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 elegant highrise hotel in the center of bustling Chengdu, we'll walk to a local restaurant together along the banks of the Brocade River that winds through the heart of downtown, admiring the glittering skyline of Sichuan's provincial capital. Enjoy a slideshow preview of our trip and our first chance to savor a Sichuan-style meal featuring the region's famed cuisine at our welcome dinner this evening.
Day 2: Dujiangyan Panda Valley / Chengdu
Few experiences offer more delight for the wildlife lover than today's close-up interactions with China's celebrated giant pandas. This morning we visit Dujiangyan Panda Valley, located outside of Chengdu. China's newest panda facility is both a research and breeding base and a locus for education and conservation. Panda Valley provides natural environs where 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. Back in Chengdu this afternoon, we take a stroll through Bamboo Park, the city's green oasis where locals dance, play mahjongg and drink tea. Harboring 140 species of bamboo, these gardens shelter a nesting rookery for night herons and egrets. After a Sichuan-style hot pot dinner, a Chinese "face-changing" show featuring music and drama is an option for evening entertainment.
Day 3: Chengdu Panda Base / Jiangyou
Today we visit Chengdu's renowned Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a world-class research facility, conservation education 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. If we're lucky, there may be infants to observe in the nursery. The park's lush environs also include habitat for red pandas, which we'll have a good chance to see as well. After plenty of time with the pandas, followed by lunch, we drive into the mountains to the town of Jiangyou. We’ll have dinner at a local restaurant this evening, then enjoy a slideshow lecture on panda biology by our Expedition Leader, who explains how pandas are both alike and dissimilar to other bear species.
Day 4: Jiangyou / Qing Xi / Wild Panda Nature Reserve
This morning we explore a small market near our hotel, then depart on a scenic drive into the Minshan Mountains, following the Fu River northward as it twists through narrow gorges cloaked in lush forest. After lunch in a small town en route, we stop to visit a small local farm on the edge of wild panda habitat. Talking with the farmer, we'll see and learn about a WWF-supported bio-waste project that uses agricultural by-products to create methane for cooking fuel, reducing consumption of local wood and preserving habitat for wildlife.
This afternoon we stop in the Gansu Muslim village of Qing Xi, with time to wander and drink in scenes of relaxed street life among the 300-year-old wooden buildings that date from the Qing dynasty. If our arrival lands on a weekday, we’ll also plan to visit a local primary school. Just beyond the village lies a secret slice of Chinese wilderness, a chain of nature reserves little known to outsiders and visited by only a 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. We reach our hotel on the banks of a rushing river and head into the dining room for a hearty late dinner.
Days 5 & 6: Exploring the Wild Panda Nature Reserve
Our focus for these 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 wildlife, including at least 60 giant pandas. The reserve also harbors more than 1,200 takin and 1,000 golden monkeys 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 misty peaks. Though sightings are extremely rare, our hope is to spy the elusive giant panda: this is prime panda habitat, and 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 underbrush, just knowing that we could is exhilarating. We may also see 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. Birdwatching opportunities are superb with more than 150 species in the reserve, including the elegant golden pheasant. Night walks and drives may reveal nocturnal creatures such as leopard cats, civets and hog-nosed badgers.
Day 7: Pingwu / Jiuzhaigou
We depart the reserve's wild reaches this morning, scouring the hillsides for wildlife along the way. Driving on, we pass timeless images of rural Chinese life en route to the town of Pingwu, where we'll 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, winding drive through rugged mountains, we crest 12,000-foot Rhododendron Pass. We stop for photos on the summit, then descend into the Jiuzhai Valley on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Tibetan culture is dominant here, evidenced by the colorful villages, prayer wheels and chortens that dot the landscape. We'll stop periodically to photograph the stunning landscape and cultural sights as we traverse the ethnic Baima Tibetan region en route to Jiuzhaigou. Arriving at our hotel in the heart of the valley, we check in and enjoy dinner.
Days 8 & 9: Jiuzhaigou National Park
Spend two full days exploring the natural beauty of Jiuzhiagou National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and UN Biosphere Reserve. China's premier national park, Jiuzhaigou offers birdwatching on boardwalk hikes through this high valley deep in the Minshan Mountains. Photographers will be captivated by the backdrop of steep peaks, ravines, forest, meadows, marshes, wildflowers and a multitude of lakes and waterfalls. The park's karst geology has created a series of terraced limestone pools filled with turquoise water, which flows 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 dramatic high mountains. Local legend holds that a Lochness-type monster inhabits its tranquil waters.
Yet Jiuzhaigou is more than just exquisite scenery: the park encompasses 220 bird species and many endangered plants and animals including the giant panda, Sichuan golden monkey, Sichuan takin, and numerous orchids and rhododendrons. Nine Tibetan villages are also located inside the park, and we’ll enjoy a special lunch prepared by a local Tibetan family in their home, followed by some time to browse the adjacent village beneath the fluttering prayer flags. After lunch, those who wish can return to the hotel to relax or do some shopping, while others may opt to stay in the park for a longer birding walk. A Tibetan music and dance show is an evening option.
Day 10: Chengdu
Another scenic drive is in store this morning as we climb to the Tibetan Plateau, keeping an eye out for grazing yaks. We depart by jet from one of China's highest airports (above 11,000 feet!) for our flight back to Chengdu, arriving in time for a late lunch. Optional activities this afternoon, depending on flight times, may include a walk along pedestrian Jinli Street, a reconstruction of a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty marketplace where we have a chance to shop for local handicrafts. Time permitting, you may wish to indulge in a traditional Asian massage (additional cost) at our hotel's elegant Chi Spa.
Day 11: Dujiangyan Panda Research Base / Chengdu
Today we have one more chance to enjoy close-up views of China’s famous giant pandas on a visit to a third panda base, the research center at Dujiangyan. 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. Visitor education is a key component of the base's outreach, and a special volunteer opportunity is available during our visit. We'll see pandas at close range as we help keepers care for them, including tasks like preparing their food and cleaning enclosures. There may also be a chance to have your photo taken with a young panda for an additional charge, though we cannot guarantee this on every visit. This evening, our grand adventure comes to a close with a farewell dinner at one of China's most spectacularly located dining venues: a restaurant built on a footbridge spanning the Brocade River, with egrets flying beneath.
Day 12: Chengdu / Depart
After a final sumptuous buffet breakfast at our luxury hotel, transfer to the airport for your departing flight.