‘The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart’ (Helen Keller)… maybe, but only if you haven’t ‘seen or even touched’ a giant panda.
So here we are, late spring, in the middle of the most populated country in the world, tired from the big city… and there’s the entire weekend ahead. It is quite an easy decision to go for a break in the countryside if you are in the Sichuan province. The place is full of nature reserves, ancient towns, mountains, temples, and even a massive Buddha statue (located in the prefecture-level city of Leshan). But having just two days we decided to visit the two MUSTs for first time visitors – CCRCGP Dujiangyan Panda base and Mount Qingcheng.
My friend and I took a uber car from Chengdu to take us to the panda base on Saturday morning. It was about an hour - hour and a half ride and it is probably the best way to travel to the reserve. It is relatively cheap, especially if you sharing it with someone, and faster and more convenient than the local buses. The place itself is located around 30 - 40 km (20 – 25 miles) north from the city. To its north is the Taoist holy mountain and to its south is the ancient town of Jiezi. There are quite a few panda resorts in Sichuan. In numbers – around 80% of the world’s giant pandas are there. You can see the pandas in Chengdu too, if you do not have the time or will to travel. But we chose CCRCGP because it offers some additional extras to the visitors’ experience – you can do a panda volunteering program or simply hug a bear. In fact, this is the only place where you can do these. The Giant Panda volunteering program could be the right thing for you if you are an animal lover. It is a one-day program in which you learn about the rescue processes and life of the bears, plant bamboo trees, clean after and even feed the pandas.
We arrived at the entrance around 11 o’clock but… surprises surprise... the pandas were asleep – all of them. There are more than 30 bears in the base and all of them sleep most of the day. Well, sleeping panda is still a delight for the eye but the best time to see them awake is between 10 and 11 in the morning, and between 1 and 3 in the afternoon. Dujiangyan Panda base is a big park - 760 acres – so we enjoying a good walk in the clean air (you’ll appreciate the air quality after a week in the city) while waiting for the afternoon attraction. Another good thing is the place is not overcrowded by tourists. We also watched a short documentary about giant pandas’ history, habitats and preservation. At some point we had lunch in the resort’s canteen, but I’ll advice you to bring a snack with you as the day could be long.
Once the pandas awake the whole place became ‘alive’. All the bears came out (there are also some red pandas in the park), and while most of them were eating, some were actually enjoying the attention they were getting. There is this adorable clumsiness in all the bears which makes old and young laugh. Personally, I found the sound system priceless – absolutely no city noise, just birds singing, accompanied by the crunches of bamboo out of the bears’ teeth, and children’s laughter everywhere.
We spend the next 2 hours just casually ‘starring’. And believe me, it feels nothing like a zoo. In the late afternoon there was just one thing left to do – in return of a small charity contribution (well, not the smallest) you can touch, hug and take a photo with one of the bears. And even it is a bit pricy for the standard of life there, it is worth every penny. We had a very pleasant encounter with a young and curios lady. It almost feels like she’s trying to tell you something we got very attached to her for just a blink of the eye. However, bear in mind there are certain limitations to whether you’ll be able to meet a panda. You should be in a good health condition, it should be at a time the pandas are awake, and the weather conditions should be allowing it. The CCRCGP staff is really friendly – they were telling us a lot of stories, and in the end we received a certificate for the contribution we made to the great cause and also a gift bag with DVDs, badges, etc. We left the panda Dujiangyan Panda base with the same ridiculous smiles on the faces as kids trying ice-cream for the first time.
The entrance for mount Qingcheng is around 20 km (12 miles) from the panda base and we had planned the entire Sunday for ‘a spiritual climb’ so it did not make a lot of sense to go back to the city. Instead, we booked a night in a hotel just at the bottom of the mountain. It was still bright in the late afternoon there so we took out to explore the area. We were hoping to find a good place to have a bite – there is a big open-area park where people are flying kites (the big Chinese ones with the fireflies and dragons, not the small triangles), gardens with many flowers and gazebos, a temple palace and many more… but no restaurants. We had to eat in the hotel, and normally it would not be of any problem, but the restaurant did not have a menu in English… and no one was actually speaking English. It was quite fun though as we ended in the hotel’s kitchen pointing with fingers the ingredients from the shelf. But if you’re not an adventurous type bring some food with you. The price for the night included breakfast but this was not easy for us either – we ate peanuts with boiled eggs.
We woke up early in the morning to start the trek. Mount Qingcheng is one of the most famous Taoist mountains in China. The mountain, which is surrounded by numerous peaks and is shaped like a city, is dubbed 'the most peaceful and secluded mountain under heaven'. Laojun Pavilion is located on the highest peak at 1260m (4,134 feet). The area is, of course, full with temples and spiritual places but it offers a lot more than just that. On the way up there are streams and waterfalls, lakes, palaces from past dynasties, pavilions, small cafés and restaurants (with a great view), musicians, painters, local people selling hand made goods and fresh fruits. There are stairs, a lot of stairs, but there are also possibilities to cheat the system – a cable car lift and locals who will actually carry you on a stretcher up the stairs. And the higher you get the more jaw-dropping the view is. Once you’re on the top the feeling is astounding. So are the photos.
I could not want any better finish of my trip to China. I sincerely felt in love with the nature, felt in love with the culture, felt in love with the pandas. I truly keep this love in my heart. Because ‘the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart’