Ok, it’s not called PandaLand. It’s the “Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding”, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of pandas in the world. It’s by far the number one tourist attraction in the city, which in retrospect made it all the more suspicious that our taxi driver didn’t know how to get there. It would be like getting into a taxi in Anaheim and the driver suddenly not remembering which way’s Disneyland.
Usually metered rides in China are cheaper, but in Chengdu, if you negotiate a flat fee, you’ll get there as fast as humanly possible, sometimes faster; use a meter and the taxi driver will invariably get lost and the ride will end up costing about the same. There is little benefit in showing them how to get there on Google Maps, as taxi drivers don’t seem to understand how maps work.
Initially, I thought the first driver had been on the level—we even applauded his efforts when we finally arrived at the Panda Research Base. On the way back however (there was a line of taxis waiting for us—this was clearly a well-known taxi destination) the ride was straight-forward and cost half as much. And several days later, when a taxi driver pretended to get lost on the way to the AIRPORT, I realized we’d been had both times. (You will rarely, if ever, get lost in China when paying a flat rate.)
That said, the Base itself was great. Walking in, I had the nostalgic feeling of entering an amusement park, something I hadn’t done in a long time. Not a loud fair or haphazard carnival, but a quiet, well-planned park, with trams that carry visitors down wide, clean lanes from one panda attraction to another, surrounded by beautiful, lush vegetation on either side.
The trick is to get there early in the morning, when the pandas are being fed. That’s the only time the pandas are active. The laziest animals on earth, the pandas will basically sit around and sleep the rest of the day.
The other trick is to avoid the large tourist groups, following a guide with a triangular flag, that raise the noise factor of the sleepy park by eleven decibels.
Tanja in Kunming had pointed out that in most tourist attractions there exists an invisible line across which Chinese tourists won’t pass. So beyond the chaos and pandemonium of the packed crowds near the entrance, gift shop, and top two or three spots of interest, you can find yourself in the Stone Forest or Juizhaighou National Park or the Panda Research Base totally alone.
Among the highlights of the Panda Research Base were the fancy, clean public restrooms. The stalls even had doors, a sight normally unseen outside of airports. Granted, the stall doors were made of glass so you could see inside, but that’s beside the point. The point is, we have doors! You are in a high-class joint on par with top-notch amusement facilities around the world!
I didn’t expect to be blown away by the Panda Base. I’m not all that into pandas or anything, unlike one woman we met, who was dressed entirely in panda-themed attire and who expressed her affinity for the bear with a passion rivaling Youtube’s “I love cats” girl. I went because it was the thing ‘to du’ when in Chengdu. In the end, I really enjoyed the trip, seeing dozens of members of this endangered species and exploring the center itself. At the Base, each panda is a star in its own right. The way the park is set up, I felt we even got a sense of the different personalities of the individual pandas in their habitats.
The exception to my elation may have been the panda gift shop. A short visit into this den of consumerism at the end of our trip resulted in total panda-exploitation sensory overload. There was no panda product they didn’t sell, other than, for some reason, panda burgers.