The Chengdu Panda Center is, quite literally, the world's largest giant and red panda reserve. The centers main purpose is to educate visitors as well as breed, raise, and protect the endangered and huggable giant panda. If any place deserves the distinction as a national treasure, the breeding center would be it. In fact, the entry ticket goes on to say that it is the "Charm of China, Cradle of Pandas." After a half day hike around the park, it is easy to see why.
Other parks in China offer a chance to see pandas in a safe and preserved atmosphere, and I was almost swayed to see one in Xi'an prior to heading to Chengdu. A bit of rain spoiled my fellow travelers fun who, at most, reported seeing only two pandas that day. My count was significantly higher.
Panda Cubs: 3
Panda Newborns: 2
Red Pandas: ~10
Grand total: 38 giant pandas, ~10 red pandas
Rumors float about that state that pandas are most active in the morning and pass out by mid-day. After arriving at 8:30 in the morning, it is easy to confirm that this is the case. Maybe not as extreme as advertised, but by the times the crowds show up, the pandas seem to pass out. Feeding time ends when the food runs out, and is around 11am in most exhibits.
While the park is incredibly large, spotting a panda is effortless. You don't even have to look into any exhibits to try and find one, as the hoards of tourists with SLRS, lenses much larger than my own 55-200mm, and video cameras will tell you when one is nearby. For those seeking more isolation, try to make your way to Panda Enclosure 1 and 2, or the moonlight nursery (was closed at my time of visiting). Only two trails are present leading back to the huge enclosures that house an estimated 20 pandas, one of which is unmarked leading to most frustration. Rather than consulting a map, which is also horribly incorrect, its better to ask directions.
Unfortunately the one downside to the park is in the ability to take pictures with pandas up close. The only option available to have a close up picture hugging a panda was 1000 yuan ($147) for about 10 photos on your personal camera. A bit too rich for my blood, and the alternative and cheaper options of holding a red panda were not available at my time of visit. I guess it was a good thing to not have my heart set on doing it, as the studio closed down multiple times during the day from panda issues. Must be a bit camera shy.
After waking around 3 hours, massive blisters and all, China's pride and symbolic animal did not disappoint. Watching them eat, sleep, play, and walk around in relative close proximity to myself was something that is just not available at home. New born pandas that are the size of tiny rabbits was the icing on the cake, and it is easily apparent why everyone says time and time again "Go to Chengdu! See the Pandas." So, to join them, if you're ever in China. Go to Chengdu! See the Pandas. You won't be disappointed.
For those wanting to visit the park in more isolation than a day trip from a hostel would provide, a taxi is relatively inexpensive. Leaving from central Chengdu during rush hour will cost around 40 yuan. The return trip, somehow, was only 26 yuan. Entry fee to the Panda Reserve is 58 yuan. The back area including Panda Enclosure #1, #2, and the Moonlight Nursery is only accessible at the left hand path near the front of the entrance, or on the trail past the toilets near the sunlight nursery (no sign). The trail looks more like a car path, and goes on for quite a ways, but it will take you where you need to go and is most recommended. A bus is available for cheaper transport, however my laziness won over and I took a taxi instead.