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The Wild Side of China Photo Adventure

Photograph Giant Pandas, Serene Landscapes & Rare Wildlife in Remote Nature Reserves
Day 1: Chengdu, China
Arrive in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, famous for its silk brocade, piquant cuisine and giant pandas. The low-lying Sichuan Basin in southwestern China enjoys a subtropical climate, often cloaked in heavy mist, with lush vegetation. After checking into our elegant highrise hotel in the center of bustling Chengdu, we'll walk to a local restaurant together along the banks of the Brocade River that winds through the heart of downtown, admiring the glittering skyline of Sichuan's provincial capital. Enjoy a slideshow preview of our trip and our first chance to savor a Sichuan-style meal featuring the region's famed cuisine at our welcome dinner this evening.

Day 2: Dujiangyan Panda Base / Chengdu
Few experiences offer more delight for the wildlife photographer than today's close-up interactions with China's celebrated giant pandas. This morning we visit the Dujiangyan Panda Base, located outside of Chengdu. This new research base, recently opened to visitors, focuses particularly on rescue, disease control and rehabilitation of injured and ill wild pandas. It opened in 2013 with the arrival of 10 injured pandas and has the capacity to care for 40 giant pandas at a time. Back in Chengdu this afternoon, we take a 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. After a Sichuan-style hot pot dinner, a Chinese "face-changing" show featuring music and drama is an option for evening entertainment.

Day 3: Chengdu Panda Base / Ya'an
Today we visit Chengdu's renowned Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a world-class research facility, conservation education center, and international educational tourism destination. The base is home to approximately 100 pandas that live in a manmade environment built to reflect elements of their natural habitat. We'll have a chance to get thrilling photos at close range as we 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 and photograph as well. After lunch in Chengdu, 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 4: Bifengxia Panda Base / Chengdu or Jiangyou
At Bifengxia Panda Base this morning, we photograph pandas in a more natural setting of lush bamboo thickets and tall trees. The center was established in 2003, inside a 1,000-acre reserve of untouched natural forest offering ideal native habitat. Though the pandas live within enclosures for monitoring, most have access to large tracts of outdoor space. The panda "kindergarten" here is a popular attraction, where yearlings enjoy playing to the delight of visitors. 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—a delightful photo opportunity indeed!

Like Sichuan's well-known Wolong center, which was badly damaged in the 2008 earthquake, the Bifengxia panda base is a branch of the China Conservation & Research Center for the Giant Panda, Wolong Nature Center, under the Department of Forestry. After the earthquake, 40 of Wolong's pandas were evacuated to Bifengxia, with more arriving since. Bifengxia houses mostly sub-adults not yet in the breeding program and senior pandas, too old for breeding, although a small breeding area has been constructed, in addition to a hospital. After plenty of time to photograph the pandas of Bifengxia, depending on timing and traffic we'll either head back to Chengdu or continue on to Jiangyou later this afternoon.

Day 5: Minshan Mountains / Qing Xi / Wild Panda Nature Reserve
Drive north into the Minshan Mountains, following the Fu River as it twists through narrow gorges draped in lush forest. After lunch in a small town en route, we stop to visit with a local farmer who was a former subsistence hunter in these forests. Since the creation of a nearby 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 by-products to create methane for cooking fuel, reducing consumption of local wood and preserving habitat for local species.

This afternoon we stop in the Gansu Muslim village of Qing Xi, with time to wander and photograph scenes of relaxed street life among the 300-year-old wooden buildings that date from the Qing dynasty. We'll have dinner in a small home-based restaurant run by a local family, with a chance to enjoy interactions with our gracious hosts. Just beyond the village lies a secret slice of Chinese wilderness, a chain of nature reserves little known to outsiders and visited by only a handful of westerners. We drive up a narrow river valley to reach our hotel, perhaps stopping en route to photograph wildlife as we enter the confines of the park.

Days 6 & 7: Wild Panda Nature Reserve
Our focus for these two exciting days is a 100,000-acre sanctuary encompassing a densely forested ecosystem that is 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.

We'll aim to photograph animals on morning and evening excursions, stopping to enjoy nature trails and stunning vistas of waterfalls, boulder-strewn gorges and misty peaks. Though sightings are exceptionally 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 photography opportunities are superb with more than 150 species in the reserve, including the elegant golden pheasant. Night walks and drives may reveal nocturnal creatures such as leopard cats, civets and hog-nosed badgers. Many of the animals lack a fear of humans due to nearly a half-century of protection from hunting, and we can often obtain photographs from the many remote roads and trails we will explore, though dense vegetation and weather may affect our sightings. 

Day 8: Pingwu / Jiuzhaigou
We depart the reserve's wild reaches this morning, scouting for wildlife along the way. Just outside the park boundary we stop in a local village to visit a primary school. The kids are always happy to pose for photos, offering a special cultural highlight. Driving on, we pass timeless images of rural Chinese life en route to the town of Pingwu, where we'll have lunch and visit Bao'en Temple, one of China's best-preserved 15th-century Buddhist 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 12,000-foot Rhododendron Pass (pausing for photos on top, of course) 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. We'll stop periodically to photograph the stunning landscape and cultural sights as we traverse the ethnic Baima Tibetan region en route to Jiuzhaigou. Arriving at our hotel in the heart of the valley, we check in and enjoy dinner.

Day 9: Jiuzhaigou National Park
Spend a full day photographing 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 outstanding birdwatching on easy boardwalk hikes through this high mountain valley. The park's idyllic backdrop of steep peaks, ravines, forest, meadows, marshes, wildflowers, and a multitude of lakes and waterfalls provides endless photography opportunities. Supreme among these exquisite scenes is a series of terraced limestone pools filled with aquamarine water, which flow over ledges in crystalline cascades. The park's karst geology has created one of the greatest places on earth to photograph waterfalls, and we’ll practice long exposure techniques to capture the motion of the water.

Yet Jiuzhaigou is more than just spectacular scenery: the park encompasses 220 bird species, and many endangered plants and animals including the giant panda, Sichuan golden monkey, Sichuan takin, and numerous orchids and rhododendrons. Nine Tibetan villages are also located inside the park, and we’ll enjoy a special lunch prepared by a local Tibetan family in their home, followed by some time to take photos in the adjacent village beneath the fluttering prayer flags. After lunch, those who wish can return to the hotel to relax or do some shopping, while others may opt to stay in the park for a longer birding walk.

Day 10: Jiuzhaigou National Park
Enjoy another full day of photography in the park, with a packed picnic lunch. Our explorations today will include more forest hikes among turquoise karst lakes and streams, with an excursion to Long Lake at the head of the valley. This is the deepest lake in the park, surrounded by spectacular high-mountain vistas. Local legend holds that a Lochness-type monster inhabits its aquamarine waters. We return to our hotel in time for dinner.

Day 11: 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. Optional activities this afternoon, depending on flight times, may include a 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 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 12: Chengdu / Depart
After a final sumptuous buffet breakfast at our luxury hotel, transfer to the airport for your departing flight.

Physical Rating: Moderate

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