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Pandas in Chengdu

Panda Center

What do you think of when you hear Chengdu?

Pandas, you say?

That would be correct!

Hosting the only breeding facility of its kind in the world, Chengdu is where you can get up close and personal with Pandas; large and small. If you’ve got the cash, you can even hold one – a once in a lifetime opportunity. Yet, as with all things in China, most of the sights are not what one would exactly call “central”. Generally, it’s an excursion just to get to…the excursion.

Despite the hostel tour being a mere $17 (including the $9 entrance fee), in typical, over-economizing fashion, we attempted to go it alone, opting for the local 15 cent buses. In hindsight, this was a poor decision, as an obscene amount of time was lost navigating from the hostel to the Panda facility over 1.5 hours away. To top it off, the clock was ticking, as Pandas are notoriously lazy and not so active post 10 AM.

We caught the first bus OK. The second bus took a bit longer, and already we were down 30 minutes. Finally, we boarded what we hoped would be take us directly to the Panda facility.

“How will we know when to get off?” I asked.

Dave’s response – “Are you kidding? Everyone on this bus is going to the same place. Let’s just get off when they all do.”

So we waited, and waited some more. Despite Dave’s confidence that all the Chinese grannies riding along with us were also headed for a morning outing to see the pandas, I was beginning to grow weary.

I saw a sign for the panda base to the left, as our bus quickly swerved right. Uh oh.

Luckily, I had Panda base written in Chinese and I showed it to a young girl on the bus. She looked at us with a distressed face. Her eyes said “Oh no, you just missed it!” Her finger, pointed in the opposite direction, said the rest.

We quickly jumped off the bus and went for our last resort – a cab. We knew we were close, probably 10 or so yuan ($1.50).

The quoted price? 50 ($8).

It’s a lesson we’ve come across many a time in China. Just because getting to a place should only cost you X, doesn’t mean people will take you there for X. Sometimes, it’s just not worth their time.

We tried to jump on our original bus heading in the opposite direction. As soon as the driver spotted us, in near perfect English he quickly shouted “Are you guys going to the Pandas? You want that bus right there.”

No time to sit around wondering how he knew where we were going and why this bus driver spoke impeccable English. Our pandas were already brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed.

A short bus ride and an additional 1 km on foot and we finally reached the Panda base, 2 hours after setting off on the journey. I was completely distraught that we had already missed the panda eating time and they would all be asleep by now (everywhere in Chengdu, posters say that the best time to see the pandas is around 8 AM). We were there at 9:30 AM.


As fate would have it, we reached the first enclosure and there they were; the darling pandas. They are simply adorable.


There is just no way not to ooh and aah even as you watch them clumsily break off bamboo and systematically assemble the leaves clenched in between their teeth until they have a whole handful. Then the meticulous chewing begins. Combine that with the black and white pattern on their fur and you just can’t tear your eyes off of them.

Sleeping pandas

We hopped around from enclosure to enclosure, watching pandas eat, sleep, curl up into the strangest of sleeping positions nestled up in tree branches, gobble down on panda cakes fed by the workers etc.

Pandas eating

The panda diet consists mainly of bamboo but there are also special panda cakes (made of corn, soybean, rice, oats, wheat, vegetable oil, vitamins and minerals) fed to them to provide added nutrients and vitamins.

Panda Cake Samples

You can even sample a piece of the panda cake yourself. Not so delicious for human consumption. The pandas seem to love them though.

Pandas love panda cakes

It sure is funny to watch them gobble up what looks like entire bamboo forests (they spend up to 12 hours a day eating 20-40 kg of bamboo), but cleaning up their 10-20 kg of feces per day can not be too enjoyable.

baby pandas

We even got to see the panda babies. Now that’s something I’ve never seen in any zoo before.

Eventually we made our way to the less visited red panda enclosure. There are walkways in the middle and we saw this sign,

Red Panda Sign

and we couldn’t quite figure out what the 3 meter border meant. They do have their own fenced in enclosure right?

Not so.

red panda

The fences have holes deliberately cut out so the red pandas can freely walk from one section to the next, and we got to see this right before our very own eyes. The little red panda just walked past us tourists on the way to a different section. Its tail grazed my foot! (OK fine, my foot grazed its tail, but either way).

red panda out of enclosure


We finished off our day at the Panda base with a documentary in the cinema room. You learn all about the endangered species, with excerpts on living conditions, environment, behavior, mating patterns, birthing, etc.


What I found most incredible was that this huge animal gives birth to a 50-100 gram baby panda – 1/1000th of it’s weight. (To put this into perspective human babies are 1/15th of their parents weight when born). It is very difficult for pandas to find each other and procreate, in part because there are so few, and also because the male panda penis is very small given the mammal’s size, making procreation difficult. In the wild, pandas give birth to twins but without being able to care for them both, the weaker one is always left to die. Thankfully at the Panda center they have developed techniques where both babies can survive.

The panda population in the world is dwindling, but the Panda Base truly feels like it is trying to help this endangered species and hopefully, one day, these pandas will be released back into the wild where they belong. I’m confident that is their end goal, and opening up the facility to tourists is more about building awareness and funding the center as opposed to exploiting the pandas. I know at first both Dave and I were a little wary that it might just be a glorified zoo, but mathematically it makes sense. There simply aren’t enough pandas in the wild right now to sustain the species. Eventually they would die out, if not for the advanced breeding techniques at the clinic.

Worn out by our bus rides there, we took a taxi back to our hostel in Chengdu. Overall our price savings for going on our own over taking the hostel bus were less than a dollar, and certainly not worth the added headache. Lesson learned!

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6 Responses to Pandas in Chengdu

  1. What a great post! This is the one thing I REALLY wanted to do while we were in China, but fate had other plans for us and we had to leave before I got my chance. So it was really nice to read about your experience and vicariously pretend I was there! Those baby pandas were ADORABLE (and while I have seen adults in zoos before, that really is a rare sighting).

    One thing I could definitely relate to was the bus-riding ordeal… Tony and I learned on our second week in China that sometimes the time and mental anguish of going it alone in China just really isn’t worth whatever money savings you might reap from having foregone a tour. We had a similar experience where a seemingly straightforward bus trip that should have taken no more than 30 minutes wound up taking us almost 2 hours. After that, we vowed that our time and happiness was worth far more than a few dollars saved and that the cheapest option should not always be our default!

    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) December 5, 2012 at 9:55 AM Reply
    • We had seen a panda before in the DC zoo but this took it to a new level. The video also was really informative and helped give some context to the organization and the cause. All and all it was really nice and surprisingly not THAT expensive.

      In terms of economizing, since then we have taken it upon ourselves to do spot cost-benefit analyses and now value our time much, much more than before. We still opt for local buses when we can but only when we’re really confident that it will get us where we need to go and we usually draw the line at one bus (no transfers unless absolutely necessary). Even when you’re not working a normal job your time is still worth something!

      Dave and Vicky December 5, 2012 at 11:57 AM Reply
  2. Hi, we went, 11 or 12 years ago, it was brilliant. Same as you, we took the bus, we didn’t have any problems that I can remember, it was quite a long way. I do remember the Chinese medicine sellers at the bus station with tiger paws laid out on their blankets. That was a bit yuk. Are they still there? Can’t wait to take the kids. I wonder if the baby pandas we saw were the grown ups of your visit. Thanks for the memories! Is the museum still there, the one with the really badly stuffed animals? We couldn’t work out what some of them were, it was just before the exit.

    Alyson December 5, 2012 at 7:59 PM Reply
    • We did not see the Chinese medicine sellers but we did go to the museum, with the odd stuffed animals (I think many of them are prehistoric which is why you had no idea what they were).

      Dave and Vicky December 6, 2012 at 1:12 AM Reply
  3. OMG they are soooo adorable. I love pandas. You just want to squeeze them, don’t you? We didn’t get to see pandas when we went to China in 2006, but you just gave me a reason to go back now. 🙂

    TammyOnTheMove December 5, 2012 at 9:36 PM Reply
    • Chengdu is a nice city regardless of the Pandas so we have no problem recommending it. The entire Sichuan province is unlike a lot of what we saw in the more Eastern areas and the cuisine is pretty famous (unfortunately we didn’t get to take a cooking class there though).

      Dave and Vicky December 6, 2012 at 1:15 AM Reply

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