The Wild Side of China Photo Expedition
Day 1: Xi’an, China — Ancient City Wall / Lesser Wild Goose Pagoda
Arrive in the ancient imperial capital of Xi'an, one of China’s earliest regions to be settled, and transfer to our hotel in the Yanta District where we find a number of iconic cultural sites including the Wild Goose Pagodas. Xi’an is where China's 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 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 traveled by Persian and Arab traders 1,300 years ago.
After lunch on your own, we visit a portion of the ancient city wall. Xi'an is one of the few cities in China where the old city walls still stand, with most sections carefully restored or rebuilt. Constructed originally in 1370 during the Ming dynasty, the imposing 40-foot-high walls are surrounded by a dry moat and form a rectangle with an 8.6-mile perimeter. Atop the city walls, photograph the old city within its confines, and get panoramic photos over modern-day Xi'an beyond. Continue to Lesser Wild Goose Pagoda, the smaller of two impressive towers built in Xi'an in the 8th century during the Tang dynasty. The site was inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2014 as part of the Silk Roads Network. The well-preserved Buddhist temple is surrounded by a tranquil park and gardens, which we enjoy wandering through before returning to our hotel. This evening, enjoy your first chance to savor a Chinese-style meal at our welcome dinner.
Day 2: Xi'an—Terracotta Army
Depart early this morning to photograph 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 world's most remarkable archaeological discoveries. Consisting of 8,000 life-size soldiers, 130 chariots and more than 500 horses, none 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. The figures vary in height according to their rank, the tallest being the generals. The majority of the figures remain in situ in the pits near the mausoleum, while other non-military terracotta figures were found in adjoining pits, including officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians. The Terracotta Army was discovered by a group of local farmers who were digging a well near the Qin Emperor's tomb mound in a region laced with underground springs. Subsequent excavation and research via ground-penetrating radar has revealed that the Army is part of a much larger necropolis covering 38 square miles, part of the emperor's imperial palace compound surrounding his tomb.
Day 3: Wild Panda Nature Reserve
This morning, board the bullet train to Guangyuan, where we meet our bus and drive to the Wild Panda Nature Reserve. Along the way, we stop in the Muslim village of Qing Xi, with time to photograph scenes of relaxed street life amid the 300-year-old wooden buildings that date from the Qing dynasty. It's a peaceful setting, with a stream coursing through the center of the village. 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. Just beyond the small town 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 we follow a rushing river up the narrow valley to our destination, keep an eye out for native wildlife, which we can stop to photograph along the way. Eventually we arrive at our hotel, tucked away in the forest in a setting that's virtually unknown to tourists, where our nearest neighbors are mostly wild animals that thrive in these protected environs.
Day 4: Exploring the Wild Panda Nature Reserve
Our focus for two days is a remote 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. Among its 430 different mammal species, the reserve also harbors more than 1,200 takin — a large, shaggy relative of wild sheep and goats — as well as more than 2,400 different kinds of plants. Look for wildlife on morning and evening excursions, stopping to capture stunning photos 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 remote areas of the reserve where they freely live and breed, affording us the best possible opportunity to spot signs of them in the wild. Even though we almost certainly will not spy them in the heavy bamboo understory, just knowing we’re in their midst is exhilarating.
Day 5: Wild Panda Nature Reserve / Pingwu
Spend another day searching for wildlife as we explore more of the reserve’s lush recesses. Bring your longest lens as we look for Tibetan and rhesus macaques, golden and Sichuan takin, musk deer, muntjac, serow, wild boar and blue sheep. More rarely, we may also see endangered moon bears and red pandas. Birding is superb, with more than 150 species in the reserve—the elegant golden pheasant is a prize. We can often photograph many of these from the many remote roads and trails we explore, although dense vegetation and weather may affect our sightings. Late this afternoon, we depart the reserve and follow the scenic Fujiang River through the Min Mountains, returning to Qing Xi where we stop for an authentic local dinner. Afterward, we drive a short distance to Pingwu in far northwest Sichuan, our destination for the next two nights.
Day 6: Golden Monkey Nature Reserve
This morning we enter the forested nature reserve home to golden snub-nosed monkeys that live in the shadow of Sichuan's tallest mountain. We 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 62 square miles of wild terrain filled with alpine forest, waterfalls, lakes, colorful karst formations, glacial rivers and an abundance of animal life. We expect to get excellent close-up photos of endangered golden monkeys, 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 better than any other non-human primate. On our return journey to Pingwu, we drive through territory home to Baima Tibetans, the descendants of Tibetan soldiers sent here more than 1,300 years ago to conquer the frontier. Keep an eye out for hats sporting white rooster feathers worn only by this group of Tibetan women.
Day 7: Dujiangyan
A scenic drive is in store as we make the full-day journey south 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 way, we pass through Mianyang, known as Fujun in ancient times, with a 2,200-year history that spans the Qin and Han dynasties. We also stop to visit a local market in Jiangyou that gives us a taste of small-town life and showcases the bounty of fruit and vegetables that are harvested locally in the Sichuan Basin. Enjoy a traditional hot pot dinner this evening, then rest in Dujiangyan at an elegant new resort hotel.
Day 8: Dujiangyan Panda Base—Volunteer Opportunity /Jiezi Town
Today provides great opportunities for close-up photos 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.
This afternoon, stroll back in time in the elegant 1,000-year-old Jiezi Town—a contrasting collage of water, stone and city life that is sure to captivate your imagination as it offers myriad photography subjects. 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.
Day 9: Gengda Wolong Panda Base / Rilong
Setting out from Dujiangyan, we head for 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. Get close-up photos of giant pandas in this natural habitat that features a striking mountain backdrop. Traveling west, we continue to 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 we are immersed in Tibetan culture, with traditional architecture on display and yak butter tea for sale by local vendors. This high-altitude village, which sits over 10,000 feet above sea level, is the center of the Jiarong Tibetan culture, found only in this region of Sichuan province. The rural Jiarong people are known for their intricately embroidered costumes and agricultural lifestyle, and we're sure to have plenty of chances to capture this cultural heritage in photos.
Day 10: Siguniangshan National Park
Early risers will want to catch a photo of the sunrise behind the peaks in Rilong, a vista acclaimed for its singular beauty. We spend the full day photographing the dramatic scenery of nearby Siguniangshan National Park. Entering the 25-mile-long Shuangqiao Valley, view snowcapped peaks in every direction, with Four Sisters Mountain towering above. The valley floor is 10,000 feet above sea level, and the highest mountains nearly double that. Explore the colorful geological features and mirror-like lakes of this subalpine terrain, following boardwalk trails that weave among occasional pagodas and prayer flags. Highlights include the Yin-Yang Valley, Willow Bridge, Sun-Moon Mirror Mountain and Five-Colored Mountain with its rocks that glow red, yellow, green, blue and white. These high-altitude forests are native habitat for the endangered red panda, too. Deeper into the valley, we reach the Ginsenguo flatland, with a viewing deck overlooking 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.”
Day 11: Dujiangyan Panda Valley / Chengdu
Head back to Dujiangyan, where we visit Dujiangyan Panda Valley for a last chance to get close-up panda shots. 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. This quiet research base is landscaped with beautiful flowers and we may see pandas in transitional “dens” that are learning to live on their own in the natural surroundings. You'll see many red pandas here as well. This evening, celebrate our adventures 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.