Have you ever wanted to hug a critically endangered species in a foreign country? Have you ever wanted to spend upwards of $200 on a 30 second encounter? Have you just found yourself in a remote area of rural China? Boy, do I have some good news for you!
A few points before we go into this post, I must warn you that the panda holding experience is:
A) quite brief,
B) quite expensive,
C) quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and thankfully
D) quite an easy and painless process ONCE you know what you’re doing.
There are plenty of guides online explaining how the process went down and how to organise it, but most of these were out of date or just plain wrong. This guide is a (semi) current account of how a friend and I shared a once in a lifetime experience with one of the most adorable animals in the world[ᶜᶦᵗᵃᵗᶦᵒⁿ ⁿᵉᵉᵈᵉᵈ]
WHERE IS IT?
Due to new restrictions, there is now only one Panda Base in the China, and therefore only one place in the world, where you can hold a panda. Whilst you were able to hold a panda in at least 4 research facilities a few years ago, nowadays the Dujiangyan Panda Base and Center for Disease Control is the only place to do so. The base is 2 hours out of Chengdu and is not easily accessible. I’d read reports online that you can catch a train to the base and then a bus to the centre, but I could not find any evidence when I was in Chengdu that that was possible.
HOW DO I BOOK?
As of May 2018, I don’t believe there is any way to book this experience directly with the Dujiangyan facility, so we booked through a third party company Viator. For ~$160AUD each, we were able to book a private day trip to the facility, complete with our own English speaking tour guide. Now unfortunately, this cost does not include the fee to hold the panda. I told you it was expensive; but more on that later. Viator have a lot of experiences on offer; you can hold a panda, feed a panda, be a ‘panda keeper’ for a day where you prepare their food and clean their cages. Now the option we selected is no longer available, but I’m sure if you booked a private tour, you could request them to organise the holding option!
Our friend had undertaken the same tour with another company Catherine Lu Tours. On such late notice, this particular tour was unsuitable for us but there are plenty of tours on offer, and you can request your own itinerary to suit your desires. From memory, the quote was a similar price to what we paid.
Viator assigned us a very lovely tour guide named Jay, who we would highly recommend. He went out of his way to help show us around, and had a very intimate knowledge of the base, the nearby sites, Chinese history and Sichuan food! I personally would rather cut out the middle man and book the tour directly with him, but I don’t know if that possible. You can find his Facebook group, Hold Panda online, just ask for Jay!
We didn’t realise how difficult the process was going in blind. We assumed we could get to Chengdu, book our trip on the research centres website, and catch public transport to the base. We couldn’t. We thought failing that, we could ask our hotel receptionist to call the panda base and book it for us. They couldn’t, nor could they even understand what we wanted (but when they did, they tried their best but were unable to do so).
Maybe there is a way to book it yourselves, save some money on a personal guide, and make your own way to the facility, but I believe if you don’t speak Mandarin (and even if you do), you’d be hard-pressed to do so. As far as I’m aware, booking it with a private guide is the only way to score this experience. The base also only allows a limited number of people to partake in the experience every day, so you have to book in advance. We were fortunate enough that by the time we discovered this (the day before), there was still a number of open positions.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
By booking a private tour, you are provided with your own English-speaking driver who will pick you up from your hotel and drop you back off at the end of the day. Now supposedly there are public transport options, however the journey is 2 hours from Chengdu, and you need to be at the facility for a 9am start. We didn’t want to risk getting caught on public transport and were worried this would take too long in the first place, so we did not explore these options. We found it easier to (but definitely less economical) to have a hired driver who would take us to the base, organise the experience, help us get in, guide us through the facilities, and then take us on to see other local sights.
HOW MUCH WILL IT COST?
OK, here’s where the experience becomes a little less pleasant. As mentioned, we booked the trip with a private guide, which obviously added to the price. Our guide booked through Viator ran us $160AUD each. Not a terrible cost when you consider you’re paying for a 2 hour air conditioned taxi ride, a personal guide to show you around the facility, someone to help you book the experience (our guide ran these tours once a day for the last 5 years apparently, so he had more than enough experience and getting in and out was a breeze), and someone to show us around rural Chengdu.
Our guide, Jay, was fantastic and even took us to a local Sichuan restaurant and shouted us a meal! Also, in our case, the entrance fee was covered in the cost of the tour! We did tip our driver another $20 for being a fantastic host, so that put the cost up to $180.
This does not include the cost of holding the panda unfortunately, that’s a much more lucrative add-on. At the time, this experience requires a ‘donation’ of an additional 900RMB, which translates into approximately $200. This donation must also be payed for in cash, so expect to pay a bit more in ATM and currency conversion fees. However along with getting to meet a panda up-close, you are also provided a t-shirt, an information booklet, and a very cute ‘thank you’ note from the facility. Since this is a donation, you could perhaps claim this on your tax as a charitable donation. I’m not a tax agent though, so I have no clue if you can. Maybe try and get a receipt though, just in case.
WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE?
The experience was absolutely amazing. That day, I’d done something very few people in the world have ever been able to do. Until that day, I’d never even seen a panda in person, and here one was sitting right next to me. I have a great love for pandas (heck, I have a pair of panda socks), so getting to meet one, and hold one, and hug one, was a dream come true. But I’m not going to sugar coat it: the experience was incredible, but very brief. If there is any doubt in your mind that you want to do this, maybe sleep on it before you bite the bullet.
In total, I probably spent close to 30 seconds with our panda, who stuffed his face with bamboo the entire time. I’m sad to say that I felt slightly cheated; my friend who’d been before got some beautiful photos, looking into the pandas eyes, briefly playing with it, and having fun. My panda barely even looked at me! You can take solace in knowing that your donation goes directly into the maintaining the facility. The base (supposedly) aren’t making a profit off the experience, so your money essential goes towards the pandas you’re visiting, which is a nice way of looking at it!
Once it is your time to see the pandas, you walk into the research side of the base and get changed into a very charming blue jumpsuit with the 20-something other participants. You place gloves on your hands and bags over your shoes and walk through the backlot to the panda enclosures. Pandas are incredible susceptible to disease, so you are completely covered to make sure you don’t accidentally spread any germs that might cause sickness to the pandas.
Once at the enclosure, you stand in a line and are slowly ushered in. When it’s your time, you hand over your camera to the helpful staff, you walk, sit next to the panda for 30 seconds, snap a picture, and then leave. It’s that quick. Luckily the people running the experience are INCREDIBLE on the ball with taking photos. Our guide videoed the experience on our phone whilst simultaneously snapping shots. He used different angles, and levels, and orientations. It was like I was in a Vogue photoshoot.
Once you’re done, you head back to the base, get out of your blues, pick up your gear and go. You can go back out and explore the rest of the facility, but we’d felt that we’d seen enough in the 2 hours we were waiting before the experience. Rest assured, there is plenty to see in the base, so don’t skip out before seeing some of the other amazing, furry friends!
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE I NEED TO KNOW?
Even if you can’t hold the panda, whether for financial reasons, ethical reasons, or maybe they just don’t let you do that by the time you read this article, the Dujiangyan Panda Base is definitely a location worth visiting in Chengdu. It is a little out of the way, but supposedly it’s more authentic than the other bases closer to the city. Our guide assured us that less tourists and locals visit the Dujiangyan base, so the pandas are under less stress (the high amount of visitors is said to unsettle the pandas.) Also, there are plenty of historic and cultural sights within a short driving distance, as well as a theme park on your way back to Chengdu!
Remember that photos are not included in this package, much to my mistake. I’d read online that we get a complimentary souvenir photo, however this is not the case, so don’t forget to charge up your cameras to capture this special occasion!
According to our tour guide, Chinese locals are NOT allowed to partake in this experience. We were heartbroken to hear that, despite visiting the centre every day, our guide was not permitted to hold a panda, as per the bases’ policy. Our guide says this is due to the attitude of the locals, who want to “get the most out of their high donation cost” and spend too much time with the panda or are too demanding with them. Whether this policy is still in place, I’m not sure, but if you’re a Chinese local, maybe double check with your guide before confirming the experience.
So there you have it, folks. An updated step-by-step guide to hugging a panda in China. Was it tough to get there? A little. Was it expensive? Sure. Was it worth it? Absolutely!
Thanks for reading! Or as I would say in Chinese… thanks for reading (I don’t speak Chinese).