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The Wild Side of China: A Nature Odyssey

An Exclusive Far-East Safari to See Pandas and Explore Remote Wildlife Reserves
2014 Itinerary

Day 1: Beijing, China

Our China adventure begins in Beijing late this morning. After lunch together, we visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, seat of imperial power from the 15th century till 1924. Later, we'll stop at the Cha Jia Fu teahouse where we'll have a slide show presentation on China's natural history as we enjoy authentic Chinese tea and snacks. This evening, enjoy a welcome dinner at a special restaurant—our first experience of typical Chinese family-style dining, sampling a wide selection of authentic local dishes.

Day 2: Beijing / Great Wall
This morning we drive outside the city to a less-visited section of the Great Wall, the 2,000-year-old edifice built to protect Chinese civilization from encroaching northern tribes. There's plenty of time to take a walk along the ancient stone wall as it undulates over the mountain ridges and ravines, perhaps climbing into one of the watchtowers to capture panoramic photos of the surrounding landscape. On the way back to our hotel we drive around the Olympic Park, site of the 2008 Summer Games, getting a close look at the famous Beijing National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, and Water Cube aquatics center. This afternoon we tour the narrow lanes of Old Beijing by pedicab, observing convivial scenes of daily life in the 500-year-old hutong neighborhoods where tradition prevails. Tonight, enjoy a classic Peking duck dinner at a restaurant renowned for the delicacy.

Day 3: Chengdu / Moon Bear Rescue Center
Depart early this morning to fly to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, famous for its silk brocade, piquant cuisine and giant pandas. On arrival, we're quickly struck by how different this region of southwestern China feels: the low-lying Sichuan Basin enjoys a subtropical climate, often cloaked in heavy mist, with lush vegetation. First we visit the Moon Bear Rescue Center, part of an international effort to protect highly endangered Asiatic black bears.* The bears we observe have been recovered from Chinese farms where they are raised for their bile, extracted under harsh conditions for medicinal properties. We learn about how the center is supporting education efforts to end such practices while providing a peaceful life for rescued bears. After checking in to our stylish highrise hotel in the center of bustling Chengdu, we'll walk to dinner together along the banks of the Brocade River, admiring the glittering skyline of Sichuan's provincial capital. This evening, we'll have our first chance to enjoy a Sichuan-style meal featuring the region's famed cuisine.

*Due to a special event, our April tour will be unable to visit the Moon Bear Rescue Center. Alternative activities will be planned.

Day 4: Chengdu Panda Base / Ya'an
Few experiences offer more delight for the wildlife lover than today’s close-up interactions with China’s celebrated giant pandas. First we visit Chengdu’s Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, home to approximately 100 pandas that live in a manmade environment built to reflect elements of their natural habitat. We'll learn about their diet and mating habits and how they have survived despite increasing threats to their existence. If we're lucky, there may be infants to observe in the nursery. The park also includes habitat for red pandas, which we'll have a good chance to see as well. This afternoon, we drive into the mountains to the town of Ya’an, our base for exploring Bifengxia Panda Base. Tonight our Expedition Leader will share a slideshow lecture on panda biology and explain how pandas are both alike and dissimilar to other bear species. 

Day 5: Bifengxia Panda Base / Chengdu
At Bifengxia Panda Base near Ya'an, we view pandas in a more natural setting. Our visit may include an optional opportunity to interact with the pandas, including cubs, for an additional donation to the base's panda conservation efforts. Afterward, if weather and time permit, we'll walk to the bottom of Bifeng Gorge for a leisurely short hike amidst the stream, waterfalls and abundant plant and birdlife, returning to the rim via a 26-story elevator. After lunch we head back to Chengdu, stopping to stroll through Bamboo Park, the city's green oasis where locals dance, play mahjongg and drink tea. Harboring 140 species of bamboo, these gardens shelter a nesting rookery for night herons and egrets. For those with energy left after our busy day, a Chinese opera and “face-changing” show is an option for evening entertainment—check with your Expedition Leader.

Days 6-8: Wild Panda Nature Reserve
Drive north into the Minshan Mountains, following the Fu River as it twists through narrow gorges. We stop for lunch in the Gansu Muslim village of Qing Xi, with time to wander and enjoy scenes of relaxed street life among the 300-year-old wooden buildings that date from the Qing Dynasty. We'll also visit a local primary school, sharing a donation of books about wildlife native to the region. Just beyond lies a secret slice of Chinese wilderness, a chain of remote nature reserves little known to outsiders and visited by only a handful of westerners. Our focus is a 90,000-acre sanctuary encompassing a densely forested ecosystem that’s among the most diverse and intact in Asia. This national reserve, rated Grade I by WWF as a global biodiversity hotspot, is home to healthy populations of some of the world's most endangered wildlife, including at least 60 giant pandas. The reserve also harbors more than 1,200 takin and 1,000 golden monkeys among its 430 different mammal species, as well as more than 2,400 different kinds of plants.

Look for animals on morning and evening excursions by park van, stopping to enjoy nature trails and stunning vistas of waterfalls, boulder-strewn gorges and misty peaks. Although sightings are extremely rare, our hope is to spy the elusive giant panda: this is prime panda habitat, and our exclusive permits allow us into the core areas of the reserve where they freely live and breed, affording us the best possible opportunity to see them in the wild. Even if we don't spot them in the heavy bamboo underbrush, just knowing that we could is exhilarating. We may also see Tibetan and Rhesus macaques, golden and Sichuan takin, musk deer, muntjac, serow, wild boar, blue sheep, and, more rarely, endangered moon bears and red pandas. Bird watching opportunities are superb with more than 150 species in the reserve, including the elegant golden pheasant. Night walks may reveal nocturnal creatures such as leopard cats, civets and hog-nosed badgers. 

Day 9: Wild Panda Reserve / Jiuzhaigou
We depart the reserve's wild reaches this morning. Just beyond, we stop in a traditional agricultural village to visit with a local farmer who was a former subsistence hunter in these forests. Since the creation of the reserve, he now uses his skills to guide researchers and visitors on expeditions into the mountains. On a tour of his farm, we’ll see and learn about a WWF-supported bio-waste project that uses agricultural byproducts to create methane for cooking fuel, reducing consumption of local wood and preserving habitat for endangered species. In the town of Pingwu, we visit one of China's most beautifully preserved 15th-century monasteries. Enshrined among the frescoes and carvings inside the temple is a thousand-armed wooden statue of a female bodhisattva, an impressive piece of Ming Dynasty Buddhist art. Continuing overland on a spectacular, winding drive through rugged mountains, we crest the over 12,000-foot Rhododendron Pass and descend into the Jiuzhai Valley on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan culture is dominant here, evidenced by the colorful villages, prayer wheels and chortens that dot the landscape.

Day 10: Jiuzhaigou National Park
Spend a full day exploring the exquisite natural beauty of Jiuzhiagou National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and UN Biosphere Reserve deep in the Minshan Mountains. China's premier national park, Jiuzhaigou offers excellent bird watching on easy boardwalk hikes through this high mountain valley. Photographers will be captivated by the idyllic backdrop of steep peaks, forests, wetlands, wildflowers and a multitude of lakes and waterfalls. The park's karst geology has created a series of terraced limestone pools filled with aquamarine water, which flows over ledges in crystalline cascades. Yet Jiuzhaigou is more than just spectacular scenery: the park encompasses nine Tibetan villages, 220 bird species, and many endangered plants and animals including the giant panda, Sichuan golden monkey, Sichuan takin, and numerous orchids and rhododendrons. Our time in the park includes a special lunch prepared by a local Tibetan family in their home, followed by some time to browse the adjacent village beneath the fluttering prayer flags. 

Day 11: Exploring Jiuzhaigou
Depending on weather conditions, our explorations today may include forest hikes among turquoise karst lakes and streams and/or a visit to an authentic Tibetan village and monastery to meet locals and learn more about life and customs within this deeply traditional culture. Our Expedition Leader will plan activities based upon seasonal conditions and the group's interests and physical capacities—more than one option may be offered.

Day 12: Chengdu
Another scenic drive is in store this morning as we climb to the Tibetan Plateau, keeping an eye out for grazing yaks. We depart by jet from one of China's highest airports (above 11,000 feet!) for our flight back to Chengdu, arriving in time for a late lunch. This afternoon we'll walk along pedestrian Jinli Street, a reconstruction of a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty marketplace where we have a chance to shop for local handicrafts. Time permitting, you may wish to indulge in a traditional Asian massage (additional cost) at our hotel’s elegant new Chi Spa. Our grand adventure comes to a close this evening with a farewell dinner at one of China’s most spectacularly located dining venues: a restaurant built on a footbridge spanning the Brocade River, with egrets flying beneath.

Day 13: Depart
After a final sumptuous buffet breakfast at our luxury hotel, transfer to the airport for your departing flight.

+ Interested in adding a few days to your trip? Click here to view our Extension Options.

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