The Long Road to China

Tai Shan's plane now en route to China

The panda passport and visa were all in order, and the wheels of Tai Shan's plane lifted off the ground at Dulles International Airport just after noon today. The giant panda said his final goodbyes to the National Zoo this morning, and he's now on his 14-hour flight to his new home in China.

You can actually track his flight's progress here.

The panda, who won over the hearts of just about everyone in the Washington region, will be shipped via a FedEx 777 today to China to join that country's breeding program. He left the zoo at 9 a.m. Thursday after being carefully placed on the back of a FedEx truck.

Of course, even a panda's plane can get delayed sometimes. The FedEx Panda Express plane left Atlanta late, and was due into Dulles at 10:01 a.m., 15 minutes behind schedule. However, FedEx anticipated the rest of the schedule will stand, and met an expected 12:05 p.m. takeoff from Dulles.

Tai Shan was born at the zoo in 2005, and his departure is evoking strong reactions from many visitors.

"Of course, it's sad to see him go, but he's going to fulfill his destiny in China," said zoo volunteer Angela Wessel, who has traveled to China to care for pandas. 

Crowds converged on the panda exibit at the National Zoo Wednesday, the last full day to get a peek at Tai Shan.

Hundreds of parents and children, visiting school groups and interested people walked along the panda pen Wednesday. Tai Shan didn't disapoint. In the cold and snow, he romped all around the yard as if he knew it was his last day.

One visitor donned two shiny pink rings shaped like pandas. "I actually got them off of eBay from a seller in Singapore," he said.

While cameras flashed, many visitors said they hoped China and the United States would figure out a way to send more pandas to D.C. And even in a politics-focused city like this one, everyone can agree on one thing -- "Tai Shan is cute," said Susan Phillips of Olney, Md.

Tai Shan and his Atlantan cousin Mei Lan -- who's stopping in D.C. en route to China -- will travel in custom-built transport crates, created in consultation with animal care experts and zoo staff. The Kentucky-based company that manufactured the crates also built them for Tai Shan's parents when they journeyed from China in 1999. The crates, which took 200 hours to create, weigh more than 1,300 pounds each. Plexi-glass sides will offer the pandas rooms with a view.

In the lead-up to Tai Shan's departure, zoo staff worked to help Tai Shan get used to his crate. Staff has said they expect the normally calm panda to handle the journey well.

Tai Shan was loaded into his crate at the zoo at 8 a.m. Thursday. The crate was raised by forklift, driven up Olmsted Walk and loaded into the back of a FedEx truck, and left the zoo at 9 a.m. The FedEx 777 arrived from Atlanta with Mei Lan already on board.

A small departure ceremony at Dulles International Airport marked the end of the pandas' time in the United States.

Tai Shan was inspected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife before the plane lifted its wheels at 12:05 p.m., en route for Chengdu, China.

NBC4 will cover Tai Shan's journey from the zoo to Dulles Airport on Thursday and report in the afternoon shows.

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