Most people head to the famous Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Wolong to get their dose of China’s most famous animal. But if you’re after a more meaningful experience, Bifengxia Panda Base offers a far less touristy alternative.
Also located within the bounds of the Wolong Nature Reserve, Bifengxia receives fewer visitors than the nearby Breeding Centre, and also offers volunteer placements. Before you summon up romantic visions of rolling around with cute and cuddly black-and-white bears, however, be warned that the majority of your work will be focused on picking up their poo.
Most of the programmes offered limit volunteer work to just two hours a day, allowing you plenty of freedom to explore the surrounding nature reserve, but making it hard to feel like you’re really making an impact at the panda base. Nevertheless, there are opportunities to help feed the pandas (something not offered to normal visitors) and if you want to hold one, you can do so – albeit for an extra charge of 5,000RMB for three minutes with a baby panda.
Regular return flights from Beijing to Chengdu are available from 700RMB on Ctrip.
If you don’t want to sign up for a volunteer package (see below), take a cab from the airport to the Xinnanmen Long Distance Bus Terminal (25 minutes, 40RMB) and take bus 902 to the base (90 minutes, 2RMB). Buses depart the station every 35 minutes, starting at 7am and ending at 7.30pm daily – be sure not to get off at Bifengxia Zoo, an unrelated facility along the way. If you’re heading to the base as a normal visitor, call ahead to check their opening hours first as these can vary.
To sign up as a volunteer, you can contact the base directly (Mandarin speakers will find this considerably easier) or apply for a placement through an external company.
WLS International, a London-based organisation that specialises in providing affordable volunteer programmes in Asia, offers a package for 4,560RMB (see www.volunteerforasia.com/pandaprogram
). Accommodation is provided for volunteers; for visitors, it’s best to stay in Chengdu and treat the panda base as a day trip from the city.
Dragon Town Hostel in the central Kuanxiangzi district of the city and Chengdu Mix Hostel offer affordable options, with beds at both from 30RMB a night.