Sichuan Province: Spicy Food and Cute Pandas

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!

Panda's looking right at me!

Panda’s looking right at me!

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!

Panda just wanted to climb

Panda just wanted to climb

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.

Those trees look comfy

Those trees look comfy

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.

Baby panda!

Baby panda!



Shiretoko National Park: Hiking, Nature, and Wildlife in Northern Hokkaido

After touring around Akan, we traveled up through Hokkaido to Shiretoko National Park, which is on the northeastern tip of the island.  A part of it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it is re-claimed natural marshlands.  The park is in an interesting location because it is mountainous forest right on the coast of the ocean!  Shiretoko town has some great seafood, and is a short drive to the park for some day hiking.  The few days I was there were full of hiking through mountains, and looking out for all the wildlife!  While there are many tour buses that go to the tourist sites, I preferred being able to drive a car and visit things on my own time.  Also, the curves through the mountain are really fun to drive on (as long as you keep an eye out for any animals that might be crossing the road!).   One afternoon after a hike, we saw so many deer grazing along the road we couldn’t stop to take pictures of all of them!

Deer in Shiretoko

 Also along the road, we sighted a few foxes that are fairly iconic for Hokkaido.  They were light brown and super cute!  Unfortunately I didn’t sneak any pictures of them, since they ran back into the foliage (cleverly :P).   Also, as we were driving over a bridge, we saw quite a few cars stopped, and figured we should see what was going on.  We looked down into the river, and there were two brown bears there fishing!

Brown Bears Fishing

The highlight of the park, for me, was the hike around the Shiretoko Five Lakes.  This hike takes about an hour and a half, and goes right through the brown bear habitat.   Because of this,  everyone who hikes it needs to pay and register, and also watch a safety video beforehand.  The ranger showed us a chart that recorded all the bear sightings, and there had been quite a few over the last week.  Obviously, the goal is to avoid the bears, if at all possible.  The video showed us how to lie down and play dead if confronted by a bear, and I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use that tactic!   There were no bear sightings for us that day, so it was just a nice leisurely hike through the forest.

Here’s the route.  There is a long and a short option:

Route for Shiretoko 5 Lakes Trail

If you’re totally unwilling to take the bear path, or want a free walk, you can also go to the left and take advantage of the raised walkway that goes through the marshland.  This is great for anyone who has mobility issues, too.  There are some great views and outlook points, and you can see the ocean on your left, and the forest on your right.  When we were there, there was also a school group who toured this part.  Here’s a view of the ocean behind the marshland (although it was taken on a slightly cloudy day):

Ocean Behind Shiretoko

The hike itself takes you to all the lakes, and had some gorgeous views:

Shiretoko Lake

Shiretoko ForestShiretoko Lake

Clouds over Shiretoko

Another option if you go to Shiretoko is to travel even further north and take a boat to see whales.  This is a trip that you probably don’t want to take in winter- We had to drive from Utoro to Rausu to catch the boat, and that pass is closed at the end of October. No wonder! It’s super windy, and even in the fall, the whole thing was encased with fog.  I don’t think it would be drive-able in the snow!  Still, it’s a great option if you’re there in the summer or fall!

On the boat ride, we could also see an island belonging to Russia (I can see Russia from my boat!!).  WE were also lucky to sight some sperm whales on our trip:

Sperm Whale Breath

Sperm Whale Swimming

Overall, Shiretoko was a definite highlight of the week, and was just  gorgeous to walk and drive through.  There was plenty of wildlife, so it’s one of my top recommendations for a trip to Hokkaido.

Great Day at the Great Wall

Today I took a tour to the Ming Tombs and the Mutianyu Great Wall outside of Beijing. This part of the great wall is less traveled than other sections, and also has gorgeous scenery. It might have been because January is the off-season, and it was cold today, but there were hardly any people there. If you’re looking for a more tranquil way to see this famous site without lots of people showing up in your pictures, I recommend this section over others. The downside today was that the cable cars and toboggan slides to go up and down the wall were closed for the season. I guess this means I will have to go back when it’s warmer, so I can take the slide down!GreatWall

The Ming tombs were also fascinating. The first part was a long walk to the tombs which were guarded by statues. The tradition was to place animals to guard the tombs, and they were in sets of four (two to stand on guard, and two to rest at all times). Some of the animals were mythical creatures, including the animals representing justice and benevolence. The elephants are often in photos because they represent luck, and there was even a 1954-photograph of Chairman Mao with the elephant statue.

Although I don’t usually like tours for the sake of taking tours, I thought this was a really good one. Our group was only four people, and all the sites today were quiet. We met up with the tour guides at their office nearby, toured the tombs, enjoyed a traditional lunch of some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had, and then hiked along the Great Wall in the afternoon.

No winter tour would be complete without some defrosting afterwards, so once we got back we headed down lucky street until we found a delicious French bistro. Enjoying their homemade hot chocolate was the perfect end to a nice day of seeing the sites and picking up on some of the history nearby. I hope I go on more tours later that are as fascinating as this one was!