Which is a better place to see pandas in Sichuan, China- Chengdu or Ya’an?
If you’ve made it Sichuan Province, which is considered to be the Wild West of China, you’ve probably seen your fill of ancient temples and historic sights. At this point, you’re probably craving an adorable dose of panda.
Lucky for you, you have two options to seeing these roly-poly beasts. The first option, which is located right in the capital of Sichuan, is an easily accessible research base just on the outskirts of Chengdu city. Your second option is also a research center but this one is located in bucolic valley several hours away from the chaos of Chinese cities. Assuming that you don’t have time for both, which option is right for you?
The advantage of the Chengdu Research Base is really its proximity to the city and its ease of accessibility. That’s also the reason that thousands of Chinese travelers, organized tour groups and school trips go there every day. If you’re imagining a quaint, peaceful afternoon of observing these majestic animals in their natural habitat, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The crowds can be intense. Think 3 rows deep on a nice weekend. Let’s also note that the prevailing Chinese behavior surrounding animal welfare isn’t the same as in the West. It can be heartbreaking to see grown adults banging on glass partitions trying to wake up the sleeping pandas to get them to come over and take a picture. Even worse is watching parents lift up their children and dangle them over the barriers into the panda’s paddocks. The staff here does a great job of trying to curb as much of these behaviors as possible.
The amount of pandas on display here is really impressive. I’ve been several times and have seen dozens of adults, usually several younger pandas (between 1-2 years old) and depending on the time of year there might also be small cubs or newborns. The center is constantly renovating and making improvements to the panda’s habitats, so at any time parts of the park might be closed but there will still be plenty of pandas on display.
On a personal note, it seemed to me that the pandas here were cleaner than in Ya’an. I’m not sure if the staff actually grooms them, or if it’s because their enclosures are well maintained and mud free. I’ve heard many Chinese complain that pandas are dirty creatures, so perhaps the park is trying to combat that negative stereotype (though, I have no proof of this). I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. It just seemed like the pandas in Ya’an were a bit more natural and by that I mean that they had more dirt on them as I imagine they do in the wild. Is that a pro or a con? I’m not sure.
One nice feature of the park is the tram system that makes traveling easier for those with small children or mobility limitations. I wouldn’t recommend buying the ticket otherwise, as the walk is actually quite enjoyable and the lines can be long. However, it’s there for those that need it.
Another nice feature of this research center is that they have red pandas as well. Unlike the giant pandas, the red pandas are in an open enclosure, so they can walk around the area freely. It’s fun to spot them as they wander through the bamboo groves with their peacock friends.
Overall, I really like this center and I was impressed the first time I went at how well cared for the pandas seem. They are the symbol of Sichuan and the staff here really does seem to take pride in them. I’ve been to a zoo in China and was devastated at the conditions of the animals; I can say with certainty that the conditions here are much better.
- If you are short on time, this is the right option for you. You’ll get to see some beautiful pandas in the morning and can still make your evening flight.
- If you are a morning person and will make the extra effort to wake up early and get to the center before the tour groups arrive.
- City slickers who don’t have the desire to visit rural China or aren’t interested in hiking.
- Travelers who are cautious about the language barrier and would rather stick to easy to travel locations.
The Panda center in Ya’an is an entirely different situation. To begin, it’s hard to even find information in English. Going into my trip I knew that the center was a temporary solution opened in 2003 after the Wolong base was destroyed in an earthquake. Sources differ as to how many pandas are actually located there- some sites say as many as 80, but other say as few as 16. My guess is that it’s closer to 20 (or that’s about how many were on display when I visited). For me, having such limited information was a part of the attraction.
Getting to the center can be a bit of a challenge especially for those who don’t speak Chinese. However, the Bifengxia gorge and surrounding area is breathtaking- the air is much cleaner than in the city and the bamboo covered mountains are spectacular. Though I know that there are very few pandas still living in the wild I felt like this might be their natural habit and that made me happy for the little guys.
The park was a bit smaller than in Chengdu, and when I went they only had adults on display. The kindergarten for cubs was undergoing renovations. As I mentioned above, the pandas, while well cared for, seemed a bit dirtier. Again, this might be because their pens were more natural than in Chengdu (meaning less manicured for the audience and more like where they would exist in the wild). I did notice that these guys seemed more active. Having visited both centers in the winter when the pandas aren’t bothered by the heat and humidity I still think the Ya’an pandas were a bit livelier. Maybe it was the fresh air?
The big incentive here is the lack of crowds. We only saw maybe two dozen other visitors in the entire park and not a single foreigner. (There was a foreigner who was volunteering for the week in the park though.) It was nice to be able to see the pandas in absolute peace and quiet and the pandas seemed to be at ease without kids shouting at them and everyone trying to get their attention for a photo.
This park also had a tram (which I think you’re supposed to buy tickets for, but we didn’t). There’s also a separate tram that takes you from the entrance to the nature reserve to the gate of the panda center. From the visitors center it’s a long walk- you can do the hike through the gorge to get to the pandas, but I recommend doing it in the opposite direction. See the pandas first in the morning when they’re active, then take the hike. The elevator out of the gorge at the end will be your reward.
Overall, the park isn’t as well maintained and shiny as the one in Chengdu. However, the natural setting is what makes it worth the trip. If you enjoy the outdoors and are craving a bit of an easy hike, you might want to consider visiting Ya’an.
- Travelers with more time. It can take a while to get here from Chengdu, but that’s a part of the experience. By making the trek you’ll be avoiding some of the crowds. If you’ve come all this way, you might as well spend the night and enjoy it.
- Nature lovers with a desire to see the countryside. It’s also a great way to see life outside of the major cities.
- People who want to see pandas, but that’s not your top priority. I think the hike is the real winner here and the pandas are just icing on the cake.
** Currently, both centers have suspended their panda petting programs, where visitors with lots of money to spend could have their photo taken touching a panda. I’m personally against these programs as I think they encourage irresponsible behavior towards wild animals. If you want to spend quality time with the pandas, consider volunteering at the centers instead. You won’t get to touch them, but you will get to learn about them, support them, and spend time with the animals without any crowds.**