China’s Winter Tigers & Giant Pandas 2011 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Jan 31, 2011

You’d naturally expect me to write about how incredibly well our January 2011 Tigers & Giant Pandas photo tour went this year. Indeed, it ranks among the top shoots I’ve led in China over the past 15 years—especially among the trips that have included pandas as part of the itinerary.

But this trip report is really about our group—an exceptional team of participants who could adapt and “go with the flow” in the face of a fundamental and unforeseen problem that developed just before our arrival in Shanghai.

There are quite a few behind-the-scenes logistics—some relatively big problems—that a resourceful tour leader has to work out in the field during the implementation of a trip itinerary. Imagine if you were a trip leader on a tour to Egypt during the current uprising and had to get your group safely out of the country?

While our problem was certainly not as dramatic as the Egyptian revolution, imagine arriving at Shanghai airport and stepping off of your international flight only to be greeted by your local guide with, “One of our guides at the tiger sanctuary was eaten by tigers three days ago!” It’s hard to wrap your brain around a statement like that. Immediately, questions needed to be answered and logistical details needed to be reconfirmed quickly. It was also important to have those answers ready and a potential plan formulated before sharing that information with the group!

Our group flew from Shanghai to Chengdu and then drove to the Bifengxia Giant Panda Breeding Center. Weather reports for the Chengdu area showed it had been snowing in the region for several days prior to our arrival and there was quite a bit of patchy snow still on the ground around the “panda farm.”

We checked into our hotel—the very best in the area—which is about one or two notches above “Spartan.” It was built for summer tourism, so the meager heat in rooms in the winter is erratic at best, with an electric heating pad on top of each mattress and a few rooms sporting a small working heater. Getting hot water in your room is like winning the lottery! But anyone will tell you that the hotel is well worth the hassle for the amazing access to pandas you get from there!

Down the street from the hotel is a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant. It is run by a guy and his wife—along with one big “atomic flame-thrower-fired” wok—who cook some of the best Chinese dishes I have ever eaten! Without a doubt we wouldn’t starve.

We had arranged to have three sessions with pandas taken from their enclosures and transported, by truck, to a photogenic habitat where we could turn a cooperative young panda loose for our shoot. We also had access to the panda enclosures within the breeding center compound to shoot portraits and pandas occasionally climbing trees. Meanwhile, in between shoots and behind the scenes, contact was repeatedly being made with the staff of the tiger reserve trying to get the whole story for our upcoming visit.

Our first panda shoot outside the enclosure was very photogenic. Snow at Bifengxia is very uncommon. So we were delighted with our photo opportunities with the two pandas that the breeding center released for us—in patchy snow with ice-festooned bamboo growing in the background. Amazingly, the next morning we awoke to flying snow, with an inch already blanketing the ground! Our shooting area was a scenic wonderland with snowy, icy bamboo and distant mountains as background for these engaging black and white animals. The panda rolled in the snow, getting covered with flakes from head to toe, making a sensational photo session even better—if that were possible. Occasionally, to the delight of the participants, the panda walked over to us to get a closer look and also tried to gently climb into the lap of one of the participants who was crouching on the ground. We used both of our remaining “in the wild” shooting sessions that day—I knew we would be pressing our luck hoping the following day would be as pretty and snow-covered as our second day here had been.

By midafternoon, we finally received assurances, by phone, that despite the tragic mauling accident at the tiger breeding center we would proceed with the shoot as planned. At dinner I told the group about the tiger-mauling incident, as we now had all the logistics straightened out for our upcoming tiger shoot.

Later that night we had another snowfall. I honestly couldn’t believe it! Following breakfast at the hotel we were preparing to embark on our morning panda photo sessions within the breeding compound when word came that the narrow winding roads heading into the panda breeding center were closed to vehicular traffic. There are no snowplows or sand trucks here.

It was time for a leader to “punt,” as it is called in American football. So, after a conference with our three local guides and our bus driver, I decided to do a late afternoon shoot at a local zoo/park outside of Chengdu. Here we might shoot red pandas (a different species) and possibly some of the roly-poly baby giant pandas that were on display there. I expected a bit of disappointment from the group about leaving Bifengxia. But the consensus was the shoots in the snow couldn’t possibly be bettered and they were all eager to give baby giant pandas and red pandas a try. I hadn’t been to this place in more than 10 years, so I made no promises as to what we would find. But off we went and the enthusiasm of the group took much of the self-imposed pressure off my shoulders. In short, the shoot was great and, in addition to babies and red pandas, flashy displaying peacocks were also an added bonus! Many said that this zoo should become a regularly-scheduled component of the tour!

We flew northeast to Harbin and made the four-hour drive to the Hengdaohezi Siberian Tiger Park. We would take three busses into the 30-acre tiger compound that contained 40 breeding tigers and shoot through open vehicle windows for several hours each day for the next three days. There was lots of snow! As the group prepared their gear for our first tiger shoot, I went into the office with our local guide to express condolences and to review our plans for the upcoming tiger shoots. Then the hammer came down. There was no problem with photographing the tigers as planned, but the executive director decreed we could not open the bus windows—which were heavily-tinted blue glass. There was no way we could shoot like that! There was also no convincing him to change his mind. We left.

We checked into a spectacular 5-star hotel (displaying a giant, moving electronic “Welcome Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris Group” marquee above the front door). The group relaxed while we contacted the local tourism administration director who called the tiger center director to try to convince him to let us open the windows as we had done there in the past. He called—but no luck. I then wound up in the “city hall” of this city of 450,000 (a very small city by China standards) sitting in front of the desk of the region’s Communist Party chairman (presumably like the mayor), asking for his help to budge the tiger center director. In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t have imagined being there! No luck there, either. Communism and tourism are still mutually exclusive in the Chinese hinterlands.

So scramble for Plan “B.” Having been to this area on several occasions I knew of another, comparatively less scenic, tiger park near Harbin (unbelievably) that I had photographed years earlier. We called them and talked to their director who agreed to have three busses made available for us to do our tiger shoot in that facility. Hurray! But then the “other shoe dropped.” Upscale hotels in Harbin were fully booked due to the famous Harbin Ice Festival and several big conventions. We called numerous hotels and had several Harbin travel agencies tracking down the 12 rooms we needed for the group for the next two days. The only rooms available were in small business hotels, clean but simple. However, the 12 rooms were available for one night only at each hotel—meaning we had to check out of each hotel and load our bus prior to each morning’s tiger shoots.

Here is where you find out about the intrinsic character of a group of travelers. Members of this group were all champs—rolling with the punches and going with the flow. And here is also where problem-burdened trips become winners or losers depending on the temperament and attitude of the group. This group’s supportive nature allowed us to fix these unforeseen problems on the fly without the stress of negative group dynamics wasting precious time. They created their own good Karma. Okay, the hotels for two of the nights were not great—but we did have good tiger shooting for pulling this particular “rabbit out of a hat” so late in the trip. A great upside to spending more time in Harbin was our dinners (14-course banquets actually!). They were literally the best Chinese food any of us had ever eaten—and perhaps never will again.

On our last night in Harbin we were finally back on track and able to return to our scheduled hotel regime at the upscale accommodations we had booked more than a year ago. Late that afternoon, and early into the night, we photographed the phantasmagorical Harbin Ice Festival. Following a flight, our last shoot of the trip found us in wonderful late afternoon light on the Great Wall at Mutianyu, outside of Beijing.

When unexpected problems occur while traveling, the nature of the group can really make all the difference in determining the outcome. Regardless of logistical problems, we had a tremendous trip, we made great images as you can see in the “slideshow,” and we really enjoyed each other’s company!