Heading down to Chengdu to see the area and the panda reserves has been something on my China list for a long time. I finally got to go there last weekend, and it was amazing! Chengdu is about three hours from Beijing by plane, located in Sichuan province towards the south of China. It’s known for incredibly spicy food (including those peppercorns that make your tongue numb), but is also the site for the panda research bases and reserves.
If you want the panda experience, you can go to either the base right inside the city of Chengdu, or the research base in Bifeng Gorge outside the city of Ya’an (about 1.5 hours away). We opted for Bifeng because the volunteer experience wasn’t available at the Chengdu base at the time. Volunteer, you say? Yes, I paid for the luxury of cleaning out panda enclosures (including scooping panda poop). And let me say, it was totally worth it!
The Bifeng Gorge is up in the mountains in some truly gorgeous territory, up past a canyon (legend has it, a goddess dropped a sword which carved the area into a canyon many years ago). The whole site was beautiful and it was a nice blue sky day. Once we got there, we read the volunteer instructions and got to don our volunteer uniforms. Then, it was off to the panda area for some work! The keepers called the pandas in to some indoor enclosures, and once they were safely tucked away, we could go out into their areas and start cleaning up. Pandas are quite solitary, so each of the adults have their own area. We had to take out the old bamboo and sweep up the area so it would be nice and clean for the panda to go back in.
After our bosses were satisfied with the cleaning, it was time to feed the pandas! They make a “panda cake” out of bamboo and corn meal. It’s incredibly dense and we had to measure 500 grams and then cut it into slices. We fed it to our panda, 7 year old WuJing, who grabbed each piece from us and scarfed everything down. He even ate his veggies (carrots) too!
Now, we could have also paid an additional 1500 RMB for the chance to have a baby panda sit on our lap briefly for a photo op, and, decided against it. Through the volunteer experience, I think we got to spend much more time with the pandas- our guide helpfully explained the lifestyle of the pandas and we got to sit calmly and watch them eat. In the video below, you can also see that one of the young pandas decided he would climb around in his enclosure while we were there!
After enjoying our time with just the three of us and our new panda friends, we walked through the rest of the reserve to see the open enclosures and the other pandas! The little ones were indeed adorable and entertaining- some were napping, and others were chilling in trees and scratching their backs. It was almost an overload of cuteness.
Cuteness aside, it was simply an amazing experience to be so near these animals that are so endangered in the wild, and to learn about them firsthand. The reserve in particular was impressive- the enclosures were clean and very large, and looked as if the pandas would choose to live there anyway, with plenty of natural vegetation and little panda huts. If I were a panda, I’d live there, especially for the panda cakes.