Booking A Panda Adventure In Chengdu, China

Filed Under: Advice, Family

Back when Ben and I were considering where to go in China to take advantage of some great Xiamen Air business class fares, we ultimately decided on Chengdu, because we had a vague notion that we wanted to see pandas. Ben loves to research airplanes, airlines, hotels, and the like, but I don’t think panda tourism was in his bailiwick, so it was up to me to plan how we were going to make this happen.

Chengdu is located in the Sichuan Province, which is by some estimates home to about 80 percent of the world’s approximately 2,000 pandas. There are several panda reserves, as well as research and breeding facilities in Sichuan. The one that has the most information online is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, which looks good, but we didn’t end up going there.

One major consideration for us was that we would be there during China’s National Holiday, one of the busiest times for travel and tourism in the country. I was worried that the panda facilities would have huge lines and crowds, and that it would seriously cut into our panda time.

Because of the holiday, and because I wanted a chance to get up close and personal with the pandas, I booked us two spots in the “volunteer program” at the Dujiangyan Panda Base, officially called the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda Dujiangyan Base.

Of course, this isn’t a volunteer program in the traditional sense of the word: I knew going in that this was more for our benefit than for the pandas’. But it would offer an opportunity to spend a whole day behind the scenes at the panda base, and they did seem to cater to English-speaking guests based on the information I found online. They limit the program to only 30 participants per day, so it seemed like a reasonable way to bypass the potential National Holiday crowds.

For more on the volunteer program (also known as the Panda Husbandry Experience), check out their brochure. The tour company China Highlights also offers a full-day tour to the panda base, including round-trip transportation from hotels in Chengdu.


Dujiangyan is a small city about an hour outside Chengdu. It has an ancient irrigation system that is protected by UNESCO (my backup plan was to go there if the panda thing didn’t work out). The panda base primarily exists for panda research, though it is open to tourists. It’s not easily accessible by public transportation – more later on how we got there.


To book the volunteer program, you email the panda base at [email protected] Within a day of sending a message, I received a friendly response with an application form and a medical form to send back to them.

The application form was fairly standard, though some of it got lost in translation. For example, they ask you to specify your two main reasons for wanting to participate in the program, and one of the choices is “to get intimate with the giant panda.” They are beautiful animals, but I don’t think of them in that way. I sent application forms for Ben and me (which reserves your spots in the program) and then we both made doctor’s appointments to fill out the medical form.

Can’t we just be friends?

The medical form was two pages long and a little confusing. It asks questions about three different kind of psychosis as well as “toxicomania.” I was worried that my doctor would have trouble filling it out, but everything went smoothly.

A few other things to keep in mind:

  • Participants must be between ages 12 and 65. I think they’ll make accommodations for children under 12 if you ask.
  • You can send in the application form first to reserve your spot and then send in the medical form later.
  • On the medical form, they’re mainly just looking to see that you’re in good general health – special tests aren’t required. It mentions a “syphilis serodiagnosis,” but I don’t think that’s necessary unless you plan to “get intimate” with the panda (see above).
  • The cost for the program is 700 RMB (a little over $100) per person, and you pay upon arrival.

Transportation To/From The Base

As I said, public transportation wasn’t really an option to go from Chengdu to the panda base. I did a little research into hiring a car, and found a company called Delightcar, which seems to operate throughout China. I emailed them, and they responded with a price quote for a car and driver for a full day (including fuel, mileage, and tolls). It was $160 for a sedan, which seemed very reasonable… it was a fraction of the price that the hotel would have charged, for example. Ben was worried that there was a catch, but it actually worked out perfectly – the driver was capable, friendly, on time, and accommodating. I prepaid online via PayPal.

I’ll do a separate post very soon about the actual panda volunteer experience. Be forewarned: there will be some panda puns. But here’s a preview of what we saw:

Leaked security footage of me at the Cheesecake Factory
  1. “Leaked security footage of me at the Cheesecake Factory”

    Burst out in laughter to this photo caption!!! =P

  2. $160 to get to the panda base, why did you not use the subway that gets you within about 2 miles of the base, and then use the shuttle bus for about $2. Total return trip for the both of you around $5 and probably faster avoiding traffic.

  3. Andrew, always like your style and humor. Admit it, there was a part of you that was curious about getting intimidate with the pandas :-0

  4. @Simon Diggins: I think you’re thinking of the Chengdu Research Base. The Dujiangyan Base is abut 60 km outside city limits and nowhere near the subway.

    @Boco: Well, I wouldn’t say no to cuddling with one! 😉

  5. We got some great access to pandas at the Taipei Zoo in early December. There is a family of pandas there and we were among less than a dozen people there so we could watch them as much as we wanted. They were awake and very playful. They have lots of indoor and outdoor space to play with jungle gyms and it was fun watching them play with the large popsicles trying to get food out of them. We could see the painted lines on the sidewalk for controlling the crowds during the high seas that went about 100 yards, yet we had no lines. I recommend doing this if in Taipei in the off season.

  6. intimate
    closely acquainted; familiar, close.
    “intimate friends”
    synonyms: close, bosom, dear, cherished, faithful, devoted, fast, firm, familiar; informalchummy
    “an intimate friend of Picasso’s”

    Mainland Chinese people are provided with minimal or substandard education in English in most cases unless they seek overly-expensive private lessons — which not everyone can afford. In this case they seem to have learned English better than you. The main use of intimate is the definition above and Americans use it in that way all the time.

    It’s generally embarrassing to make fun of foreign people’s ability to speak or write English (a language of zero use to them in their own country). It’s also amateurish for supposed seasoned foreign travelers to do so. Even more embarrassing written into the public record on a blog with your name signed to it.

  7. @ExProSurfer, the key is that they used the expression “get intimate” which only means ONE thing. Take a chill pill 🙂

  8. @Andrew B
    Dujiangyan is easily reached by more than a dozen high speed trains per day. These are the same beautiful, clean high speed trains you can take long distances around China. Most leave from Xipu Station (which requires a longer subway ride or Taxi/Didi from central Chengdu) but you can catch a few trains per day from Chengdu Bei Station which is very central. Taxis and Didi in Chengdu are very cheap and just a few dollars for a long ride.

    From the Dujiangyan high speed train station, the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda Dujiangyan Base (中国大熊猫保护研究中心都江堰基地) is an easy 8km taxi ride (for Chinese speakers or savvy travelers there’s also a public bus system). The train costs $2-3 dollars and is one of the better deals in China. The trip is 19 min from Chengdu Xipu and 30 min from Chengdu Bei. Much faster than the amateur hour taxi.

    Dujiangyan has hotels to stay overnight including Holiday Inn Expresses that are somewhat new, clean and particularly cheap. The region is also famous for some unique local foods and has some good restaurants. Particularly good is the stewed the yellow bean cake and stewed spicy tofu if you can find an old style restaurant that has it. You can also take a quick taxi or public bus to Qingcheng Mountain which can be hiked up. Taxi drivers in this region charge charge what in China is a somewhat high price to foreign and local tourists alike. But you’re unlikely to be able to find a better price.

  9. @ Lukas
    Hugging and holding onto the Pandas is what “get intimate” means. Take a cold shower and an English class.

  10. Regarding’s instructions. Taking the train to Mt. Qingcheng Railway Station also works. But I think there are going to be far fewer trains to that station so you might have plan very specifically. I don’t think it’s particularly closer the Panda center by taxi. Maybe even farther.

    Taking the bus can also be tricky for foreigners who don’t speak Chinese since it may just sit there for a while waiting but generally you just put a few RMB in the box at the front of the bus and check google maps to see when you’re close to your stop. The driver should understand Panda or at least your bad pronunciation of Xiongmao and should get the picture of where you’re going. Sichuan people, compared to other provinces, are usually very nice and concerned with your need to get to your destination.

  11. This post came just in time. As I’m planing my year end Chengdu Panda excursion. Can’t wait to read more.


  12. @ExProSurfer: Translations that result in unintended meanings are often humorous. I never considered the humor to be directed at the people who did the translating. I’m sure that if I were to attempt to translate something in Mandarin, the results would be hilarious too. What *I* find “generally embarrassing” is how vicious people can be when given the anonymity of a computer, especially when they don’t really have any basis for their attack.

    Based on the other information available, hiring the car for the day was by far the best choice for us. And as Ben explained in his post, he sticks to SPG and Hyatt properties which is one of the (many) reasons one might choose a St. Regis over a Holiday Inn Express. 🙂

  13. This is definitely a trip I want to make in the future. Gonna have to bookmark this post to circle back to it. Nice report

  14. @ExProSurfer

    Andrew and Ben will like to be friends with the Panda as he mentioned in his post instead of “intimate friends” with them. So that’s their choice. Also he jokes alittle in his post, the way I read it he didn’t imply negatively on anyone or any group of people. If you take it so seriously in every word of his post, do you think that’s him in the picture in the Cheesecake Factory?

  15. My wife is from chengdu and i have been to the panda bear center. very cool. being from the midwest we fly from chicago to beijing then over to chengdu. We find hainan air to have great deals on airfare as well. I hope your readers go and visit the panda bear center. Thanks Eric

  16. Having been an 8 year expat in China, and visiting Chengdu to see the pandas several times, those who are not so experienced in taking the train in China often have a bit of a learning curve the first couple of times. It is never as easy as just hop on the train and you are there for just $5. After you have done it a few times, then yes, it is very easy, leaving you to wonder why we can’t have transportation this easy in the US. As a first time tourist in Chengdu or with limited train experience in China, it’s a bit cumbersome to figure it all out, buying your tickets, where to go, get lost once or twice, LOTS of walking, finding the taxi line, etc. This can easily waste a couple of hours of your time and when you are on a tight time schedule, that can mean the difference in being able to take in another excursion or not.

    I went to the other panda facility in Chengdu and did the “volunteer” experience where you can hold the baby pandas. It was a highlight of our time in China and I would highly recommend it. And China is full of funny expressions, anyone that gets bent out of shape over it needs to lighten up, they make equal fun of foreigners and no one takes it so seriously.

  17. Great post, Andrew, thank you! As a global traveler and expat, I find your humor and puns to be witty and not at all offensive, it adds to your posts and makes them very easy to read.

  18. Hi. Long time reader, first time writer. I took part in the volunteer program after reading this article. It was a great day. Really glad I went with your recommendation. The staff were great and being part of the program was pretty awesome.

    For anyone interested, I had my photo taken with a panda which takes you out of the program for about 1 hour. You literally get 20-25 seconds MAX with the panda. It’s a stack of money (extra 1800 yuan) You’ll need to buddy up with someone in the group to take the photos for you. My advice; be the last to go through. I had about 45-50 seconds with the panda (it may not seem much but those few seconds matter). A great day regardless

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