta, and Tai Shan of Washington, taxis for departure for a trip to China, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010, at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. [Photo/Xinhua]
"I am not sad because I know he will live in the forest not cage anymore," he said.
Hundreds of panda lovers, like Elise Ney, went to the zoo the day before the departure to spend the last day with their loved bear.
"We smiled and took tons of pictures and then cried a lot of tears when we had to leave him," she told China Daily.
"But we all know that he is a big boy now and needs to fulfill his destiny. He will make some panda girl very happy and will produce the most gorgeous cubs."
The Panda Unlimited member also hoped that a webcam could be a reality in China. The panda webcam at the National Zoo has got nearly 15 million hits in the past five years, according to the zoo's website.
And the zoo also announced that they are monitoring Tai Shan's mother Mei Xiang for indications that she is pregnant and they will negotiate for an extension for Mei Xiang and the father Tian Tian before the loan expires in December.
"In the past four years, Tai Shan has grown up with the blessing, love and care of American peole," Minister Xie Feng of Chinese Embassy in the United States said during his speech at the airport Thursday.
"Tai Shan and Mei Lan...serve as the special bond between the Chinese and American people and the symbol for China-US friendship."
"The friendship between the two peoples is the solid foundation for China-US relations. With this solid foundation, we are confident that we will overcome any difficulties and achieve further progress in China-US relations."
The spokesman of the Department of State Philip J. Crowley also expressed his wish for Tai Shan at Thursday's press briefing.
"We certainly wish a safe journey to Tai Shan as he departs the United States for China," he said.
"He is a dual citizen, US born of Chinese parents. He'll always have a close link to the United States and to school children across our country. But he is a tangible and furry manifestation of cooperation between the United States and China."
Tai Shan and Mei Lan would stay in two separate custom-built steel crate onboard in the air-conditioned cabin, taken care by three nutritionists, a vet and a keeper from the National Zoo.
Their luggage included water, 75kg golden bamboo, their favorite fruits apple and pear, biscuits and carrots. And the most seasoned pilot crew was selected to ensure a safe and smooth trip for pandas.
Tai Shan will reside at the China Conservation and Research Center's Wolong Nature Reserve and Mei Lan will live at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Under the agreement for global giant panda preservation, giant panda cubs born overseas belong to China and will be sent back to Sichuan after the cub turns 2. Due to the huge local popularity, China has agreed to extend Tai Shan's loan for another two and a half years. (China Daily)