Photograph Giant Pandas, Golden Monkeys & Serene Landscapes 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 sleek high-rise hotel in the center 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: Dujiangyan Panda Valley / Dujiangyan Panda Base / Chengdu
Few experiences offer more delight for the wildlife photographer than today's close-up observations of China's celebrated giant pandas at two locations in Dujiangyan, outside Chengdu. This morning, visit Dujiangyan Panda Valley, 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 afternoon, we visit 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. You may have a chance to have your photo taken with a young panda for an additional cash donation on site, though we cannot guarantee this on every visit. A Chinese "face-changing" show featuring music and drama is an included option for evening entertainment.
Day 3: Chengdu Panda Base / Xi'an
More delightful panda photo opportunities are in store at 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 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. The park's lush environs also include habitat for red pandas, which we'll have a good chance to get photos of.
This afternoon, 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. This evening, feast on a classic Chinese dumpling banquet at a local dumpling house—Xi'an is where these popular filled dough pillows were invented. From the square outside, a popular local gathering spot, capture photos of the illuminated Bell Tower, Drum Tower and Wild Goose Pagoda. 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 Warriors / 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. Comprised 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 a noodle lunch, get photos of Xi'an's well-preserved city wall before we board the bullet train to Foping. From the station, we drive a short distance to our hotel in a forested mountain area adjacent to the Golden Monkey Nature Reserve. 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: Pingwu / Jiuzhai Valley
As we depart the reserve this morning, scour the hillsides for wildlife along the way. Driving on through verdant scenery, pass timeless images of rural Chinese life en route to the town of Pingwu, where we 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 drive through rugged mountains, we enter a Baima Tibetan region where picturesque villages hug the slopes below snowcapped summits. Baima Tibetan culture predates the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, and these residents, now part of China, have their own unique customs and religious beliefs. Our route enters an 8-kilometer tunnel that takes us through the mountains into the Jiuzhai Valley, saving a long, winding drive over Rhododendron Pass and returning the alpine heights to the native wildlife of the Minshan Mountains, including the giant panda. Tibetan culture also predominates in the Jiuzhai region, evidenced by the colorful flags, prayer wheels and chortens that dot the landscape. We pause periodically along our route to photograph the dramatic landscapes, rural villages and Buddhist temples. At our hotel in the heart of the valley this evening, enjoy a dinner of diverse specialties.
Day 9: Nature Photography in Jiuzhaigou National Park
Spend a full day photographing the natural beauty of Jiuzhaigou National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
and UN Biosphere Reserve. China's most renowned national park, Jiuzhaigou offers scenic boardwalk hikes through a high valley deep in the Minshan Mountains, against a backdrop of steep peaks, ravines, forest, meadows, marshes, wildflowers, and numerous lakes and waterfalls that provide endless photo opportunities. Supreme among these scenes is a series of terraced limestone pools filled with aquamarine water, which flows over ledges in crystalline cascades. The park's karst geology has created one of the best places on Earth to photograph waterfalls, and we’ll practice long exposure techniques to capture the motion of the water.
Our activities include forest walks among the lakes and streams, with an excursion to Long Lake at the head of the valley, surrounded by high mountains. Local legend holds that a Loch Ness-type monster inhabits its tranquil waters. Amid the exquisite scenery, more than 220 bird species live within the park, and lavish flora includes orchids and blooming rhododendrons in spring, while fall showcases a tapestry of burnished foliage. Nine Tibetan villages are located within the park bounds, marked by fluttering prayer flags, and we’ll have a special lunch prepared by a local Tibetan family in their home.
Day 10: Tibetan Plateau / Dujiangyan
A scenic drive is in store as we make the all-day return from Jiuzhaigou to Dujiangyan. Heading south, we climb to the edge of the Tibetan plateau, stopping for photos at a beautiful Bon Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Our route continues through the town of Songpan, which mingles Tibetan, Hui Muslim and Han Chinese culture and features a grand city wall built during the Tang Dynasty 1,300 years ago. Later, we pass a large lake formed by an earthquake in 1933 in this seismic region, an event that submerged the village of Chanlin. A final highlight of our day's journey is our passage through the land of the Qiang culture, one of the oldest ethnic groups in China. We'll see their unique architecture and customs on display in this region that is the only place where the Qiang people still live, with a population of just 200,000. We spend the night in Dujiangyan at an elegant new resort hotel. Incorporating natural hot springs on the grounds, the mineral pools in the gardens invite a relaxing soak.
Day 11: Dujiangyan Panda Base—Volunteer Opportunity / Chengdu
Today provides one more chance for close-up views of China’s beloved giant pandas on a return visit to Dujiangyan Panda Base. 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.
Back in Chengdu this afternoon, we’ll stroll through Bamboo Park. Harboring 140 species of bamboo, these gardens shelter a nesting rookery for night herons and egrets. Here in the city's green oasis, we’ll also have opportunities to photograph local people who come to the park to dance, do tai chi, play mahjongg and drink tea. This evening, our grand adventure comes to a close with a farewell dinner.
Day 12: Chengdu / Depart
After a sumptuous buffet breakfast at our luxury hotel, our Chinese photo safari concludes with a transfer to the airport to meet departing flights.
Physical Rating: Moderate