When you tell someone you’re going to China, they always ask about two things: pandas and egg rolls. Turns out that egg rolls were most likely invented in New York City and are practically impossible to find anywhere in China. However, panda bears are native to south central China and there was zero chance that I was going to miss an opportunity to hold a baby panda bear.
There is literally one place in the entire world where you can hold a baby panda bear and it’s at Dujiangyan Panda Base and Center for Disease Control which is two hours outside of Chengdu, China. Chengdu, a four hour plane ride from Shanghai, is the capital of Sichuan Province. It’s known for incredibly spicy food and being the birth place of Po, the panda bear from Kung Fu Panda.
I booked a flight to Chengdu on Spring Airlines for $70 roundtrip. Everything that a luxury airline is, Spring Airlines is not that. Spring Airlines is a low-cost, no-frills private airline based out of Shanghai. Imagine boarding an airplane to an instrumental version of Oh! Susanna on repeat, having no legroom, and only a backpack because you can only have a single carry-on without paying extra. That’s Spring Airlines.
What the airline lacks in luxury, it makes up for in character. On every single Spring Airline flight I have ever taken, I made friends with the passengers sitting next to me. Despite not sharing a language, they were always willing to share their food, music, or technology with me.
There are multiple panda bases around Chengdu. At the time of this blog post, there is only one that allows you volunteer as a “Panda Keeper” and actually hold a baby panda. Make sure you arrange with Dujiangyan Panda Base and Center for Disease Control to get the full experience.
To get to and from the base, I hired Leon (a private driver I found on TripAdvisor) to pick us up at our hotel, drive to the pandas, and to a few attractions around Chengdu. Leon charged about $100 for an entire day of being a tour guide. It is possible to get to the base using public transportation. As anyone who has attempted to use a bus system in a language they don’t speak can attest, it’s a risky endeavor that requires substantial extra time and planning. I didn’t want to waste any time and Leon was a fun person to spend the day with.
It’s important to arrive at the base when it opens (around 8am) because that’s when the panda bears are most active. For 700 Chinese Yuan or about $100, the base allows you to be a “Panda Keeper for the Day”. The base staff go all out to provide you with an amazing experience and really commits to treating you as if you are an actual zookeeper. You’ll be given a zookeeper coverall (which makes for great pictures) and given a private tour of the base. The pandas are the cutest thing you will ever see, you’ll take too many pictures, and never want to leave.
After the private tour, you will be taken to clean the panda cages. When you’re cleaning up Panda poop for a hour is when you decide that you’re glad you’re not actually a zookeeper. It’s also when you wonder why you are paying $100 to clean up Panda poop. Once you get to feed the panda bears bamboo shoots, you forget about cleaning the cages and start calculating if you have the finances to stay at the base forever. You also get fed lunch, shown a documentary, and taught how to make panda food.
The highlight of the day and possibly the best moment of my life is when I got to cuddle a baby panda bear. The experience is not cheap. It costs about $350 to cuddle a baby panda for about 60 seconds. It is worth every penny. There is literally no other place where you can wrap your arm around the cutest creature in the world and get the best profile picture of all time. The money also helps Panda conservation efforts. It’s a win-win and you will not regret it.