Seeing the pandas in Chengdu is as popular as visiting the Great Wall of China in Beijing or the Terracotta Army in Xian. As soon as you arrive in the city you know you have hit the land of panda madness. Their adorable faces greet you from every street corner, appear in all manner of advertisements and are even used to decorate taxi car bonnets. Random Chengdu panda-themed goods are sold at every street market and an official panda merchandise store even exists within the city’s main shopping streets, including the Big and Small Alley and the Jinli night fair.
But the Giant Panda Breeding Base is where the real action is at.
My main reaction upon arriving in the city, alongside a general feeling of excitement about the opportunity of seeing a rare animal native to China, was an apprehension that visiting the pandas would not live up to the hype lingering all around me. Would I be left feeling disappointed? Is the panda overload just another money-making tourist scheme?
An inexpensive trip of approximately 200 Yuan (£20), including transport from the hostel, or 58 Yuan (£6) and a 2 Yuan (20p) bus ride, it really does deserve all the panda love the city exudes. In my mind I had imagined an oversized zoo, with a few cages and uninviting box rooms scattered here and there full of pandas looking less than pleased with their lives of captivity and where tourists still found it a wonderful sight regardless – much like the pandas I saw at Ocean Park in Hong Kong.
Chengdu Panda Conservation and Education
Instead, I spent hours wandering around what seemed like a never-ending open space of perfectly landscaped, dense green forest and beautiful park land. This is no zoo, but a huge conservation base spanning 7,000 square metres. Rather than feeling enclosed, you feel at one with nature as you meander peacefully through endless amounts of greenery, past towering trees and across quaint wooden bridges and viewing levels. You realise straight away that you are in a well-run establishment, where the setting has been deliberately crafted to provide a humane and self-sustaining home for the 50 or so pandas that reside here.
With no glass screens and wire mesh fencing to ruin the view, you are right the heart of the action, where the pandas are rustling about; crunching and crackling on large supplies of bamboo; lazing around without a care in the world; not flinching or becoming uncomfortable at the sight of humans.
Information boards are in abundance, detailing general panda facts and key insights into the research that takes place there and there’s even a short film if you like that kind of tourist reel. Plaques are also scattered around bearing the names and birth dates of some of the pandas – except they all looked the same to me so I couldn’t keep up with that kind of intricate detail.
While giant pandas are the main focus here, you can also see red pandas (which actually look like racoons and are not as interesting as their giant cousins) as well as learn about the research base’s conservation programmes for tigers and monkeys.
When to See Pandas in Chengdu Breeding Base
Open from 8 am – 6 pm, we were told that it’s best to visit before 11:30 am when the pandas are at their most active before falling asleep in the early afternoon. Since they are pretty much lazy creatures anyway, you will want to see them in top form. At their best, they are fascinatingly humorous. I’ll never forget the sight of pandas lying on their backs, covered in a heap of bamboo and eating shreds of it from their bellies. If there was a version of panda food porn, this is it.
Then there was panda we named ‘Dozy Dave’ who climbed a small tree and had absolutely no idea how to get back down! We thought about telling one of the conservation workers about his plight but then realised he probably spends every day in this same predicament! Dozy Dave moved all of half a metre in the 20 minutes we spent watching him and gave up very easily. I think he was either scared or couldn’t be arsed, although I guess it’s probably the latter. Just like his mate around the corner who made the giant step up to the next level of his climbing frame and then decided to roll onto his back with exhaustion. Maybe this really is the life?
Chengdu Baby Panda Viewing
The award-winning conservation base includes a panda hospital and a nursery, where you can see baby pandas in their incubators and resting peacefully on baby blankets. You can’t help but coo over them and try and wing out your time by the viewing window before the guard ushers you on.
Monitored around the clock by an expert team who make up part of the project’s many scientific and technical workers, you can tell they are well looked after and that the breeding process here – which includes artificial insemination and other means to overcome the mating difficulties of these sexually slothful beings – is successful and well managed.
Holding and Feeding a Panda
It’s here that you can hold a panda for around £135, except I had better things to do with my backpacking budget than to hold an animal that, although living in captivity, is still wild and potentially unpredictable. I also think this practice of being passed around humans and having a camera flashing in your face all day is a bit cruel.
You can pay for other experience’s here, such as feeding the panda’s, where you stand on a viewing platform, attach a piece of bamboo to a long stick and lower it down for the panda to take from you. It was a lovely sight to see, except when a woman dangled the stick up and down, meanly teasing the panda who nearly fell off the ledge of its enclosure trying to catch it. Irresponsible tourists have no place here.
Apart from shattering my childhood view that all pandas are black and white and fluffy (they are mainly black and yellow and slightly matted), this was one of the best and most delightful days out I have had in China. The Giant Panda Breeding Base states: “Successful conservation programs require the combination of good science and effective communication about needed human conservation behaviour” and it certainly lives up to its word.
Even if your interest doesn’t lay this deep, the sheer size and man-made beauty of the place and the close proximity you get to the pandas is an experience in itself.