The main driving force for coming to China was to see pandas, and they did not disappoint! It’s impossible to watch a video of a panda without the words “Awww” forming in your mind. I promise you, try it! With more than 9.1m posts under the #panda hashtag on Instagram, it is fair to say that the world is panda mad. In fact, you could declare there is a pandamonium going on!
It has always been an animal that has interested me. Not only because they are cute and funny, but also because they are ready as a species to become extinct. Unlike most species that are going extinct because of humans, pandas are still alive because of us. They have simply lost the drive to breed, no matter how much panda porn they are shown! And yes, that is a thing!
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
The best place to see pandas in China is in Chengdu, specifically at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. It is a large 7,000 sq metre park made up of large lush green forested enclosures that allow the pandas as much privacy as they wish to seek.
As well as offering the perfect habitat for the adorable pandas, it is also a fantastic park for the spectators, with no glass or wired fencing obscuring the view. In fact, even without the pandas it would be a beautiful park to wander through, a haven of tranquillity in an otherwise bustling city.
The research centre started in the 1980s after rescuing 6 sick and hungry Giant Pandas. Since then they have bred 261 Giant Pandas and played a vital role in growing the population of this endangered species.
In addition to breeding and research, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding also pays a pivotal role in education and conservation of the giant pandas and their environments, engaging with local and foreign communities.
The best time to see pandas in Chengdu
The research centre is open from 7:30 am until 6 pm and most guide books recommend you go before 11:30, whilst the pandas are at the most active. I would actually encourage you to get there before 7:30 so that you are the first in the park and therefore can get to each enclosure as the pandas are let out to eat. This is when they will be most active, and you will also have the added benefit of missing most of the other tourists.
Our timings could not have gone better during our visit. We made a beeline for the “teenagers” enclosure and arrived as they were being hosed down after a night inside before being let lose in the enclosure where a banquet of bamboo was waiting for them.
The memory of them eating a mere 2 metres away from us is one that is firmly etched in my mind. They are incredibly expressive and somewhat comical. Some lay on their backs with the bamboo settled on their tummies as they stuffed their faces as if reclined on a sofa watching a good movie with a bag of popcorn. Whilst others looked longingly at their colleagues bamboo stash in the same way my husband eyes up the chips on my plate!
We moved on to the baby panda enclosure next where youngsters climbed on their mothers’ as if they were climbing frames, all the while being ignored in favour of their favourite snack. Others explored nearby, getting themselves in precarious positions such as one that managed to somersault against a tree and was then unable to right himself again. The funniest however was the little dude that had climbed high up on a branch before realising he wasn’t quite sure how to turn around. We could see the cogs in his brain working as he tried to figure it out. Step back? Step forward? Try and turn?
As he did he slipped, leaving him hanging from his front legs. His face was such a picture. It really looked as if he was saying “ooops!”, so scaringly human like! You will be glad to know that he did make his way down unscathed. There is a panda at the base called “Dozy Dave”, known for climbing trees before getting in a pickle and becoming stranded. I wonder if “Dozy Dave” is the grown up version of the little dude we watched struggle all those years ago (2013!).
There is the option to pay to hold a baby panda, however, we did not feel this was the right thing to do as wild animals should remain as wild as possible, and being passed around from human to human is unlikely to be in their best interest. Seeing them from afar brought us more than enough joy!
It’s not all about Giant Pandas!
As well as the Giant Pandas the park also had a number of other animals, including Red Pandas, which resembled more of a racoon, swans, lots of birds and beautiful butterflies. In addition to the animals, the park itself is also breath-taking. Situated on the Fotou Mountains, a mere 10 km from the city of Chengdu, it has everything you would expect from the pandas’ natural habitat, from rivers and lakes to small brooks; from ornamental green lawns to wild bamboo forests; as well as man made dens, rocks, caves and plant pits. It has everything needed to stimulate the pandas’ natural ecological environment.
All in all a fantastic experience and one I highly recommend for anyone remotely interested in pandas. It really was the highlight of our two weeks in China.
Is there more to Chengdu than pandas?
The answer is yes! Chengdu was a lovely city in it’s own right. We were only there for two nights so we didn’t get to explore it fully, but we did make the most of it.
Cooking Class in Chengdu
After spending the morning in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding we headed for a cookery class where we made a number of dishes, each of which we enjoyed as our lunchtime snack! We really love going on food tours or joining cookery classes when we are abroad. We always feel it is a great way to connect with the local culture. In this instance we learnt how to make Sweet and Sour Pork, Kung Pao Chicken, Fish Flavoured Eggplant (the sauce was nice, the eggplant not so much) and Dumplings. All delicious! And the added benefit of course that we didn’t have to buy any lunch either.
Szechuan Hot Pot
On the night of our arrival we decided to search out a local restaurant where we could enjoy a Szechuan Hot Pot. This dish is synonymous with the Chengdu region and therefore we felt it would be rude not to try it. We found a restaurant brimming with locals and no tourists and decided that this would be out spot. Through hand gestures we ordered the spicy pot and very soon after regretted that decision deeply! Szechuan peppers are numbing, and before we were even a quarter through our meal we had both lost all feeling on our tongues, inner mouth and lips!
We also weren’t exactly sure what we were meant to do! We were presented with a big bowl of boiling oil with a load of questionable ingredients on the side. We figured we needed to dip them in to cook them, but not knowing exactly what they were we weren’t sure how long we needed to cook them for. And were we meant to throw them in and scoop them out, or dip them in one at a time? If we let go we then could not find it again, but were we meant to keep hold of them? We were confused and had no means of asking.
We battled through for as long as we could but had to give up before having eaten even half of what was on our plates. The waitress came over obviously distressed at this and to try and placate her that the food was delicious, but we were simply full I did an OK sign with my thumb and index finger before then patting my hand on my belly on what I thought was the universal signal to say “I’m stuffed”.
Needless to say, it was not interpreted in that way. Minutes later the manager came over to check my belly. She asked if I was pregnant? No. Then there was only one possible explanation. I was ill!! They rushed off and brought another member of staff back, this time with a load of Chinese medicine to cure my (not) upset tummy! It took a lot of charades and the use of the phrase book until we finally convinced them that I was OK!
This is what I love about travel, that even when things don’t go to plan, it still ends up in a story to tell.
Chengdu is a beautiful city for wandering around although some areas feel like they have been built specifically with tourists in mind, making them look like the China of Disney movies. Somehow, it felt like we were in more of a theme park than an actual city. Despite this, we still enjoyed getting lost, walking through parks as we watched the locals partaking in communal dance classes and martial arts. We meandered through Remnin Park, where mothers come with photos of their sons and daughters in an attempt to marry them off. We discovered a beautiful bonsai tree garden where a there was a large pond of carp that were being bottle fed! Only in China!
The last of our Chengdu excursions saw us attempting to have dinner from the street stalls that lined Jin Li street. I would like to be able to say it was an astounding culinary experience. The truth, however, is that we didn’t make particularly good choices. This was before we had discovered the beauty of food tours, so we had no idea what to look out for, instead choosing to try anything that looked remarkably nice. We made all the wrong choices, even when we thought they were safe ones!
The one that I will forever remember though was the meat on sticks. Or so we thought it was, until we bit in to a cold hollow square. Our brains quickly raced to figure out what it could be, quickly settling on the most disgusting things we could think of! It turns out it wasn’t anything nearly as bad as our overactive minds had conjured, it was simply lotus seeds. Still… once you have an image in your mind, it is hard to get rid of it!
Our 32 hours in Chengdu was soon over as we continued on our whistle stop tour of China. It was time to move further down south and explore the karst mountains and rice paddies. The north and mid regions had not disappointed though. Ever since stepping foot in Beijing we had enjoyed every moment, but none more than spending a morning admiring the pandas. They exceeded every expectation I had.