Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province of China. Chengdu is the home of the most popular panda base or sanctuary but it is actually only one of the five sanctuaries in Sichuan region. These five sanctuaries work together to help save, bred and release giant pandas back into the wild. This is the perfect location for the panda bases as it is part of their natural habitat. We were lucky and we were able to spend a full day at Wolong Giant Panda Sanctuary volunteering with these wonderful animals. The volunteer program was our preferred way to spend our time with these animals as it included education, work and close encounters with giant pandas.
We originally wanted to volunteer at the panda base closest to Chengdu but they did not have any availability. With the help of our hostel and our tour guide, Alvin, we found that Wolong Panda base had availability. It was a two hour car ride outside of Chengdu but by the end of the day we were convinced it was absolutely worth it! The two hour car ride took us into an area that pandas would live in naturally. We were surrounded by beautiful, dark green mountains. The area was stunning!
Our first surprise of the day- we were two of seven volunteers and the only two English volunteers. This meant that instead of being 2 in a group of 30 people we spent time with staff and pandas independently! We were quite excited about this turn of events and felt as if we had an even better day due to this. We put on our jumpers and were taken up to the pandas’ habitats.
We started our morning with cleaning the pandas outdoor habitat. In the sanctuary each adult panda has their own outdoor space and indoor space. For most of the day and all night the panda can go inside or outside at their pleasure. However, for the safety of staff and volunteers when cleaning an area the panda bear is kept in the other are. Once the giant panda was inside we went to work! We picked up the old bamboo for the evening and carried it outside to be taken away, we then had to sweep the bits and pieces of bamboo. Once this was done we cleaned a bit of panda poo and carried a bunch of fresh bamboo into the enclosure. We worked along side of the zoo keeper and some staff to clean the habitats of three giant pandas.
This was the closest that we had ever been to giant pandas and we had to stop to take a few photos. It was hard work to clean the habitats but we felt good about helping the Pandas. We even noted what a close relationship that the panda bears have with the zookeeper. He petted each panda bear and fed the bear tender pieces of bamboo. The pandas walked right up to him and wanted to greet him. Alvin, our tour guide, explained that the keepers sleep at the base in shifts, in case of any panda emergency.
We took a short walk around the facilities. We cleaned 3 habitats but the panda sanctuary has about 50 pandas living there! We saw “our pandas” munching on the fresh bamboo we provided them.
We then walked to “Kindergarten” which is the home to the young pandas under two years old. This is another reason to come to this base- panda kindergarten- and not all of the bases have one. The young pandas were also sitting outside munching on their fresh bamboo. There are 8 pandas in the kindergarten. Pandas are known to be the most active when they are children or teenagers. Being able to see so many panda together in one place was astonishing!
We were brought back into the area with a large male panda, Lu Lu. We cleaned his habitat that morning and he is knowns as a “hero father” because he has successfully fathered many cubs at the sanctuary. He is 18 years old and is known for his good temperament. We fed Lu Lu snacks of “panda cakes” and fresh apples. The panda puts a paw out on the armrest and leans in, while the volunteer feeds the treat right into their mouth! It was a bit scary at first-we were feeding a bear with rather large teeth! However, you looked into his eyes and you could see he was gentle. Feeding a giant panda will be something we remember for the rest of our lives; it was magical. When we fed Lu Lu the apples, we even touched his wet nose and felt his tongue. As we were the only two volunteers, we had the whole plate of treats to give him, but it still went too fast.
We ate lunch with our guide (and personal photographer) of local food at the base. It was delicious and we enjoyed talking to Alvin about his life. He lived in the USA for school for 8 years and spoke impeccable English. We found out all about his life and what living in Chengdu, China is like.
We watched a documentary about the pandas in the afternoon. This talked about the mission of rescuing the giant pandas, the process of breading in captivity, and releasing pandas back into the wild. The whole documentary was interesting but Megan especially loved how they were reintroducing giant pandas back into the wild. That work was being done only at Wolong National Reserve as it has the most natural land. The baby panda destined to be released rarely interacts with humans, and when he does the humans wears panda suits scented with panda urine in order to confuse the giant panda. It is a long and detailed program but it works! They have successful released 5 giant pandas into the wilderness! We also got to make the cakes that are fed to the pandas as treats.
We went back to the kindergarten in the afternoon and we were delighted to see some of the cubs playing and wrestling! Currently there are two sets of twins in the kindergarten and they like to rough house! We knew how lucky we were to witness this behavior as even Alvin was very excited by this!
We had the immense pleasure of feeding another giant panda, Tong Tong. He is a 13 year old male and we fed him “panda cakes” and carrot sticks. Feeding Tong Tong was as incredible as feeding Lu Lu. Once we were done giving him his treats we watched him devour the root of a bamboo plant. It was large but he made easy work of it with his strong teeth. We were very impressed with his ability to crunch his way through the root, while still being picky about which portions he consumed.
We walked around the remaining parts of the sanctuary and viewed a few more pandas before receiving our certificates of volunteering. We left Wolong Nature Reserve and Panda Sanctuary tired but fulfilled with our day.
After our ride back into Chengdu, Alvin took us to to a local restaurant serving wontons. It was a real experience! The restaurant was in of an apartment inside large apartment building and served about 8 wonton dishes. The lady making the wontons sat at the table next to us and is boasted to be able to fill and fold 30 wontons in a minutes! Chris ordered spicy wontons, Megan has sweet and sour while Alvin had chicken and they were amazing! It was the best meal we have had in China! Ours were filled with pork while Alvin’s had chicken; Chris ate the spicy flavor (ma la). He was nice enough to allow us one of his wontons and they were all amazing. We have wished we could return multiple times since that meal and continue to discuss how delicious it was.
We strolled around the streets of that part of town with Alvin. He explained local life to us and showed us the fruit and vegetable market. We even bought some peaches for the next day’s train ride.
**If interested in Panda Tours we HIGHLY recommend Alvin and his company! http://www.mypandatour.com