wild Giant Pandas and the Terracotta Warriors





The Giant Panda has been a conservation icon for decades; the WWF’s logo still bears its image drawn by Sir Peter Scott all those years ago. Their plight is still serious and seeing a genuinely wild Giant Panda has been almost impossible for the ordinary person. Weeks of searching coupled with a lot of luck was required with most people resigned to seeing one in a rehabilitation centre or zoo.


A high proportion of the world’s Giant Pandas live in the Qinling Mountains in China. In the past, the authorities have discouraged people from visiting; just researchers or the most privileged were able to seek them out. This has recently changed, and in 2010 Phil was lucky enough to travel there. Almost immediately after stepping from the bus he started to see the tracks and signs of pandas. By the end of the second day he had already seen two truly wild Giant Pandas!


There are other good mammals here and the birding is excellent too. The delightful Sooty Tit is common in the forest. Various parrotbills, pheasants and laughingthrushes move through the bamboo. Forktails and Brown Dippers paddle in forest streams that lead down to the larger rivers where Ibisbill and Crested Kingfisher breed.


The rest of our tour is based close to Xi’an, made famous in 1974 by the discovery of the amazing Terracotta Warriors. Just seven years later the region hit the ornithological headlines with the rediscovery of the presumed-extinct Chinese Crested Ibis. We will have plenty of time to enjoy the excellent birds of the region as well as its culture. At the end of the trip we will visit Beijing and take the opportunity to visit the Great Wall of China.


In the mountains our accommodation will be in very simple, nicely tucked away from civilisation. This is rural China at its most charming. In Yang County, Beijing and Xi’an we will stay in good quality hotels.





Our overnight flight takes us to Beijing. We then catch a domestic flight to Xi’an, home of the famous Terracotta Warriors, our base for the first two nights. On arrival you can simply rest, or dust off the cobwebs with an evening walk to see the city walls. The next morning we visit a city park to search for Chinese Grosbeak, Red-billed Blue Magpie, Vinous-throated Parrotbill and Azure-winged Magpie. Xi’an was once the power centre of the Chinese World, where the self proclaimed first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang commissioned the Terracotta Warriors in 210 BC. In the afternoon we will visit the Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum where over 7000 life-size figures were found - the 8th Wonder of the World.



On day four, we will drive to the Qinling Mountains. Daurian, Plumbeous and White-capped Water Redstarts can be seen along the way, while the massive Crested Kingfisher scans the rivers from the rocky limestone gorges that close in around us.


Spring is the perfect time to visit these mountains. Entering the park, we step into the world of the Giant Panda. To get to the accommodation we must walk along a concrete path through lovely forest, birding as we go. This is a walk of five miles, and we will be grateful that mules take our luggage. We could see our first Grey-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Songar Tit, Golden Pheasant or Brown Dipper before we arrive for dinner!


Sanguamo Research Station nestles in a quiet valley surrounded by forest and streams. Its charm lies in the fact that it is so remote from civilisation. The trackers and guides have grown up in a tiny community here and their picturesque crofts line the river. Among the vegetable patches and walnut trees, we can find Brown-breasted Bulbul and Collared Finchbill. Mountain Hawk Eagles soar over limestone peaks where Temminck's Tragopans and Nutcrackers dwell.


At least 30 Pandas live in the surrounding hills at a density of one panda per two square kilometres. There are over 300 in the Qinling Mountains, about a quarter of the world population! Each morning, our trackers will head out in search of them. We will spend time birdwatching until they locate one and call us by radio. Usually a swift scramble up very steep hills or through bamboo would be needed to see a panda, but sometimes they are close to the track and less effort is required. Our trackers find fresh signs of panda on a daily basis and on our recce, we saw fresh footprints and scent marks on the path each day. One day a panda walked straight through the station yard and another fed on the path!


We have six nights here during the peak season for panda activity, so our chance of seeing one is good. Of course, those clients that feel up to it can venture deeper into the forest with the trackers if they choose to increase their chances of seeing one.


The path through the forest follows a wonderful clean river broken only by picturesque waterfalls. This is where Little and White-crowned Forktails feed. The bamboo thickets hold flocks of parrotbills including Spectacled, Great and Three-toed Parrotbills. Green-backed, Fire-capped, Yellow-bellied and Songar Tits feed beside strange-looking races of more familiar members of this family. Great Tits are monochrome, while the Coal Tits here have a long crest! Star billing must go to the endemic Sooty Tit; like our own charming Long-tailed Tit, its call allows us to find flocks easily. Streak-breasted Scimitar-babblers join a variety of laughingthrushes that include the Greater Necklaced and Elliot’s, to work through the leaf-litter in the clearings. Chinese Babax, Yellow-throated Bunting, Green Shrike-babbler and Red-flanked Bluetails feed along the trails. Grey-headed Bullfinch take buds from the blossom-filled hedgerows that border the fields.


The mammal list is impressive with Golden Monkey, Takin (a big ivory-coloured buffalo) and Pere David's Rock Squirrel plentiful but elusive.



On day ten, we walk back the five miles to meet our bus. As we descend the hills we will look for the Ibisbill, Asian House Martin and localised Collared Crow that nest along the river. Reaching Yang County we make ourselves comfortable in the hotel. The next day we will go in search of Chinese Crested Ibis. Once thought to be extinct, the last seven wild birds were re-discovered here in 1981. Through concerted efforts, the population now tops 800 and our chances of finding them are very high. Local wardens monitor the species and will assist us. On our recce we even saw two from the hotel!


In the agricultural land and villages, there are Asian Barred Owlet, Grey-headed Lapwing, Chestnut Thrush and Brown-breasted Bulbul. Migration is in full swing; Naumann’s Thrush, Rufous Turtle Dove and Olive-backed Pipit are just a few of the Siberian migrants that we saw on our previous visit.



After two nights in Yang, we return to Xi’an for one night before taking a short morning flight to Beijing. That afternoon, we will visit the Great Wall of China. The following day we will fly back to the UK. Please contact us if you would like to extend your stay and enjoy the cultural delights of Beijing.



Breakfast will normally be at 7am. You will need a reasonable level of fitness. At Sanguamo Station we have a five mile walk to and from the accommodation. This is on a good concrete path with steps and some uphill walking. Each day, we take leisurely birding walks from the station in the company of guides, while a team of trackers work independently to locate a panda for us. We will be hoping for a panda close to the path. We would not normally attempt to follow a panda in difficult terrain away from a trail, but if you consider yourself able, you may choose to go with a guide to look for them. Away from paths, the terrain gets very steep and difficult. During the rest of the tour the pace is easy, with no strenuous walks.



Full-board accommodation is provided with two nights in the Grand New World Hotel, Xi’an, six nights at the Sanguamo Protection Station, two nights at Bai Yun Hotel, Yangxian, one night back at the Grand New World Hotel, Xi’an, and one night at the Tian Tan Hotel in Beijing. All rooms have en-suite facilities, even at Sanguamo Station. Recent work has seen a new building erected at Sanguamo, with rooms which are simple but clean. Electricity for the station is limited to one hydro powered generator for lights and battery charging. There are electric blankets but no heating and hot water is brought to your room in flasks on demand.


The food is local Chinese but the hotels in Beijing and Xi’an can have items more familiar to western tastes. Lunch at Sanguamo is usually some snacks like biscuits and fruit that must be carried in your own rucksacks. Elsewhere meals will usually be taken at local restaurants and cafes.



All birdwatching excursions with expert leader, local guides and trackers, full-board accommodation (starting with dinner on 4th, ending with breakfast on 16th), soft drinks at meal times, local transport by mini-coach, reserve and museum entrance fees, two internal flights, international flights and airport taxes.



Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry.



Return flights from most UK airports (via Amsterdam) to Beijing using the scheduled services of KLM. Outbound flight departs late morning, return flight arrives back late afternoon.



13 nights including

one overnight flight:


Principal leader:


Maximum group size:


Cost with discount

(if you book before

19th December 2010):


Full Cost:


Single supplement:






3rd to 16th April 2011


Phil Palmer


10 clients with one leader

and various local guides



£3470 per person sharing


£3620 per person sharing







new bedrooms at the Sanguamo Research Station.



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