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 / Xi'an
This morning we visit Chengdu's renowned Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, a world class research facility, conservation centre, 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.
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 BC 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 centre for cultural, religious and economic interactions between East and West at the eastern end of the Silk Road. As we drive through the city, we'll see well-preserved remnants of the ancient wall and views of the Bell Tower. After dinner, you may wish to 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 of Qin Shihuang (259-210 BC), the pivotal leader who became China's first emperor.
After lunch, we take the bullet train to Foping to reach the Golden Monkey Nature Reserve. From the station, it's about a 30-minute drive to our hotel located in a forested mountain area. If time permits, we make 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. 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 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 close-up 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 better than any other non-human primate.
We board the trains to Guangyuan with lunch on arrival, then drive on to our destination - a remote wild panda nature reserve deep in the Minshan Mountains. En route, 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 nature sanctuaries 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 reserves, 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 ecompassing 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 1200 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 for walks on nature trails and dramatic 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 pandas freely live and breed, affording us the best possibility to see 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 and the elegant golden pheasant is a prize. Night walks may reveal nocturnal creatures such as leopard cat, civet, and hog-nosed badger.
Day 8: Wild Panda Nature Reserve / Dujiangyan
As we depart the reserve this morning, scour the hillsides for wildlife along the way. A scenic drive is in store as we make the full-day journey south from Tangjiahe to Dujiangyan. Traveling through this mountainous region, we pause periodically to admire landscapes lush with verdant foliage and doted with rural villages and Buddhist temples. En route, 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'll also stroll the elegant thousand-year-old Jiezi Town. Located at the foot of Fengqi Mountain with the Weijiang River flowing through it, this historic old town is revered for its ancient Qing dynasty paved streets lined with shops and houses, its Guangyan Buddhist temple, 65-foot-tall millennium ginkgo trees, and the Ziku pagoda, with the legend of the white snake carved into the highest layers. Reaching Dujiangyan, overnight at a new resort hotel with natural mineral springs that invite a relaxing soak among the gardens.
Day 9: Dujiangyan / Gengda Wolong Panda Base / Rilong
The new Gengda Wolong Panda Center in the Wolong Nature Reserve is our destination this morning. Rebuilt following the 2008 earthquake, the base integrates scientific research, captive breeding and reintroduction of pandas into the wild. More than 30 pandas reside at the center, surrounded by a 680-acre bamboo forest. We'll have excellent chances for close-up views of giant pandas within this natural habitat.
Continuing west, we reach Rilong, an ethnic Tibetan village best known as a base camp for climbing 20,505-foot Mount Siguniang. Its name means Four Sisters Mountain and this imposing massif encompasses four separate peaks sometimes called 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 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: Siguniangshan National Park / Rilong
Early risers may catch the sunrise behind the peaks in Rilong, a vista touted for its singular beauty. We spend the entire 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 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. Return to Rilong to spend a second night.
Days 11 & 12: Rilong / Chengdu
Today is devoted primarily to a scenic drive back to Chengdu. Leaving Rilong, we stop for a classic view of Four Sister Mountain, with final chance for spectacular photographs. En route, Balang Mountain is an inviting stop to admire the landscape and abundant birdlife if the weather is fair. This evening, celebrate our many adventures at a festive farewell dinner.
On Day 12, after a final sumptuous buffet breakfast at our luxury hotel, transfer to the airport for your departing flight.