What better way to celebrate your thirtieth birthday than by visiting Chengdu and spending the weekend with pandas…

Arriving in Chengdu

Ben and I headed to Chengdu for a long weekend to celebrate my thirtieth birthday. It. Was. Awesome. We left Thursday morning and took the under three hour flight from Beijing to Chengdu. Once we landed, we checked into our hotel and then hit the streets. Straight away, we could tell that Chengdu was a much different city than Beijing. There was more green around and….the scooters actually stay on the street, in their lanes, and wait for the light!!! It was amazing to see how people follow the rules of the road. They even had traffic cops directing people. It was much more pedestrian friendly as you could easily walk on the sidewalks.  While it is busy with cars, you could feel the much more relaxed atmosphere.

Walking Around Chengdu

Tianfu Square

As we walked around, we first headed to Tianfu Square since it was close to our hotel. Tianfu Square is a popular area because there is a big statue of Mao there.

While Ben was getting ready to take some pictures, a Chinese family kept looking our way and finally the lady walked over with a toddler and asked for a picture. She was so happy. She then just put the baby in my arms to hold for a picture. I guess they don’t see too many Westerners.  Glad I could be of service.

People’s Park

From Tianfu Square, we continued our walk over to People’s Park. It’s actually a free park and so nice. It was a little cool and drizzling when we went there but that didn’t stop people from hanging around drinking tea and playing games.  Tea originated in Chengdu.

Our one guide told us that Chengdu has two seasons-winter and summer. It’s usual for the city to be grey and dreary with it being very humid in the summer.  The city is surrounded by the mountains.

Wide and Narrow Alleys

After People’s Park (and someone trying to sell us their tour services), we headed to the Wide and Narrow Alleys (interesting name if you asked me). Apparently, this is an area that was rebuilt, so there are lots of shops and food. The most interesting thing here to me would be the people offering ear cleaning services right there in the alleyways. Strange (but the sign said it was good for you!).

We ended our first day in Chengdu back at the hotel to prepare for our big day in the morning-visiting the pandas for the first time!

Birthday Plans

I decided for my birthday that I’d like to see the pandas–and hoped to hold one too! I looked online for tour options since I heard that holding pandas was difficult (if not impossible) to do anymore due to trying to keep the pandas healthy. After some more research, I learned that you can no longer hold pandas at the Chengdu Center but you can at the Dujiangyan Center–for a hefty donation. Since it was my birthday (and a pretty big birthday too!), we went with the tour that offered us the opportunity to hold a panda and to feed a panda. This is certainly not cheap but well worth it! Plus, your donation goes towards helping the pandas.

Dujiangyan Panda Center

We booked a tour through viator.com to ensure that our trip to see the pandas was a success. Our guide, Tina, and our driver picked us up at 8 in the morning and we took the hour and half drive out to Dujiangyan. It was a nice drive as we saw kiwi trees and rice fields along the way.

Once we got there, Ben had to buy his ticket (he opted not to hold or feed the pandas but take pictures–and I must say, he got a great deal as he got to go to where we went and see the pandas up close still). We then went to the volunteer area, and I put on my blue volunteer jumpsuit.

Being a Panda Volunteer–Feeding Time

All ready to go, Ben, our guide, our panda keeper guide, and another American all hopped on a tram that took us to one of the panda enclosures. In order to feed the pandas, I learned that we had to help the panda keepers first. That meant I had to help with weeding…ok. (Everything looked like a weed to me–apparently, they weren’t all weeds).  After just a few minutes of weeding, we fed a panda!!! They love bamboo, carrots, and panda pancakes.

Picture Time!!

After feeding, we headed back to the volunteer area to get ready for our panda picture.  It was just me, the other American, and a Canadian girl who were taking the picture with the panda (and Ben got to go along for the ride).  At this point, the rain started a bit, but it didn’t bother the panda (or me for that matter) at all.

The panda we took our picture with was a year and 7 months old. (Adults are considered 2 years and older). The panda keepers first tried to get Yami, the panda, out by using food but since she just wanted to sit and eat, they carried her instead.  It took 4 grown men to get her out.  Yeah, I wasn’t going to be holding a panda that took several grown men to carry!

This panda, Yami, knew her job though. She hopped up on the bench, picture pose ready, and started munching on her bamboo. She was in heaven. She was just sooo happy. It was nice that there were only three of us for pictures. While you still don’t get a ton of time with the panda, it didn’t feel rushed like it might have with others in a larger group. We were told to hug the panda at the shoulder and to not touch the ears, belly, or arms as it could make her startled and/or aggressive. You definitely don’t want a giant panda taking a swing at you!

This we just so cool! The panda’s fur was coarse but fluffy (I did have to wear plastic gloves but you could still feel the panda).  I just loved being up close–seeing those big, sharp teeth and those huge, sharp claws, along with just the happy, relaxed personality.  Highlight of my birthday right here.

Continuing Being a Panda Keeper Volunteer

I didn’t realize that the tour I signed up for would let me be a volunteer panda keeper for the day. I thought I just would feed the pandas and get my picture taken and be done.

Well, my guides said I could decide if I wanted to do the half day or full day…which meant I could feed the pandas again! Of course I wanted to feed the pandas again!!  It was great getting to volunteer for the whole day!

Learning about Pandas

Since we were staying for the whole day, after the picture, we went back to the volunteer room before we had a break to have lunch (buffet style).  After lunch, we then watched a video about pandas. That was so interesting.

  • Did you know that most pandas are born in August?
  • And the moms only have two days in which they can conceive?
  • And the moms decide how long the pregnancy will last-from 4-6 months as they wait for the nice weather when the bamboo is best?
  • And that moms have a 50% chance of giving birth to twins?
  • And moms only make enough milk to feed one baby so they choose the strongest to keep and leave the weakest behind?
    • But at the Breeding Centers, the keepers will help raise the babies. They actually trade the babies with the mom every two days, so the babies get the mom’s help too.
  • And baby pandas stay together but once they are an adult (2 years and older), they live by themselves because they want their own territory?
    • that explains my question about the Beijing Zoo and having the pandas alone

We also learned how devastating the 2008 earthquake was.  I remember when that happened and the city still feels the effects.  China is working hard to keep the panda population maintained and growing.  They want to reintroduce them to the wild.  There are problems with this too because of the predators–like the large cats that try and attack pandas. Dujiangyan was opened after the 2008 earthquake closed the other center.  It has only recently been open to the public.

An Unexpected Surprise

We planned to go to this panda center on Friday because that’s when my birthday was. We didn’t realize that that was also the day when BaoBao (the panda who was at the National Zoo in D.C.)  was being released back into her enclosure (after about a month in quarantine there). That was cool seeing BaoBao back home in China!

Snack time!

So after the presentation of welcoming BaoBao back, we went back to the panda enclosure to help out some more before snack time. I helped to break the bamboo (it’s easier for the Pandas to eat). I had to slam the bamboo stalks onto the ground. It’s harder than it looks. Bamboo is heavy.

After that, we went into the enclosure to remove the old bamboo (they have particular tastes!) and give new bamboo. And a note about bamboo–even though you seeing bamboo growing throughout the park, the pandas don’t eat/like that bamboo. They bring in bamboo from elsewhere that is more appetizing and easier to eat for the pandas.

For the second feeding, my panda loved her treat (they were all females here) of bamboo.  The panda keeper then tried feeding her a panda pancake next, but she wanted to continue eating bamboo (she reminded me of our pups).

The End of the Volunteer Day

After the second feeding, we walked back to volunteer center to make some panda pancakes but first we had to gather Ben who was lucky enough to be able to get a good spot to take pictures of the red pandas.

We ended our time at this panda center by making panda pancakes (a mixture of rice, egg, bamboo, etc). We just shaped them (like making sugar cookies) and then they boil them.

PuZhou Temple

Since we were out in Dujiangyan, we decided to make a quick stop the the PuZhou Temple. It’s nickname is the Kongfu Panda Temple since this is the temple that inspired the movie Kongfu Panda. You wouldn’t know that there was a temple there because it’s up in the trees. It was a neat temple to visit so I’m glad we took the extra time for that. Our guide (and driver) were fabulous, never making us feel rushed at all.

New Day, New Plans

For Saturday, I had planned for us to go to the Chengdu Panda Reserve on our own and then just tour some of Chengdu by ourselves but we had started talking about the Leshan Temple with our guide and we also got to do more that first day we arrived, so it opened up our Saturday afternoon. We were thinking how could we hire a driver or book a tour with such short notice (it was after 8:00 at night) but then the tour company we had just used that day sent a follow up text asking how things went, so we thought why not just ask and see if they had anyone available for the next day (our guide that day was unfortunately unavailable-she was good). Lucky for us though, they got us another tour guide and the same driver for a reasonable price.  We basically did the tour they offered on viator but booked directly through the tour company this time and just paid the tour guide directly.

Chengdu Panda Base

We headed to the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center in the morning about 8am. This place was cool because there were so many pandas of all ages there. I definitely recommend going to this place!  It close and convenient with lots of pandas.  (The Dujiangyan Panda Center is great if you want to hold/feed pandas but do this one too!).

Pandas, Pandas, Pandas

My favorite pandas were the 7 month olds who just looked like they were loving life as they lounged around eating. I could spend all day watching them! We also got to see a mom and her two babies. Then, there was another enclosure with 9 babies-too cute! They are adorable climbing up and sleeping in the trees. Here, I actually got to see the red pandas being active. Boy, they are good climbers and quick too!

Leshan Grand Buddha

After we finished there, we did the 2 1/2 drive to Leshan to see the Leshan Grand Buddha. Leshan itself is a cool town (I said city and the guide laughed thinking it was small…then I asked how many people and she said “just 5 million”).  There are three rivers that converge there. It was really pretty.

Boat Ride

We took a boat out to see the Giant Buddha and got a great view. They say it’s taller than the Statue of Liberty. We also learned that since it’s made out of red sandstone, it’s easy to carve but also crumbles easily, so it’s retouched every three years. After the boat ride, we went across the bridge to see the Giant Buddha up close.

A Little Hike

We had a short walk up and made it to the top. Here, we could see the top of the Buddha and get some great views.  There was also a long line waiting to walk down to the bottom-we opted against that wait (which can be three times longer during peak times!). We saw the light house/pagoda at the top as well as a temple with three buddhas inside representing past, present, and future. We also learned how the four knights when you first enter temples represent the different directions (N, S, E, W) and the laughing Buddha in the front is to welcome you with the warrior Buddha in the back for the protection.

Jin Li Street

On our final morning, we headed out to see the Wuhou Temple and JinLi Street.  We paid to enter the temple and Ben thought that it wasn’t too great until you realized that it kept going and going.  It was so pretty there.

After touring the inside of the temple area, we headed out to JinLi Street where there were a bunch of merchants selling food and souvenirs.  Again, a big difference between Chengdu and Beijing would be the people.  In Chengdu, the shopkeepers didn’t bother you and gave you a chance to actually look at what they were selling.

A Long Weekend

It was a long weekend filled with some long days but I am so glad we had the experience.  It was awesome.  It was cool seeing a different part of China and experiencing the Sichuan culture.

Our Long Weekend Agenda:

If you’re heading to Chengdu, here’s how we spent our time:

  • Thursday: morning flight, check into hotel, walk and explore the city (Tianfu Square, People’s Park, Wide and Narrow Alleys)
  • Friday: Dujiangyan Panda Research Center to be a volunteer panda keeper for the day (hug panda and feed panda-twice), Puyou Temple
  • Saturday: Chengdu Panda Center and Leshan Grand Buddha
  • Sunday: JinLi Street, check out of hotel, afternoon flight home

TOTE:  Take advantage of those once in a lifetime opportunities if you can!  (I got to hug and feed a panda!!!)