They had come a long way to see the giant pandas. Several thousand miles, in fact.

But when Muscovites John Boyko and Corina Naraevskaya strolled up leafy Connecticut Avenue to the entrance of the National Zoo Tuesday, they were confronted with a locked gate and a large white sign: “All Smithsonian Museums and the National Zoo are closed today due to the government shutdown.”

“We are a little bit shocked,” said Naraevskaya. The couple’s prospect for a glimpse of the cuddly giant animals chomping on bamboo looked grim for this trip. They were in Washington for just a couple of days, part of a road trip down the East Coast. “Tomorrow we have a flight back,” Naraevskaya said.

A couple of reporters milling around the zoo entrance broke the news to them that they will need to strike from their agenda a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, also part of the Smithsonian.

Boyko, 25, expressed confusion at how the whole Smithsonian could be shut down. “We did not expect this,” he said.

Soon after, another visitor strolled up to the zoo entrance. This one from closer by, Virginia Beach, Va.

Jessica McClanahan, 31, had heard about the shutdown but hadn’t realized it would mean she and her boyfriend would be unable to get into the zoo. Her companion, wearing a shirt with a Panda on it, stomped off when told the zoo was closed.

“Are you kidding me?” he yelled.

“We didn’t know,” McClanahan said. “That sucks. It’s shut down for the day?”

Probably longer, in fact. How many days the shutdown will last remains unknown, but few in  Congress seem to think it will end right away.

Most tourists, however, had apparently gotten word before setting out to see the animals. By late morning more journalists than actual tourists were hanging out at the front gates. Reporters were occasionally joined by locals who wandered over to the gate to snap photos with their iPhones.

For them, the closure was historic. The National Zoo is supposed to be closed only one day a year, Christmas. The free attraction is one of Washington’s biggest draws, with millions of visitors each year crowding the surrounding neighborhood on their way in and out.

Panda enthusiasts who can’t get to the zoo – or can’t get enough of the pandas during their visits – bookmark its famous Panda Cam on their web browsers. But now, even Panda Cam has gone dark.

“We know it is a great disappointment,” said spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, referring to the closure of the Zoo and the 18 other Smithsonian museums. “When people come to D.C., the Smithsonian is a big part of their visit.”

evan.halper@latimes.com

Twitter: @evanhalper