Leading up to a trip there is so much excitement, however there is always a tiny bit of worry in my mind that it’s not going to live up to the volunteer’s expectations. Well my worries where definitely unfounded because this was an AMAZING experience for everyone! Far exceeding expectations! From the moment we arrived at the accommodation in Chengdu to learn it was just a 2 minute walk to the main shopping district things just kept getting better!  From the delicious local food (mmmmm dumplings!!), to the shopping, beautiful parks and traditional market streets, Chengdu was a superb city! And of course the main reason we went there – the Pandas! Unquestionably an extraordinary experience and goes right up there in my life highlights!

Having them eat straight from our hand was just surreal!!

The Volunteering part of the trip took place at the Bifengxia Panda Research and Conservation Center. We worked alongside the keepers at the center and were each assigned ‘our’ own Panda. Each morning we would clean the enclosure – not the most glamorous of jobs but it certainly helped warm us up in the freezing weather!

After the ‘dirty work’ was done the rest of the day revolved around food (their food, not ours); at various times throughout the day we would top up the bamboo in their enclosures (they seriously eat a lot of bamboo) and help prepare their snacks, which we then got to feed them ourselves! That was always our favourite part of the day; it was such a bonding experience, and being that close to them and having them eat straight from our hand was just surreal!!

During our breaks we spent our time observing the Pandas at the center, we just couldn’t get enough of them! Especially the cubs in the Kindergarten!!

Our last day at the centre was undeniably a sad one! We did not want to leave them! I would happily endure the freezing weather to spend more time with them!

While I could write a solid essay on the whole experience and all the things I learnt about Pandas while there I wanted to share just a few things I learnt about these cute creatures.

Traditionally the Chinese don’t call them Pandas

The name Panda isn’t actually their traditional Chinese name. The name Panda came after the first European to see a Panda brought the magnificent creature to the attention of the western world. Before that the Chinese called them Xiongmao – which literally means ‘bear cat’; simply because they are bears but have cat like mannerisms. A fitting description; like cats they like to eat and sleep mostly, but are occasionally playful and also like to climb trees. I personally liked calling them Bear Cats; I think it makes them sound even cuter.

They Make a Really Interesting Noise

Not that I have ever really thought about it before, but I was unaware of the noise they made. The only way I can describe it is hybrid of a horse and dolphin noise; sounds like a weird combo I know, but I found it to be very cute.  First time I heard it though I was really surprised, I kept looking around for trying to figure out what the noise was and where it was coming from, as the there are no physical movements of the Panda’s mouth indicating that was coming from him. I eventually figured out that it was coming from the Panda and end up hearing it quite a lot in my time there; the Pandas we worked with were very “talkative”!

They all have such Unique Personalities

While we had to endure some freezing conditions during our volunteering (seriously I couldn’t feel my toes for days), it was absolutely worth it because the Pandas were very active the whole time we were there, which meant we were able to observe them at their most  active and it became apparent that they all they quite different personalities!

Each morning my favourite Panda – Bayong – would randomly stop to jump, splash and roll around in the water when he was wandering about his enclosure. He was the only Panda we witnessed that seemed to enjoy playing in water. And he always knew when it was time for a bamboo top up or snack time, he would pace in and out of the door connecting his inside and outside enclosure, and stand on his hind legs and swing his head around making his panda noise, until he heard you unlock the door, then he was straight into his inside enclosure sitting down in front of the bars with his paws out ready for his snack, then as soon as his snacks were all gone he would stand back up and swing his head around again.  He was always so entertaining to watch; although I may be biased towards my favourite!

Volunteer Angela’s favourite – Tong – did nothing but eat! Every time we saw him he was just there eating his bamboo, we didn’t see him sleep or do anything else, just eat.

One panda –Shu Shi- was always just walking around her enclosure but at random intervals would do a quick 10 metre sprint for no apparent reason, and then just go back to walking. They have the cutest run by the way!

Xie Xie -another Panda we worked with had 1 year old twin cubs with her and even they were vastly different from each other. One was quite independent, always running off on his own, usually hanging out up a tree, while the other just wanted to harass his mother 24/7. Especially when they would eat bamboo together; the independent cub was quite happy to get and eat his own bamboo, where as the ‘annoying’ cub only wanted to eat bamboo he stole from his mother. It was always hilarious to watch.

I loved observing them and was constantly entertained. I could honestly go on and on describing all the Panda’s different personalities but I better stick to just sharing a few examples – you don’t want to be here all day!

They like Tree climbing- but they’re not always so graceful at it

I am sure you have seen those cute pictures of Pandas up trees, well witnessing them get up and down the tree was always a good watch! The younger cubs manage to climb up the trees and get into a nice comfy spot quite well, however they are not so graceful coming down! The little ones always seemed really awkward and struggled on the way down – poor things.

Even the older Pandas still like to climb trees but they seem to forget they have gotten bigger and can’t fit into the small nooks and crannies they once could! We spent about half an hour one day watching this one Panda who was five years old try and get comfy up a tree. She was shaking branches trying to make more room, trying this spot and that, but nothing was working for her, but she was determined she wanted a nap in a tree, and after all her effort she finally pushed and shook the branches into a position that worked for her. She definitely earned her nap and we were well entertained!

Yes they are as cute (if not cuter than) as in Pictures

It was love at first site – with all of them.  Doesn’t need much more explanation than that.

However while they look super fluffy and soft their fur is actually quite coarse, which shouldn’t have surprised me since they need thick fur to endure the cold.

They’ve seriously perfected the art of eating bamboo

Watching them eat bamboo was fascinating. They only eat the inside part of the bamboo not the outer green layer. Well they have certainly perfected the art of stripping off the outer green layer of the bamboo with their teeth; they manage to do it quite fast with what seems to be no effort at all. And they must be some iron teeth they have; the way their teeth just break the bamboo so easily amazed me!!  They are pretty loud eaters though (think sloppy cow noises lol).

Sometimes MGY Volunteers are Just as Popular as Pandas

Apparently Pandas aren’t the only tourist attraction in Chengdu and Bifengxia! The MGY gang got quite a bit of attention ourselves! Many times when we stopped for group photos, locals and domestic tourists would get out their phones and cameras and snap pictures of us too, or would randomly run up to us and ask for a photo or selfie! I lost count of how many random people’s phones we now live on! We were a pretty attractive bunch, so it’s quite understandable 😉

The whole adventure was definitely a wonderful experience! I cannot wait to go back!!

Contact Us to find out how you can be a part of the next trip for your own chance to get up close and personal with the beautiful ‘Bear Cats’! BONUS – we have extended the trip to incorporate a couple more highlights from China, including the Great Wall!!


Adventure Leader

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