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The Wild Side of China Photo Adventure


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 in to our sleek high-rise hotel in the city of lively Chengdu, we'll walk to a local restaurant along the banks of the Brocade River that winds through the heart of downtown, admiring the glittering skyline of Sichuan's provincial capital. Enjoy our first chance to savor a Sichuan-style meal at a welcome dinner this evening.

Day 2: Chengdu Panda Base / Bamboo Park / Chengdu
This morning we visit Chengdu’s renowned Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a world-class research facility, conservation center and international educational tourism destination. The base is home to approximately 100 pandas that live in a man-made 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. The park’s lush environs also include habitat for red pandas, which we’ll have a good chance to see. This afternoon we'll stroll through Bamboo Park, the city's green oasis. Harboring 140 species of bamboo, the park's extensive gardens shelter a nesting rookery for night herons and egrets. We’ll also have opportunities to witness local people who come to the park to dance, practice tai chi, play mahjongg and drink tea. A Chinese “face-changing” show featuring music and drama is an included option for evening entertainment.

Day 3: Xi’an

This morning, ride the new high-speed train to the ancient imperial city of Xi’an. One of China’s earliest regions to be settled, Xi’an is where its first emperor united the disparate warring tribes of the vast realm in the 3rd century B.C. to launch one of the world’s most extraordinary civilizations. The capital of 13 dynasties, Xi’an’s walled city and photogenic narrow streets hark back to a time when it was a center for cultural, religious and economic interactions between East and West at the east end of the Silk Road. After lunch, we explore Xi'an's well-preserved ancient wall that was built in 200 B.C. It is one of China’s oldest and best preserved walls, and we’ll walk atop it to take in the old city within its confines. We’ll also enjoy views of the Bell Tower, Drum Tower and Wild Goose Pagoda. Then head to our hotel to check in. After dinner, we’ll wander through the Muslim Quarter, settled by Persian and Arab traders who traveled the Silk Road 1,300 years ago.

Day 4: Xi'an—Terracotta Army / Golden Monkey Nature Reserve

Depart early this morning for Xi’an’s most famous sight, the Terracotta Warriors. Unearthed in 1974 in the suburbs outside the walled city, the stone army is one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries in history. Consisting of 8,000 life-size soldiers, 100 chariots and 600 horses, none of which is identical, the army was built to guard the massive mausoleum complex of Qin Shihuang (259–210 B.C.), the pivotal leader who became China’s first emperor. After lunch, we take the bullet train to Foping to reach the Golden Monkey Nature Reserve. From the station, it’s about a 30-minute drive to our hotel located in a forested mountain area. If time permits, we may take a short nature walk with our Expedition Leader before dinner. 

Day 5: Golden Monkey Nature Reserve / Qing Xi / Wild Panda Nature Reserve
Just beyond our secluded hotel is China’s best place to see and photograph golden snub-nosed monkeys. We’ll walk uphill for about 30 minutes on a trail leading into the nature reserve where the monkeys reside, with rest stops en route. The reserve covers 140 square miles of wild terrain that contains exceptional biodiversity, including 52 nationally protected animal species. It is also the most northerly habitat for giant pandas in China, though we will not be in an area to look for them. We’ll expect to get excellent photos of endangered golden monkeys, however, which have been habituated to humans and are unfazed by our presence. The monkeys live in highly social bands, and their interactions delight us. Covered with a mantle of long, shaggy fur, they are hardy creatures, tolerating winter snow and colder temperatures more than any other non-human primate.

After lunch, board the bullet train to Qingchuan, where we meet our bus and drive to the Wild Panda Nature Reserve. Along the way, we stop in the Gansu Muslim village of Qing Xi, with time to wander and photograph scenes of relaxed street life amid the 300-year-old wooden buildings that date from the Qing dynasty. Just beyond the village lies a secret slice of Chinese wilderness, a chain of nature reserves little known to outsiders and visited by a mere handful of Westerners. As dusk falls, we drive up a narrow valley to enter one of the parks, looking for nocturnal wildlife en route to our hotel on the banks of a rushing river.

Days 6 & 7: Exploring the Wild Panda Nature Reserve

Our photography focus for 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 and vulnerable wildlife, including at least 60 giant pandas. The reserve also harbors more than 1,200 takin among its 430 different mammal species, as well as more than 2,400 different kinds of plants. Look for wildlife on morning and evening excursions, stopping to enjoy nature trails and photograph stunning vistas of waterfalls, boulder-strewn gorges and mist-shrouded limestone peaks. This is prime panda habitat, and although sightings of this famously elusive animal are extremely rare, 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 signs of them in the wild. Even if we are unlikely to spot them in the heavy bamboo understory, just knowing that we’re their midst is exhilarating.

Bring your longest lens for possible photos of 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—the elegant golden pheasant is a prize. Night walks may reveal nocturnal creatures such as leopard cat, civet and hog-nosed badger. Many of the animals lack a fear of humans due to nearly a half-century of protection from hunting, and we can often get photos from the many remote roads and trails we explore, although dense vegetation and weather may affect our sightings.

Day 8: Wild Panda Nature Reserve / Dujiangyan
A scenic drive is in store as we make the full-day journey south from the reserve to Dujiangyan. As we travel through this mountainous region, we pause periodically along our route to photograph dramatic landscapes, rural villages and Buddhist temples. Along our path, we’ll pass through Mianyang, known as Fujun in ancient times, with a 2,200-year history that spans the Qin and Han dynasties. In Deyang, we’ll take time to explore inside the peaceful Confucius Temple with it lofty red walls and yellow-glazed roofs—a site that has been a center for worship of the ancient Chinese philosophy for more than 1,000 years. The complex was originally built during the Song dynasty, and renovated and expanded during the Qing dynasty, honoring a secular philosophy of morality and justice that emerged in Chinese culture around 200 B.C. Time permitting, we’ll also stroll the elegant 1,000-year-old Jiezi Town—a contrast of water, stone and city life that is sure to captivate your camera lens. Located at the foot of Fengqi Mountain with the Weijiang River flowing through it, the historic old town is revered for its ancient Qing-dynasty paved streets lined with shops and houses, the Guangyan Buddhist temple, 65-foot-tall millennium ginkgo trees and the Ziku pagoda with its legend of the white snake carved into the highest layers. We spend the night in Dujiangyan at an elegant new resort hotel.

Day 9: Gengda Wolong Panda Base / Rilong
Today, we set out from Dujiangyan to visit the newly rebuilt Gengda Wolong Panda Center in the Wolong Nature Reserve, a base that integrates scientific research, captive breeding and reintroduction of pandas into the wild. More than 30 pandas reside at the center, which includes a 680-acre bamboo forest. You’ll have an opportunity for close-up photos of giant pandas in this natural habitat. Traveling west, we head for Rilong, a Tibetan village known famously as a base camp for climbing 20,505-foot Mount Siguniang. Translating to Four Sisters Mountain, this imposing massif encompasses four separate peaks, Daguniangshan, Erguniangshan, Sanfeng and Yaomeifeng, and is often referred to as the “Chinese Alps.” In Rilong you’ll feel immersed in Tibetan culture as you capture the traditional architecture with your lens and perhaps taste the butter tea made of yak butter sold by local vendors. We’ll also encounter the distinctly unique Jiarong people who live only in the Sichuan province—rural people famous for their beautiful embroidered costumes and agricultural lifestyle.

Day 10: Rilong—Shuangqiao Gou / Dujiangyan
Early risers will want to catch a photo of the Tibetan sunrise in Rilong, a morning sight that is touted for its singular beauty. As we head out of Rilong and into Siguniangshan National Park, photographers will delight as we enter the 25-mile-long Shuangqiao Valley with snow-capped peaks visible in every direction. The valley floor itself sits at about 10,000 feet in altitude, with the Four Sisters Mountain towering above. We are entering one of three valleys within the Four Sisters Mountain, and we’ll set out to explore the colorful geology and mirror-like lakes of this high-altitude landscape, walking on boardwalk trails that traverse the scenery and weave among pagodas and prayer flags. Highlights for landscape photgraphy include Yin-Yang Valley, Willow Bridge, Sun-Moon Mirror Mountain and Five-Colored Mountain with rocks that glow red, yellow, green, blue and white. Deeper into the valley is the Ginsenguo flatland with its viewing deck over highland swamps and snowy peaks, and Jiujia Lake, which is actually a group of four seasonal lakes and nine perennial ones—the legendary bathing pools for the “four sisters.” After a full day of exploration in the park, we travel back down valley to spend the night in Dujiangyan.

Day 11: Dujiangyan Panda Base—Volunteer Opportunity / Panda Valley / Chengdu
Today provides more chances for close-up views of China’s beloved giant pandas on a visit to Dujiangyan Panda Base. Opened in 2013 with the arrival of 10 pandas, this site focuses on rescue, disease control and prevention, and rehabilitation of injured and ill wild pandas. It has expanded its mission, and its numbers, to encompass care for senior and disabled pandas as well as healthy pandas that are part of the preventive research program. A highlight of our time is a special opportunity to volunteer in their care (though it is not guaranteed and depends on the status of the pandas at the time of our visit). Conditions permitting, we’ll have the chance to interact with pandas at close range as we help their keepers care for them, including tasks such as preparing their food and cleaning enclosures.

If time allows, we’ll have the chance for an optional visit to Dujiangyan Panda Valley in the afternoon. This is a new facility that is both a panda research and breeding base and a center for conservation education. In natural environs, pandas are gradually habituated and returned to the wild. Reintroduction training experts from around the globe gather here for collaborative research. We may see pandas in transitional concrete-block “dens” that are learning to live on their own in the natural surroundings. This evening, celebrate our nature photography adventure at a festive farewell dinner.

Day 12: Chengdu / Depart

After a lavish buffet breakfast at our luxury hotel, transfer to the airport to meet departing flights.

Physical Rating: Moderate

Interested in adding a few days to your trip? See our extensions:
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Extra Day in Chengdu

Extra Day in Chengdu

Discover ancient Buddhist cultural treasures from the Han and Tang dynasties, including the largest carved Buddha statue in the world and the extensive Mahao Cliff Tombs filled with exquisite art.
2 Days / Apr & Oct, From $485
Beijing & the Great Wall Extension

Beijing & the Great Wall Extension

Don't miss a chance to walk along the 2,000 year-old Great Wall and experience a taste of China's vibrant capital—discover its dynamic history, stroll through a night market and dine on Peking duck.
3 Days / Apr, May, Oct & Nov, From $1225 (+air)
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