(Reuters)

First they hauled the armloads of bamboo down the path from the panda house to serve as munchies for the long journey.

Then came Bao Bao herself, inside a white shipping crate, borne on a yellow forklift decorated with black panda ears.

Then came the cortege of zookeepers who had cared for the giant panda for the past 3  1 /2 years, walking slowly in their gray sweatshirts and tan pants, walkie-talkies in their back pockets.

It was a solemn moment at the National Zoo on Tuesday, as those who had fed and marveled at the panda — who had swept her compound and picked up her waste, and who swore she knew them individually — bade her farewell.

They waved goodbye as the people from FedEx loaded the food and the crate holding the 205-pound bear into the trucks that would take her to the airport. And they all hugged.

(Claritza Jimenez,Dani Player/The Washington Post)

Bao Bao, the zoo’s beloved female giant panda, left for her new home in China shortly before 2 p.m. after a string of farewells at the zoo and at Dulles International Airport.

“We know it’s coming,” said keeper Stacey Tabellario, who had helped take care of Bao Bao since the panda was born at the zoo in 2013.

“It’s something that, especially with the giant pandas, you know exactly when this is coming,” she said. “We know that they’re going … by the age of 4. So we can prepare for it. But that doesn’t mean that we don't get attached.”

“She’s on to bigger and better things, but certainly there were some tears this morning as we all watched her get loaded onto the truck,” she said.

Dennis Kelly, director of the zoo, called it a “really bittersweet day … While it represents a huge success, we’ve become so fond of Bao Bao … We’re going to miss her so much.”

The panda’s FedEx plane — white with orange and blue trim and a huge panda logo near the nose — took off at 1:55 p.m. on the 16-hour, nonstop flight.

VIPs and well-wishers looked on quietly and applauded. A toddler with a pacifier in his mouth waved goodbye from his mother’s arms.

Earlier at the zoo, Bao Bao had snacked on a treat as she sat in her shipping crate waiting to be taken to the truck. As the forklift with the crate made its way out of the panda compound, a video camera attached to the vehicle’s roof captured the throng of waiting media.

A chilly, gray morning was just starting to warm in the sun. Two trucks, one carrying the panda, the other carrying the road food, departed about 10:30 a.m. They were escorted by National Zoo police and then by airport police along the way.

After the trucks and many of the reporters had left, Tabellario spoke about Bao Bao.

“She’s very independent compared to our other bears,” she said. “She’s a little bit sassy … You have to work for attention from her, which makes it pretty valuable when she gives you those kind of funny moments where she wants to interact with you.”

She said she thought that Bao Bao will do well in new surroundings.

Over the holiday weekend, about 60,000 people visited the zoo, officials said. Some came from as far away as Scotland just to say their goodbyes and offer well wishes to Bao Bao. There were traffic jams throughout the Woodley Park neighborhood as visitors tried to get a last look at the panda.

Bao Bao enjoyed several treats over the past few days, including a farewell ice cake, made with frozen apple juice, bamboo and biscuits, in the shape of a Chinese pagoda.

When Bao Bao’s truck arrived at Dulles early Tuesday afternoon, about 15 people with special passes waited on the tarmac outside.

Jamie Levinson, 9, had skipped school with her dad to come say goodbye. Her advice to Bao Bao: “It’s going to be a fun and cool experience, and you’re where you should be.”

Bao Bao’s flight to Chengdu, China, will involve a team of pilots, a veterinarian and another veteran panda keeper. Also aboard: 50 pounds of snacks and liquids. Her luggage includes the bamboo, sweet potatoes, apples, water and sugar cane.

In China, she will go into quarantine at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province.

Most giant pandas around the world are on loan from China, and cubs that are born abroad are sent to the Chinese breeding program before they turn 4. The National Zoo has had pandas since the 1970s.

Bao Bao’s older brother, Tai Shan, moved to China in 2010. The National Zoo still has three other giant pandas, including Bao Bao’s 1-year-old brother, Bei Bei, and their mother Mei Xiang, 18, and father Tian Tian, 19.

This spring, the zoo said it plans to breed Mei Xiang, who they believe has at least one more chance to produce a cub.

Officials have said Bao Bao is special because she is only the second surviving cub born at the facility. Some keepers have dubbed her the “miracle” giant panda.

The panda, whose name means “precious” or “treasure” in Chinese, was born in August 2013. Mei Xiang gave birth to a second cub about 26 hours later, but that cub was stillborn.

Many members of the zoo staff were thoughtful as they helped prepare Bao Bao for her journey Tuesday.

Brandie Smith, the zoo’s associate director for animal care sciences, said that after Tai Shan left, no panda cubs had survived at the zoo for several years.

“A lot of people had given up,” she said. “So Bao Bao, to me, is the new beginning of the National Zoo’s panda program.

“This is part of the journey we always expect her to take,” she said. “A lot of people expected me to be sad right now, but I’m so happy for her and proud of what we accomplished. I feel nothing but joy.”