When your most adventurous, up-for-anything friend books a ticket to China, where do you take her? Do you join the crowds in Beijing lining up to see the same old stuff? What about modern Shanghai? Nope. I love the standard tourist spots of China, but that’s not what I wanted to show Vanessa. I wanted to show Vanessa the lesser known parts of China, starting with Sichuan province.
What I love about Vanessa is that she understands the current situation in China. In fact, what she told me is that she wanted to experience the more traditional, less visited parts of China before that all changes. She knows how fast change is coming to Western China and she wants to see it before Starbucks does.
From Chengdu to Ya’an by Bus
It’s really not a trip to Sichuan without paying homage to the Panda. Having already been to the Chengdu Panda base several times, I was looking for something different. I had heard about a second, less visited, panda center near Ya’an, and planned our visit there. The first challenge would be getting there from Chengdu.
Vanessa arrived in China on Christmas night (Merry Christmas to me!) and we set out for Ya’an the next morning. With jet lag in full effect, we grabbed a few baozi at my favorite shop near the Xinnanmen bus station and boarded our bus. The ride was about 2.5 hours, and despite my attempt to get us on a bus directly to the Bifengxia base, we were only able to go to the city of Ya’an.
When I asked the bus driver how to get to the base he, like many Chinese, looked kindly at us like we were small children and told us to stay on the bus after everyone else got off. Then, he went over to some other drivers to ask for directions and walked us over to the front of the station where there were a few vendors and a crowd of about 10 other people waiting. Speaking slowly he repeated to me several times that the exact location where we were standing was where we could get the bus. I understood well, but he must have been convinced that I didn’t and he kept repeating it.
In between repeating his instructions he purchased us two tickets, and refused to take our money in exchange. He was a proud man and he was clearly happy after having helped two foreign women find their way.
We ended up waiting for almost an hour at the bus stop, holding our bags on our backs the entire time since the ground was wet and muddy. Finally, when the bus (or more accurately- the van) arrived we piled in with everyone else, glad to take our packs off. Sadly, the seats were so small and low that we sat with our knees practically in our faces, hugging our bags on our laps.
The roads were slick so the driver took is slow, making our drive up to the park entrance a long one. Our view was obstructed by our luggage, but the gorge looked lush and the air was much fresher than in the town. Arriving at the base welcome center we chose to take the shuttle bus to our lodging, which was essentially a homestay within the park.
I’m a crazy animal love and will jump at any chance to see something cute. Pandas are no exception. We bought the 118 yuan ticket to see the pandas and then hike the gorge. I recommend doing it in this order since you can then leave from the base and walk down into the gorge (rather than up all of the stairs). This means that your reward at the end of the hike is a frighteningly tall elevator ride in the middle of nowhere that will take you up, out of the gorge. If you do the hike first, the trail beginning is near the entrance by the visitor center, so you’ll first take the elevator down into the gorge and have to hike up and out to the pandas. Hiking in China isn’t like in the West- it’s paved and lots of stairs, so I recommend saving the pain on the joints.
The VIP Tour
By the time we arrived at the ticket booth, I was worried that we wouldn’t have enough time to see the pandas and do the hike before sunset. I tried asking the attendant if we could buy the combination ticket and use one part that day and one part the next. I thought my Chinese was clear, but it obviously wasn’t. All she understood was that we were in a hurry to see the Pandas. No worries! She called to her colleague who ushered us onto an electric cart and whisked us off to see the Pandas. Sometimes, it’s so nice to be misunderstood.
Not only did he drive us to the bottom of the hill to see the Pandas, but he waited for us to see them and then drove us to the next few enclosures. I’m not sure how we ended up with such awesome service, but it made seeing all of the Pandas super-fast. That, and there were only a handful of other visitors.
On this day the Panda Kindergarten was closed so we didn’t get to see any babies. There were lots of adults though. Since it was winter they tended to be pretty active and were outside eating. I’ve visited the Pandas in Chengdu in the summertime and it’s so hot that they barely move. I definitely prefer traveling around China in the winter and this is just yet another reason to add to my list.
The park was deceptively large, and with our private driver we finished much faster than we had planned. Since we were in the middle of nowhere and didn’t have anything else to do we decided to make the hike.
The hike absolutely exceeded our expectations. We passed by gorgeous waterfalls, quaint temples and even saw some hanging coffins, much like the ones I traveled so far to see outside of Yibin. Just to be clear, the word “hike” is being used loosely here. It’s really a walk along a path, but with some steep steps to get around waterfalls. This doesn’t require any gear or even special shoes.
I had read about the elevator at the end of the hike, but pictures really don’t show how out of place the elevator seems. It’s literally towering over a serene cliffside and looks like someone just threw it there as an afterthought. Vanessa and I took a long look at it before deciding it was safe enough to get into. Her jet lag was really the determining factor.
One of the best parts to this day was saying in what you might call a homestay- it’s essentially a private room in the family’s home. I’m guessing that they’ve built on to their original home as the business has done well. They’ve made the ground floor into a restaurant with a bar outside (it was too cold at night for us to visit). Our room was on the third floor and had a private bathroom and a heater. The room was pretty basic but the highlight was a private balcony that looked out onto nothing in particular. It’s that kind of place- quaint but not exactly charming. It’s exactly what a homestay in the Chinese countryside should be like.
We at a delicious homemade dinner at the restaurant with one other young Chinese couple. Unfortunately, it was so cold (there wasn’t heat downstairs) that we ate quickly and went upstairs to warm up. With a glass of wine in hand and the heating blanket turned on we fell asleep by 9:30pm.
The next morning we woke up to sunshine- a rarity in rainy Ya’an. We ate the grandmother’s awesome noodles for breakfast, which were some of the best I’ve had, and made our way out of the park and back to the bus station.
Overall, the park was a highlight of Vanessa’s Sichuan tour. From interacting with the family that we stayed with, to soaking in the sights during the hike, we were happy that our travels took us to Ya’an.
Want to go to Ya’an? Here’s some tips:
If you are alright with simple, country style accommodations, I recommend the Bifengxia Wenfeng Villa Farmhouse 碧峰峡文凤山庄农家乐. It was a great cultural experience- after living with a Chinese host family for several months I felt like this was the real deal (except that it had heating, which is rare in these parts). It’s clean, but basic. The family members who were present when we stayed only spoke Chinese, but I’m sure it could be worked out if you don’t. Ask for a room with a balcony and park warm clothes for at night.
The food in the park is limited to street snack or restaurants run in family homes. We found the food delicious and portions were huge (Vanessa got an entire duck when I ordered roast duck for one person!)
We booked a ticket on a bus to Bifengxia (or the gorge where the Ya’an Panda base is located). Despite the ticket and the sign on the bus window saying it would go to Bifengxia, we only made it to the Ya’an bus station. Expect that in low season you might have to take an additional bus despite what the ticket agent tells you.
After the park closes at night there’s not much to do but enjoy the quiet. If you’re coming from busier parts of the country where the crowds can be maddening, this might be the best part about Bifengxia. That, or the pandas…
Questions? Comments? Let me know below.