By Gig Gwin

Panda’s are the living, breathing, national treasures of China!  They are the symbol of peace and so beloved that the people and government of China’s Sichuan Province established several conservation and research centers to protect these chubby white and black animals. The endangered bamboo forests so vital to panda survival are now under government protection, and the nature reserves provide important research bases for the giant panda breeding program and one-of-a-kind tourism.

For a fulfilling experience, journey to green Sichuan Province, located in southwest China and flanked by Tibet. For animal lovers, this will rank very high on your animal viewing bucket-list. If the Serengeti, or Galapagos, or Alaska gave you wildlife goose-bumps, you’ll love snapping endless photos of these playful panda bears; well they’re not technically bears (scientists today are still sorting out the genetics & classifications).

If you’re fortunate enough to have taken an African safari, you’ll remember grabbing your long-range lens and taking many shots from a distance, but not so with pandas. Once in the reserve, they seem to adjust quite well to the people and their environment. Give them water and plenty of fresh bamboo, and for the most part they’re happy campers. You can almost hear them say “take all the shots you want, I’m so cute you can’t miss; fire away and make my day.”

Galapagos turtles shrink into their giant shells, Alaskan moose keep sticking their heads under water; but pandas seem to love the lime-light. With almost uncanny human gestures, they turn and twist their black eyes and ears, climb trees with great dexterity, and roll on their backs providing a photographers dream shot – “I’m lyin’ on my back, chompin’ on bamboo, and chillin’ out.”

Ah, pandas in the wild… well not quite, because they are illusive and hard to find in the forest. It works out that the giant panda is a loner, a solitary beast that lives by itself, mostly high in trees and seldom co-mingling except for mating season. A photo safari into the forest may last two or three weeks without a sighting; or you may get a rare picture of bamboo leaves and a black & white panda butt. With that in mind, the reserve seems to be the answer: an open area suited both for pandas and people.

Here are some straight forward panda facts, no confusion here; it’s all in black and white. There are about 1500 giant pandas in southwestern China and parts of Tibet. Pandas are flourishing under the protection of China and international breeding programs, including North American zoos in Mexico City, San Diego, Memphis, Atlanta and Washington DC. Australia and Europe also have pandas, and all pandas are loaned to the zoos on a ten-year agreement from China. Their lifespan is about 20 years with the male reaching 5’ and weighing up to 300 lbs., with a diet consisting of bamboo and occasional unlucky bugs. Unlike their very distant relative, the bear, pandas don’t hibernate.

Black and white are not camouflage colors, but may be considered a fashion statement. Most animals that are black and white stand out in a crowd or herd. Zebras are easy to find on the Serengeti; you can’t miss penguins in Antarctica; Dalmatians present proudly on a fire truck; orcas, Holsteins and pintos are notable animals, while everyone is aware of that skunk at the picnic. You just can’t hide black and white.

Chengdu, Sichuan Province is noted for spicy food and is the gateway city to viewing pandas. The city is not a sleepy rural town with quaint shops and local dress, but rather, a vibrant city of 5 million with a suburb of another 5 million. High modern buildings dominate the skyline, and safety is never a problem either day or night.  In the northern suburb lies the Chengdu research base for giant pandas. It’s a well-kept park laid out in a setting of rolling green hills. Wander through the paths and be serenaded by song birds near a sparkling lake. You can enjoy the park, take all the pictures you like, and be back to your city dwelling before dark.

Better yet, if time allows, organize a tour and head north into a very different setting. The culture has a distinctive Tibetan flavor. In the picturesque mountain range, you will discover a world of touring magic. Deep in the multi-green forest is Mengding Mountain, one of the key historical places for tea production. Wander through a museum dedicated to all things of tea importance, including a colorful collection of ornate tea pottery. Then ride the cozy, green, two-seater cable car over plantation fields, and arrive at the mountain-top settlement that looks frozen in time. This old Buddhist prayer sight is centered around a bigger-than-life bronze bell, and the architecture of old China. Here, members of the plantation perform an acrobatic green tea ritual, creating a mystical touch of Shangri-La. 

Down the mountain and through lush green valleys, the winding road will lead you to Bifengxia Panda Nature Reserve. This is the new home for giant pandas, where they were resettled after the devastating earthquake of 2008 destroyed much of their natural environment. Over 50 pandas are living in this park, and for many visitors the panda baby house is a must-see. Yet, the most active display is where the panda teenagers romp and wrestle, and seem to be in constant motion. Because the reserve is constructed like a theater-in-the-round, memorable panda pictures present themselves every few moments.

So, if you desire an out-of-the-way wildlife event, set your sights on Sichuan Province, China, and experience giant pandas, forested tea plantations, Tibetan villages, and smiling people who await your visit.

Bio: For more than forty years, Gig Gwin has been an explorer and author in the travel industry. He has recently published his first book: Travel Dreams Sold Here, Crafting an Extraordinary Vacation, and is one of a handful of people to have visited all 320 countries of the world.