See Pandas & Golden Monkeys & Search for Rare Wildlife on 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 lover than today's close-up observations of China's celebrated giant pandas at Dujiangyan outside Chengdu. Spend the morning at Dujiangyan Panda Valley, a new facility that is both a panda research and breeding base and a locus 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
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 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 see.
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 narrow streets harken back to a time when it served as a center for cultural, religious and economic interactions between East and West at the eastern 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, enjoy illuminated views of the 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 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 a noodle lunch, we get a look at Xi'an's well-preserved city wall before taking the bullet train to Foping to reach the Golden Monkey Nature Reserve. From the station, we drive about 30 minutes 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 golden snub-nosed monkeys up close. 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's wild terrain 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 views 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, we board the train to Qingchuan where we'll meet our bus and drive to the Wild Panda Nature Reserve, deep in the Minshan Mountains. Along the way, we stop in the Gansu Muslim village of Qing Xi, with time to wander and absorb 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 protected reserves little known to outsiders and visited by a mere handful of Westerners. As dusk falls, we drive up a narrow river valley to enter one of the parks, looking for nocturnal wildlife en route. Reaching our hotel on the banks of a rushing river, we head into the dining room for a late dinner.
Days 6 & 7: Exploring the Wild Panda Nature Reserve
Our focus for two full 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 animals on morning and evening excursions, stopping to enjoy nature trails and 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 though we are unlikely to spot them in the heavy bamboo understory, just knowing we are in their midst is exhilarating. We may also see Tibetan and rhesus macaques, golden and Sichuan takin, musk deer, muntjac, serow, wild boar, Chinese goral, and, more rarely, endangered moon bears and red pandas. Birdwatching 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
Day 8: Pingwu / Jiuzhai Valley
As we depart the reserve this morning, scour the hillsides for wildlife along the way. Driving on amid 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 Jiuzhaigou region, evidenced by the colorful flags, prayer wheels and chortens
that dot the landscape. We pause periodically en 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: Jiuzhaigou National Park
Spend a full day exploring 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. The park's karst geology has created a series of terraced limestone pools filled with turquoise water flowing over ledges in crystalline cascades.
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. Lavish flora includes orchids and blooming rhododendrons in spring, while fall showcases 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 back to Dujiangyan. Heading south, we climb to the edge of the Tibetan plateau, stopping 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 we have 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 condition 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 keepers care for them, including tasks like preparing their food and cleaning enclosures.
Back in Chengdu this afternoon, we’ll stroll through Bamboo Park, the city's green oasis where locals dance, do tai chi, play mahjongg and drink tea. Harboring 140 species of bamboo, these gardens shelter a nesting rookery for night herons and egrets. 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, transfer to the airport to meet departing flights.
Physical Rating: Moderate