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China: Opinions on my Hotel Choices in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Xian

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The number and availability of hotels in each city is a bit overwhelming, but I think I’ve narrowed it down to just a few choices in each city. My spouse and I will be visiting in early September, and spending 2 or 3 nights in each city.

Can anyone offer opinions on why I should choose one hotel over another?

Shanghai: Le Royal Meridien, Peninsula, Sofitel, Westin Bund, JW Marriott
(all hotels are located in the Huangpu District; would like to be able to walk to the Bund and to the Nanjing Road pedestrian area)

Beijing: Grand Hyatt, Peninsula, or Hilton Wangfujing
(all hotels are located in the Dongcheng District; would like to be able to walk to the Forbidden City)

Chengdu: Intercontinental Century City or Kempinski (both in the Wuhou District) or
Shangri-La (in the Jinjiang District); would like to be able to walk to restaurants

Xian: Hyatt or Sofitel on Renmin Square
(both hotels are within the ancient city walls of Xian)

Thanks in advance for your help!

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    Let me comment on Chengdu. Shangri-La is closest to city center, but it's on the riverside and is still 2.2km/1.5mi from the main dining/shopping street of Chunxi Lu (春熙路). Short taxi ride or 1/2 hour walk.

    Kempinski is further out, about 5km south of city center. It is about 500m from a subway station, but the subway doesn't take you to one of the main dining districts either.

    IC is most further out, and in a brand new development. Don't think you can walk to anywhere from there.

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    Further to what rkkwan says about Chengdu: I've stayed at the Shangri-La, and its location was a good one for me. The riverside location is pleasant, and several restaurants are along the river and within a short walk of the hotel. The Shang is about a 10-minute taxi ride from downtown, but, frankly, Chengdu's downtown did not capture my attention and imagination in the way that some other Asian downtowns have.

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    We are staying at the Shangri La in Chengdu and our flight has now been changed and arrives at midnight. How can we get to the hotel the fastest at this time of night....or should I say morning?

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    If you opt to go the priceline route be aware that priceline's definition of 5 star and everyone's else's are likely to be quite different. Also, Prielines' idea of "central" and yours may be vastly different as well.

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    Thanks for your comments.

    I ended up booking the Hilton Wangfujing Beijing (3 nights) and the Hilton Shanghai (2 nights) using Hilton HHonors reward miles. I think the Hilton Wangfujing is ideally located to visit the Forbidden City and Tianamen Square, plus it's a relatively new property. The Hilton Shanghai is older, and in a decent - although not perfect - location. I like the idea of getting 5 free hotel nights, especially these days with airfare so high.

    In Xian, I booked the Sofitel on Renmin Square (2 nights).

    I'm still trying to decide about my Chengdu hotel (3 nights); the Shangri-La, Sofitel, Sheraton, Kempinski, and Intercontinental all look good.

    I'll be sure to post a trip report and hotel reviews after I return.

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    The Hilton Shanghai is in the former french concession, I consider it a better location, not a better hotel, than the ones closer to the Bund. 2 blocks north is the Jingan subway station on Nanjing Road West, a 10 minutes ride brings you to the Nanjing Road East pedestrian area. If you don't have too much luggage,the Pudong Airport bus stops next to the Jingan subway station, or if you like the thrill of the Maglev, take it and switch to a cab. Cabs are inexpensive in China.

    4 blocks south of the hotel is the bustling Huaihai Road, a block east are unscale restaurants and boutiques, and a block west you are in a lovely residential area. Hilton is surrounded by several hotels, dozens of eateries, a high-end mall and the tranquil Jingan Park. Enjoy!

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    Just thought that I would post an update now that my trip is over. Continue reading for detailed reviews on the Shanghai Hilton, the Sofitel Xi'an on Renmin Square, the Shangri-La Chengdu, and the Beijing Hilton Wangfujing.

    Shanghai Hilton
    My spouse and I spent two nights at the Shanghai Hilton in early September 2011. We redeemed Hilton Hhonors points for our 2-night reward stay (I think it was 35K per night for a room rate of $200+ per night). Our only room category choice using the award was a standard room, and although we were told we had been upgraded, we had our doubts. The room was a decent size and condition, but it did just appear to be standard - there was no separate seating area (although there was a comfy chair and ottoman and a nice desk) and no separate bathtub and shower (and the bathroom was rather ordinary). Two complimentary bottles of water were in the room when we arrived, and were replenished at evening turndown as well as when our room was cleaned each morning.

    Upon arriving at the front desk in the lobby, we were directed to the 38th floor executive lounge for check-in, where we were offered cold drinks while we completed our registration. We checked in at early-afternoon (approximately 2:00) and we were granted access to our room immediately (which wasn’t too much earlier than the regular check-in time). The executive lounge was a blessing to us, providing us with complimentary breakfast (from 6:30 am to 11:00 am), afternoon tea (from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm), and cocktails/light dinner (from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm). The lounge is very spacious and attractive, and has fabulous views of the Shanghai skyline toward the Bund and Pudong. The lounge is designed in such a way that it provides many places to sit in various rooms, so it is possible to find a more private area to relax. There is no smoking in the lounge, and children under 12 are not admitted. Casual attire is requested. There is a spiral staircase that leads to floor 37, so guests on that executive floor can access the lounge without using the elevators. Breakfast was the usual hot and cold choices. Afternoon tea consisted of tiny sandwiches (although not the girly tea-sandwich type; they were more like fancy sliders) and yummy miniature desserts, many of which were served shotglass-style. The evening cocktail fare was interesting, with both hot options, Asian options, and fancy small-plated items. Servers took orders for complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages; there is also an interesting (although smallish in size) sort-of sunken bar where you can sit and chat with other patrons.

    As for the hotel itself, we didn't partake in any of the restaurants, although they looked lovely. Leonardo’s serves dinner only, daily from 6:00 pm to 10:30 pm. Sichuan Court serves lunch and dinner from 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. The Lobby Pavilion serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner from 7:00 am to 1:00 am. Near Leonardo’s is a cigar bar/lounge; I don’t recall the hours, but it seemed to be open continuously from early afternoon on; we had a drink there one afternoon, but we were the only patrons. The cigar bar seemed to be the only place that one could smoke publicly inside the hotel. (There are ashtrays outside the front doors, so it is also possible there.) We didn’t see the Penthouse Bar on the 39th floor, but it served dinner only from 6:00 pm to 2:00 am. Unfortunately, the Atrium Café was undergoing renovations (supposedly lasting from July 1 to September 1 according to their website [which has now been changed to say October 31], but a sign in the actual area said the changes wouldn’t be complete until October 1 [I assume that sign has been changed to October 31 as well]), which was a shame to miss, because it seemed like a really attractive indoor space where one could have a drink and enjoy the skylight views.

    The indoor swimming pool/spa/fitness center is quite lovely and looks like an excellent place to relax should one have some free time (which I did not). There was also a place to eat in the spa/pool area serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner from 6:00 am to 11:00 pm. The fitness center is spacious and contains many machines of different types (I didn't actually use it, so I can't comment on anything specifically). I was given a tour of the spa, although I only saw the locker room, shower area, and Jacuzzi, not the actual treatment rooms, but the staff seemed very professional and eager-to-please. As a Hhonors Platinum member, I was able to use the spa facilities for free, and was offered 10% off any spa service, which I regrettably had to refuse.

    As for other features of the hotel, it has an ATM machine in the lobby which doesn't appear to charge a fee for use. There is also a florist in the lobby area, and they keep the lobby decorated attractively as a result of their position. The hotel also features a type of walk-through coffee shop/counter, where you can buy coffee, of course, pastries, chocolates and other candies, and some other cold drinks (although no sodas). It is easy to hail cabs outside the hotel lobby at any hour of the day, and there is almost always a doorman present to assist you.

    The hotel is located in the French Concession, which seems like a relatively quiet area just two blocks from Nanjing Road (although this part of Nanjing Road is not pedestrian-only, and even walking on the sidewalks proved challenging to us because of all the almost-silent motorbike and pedal bicycle traffic). The hotel is also quite near the Jing 'An Temple and People's Park. There is a row of bars/restaurants right across the street from the hotel, however, we found them a bit mysterious in their appearance - the ground-floor storefronts were clearly small bar areas, but the dining room/restaurant must have been on the second floor because we couldn't see them. There was one fusion-type restaurant at the end of the retail row which looked great, but was fully committed on the evening that we tried to dine there. Restaurants on Nanjing Road seemed to be completely missing - there was one café with indoor and outdoor seating on the edge of People's Park, but we didn't see any other options on the street level for the few blocks that we walked. There are a few malls on the road, and they advertised restaurants, but they seemed to be only fast-food types of places. We didn’t see any small stores near the hotel where we could purchase drinks or snacks, which is our usual modus operandi when travelling instead of using the minibar, but fortunately it wasn’t necessary at this hotel because of having access to the executive lounge.

    Although the Shanghai Hilton was beautiful and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there, we think that the next time we visit Shanghai, we will stay in the Bund/Pudong area to be closer to the glitz and glamour.

    Sofitel Xi'an on Renmin Square
    My spouse and I stayed at the Sofitel Xi'an on Renmin Square in early September 2011 for (sadly) only one night. We booked a junior suite because the cost wasn't much greater than the deluxe room rate, although it did not include breakfast or internet access. (We had read reviews that the standard rooms were extremely small, so that category was out of the question.) The cost for internet access was quite affordable: approximately $10 USD for a continuous 24 hours of service). The staff swarmed us upon arrival at the hotel, chatting away and standing very closely while we completed our registration, which was a bit uncomfortable.

    We were upgraded to a true suite, which was spacious and trendy-looking. The living room area featured a sofa, chair, and coffee table, desk, and TV, along with a roomy powder room (half-bathroom). The bedroom area was smallish, but had its own TV, and the door could be closed for complete privacy from the living room. The bathroom, while complex (even with its own TV), didn't feel very spacious, and had an odd combination of glass doors. For example, the water closet area containing the toilet had a door, but the entire space was enclosed in glass, so it wasn't as if two people could use the bathroom at the same time. The walls of the bathroom were frosted glass, and while they provided a good level of privacy, the opacity still allowed you to see light and shadow coming from the bedroom. (This was an issue at night, when one of us got up to use the restroom and the other tried to continue sleeping, but was awoken by the bright lights. Still, I had heard that some of the room in this hotel had completely glass walls in the bathroom, so we were glad for the privacy that our room afforded.) The bathroom also had an odd door/sliding panel into the large closet in the bedroom. Robes (two types, both fluffy and silky) and slippers were provided, as well as a full-size umbrella (which we needed, unfortunately), and a safe were present. Even with the quirkiness, it was a great room and I would book it again. Two complimentary bottles of water were in the room when we arrived, and were replenished at evening turndown.

    Our room looked out over the skylights for the indoor pool, as well as overlooking the small outdoor patio off the pool area. Attendants and a lifeguard were present at the pool. The fitness center was attractive, although not dense with equipment (I didn’t actually use the center, so take my comments lightly). The décor of the guestrooms and guest floors was very zen and modern looking, and the public areas were quite attractive and buzzing with activity.

    This hotel is located in a complex of three other hotels also owned by the Accor brand: the Sofitel is the highest level of comfort, followed by the Grand Mercure, Mercure, and Ibis. According to their website, the lesser-branded hotels were still permitted to use all of the facilities in the Sofitel. There were myriad restaurant options in the Sofitel, both in the East Wing and in the West Wing. The lobby bar has a pianist performing in the evenings (Lobby Lounge, open 7:00 to 1:00). There is no smoking indoors at this hotel that I could tell. There is a Chinese restaurant (Chinois, open for lunch and dinner from 11:30 to 2:30 and again from 5:00 to 9:30), Japanese restaurant (Koi, open for lunch and dinner from 11:30 to 2:30 and again from 5:00 to 9:30), Moroccan restaurant (open for lunch and dinner from 11:30 to 2:30 and again from 5:00 to 9:30), and Cuban restaurant, as well as a classy-looking coffee bar/shop (Cafe Ren, open 10:00 am to 11:00 pm). There is a buffet and a la carte Mediterranean restaurant in the lobby that is open 24 hours. We had difficulty deciding amongst the restaurants so we decided to ask the concierge to see copies of the menus; oddly, the concierge was unable to comply, instead telling us to go to each restaurant individually and ask for the menu.

    There are a few shops in the hotel, the largest being an art gallery. There are two ATM machines in the Sofitel itself, however, they are owned by different banks and dispense different total amounts of money each day (one dispensed up to 2000 RMB, but the other dispensed 2500 RMB). The location of the hotel is near Renmin Square, which appeared to be more of a triangle; there weren't many shops or restaurants visible adjacent to the property, but it was raining quite heavily during our time there, so visibility was not ideal. Walking directly out the front gate of the hotel, crossing the busy street, and turning right, we saw one restaurant, one very small store that sold alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and a larger store that sold wines and harder alcohol. The main street was a bit difficult to cross, although we attempted to do so at various points in front of the hotel, none of which were easy or felt safe (again, it was raining heavily, which obscured our visibility as pedestrians).

    I would definitely stay here again when visiting Xi'an, although I might also consider the new Hilton because my spouse is a loyalty member, however, the Hilton seemed like a smaller stand-alone property, not like the sprawling Renmin Square complex of the Accor brand. (I heard from my private tour guide that the former Hyatt is no longer associated with that brand.)

    Shangri-La Chengdu
    My spouse and I stayed at the Shangri-La Chengdu in early September 2011 for three nights. We arrived quite late on our first night (after 2:30 am) and had hoped to be given a "Surprise! We’ve upgraded you to make your day better" room, but we were not. We had booked the deluxe room, which was one step up from the superior category. It was difficult to ascertain the differences in the room categories online (the sizes stated were all similar), but from some photos that we saw, it appeared that the deluxe room had a sofa and chair and was configured to look larger. The room was spacious (including a small sofa, comfy chair, and coffee table), as was the bathroom, which featured plenty of counter and wall storage space a separate soaking bathtub and glass-enclosed shower (and of course, a TV near the tub!). Two complimentary bottles of water were in the room when we arrived, and were replenished at evening turndown as well as when our room was cleaned each day.

    The public spaces in the hotel are attractive, including the bustling Lobby Lounge where there is live nightly entertainment provided by a pianist. There is no smoking in the public areas of this hotel, but there are ashtrays by the front entrance for that purpose. The hotel seems to have a lot of convention/meeting space on the lower level, which also houses a salon (very inexpensive, haircuts were about $8 USD, I think), clothing store, bank, and Bentley dealership (just in case your Bentley was one of your forgotten items!). There is no ATM machine directly in the hotel, but during business hours, when the bank is open, it is possible to walk from the hotel hallway through the bank to the street entrance and use the ATM machine. (The machine is accessible from the exterior of the hotel at all hours.) The hotel has several places to eat and drink in addition to the Lobby Lounge. Shang Palace serves Chinese cuisine, while Cafe Z serves Mediterranean food and has both indoor and outdoor seating, although we suspect that the outdoor seating was used at lunchtime only because we never saw anyone out there. Mooney’s Irish Pub featured live music at night, as well as indoor and outdoor seating. The swimming pool at this hotel was the least decorative one that we saw on our trip to China, but it was still attractive and perhaps even more importantly, the pool was actually designed for swimming laps! There was no outdoor area attached to the pool, but attendants and a lifeguard were present. The fitness center was large but seemed sparsely equipped (I did not use it though, so I could be wrong). We utilized the hotel transfer from the airport, which although twice the price of the transfer offered by our guide and three-quarters of the price of a taxicab, turned out to be an excellent decision because our flight, which was supposed to arrive just after midnight, was over two hours late, yet the hotel car was waiting for us as we exited baggage claim.

    The hotel is well-located, near three bridges that will carry you across the river to a street lined with bars/cafes, although most are not open until the evening. Nearby is China Grove, an upscale and hip shopping and entertainment complex (again, most restaurants/bars do not open until evening, only the chain restaurant, Tony Romas, is immediately recognizable as a restaurant rather than a bar). Directly in front of the hotel lining one of the bridges is the Verandah restaurant, which seemed very popular with the locals (we were told that it was pricey, however). The foot, bicycle, and motorbike traffic was heavy on both the streets and the sidewalks, so take care when walking around. There are a few restaurants directly outside the doors of the hotel on an adjacent street, including a Chinese restaurant (it looked great but had no English menu), a German brewhouse (which we wouldn't recommend based on our own experience), and a pizza and pasta restaurant (which looked like it had potential). Amidst these restaurants is a very small storefront selling alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and some limited snack food (for example, I wanted a chocolate candy bar, but they didn’t sell anything recognizable as that).

    We had a great stay at the Shangri-La Chengdu, and would probably stay there again when visiting the city. (We had also considered the Sofitel, Kempinski, and Sheraton, but we did not see any of those hotels on our visit.)

    Hilton Beijing Wangfujing
    My spouse and I spent three nights at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing in early September 2011. We redeemed Hilton Hhonors points for our 3-night reward stay (I think it was 30K per night for a room rate of $200+ per night). Our only room category choice using the award was a standard room, but we were told that we were upgraded, which initially seemed to be true. The room was terrific, but upon returning home and seeing photos that others had posted, our room seemed not as luxurious as others in the hotel. We can’t complain, though - the room was huge, with a separate seating and work area (but no separate TV, and the flat screen from the bedroom area was a bit far away. The room had lots of cool buttons and gizmos, even one switch to operate the drop-down curtains. The bathroom and closet area ran the length of the room, and various parts of it could be closed off by sliding pocket doors. The shower and bathtub area was really luxurious, including a TV, but the entire room became the shower, with a rainfall head as well as a wall attachment, so there were tons of jets (but be sure to use the rubber bathmat inside, because it was slippery). The vanity area featured double sinks, the toilet was in its own separate compartment, and the closet area was most impressive. Robes, slippers, and a safe were present, as well as a basket for shoe shining, a rubber ducky for the tub, and a tiny teddy bear. (We had initially packed the duck and the bear in our luggage, thinking they were “gifts” - the duck even had a tag around its neck that said “take me home to your own tub”, but we later thought we might be charged for them and decided to leave them in the room.) The minibar area was quite impressive. Two complimentary bottles of water were in the room when we arrived, and were replenished at evening turndown as well as when our room was cleaned each day. There is a dedicated Hilton Hhonors desk for check-in and check-out; these options were not available in the executive lounge as we had expected.

    The Executive Lounge on the 16th floor provides free wireless internet access as well as two computers to use. The lounge is open from 6:30 am to 11:00 pm (breakfast 6:30 to 11:00, afternoon tea from 3:00 to 6:00, happy hour 6:00 to 8:30 [8:00 on Friday and Saturday] with complimentary drinks), complimentary pressing of one piece per day, and access to gym, fitness classes, pool, sauna, steam room, and jacuzzi. Smart casual attire and footwear are requested, and the entire area is non-smoking. (The entire hotel appeared to be non-smoking, except for the areas just outside the front entrance.) On the day that we arrived at the hotel (around 12:00 noon), the food offerings in the lounge consisted of some (possibly) homemade varieties of chips and dips available, along with serve-yourself non-alcoholic beverages. The food offerings provided at both breakfast and evening cocktails were terrific. There is a chef present to make omelettes and other made-to-order breakfast items, and at night, the chef prepares a signature dish on demand (one night it was an Asian soup, one night it was a fried sausage entree, and another evening he prepared a noodle dish), but there are various other hot and cold items available to serve yourself. We were able to make an evening meal from what the lounge offered, so it wasn’t necessary to leave the hotel for dinner afterwards (which was a welcome treat after some busy and tiring days of touring). The lounge area was not overly large, and space appeared to be at a premium during breakfast and evening cocktails (although we were always able to find a place to sit). The tables are a bit close, encouraging interaction with fellow guests rather than any privacy.

    The public areas of the Hilton are very pretty and modern. The indoor swimming pool area was attractive, complete with daybeds for lounging, and the area opened to a small rooftop serenity garden where you could take in some fresh air. The hotel has no ATM machine, which we found surprising, and we had to walk down Wangfujing Street and try a few machines before we found one that would accept the PLUS symbol cards. The restaurant options looked appealing, although we did not eat inside the hotel. Vasco’s (Portuguese) serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, daily 6:30 am to 11:00 pm. Chynna (Chinese) serves lunch and dinner, daily 11:30 am to 11:00 pm. Flames and the Vintage Bank serve dinner only, daily from 5:30 pm. The Library (in the lobby) offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, daily 8:00 am to 10:00 pm in a more casual setting.

    The hotel is located just off the pedestrian area of Wangfujing Street and a few short blocks to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Although we had our own driver, we did attempt to catch a cab back to the hotel from the hutong area, and the driver had difficulty finding it, which surprised us. Even though we had the address written down in both English and Chinese, it didn’t help to locate the hotel. The hotel is steps from an indoor shopping mall with many stores and restaurants for fast food, casual food, and more fine dining, and there are many addition food options on Wangfujing Street. We purchased some drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) for our room from a stand on the corner near the hotel, as well as from a supermarket that is just across the busy main street.

    Aside from the possible trouble of cab drivers locating the hotel, we wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again - the location was great, the public spaces and guestrooms were luxurious, and service was good.

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    fluffnfold - great writeup!

    My wife and I are planning a similar trip to beijing/chengdu. Do you have any recommendations of how many days to spend in each city? perhaps 3 and 3?

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    I'm still working on my trip report, but in the meantime, I thought that two full days in Chengdu was enough for me - one day for the pandas, plus Wide and Narrow Lanes and Jingli Street, and another day for the Leshan Giant Buddha (by land and by boat). You could definitely add more days if you want to hike Mount Qincheng or Emeishan, but I'm not that outdoorsy. I also debated about traveling to Bifengxia to see the pandas because it sounded less crowded and more hands-on, but the accommodations didn't appeal to me. As for Beijing, I had three full days, and that felt like adequate time to see Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the hutongs, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Ming Tombs (which I didn't enjoy), and the Great Wall at Mutianyu (gondola up, toboggan down), but I didn't have much alone/free time. I also visited Shanghai (where one full day was definitely not enough, I didn't plan anymore time there because I wasn't expecting to like the futuristic city that much!) and Xi'an (where two days was enough time to see the Terracotta Warriors, the Wild Goose Pagoda, City Walls, Muslim Quarter, Great Mosque, and Bell and Drum Towers).

    I think your plan for 3 and 3 is good, but if it were me, I would probably do 2 in Chengdu and 4 in Beijing, provided those are full days and don't include travel time.

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    I too am debating about going to Bifengxia -- was your visit to the Chengdu breeding center enough for you? Did you get good explanations? Was it more than a zoo-like look through windows? Did you have a hold-a-young-panda photo option?

    I'm a critter-lover (bear watching in Alaska, gorillas in Rwanda, tiger preserve in India) so the pandas are a must-see. But a Bifengxia visit would consume another day or two and, as you say, the acommodations there are pretty basic.

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    I was satisfied with what I saw at the Chengdu Panda Base. We saw a lot of panda activity in about 2 hours there, so we didn't spend the whole day (we arrived early in the day when they were active and feeding), but if you don't see pandas right away, or they are landscaping various bear areas and have the bears enclosed, I can understand why it might be necessary to spend an entire day there to see as many as you want. It is somewhat zoo-like, although they are in really large areas that seem somewhat natural (you don't view them in cages). We saw some infant pandas in incubators (and behind glass), which were adorable! (Pandas are born primarily in August, so our trip in early September was prime infant-viewing season.) We paid for the hold-a-panda-cub experience, and although pricey (1000 RMB per person for about 5 minutes), it was really special and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. I held the panda for 5 minutes, then my spouse jumped in with me and we held together for 5 minutes, then my spouse held the panda alone for five minutes. Each person must pay the fee, even if one person just wants to observe. The workers used our camera to take photos of us - and they took a lot of them. In my research, it sounded like there were more zookeeper-for-a-day type experiences at Bifengxia, but my guide said it was possible to do them in Chengdu as well (but I didn't see any information about that online). We decided against Bifengxia and the zookeeper thing because it sounded like mostly work - cleaning cages, weighing excrement, etc. and very little holding or playing with the pandas, but some people raved about the experience in reviews that I read online. I, too, am an animal lover - East African safari where I did a "cheetah hug" at the Nairobi Zoo, brown-bear watching in Alaska, walking tigers and playing with cubs at Tiger Temple near Bangkok - and holding the panda cub in Chengdu was just as memorable. (I'm jealous of you - I would LOVE to see the gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda some day!) Good luck with your decision!

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    Thanks so much for your input on the Chengdu Panda Base. I looked at some September trips to Bifengxia in connection with Pandas International -- while I don't mind chopping veggies and cleaning cages, I did have the sense that the proportion of work time to play time definitely favored the work. I've just been afraid the Chengdu Base would be little more than a zoo experience. We're looking at a possible May trip...not ideal for infants! :-( But, yes, I'll definitely pay for the hold-a-cub experience.

    Definitely put the gorillas on your to-do list; we picked Rwanda as the trekking is theoretically less arduous. I'd recommend 2 days -- our first trek was fine but not quite the memorable experience I'd imagined. The second, however, was fabulous...up in a narrow ravine so that we were VERY close to them.

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    What is a typical trekking day like in Rwanda, assuming that it is less arduous than Uganda? My health isn't the greatest, and my spouse has arthritis, so we are a bit concerned about needing to be out in the jungle for 8+ hours at a stretch with no bathroom facilities or bail-out possibilities as well as being concerned with not being able to sit quietly in the same position without moving for long stretches of time. I admit that I haven't done much research yet on the subject - although it is definitely something that we want to do, we really didn't think was possibly physically.

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    You meet at the Volcanos National Park HQ about 7:00 am, get checked in and assigned to your gorilla family, have a brief orientation, and set off in cars with your guide to the starting point. Trackers follow the gorilla families 24/7 so they are able to radio the guide and indicate where the family is -- the goal is to get to them by mid-morning when they awake from their naps and start moving. I did feel that they are semi-acclimated to humans and have come to expect these hairless bipeds showing up for an hour every morning.

    I found that the criteria for assigning you to one of the gorillas families was language and age. Invariably, those of us "of a certain age" (60+) were assigned to the groups lower down the mountain; this required less hiking -- unless of course you speciifically asked for one of the families that tended to be higher up. (Case in pount: the Susa family is always high up the mountain and that group is always the last to return each day.)

    On our first day we drove to the start point, clambered over the wall into the preserve area, and had about a 40 minute walk to the gorilla family. The bad news: this meant we arrived during morning nap time and we didn't get credit on our one-hour limit for the time they were asleep! I wanted to nudge them with my toe to wake them but restrained myself!

    The second day we requested a specific guide, plus I assured our guide/driver (who negotiated our group assignments) that I could do more than we had done the day before. I got what I wanted, as we hiked almost 3 hrs to find our gorilla family. It was about at the limit of my capabilities. For the last part we slid down into a ravine on our butts! (On the return our porters pushed us back up the side of the ravine.)

    You definitely want to hire porters ($10/day each) -- they will carry your things and do whatever it takes to get you to the gorillas. Mine was right there at my side any time the going got a bit rough. Plus hiring a guide provides local employment.

    You are normally back at HQ before noon, unless you have one of the long hikes -- some people plan short excursions in the afternoon. All in all, a marvelous experience. We really, really liked Rwanda -- neat and clean, with hardworking people who have a tremendous forgiving spirit.

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