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The Wild Side of China: A Nature Odyssey

The Wild Side of China Photo Itinerary

On our Wild Side of China Photo Adventure, set out to photograph secluded nature reserves, panda bases, Tibetan landscapes and traditional villages, plus a full day to capture images in scenic Siguniangshan National Park. Your Nat Hab Expedition Leader is a naturalist and also an accomplished nature and wildlife photographer, providing ample time and personal attention to answer all your questions and offer tips and techniques for getting the best shots.

China nature tour mapDay 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 and photograph. 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. Offering a perfect chance to capture images of daily life, 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 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 photograph the old city within its confines. We’ll also enjoy views of the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, then head to our hotel for 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 / Wild Panda 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, 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 wander among photogenic 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 5 & 6: 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 stunning vistas of waterfalls, boulder-strewn gorges and mist-shrouded limestone peaks as we capture photographs along the way. 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. Birding is 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. We can often observe them from the many remote roads and trails we explore, although dense vegetation and weather may affect our sightings.

Day 7: Wild Panda Nature Reserve / Golden Monkey Nature Reserve / Pingwu
Depart this morning on an overland journey along the scenic Fujiang River, traveling into the Min Mountains. En route, we will pass the ancient town once known as Longzhou, the "prefecture of dragon" now known as Pingwu. This area is famous for a high density of pandas that live within its jurisdiction. We'll also pass through territory populated by Baima Tibetans, the descendants of Tibetan soldiers who were sent here more than 1,300 years ago to conquer the frontier. Keep an eye out for hats sporting white rooster feathers that are worn only by this group of Tibetan women. After lunch, head into the forested nature reserve that is home to golden snub-nosed monkeys that live in the shadow of Sichuan's tallest mountain. 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 62 square miles of wild terrain full of waterfalls, alpine forest, colorful karst formations, lakes, glaciers and an abundance of animal life. We’ll expect to get excellent sightings to photograph 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 more than any other non-human primate. This evening, we return to Pingwu to spend the night.

Day 8: 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 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. Time permitting, we may make a stop at the scenic Mianzhu New Year Painting Village, one of the famed towns filled with folk artisans who produce colorful New Year paintings—a combination of block printing and hand painting that first started almost 2,000 years ago. People traditionally hang these bright works with exaggerated characters and copious symbolism in their homes around Chinese New Year as a means to say goodbye to the old and usher in the new. 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 we are immersed in Tibetan culture, with traditional architecture on display and yak butter tea for sale by local vendors. This high-altitude village, nearly 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.

Day 10: Rilong—Shuangqiao Gou / Dujiangyan

Early risers will want to catch a photo of the sunrise behind the peaks in Rilong, a vista touted for its singular beauty. We spend the day exploring the dramatic scenery of nearby Siguniangshan National Park. Entering the 25-mile-long Shuangqiao Valley, we view snow-capped 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. 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.” After a full day of exploration in the park, we travel back down the valley to spend the night in Dujiangyan.

Day 11: Dujiangyan Panda Base—Volunteer Opportunity / Panda Valley / Chengdu
Today provides more chances 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.

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 many adventures at a festive 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

Interested in extending your trip? Link it up with another adventure!
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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 / Mar, Apr & Oct, From $495
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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