I have a friend who hates giant pandas. And I don’t mean she just kinda dislikes them; no, she actively HATES them.
But how could anyone hate this gorgeous face?
It’s something to do with pandas being an evolutionary dead end, useless creatures that can only subsist on an extremely limited diet, and have no use in the world and so we’re wasting a lot of money trying to bring them back from the brink of extinction.
I say maybe pandas do have a use: to be cute and bring us joy and make us say ‘ooh’ and ‘awww’!
Giant pandas can easily be seen, on an easy half-day trip from Chengdu at the Giant Panda Research Base, but I’d visited there on a past trip to China. Enticed by not just pandas but also a beautiful gorge hike, I went for the alternative, the Bifengxia Panda Centre, about two hours Southwest of Chengdu.
I found pandas, lots of them. Some wandering around, staring at the crowd, some sleeping, some sitting, endlessly munching on bamboo. An adult giant panda consumes about 25kg of bamboo each day!
From my previous visit to the panda research base near Chengdu, I expected to see the panda ‘kindergarten’ full of activity. Panda cubs should be playing, wrestling and falling all over each other. But no, these ones, although cute, were boring, just sleeping and eating like the adults.
I didn’t see much action out of them until I went back for the 3:30 feeding, but even then it was minimal. Pandas are usually more active in the morning.
One of the panda ‘kids’ was sleeping way up in a tree, and they had to coax him down for feeding time. He ate, played with the other two for about a minute, and then climbed right back up his tree to his favourite sleeping spot!
The Bifengxia Panda Centre was opened in 2003, because of worries of disease spreading amongst the growing population at Wolong Panda Centre, Northwest of Chengdu. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, in which many of the facilities at Wolong were damaged, the pandas were relocated here to Bifengxia.
Despite the signs everywhere urging people to be quiet, the air is filled with hooting and hollering, people calling to the pandas to get their attention or simply have them turn to face the crowd. One little boy actually had a whistle in his mouth, which blew every time he breathed. Of course this caused an almost continual screeching noise, but the only person who seemed annoyed by it was me!
Finally, the drizzle that had been on and off turned to proper rain, and I made my way back to the entrance. On the way I stopped at a small building for a moment’s respite, and noticed that inside the building were a bunch of staff with TV monitors. One came to speak to me, and as it turned out, they were watching one panda in particular, who, in the next couple of days, would give birth to the first panda cub of the season! Exciting stuff!
The gorge is extremely beautiful, with a river, gushing waterfalls and lush greenery. In one direction the pathway through the gorge leads to the panda centre, which would be lovely but I didn’t end up doing it because of my bad timing and the rainy weather.
The hour or so I spent wandering down there was enough as it was pouring rain again (I was told later that this place is known for being rainy a lot!). If it had been a sunny day I would have stayed much longer! As it was, I was getting very wet, cold and miserable, and decided to let it go and hop on a bus to my next stop.
I was actually a bit disappointed by Bifengxia Panda Centre. I think it was mostly because of the weather, and perhaps the fact that I was visiting when the juvenile pandas are less active, or some combination of both, but I didn’t quite get the joy out of it that I expected to. The time of year also has an effect what you can see, as the nursery was closed on my visit, awaiting the birth of the new panda cubs.
Having said that, I’m glad I went. The pandas, though lazy, were adorable as always, and I shared some snacks and pleasant ‘conversation’ with a couple of the women running food stands outside the base. And in the hustle and bustle of China, this was an extremely peaceful and quiet place to spend the night.
So, my friend who hates Giant Pandas. I know I’m not going to change your mind, but watch this video (from my 2007 visit to the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base) and tell me these little guys aren’t just the cutest, most hilarious thing you’ve ever seen!
Do you ever go to the ‘alternative’ attraction? Is it usually worth it? Have you been to see the pandas? Have you been to Bifengxia? What was your experience?
Buses go from Chengdu to Ya’an regularly, taking about 2 hours. From the Ya’an bus station, cross the parking lot to the congregation of minivans, and tell them you want to go to Bifengxia. It should cost 5 yuan.
Coming back, just ask around the parking lot where you were dropped off, and soon enough there will be a minivan going back to Ya’an, from where you can go back to Chengdu or continue on to Kangding.
Where the minivan drops you off there is a massive visitor centre, with free luggage storage, toilets, a shop selling snack food, and an information office. The people in the office didn’t speak much English and seemed to want to ignore me in favour of those who wanted to make hotel bookings, but persist and you can get a semi-useful, semi-confusing map out of them. There are also maps posted at the visitor centre and near the Panda Centre.
There are hotels near the visitor centre, and either someone will approach you with brochures or you can go inside to the info centre to book. There are also several hotels near the Panda Centre. I paid 70 yuan for a room that was clean but somewhat cold and damp.
There are places to eat near the visitor centre, as well as near the Panda Centre. I went to the one restaurant near the Panda Centre that had an English menu, and I still got something other than what I’d ordered! Up the road from the entrance to the pandas are stalls selling drinks, noodles, corn and other weird looking eats common in national parks in China. There are a few snack stalls along the path at the bottom of the gorge.
There is a bus that will take you from the visitor centre to the Panda Centre, and/or back, as well as an elevator that will take you down into the gorge. Your ticket has tear-off portions for each of these, but you only get two. I’m not really sure how it’s all supposed to work if you want to do both things, both ways, as I couldn’t read the ticket, but it didn’t matter because no one cared anyway! That may have just been a factor of the weather though. Within the Panda Centre there’s an electric cart to transport people, but it’s really not too far to walk.
Adult: 118 Yuan, children and students: 60 yuan, children under 1m tall: Free