If there was only one thing that I wanted to do while I was in Sichuan Province in China last summer, it was to see a Panda. In my mind, there was nothing that embodied China quite as much as the mighty Panda and while knocking things off bucket lists wasn’t usually something I paid a lot of attention to while traveling, I knew that setting sight on the most beloved Chinese symbol was one of those things I just had to do.
The Panda is sadly an endangered species and there are less than two thousand who still live in the wild and therefore we knew that our best bet for a sighting would be to visit one of the reserves that have been set up to fight this extinction. The most easily accessible and popular Panda reserve in Sichuan is the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu, but prompted by the promise of a beautiful mountain scenery we decided to visit the Bifengxia Panda Base about an hour away from the city instead.
The Bifengxia Panda Base used to be one of the minor Panda reserves in China, but after a terrible earthquake destroyed the main research base at the Wolong Nature Reserve in 2008, the surviving Pandas were moved to Bifengxia which quickly became popular with visitors.
We went on a particularly wet and gloomy day, but as we drove up the final few kilometers to the reserve and passed through a beautiful mountain range with narrow valleys and lush forests, enveloped in a gentle mist, I already had a feeling that it would be one of those special days. The car park was still a few kilometers away from the actual entrance of the reserve and after purchasing our entrance tickets in the industrial-looking building on the left, we hopped on the free shuttle bus that was bringing us deeper into the mountains.
Instead of taking one of the golf-cart like shuttle vans that connected the different Panda enclosures within the reserve with each other, we decided to follow one of the little paths and before we knew it, we had lost the group of people that we had ridden on the bus with. The streets were still moist and a bit slippery from a morning rainfall and while the car park had been busy with many little stands that had sold all sorts of things, the reserve was quiet and peaceful and – just like Mount Emei – this seemed to defy the stereotypical image of stress and chaos I had usually associated with China.
The bamboo forest was beautiful and there were so many different shades of green, but I soon became anxious to see a Panda and began consulting the map to figure out where exactly in the reserve we were when I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye. I glanced up at the tree tops, my heart beating faster, and squinted my eyes just to make sure… and that’s when I noticed a little Panda child climbing through the branches.
I don’t think anything could have prepared me for stumbling upon the so-called Panda Kindergarten. I kept on browsing the branches with my eyes, looking for other Pandas in true Where is Waldo? fashion, and I squealed a little bit every time I discovered yet another little bear up in the trees. Grown Pandas seem to move so slowly that seeing just how fast and steadily the little ones could climb was astonishing and it was truly one of the most precious things I had ever witnessed.
But, alas, the other Pandas were demanding some attention as well and if the baby Pandas had been utterly adorable, their older kin left me completely smitten. The first adult Panda that we spotted was this fellow who just sat in his spot and munched on a long piece of bamboo from which he kept on diligently removing the tough outer parts. It was the most mundane thing in the world and yet I could have watched for hours without ceasing to be fascinated.
It’s hard to describe just why Pandas are so very endearing, but there is just something about the gentleness of their movement in contrast with the strength and power inherent in their size that is both unexpected and captivating. I am also sorry for the unreasonable amount of super similar pictures in this part of the post, but I just couldn’t delete or not share any of these photographs!
When we left the reserve after a few hours, little did I know that one of the best parts of the day was still ahead of me. The car park and the reserve are separated by a gorge that is transected by a terribly scenic hiking path and so we decided to skip the shuttle bus on the way back and walked instead. Lonely Planet insits that the gorge is the true highlight of a visit to the Bifengxia Panda Base and while I had trouble believing that before visiting – come on, we’re talking about Pandas here! – I quickly had to concede that my favorite guidebook brand was right.
After stopping for a quick street food snack of deliciously unhealthy corn fritters, we walked through an overgrown forest along a stream that would frequently burst into waterfalls. By visiting the reserve first and doing the hike last instead of the other way around, we had unknowingly also picked the easier route and the path went downhill for most of the time. And after the killer hike on Emei Shan, my legs were definitely thankful to not have to climb the steep stairs that we occasionally encountered on the path!
We passed many amazing waterfalls on our way and since I had picked up a new camera a few weeks prior I tried to experiment a little with different shutter speeds to see how it would affect the images. Some of the waterfalls were quite tall and majestic, while others were rather small and the deeper we went into the gorge, the more imposing and grand the mountains seemed to become.
At the end of the gorge – or the beginning, I guess, depending on how you look at it – there was an elevator that quickly hauled us back up to the car park. The ugly concrete construction looked odd and a bit out of place compared to the natural beauty of the area, but upon looking up at the steep mountainside I was pretty happy to not have to climb up the rocks myself.
If you’re travelling to Sichuan and tend to lose it when cute animals are involved, you will probably absolutely love a visit to one of the Panda bases! I had a very fantastic day and felt a bit sad that I had to say goodbye to Sichuan with its beautiful countryside soon after, but cherished that I had the opportunity to see a less stereo-typical part of China. Until next time, Sichuan!