This past May, I traveled to China with GoEco for a week-long volunteer experience and it was without a doubt one of the most incredible weeks of my entire life. Pandas have always been one of my favorite animals, but after this experience I’ve officially moved into “crazy panda lady” territory (a unqiue alternative to the crazy cat lady). I booked this trip months in advance, but found myself eagerly counting down the days until I would finally get to meet the wonderful, adorable pandas.
You can watch daily vlogs of my volunteer experience on my channel:
The Purpose of This Trip
As the GoEco website says, “The survival of this species has been threatened in the past, so all conservation efforts are of paramount importance.”
The panda population was endangered for many years, due to issues surrounding their breeding patterns, the availability of wild bamboo for their consumption, and the destruction of their habitat. So, panda conservation efforts have been crucial to repopulating these gorgeous creatures in China. These efforts have even helped moved their status as a species from “endangered” to “vulnerable.”
I was honored to be able to help out at one of these centers and offer some of my energy, money, and time to support such an important cause.
Preparing For My Trip & How I Got To China
Once my application was approved by GoEco, I applied for my China visa straight away (which is a requirement if you’re a U.S. citizen). Weeks later, my China visa was approved and it was finally time to embark on my panda adventure! I hopped on a 12 hour and 40-minute flight from Los Angeles to Beijing, and then another 3-hour domestic flight from Beijing to Chengdu. After the full 16-hour trek, I finally took my first steps on Chinese soil.
The first two nights of the trip were spent at the charming Mrs. Panda Hostel in Chengdu, located right near the Jinjiang River. On our first day, we were given free time to rest or explore Chengdu as we pleased. The following day was action packed with activities, as we explored the city as a group.
Chengdu is a lively and bustling city known for its iconically spicy Sichuan cuisine. I made a full blog post on my Chengdu experience if you want to learn more about what we got up to there.
On day three, we made our way to The China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda (CCRCGP) in Bifengxia (about 16 km from Ya’an City, China). Our group got on a local bus and then switched to a shaky, private van that took us to our mountainous new home for the next few days.
The Accommodation At The Panda Center
Bifengxia is a lush, green village on the top of a mountain. The sky was misty and the weather was hot and humid. The way of life there was completely different from what we experienced in Chengdu. We could hear the sound of roosters crowing from our neighbor’s yard every morning and everything but the panda center itself was (understandably) a bus ride or a long trek away.
We stayed in the volunteer center, which was only a short walk from the panda center. The volunteer center included a cafeteria and kitchen on the main floor, dozens of rooms for the volunteers on the other three floors, and a cozy volunteer lounge with books and a big TV. The center had fast internet too, which was surprising plus considering we were otherwise off the grid.
Every volunteer shared a room with one roommate, which included two comfy beds, a TV, some storage space, and a bathroom. The toilet in the bathroom was a traditional squat toilet on the floor, which I had luckily used before, but it definitely took some getting used to. My room was especially pink and girly, which I found quite cute.
The Food At The Panda Center
Every meal at the volunteer center was prepared for us by the local kitchen staff. The meals were very similar every day, but I really enjoyed them:
- Breakfast: Steamed buns, toast with jam, or eggs
- Lunch: White rice with various sides to choose from, usually tofu, bok choy, corn, and a few meat options
- Dinner: Same as lunch
As a vegan, I didn’t find it difficult to find options. I had specified that I was a vegan with GoEco when I applied, and they were super accommodating to my dietary needs. The only accidental non-vegan item I ate was this tofu side dish that I threw on top of my rice unknowingly. Our guide let me know once I ate it that it had been rolled in tiny chopped pieces of pork. So, make sure to avoid this one, if you’re on a similar diet.
The Volunteer Work At The Panda Center
Each pair of volunteer roommates was assigned 1-2 pandas to look after and was instructed about their daily duties by the local caretakers of those specific pandas. Our local caretaker didn’t speak much English (because, of course, why should he?), but he was extremely friendly and smiley. He allowed us to take pictures and videos of the pandas freely, as long as it didn’t interrupt our work or bother the pandas.
The work at the panda center consisted of a few main duties that we repeated every day:
- Cleaning the outside panda enclosure
- Cleaning the inside panda enclosure
- Breaking up bamboo for the pandas to eat (which was strangely cathartic)
- Chopping up and measuring out panda bread, carrots, and apples for the pandas
- Feeding the pandas (this step felt like the opposite of work to me)
Every morning, the caretaker would guide the pandas into their indoor enclosure and we’d begin our work by cleaning the outside enclosure. This meant sweeping and shoveling up to 2-4 trash cans full of panda poop across a relatively large enclosure. It felt like good, honest work to me. It felt wonderful to help. But, you do definitely break a sweat doing it! Not to go into too much detail, but panda poop mostly just looks like piles of crushed bamboo, so it isn’t too smelly (see below image for reference).
Then, the guides would let the pandas back outside and we’d clean the inside enclosure, which would usually consist of 1-2 more trash cans of panda poop and leftover parts of bamboo. Some days, we’d also hose down and mop the inside enclosure.
Next, we’d break up a couple dozen bamboo stalks for the pandas to eat. This was actually pretty fun! We’d bang bamboo against the ground until the hard outer layer was cracked and loose enough for the panda to easily rip off and munch on the meat of the plant.
Most importantly, we fed the pandas 2-3 times a day, which was the highlight of the trip (and my freakin’ life)! We chopped up what the caretakers referred to as “panda bread” and weighed it carefully, since every panda got a set amount of food based on their weight. The panda bread came in big, dense loaves and we cut it into slices, so the pandas could easily grab it with their paws or mouth. We’d also add an apple or cut up a few large carrots for them if the caretaker requested it.
Feeding the pandas was a magical experience. Each panda had such a unique personality and they were so gentle considering they’re bears! I fell head over heels in love with the two pandas I looked after. They would always carefully and tenderly take the food with their mouth or paws and they LOVED to eat. They ADORED food and it was enchanting and endearing to watch their excitement as they were fed. I fed them piece by piece and just sat there enjoying their adorable company. Since I was only a foot or so away from them while I was feeding them, it felt like a real bonding experience. I felt like I truly was getting to know them. My heart melted when they gave me their full eye contact.
The two pandas I looked after were Xian Xian (pronounced “Chien chien”) and Ao ao (pronounced “Ow ow”). Xian xian was a smaller male panda that was a bit more gentle and calm. Ao ao was a bigger male panda that was way more energetic and always a lot more hungry.
Overall, the pandas were cute, playful, and curious, while also being super lazy and clumsy. This only added to their charm. They would get winded crawling up the minor hills for dinner to the point that they’d have to stop to take a breather after a couple of feet. The babies were constantly wrestling and climbing, but would often fall from branches or trip over their own paws. In a weird way, it didn’t feel like they were bears. They were too sweet, too klutzy, and too vegetarian for that—it seemed. When translated directly from Chinese, their name is actually “bear cats,” which I think is much more fitting. They have that sleepy, relaxed, sluggish quality that cats have. They’d rather sleep than attack. They’d rather eat than climb. They aren’t very social and prefer to spend most of their time alone. They are giant, spotty-eyed, fluffy-earred walking anomalies.
We got to stroll around the center during our breaks and meet all the other pandas too, including the babies. I could sit and watch the babies play for hours. I’d never seen anything so cute in my entire life.
Things I Learned About Pandas:
- They usually only have one or two babies at a time, and when they happen to have two they will often completely neglect one of them. The veterinarians at the centers have to step in and take care of the neglected babies, and even daringly go inside their habitat to switch them out so the mother can take care of them one at a time.
- The mother pandas only look after the babies during their first six months of life, then leave them to live independently.
- The babies are completely blind until they are six to eight weeks old.
- Baby pandas are incredibly small when they are born considering their adult size. According to Nat Geo, they are usually three to five ounces, which is 1/900th their mother’s weight.
- Pandas make a sound! It sounds sort of like a sheep’s “bah” mixed with a goat’s bleat.
Other Activities We Did With GoEco
When we weren’t obsessing over pandas, we did some other fun activities while we were staying at the volunteer center.
Here were some highlights for me:
- Dumpling making
- Calligraphy class
- Hiking to a local Buddhist temple
I hope this post made you love pandas even a fraction as much I do! If you have any additional questions about the GoEco panda trip or about my China experience, feel free to ask them in the comments. Happy travels!