Sign Up for Our Monthly Asia Newsletter
For the second time in five minutes, the teenage girl beside me asked her mom if her hair looked okay. Less than thrilled with her curls for the day, she put her compact mirror away and turned to me.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” she said.
Her mom went on to validate what her daughter said: She has always loved pandas and has dreamt of cuddling one for as long as she can remember.
A few minutes later, the girl sat down by her mom on the wooden bench, and her dream came true. A baby panda, chomping on an apple, was placed onto her lap.
It may seem like an oddly specific dream, but I shared it as well. The minute I found out that there was a place in Chengdu, China, where visitors could hold pandas — no, baby pandas — my heart jumped. I reverted back to elementary school — carefree days adorned in my memory by Day-Glo pandas patterned on my notebooks and binders.
These days, I get uneasy about tourism that involves animals, but this is a Chengdu must-do, operated by the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Foundation. The non-profit organization was founded in 1987 with six giant pandas rescued from the wild, and it has grown to more than 100 pandas from this founding population — a significant number when you consider that there are only about 1,600 giant pandas in the world. The group’s efforts to support scientific research, breeding and cooperation among domestic and international groups have even been recognized by the United Nations Environment Program’s Global 500 Award for environmental achievement.
Humane and unique, it’s no surprise why one of the foundation’s main projects — the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Chengdu Panda Base) — is listed as the number-one activity on TripAdvisor.com for the city. In addition to being able to hold a giant panda cub at the Giant Panda Nurse Experience Station, visitors to the reserve can spend hours leisurely strolling the gorgeous grounds of the base which continue to expand and receive renovations. Because of the size of the grounds, the pandas here are not locked in cages. Instead, they have spacious, enclosed natural areas in which they can sprawl out, sleep and eat — the three activities you will see the pandas do. I watched a panda chomp on bamboo for about 10 minutes, and I’m not sure what was more impressive — how mesmerized I became or the panda’s supreme dedication to its craft: eating. I only broke my gaze when I realized that, nearby, two other pandas were covered in various bamboos and feasting near a tree. I walked around the different enclosures, admiring the assortment of postures which pandas employ while eating and sleeping.
Giant pandas were my main mission, but I spotted other animals without even trying: Above me, on the roof of the giant panda nursery, a peacock modeled its plumage and surveyed the scene. At my feet, the endangered red panda scampered through its enclosure area’s fencing onto the visitor’s path en route to a dense field of trees. And near the entrance of the base is Swan Lake, where white and black swans offer guests an elegant welcome. Nearly 400 trees, including the city’s tree — the Ginkgo Biloba — adorn the base, and a cinema, a gift shop, a museum, restaurants and informative signs throughout the park provide details about the reserve’s pandas and conservation efforts. But, if you’ve come to cuddle a cub, don’t get too sidetracked.
For some personal panda time, be sure to go straight to the Sunshine Nursery and sign up. It’s best to arrive around opening (8 a.m.), especially in the summer. The pandas are most active and likely to be outside in the early, cool feeding hours. Also, the visiting experience is capped to a limited number of guests per day so as not to exhaust the baby pandas. It’s not possible to reserve the visit ahead of time since the base cannot guarantee the pandas’ cooperation.
After signing up for the nursery experience, groups of six attend a briefing, where a staff member shares some panda facts while showing skeletons of the panda’s hand and wrist, as well as photos. Then the group goes outside to take turns washing bamboo before putting on the appropriate clothing: gloves, plastic booties over shoes and a long, blue plastic overcoat.
The staff works diligently to ensure that each person’s once-in-a-lifetime moment with the panda is appropriately captured. During my turn, three staff members — one with my iPhone, one with my camera and one with the center’s camera — all kept telling me to look up. I was entranced with the six-month old in my lap, petting its head and legs and simply reveling in the baby’s wanton enjoyment of food, the weight of its growing body and the wiry texture of its hair nuzzled against my chin.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breedinghttp://panda.org.cn
Know Before You Go:Admission fee:$9.50
Donation to hold a panda:$327
Included: A memento photograph, a hooded jacket, a donation certificate and a panda documentary
Hours: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.