When you study abroad, you need to make sure that you also make time to travel in your host country and, hopefully, the surrounding countries as well. Traveling is such a great way to educate yourself. You get to study the culture personally.

My past posts have made it seem like study abroad is only about traveling and not focused on school, but I did study and go to my classes. In college, you learn how to manage time. I was able to balance my schooling, time with friends and travel. You also learn how to manage money. I will admit, I spent money here pretty freely here in China because — even though I promised myself I will return to China — life hits you fast and you never really know if you will return and get the same opportunities you have in the moment.

With that in mind, I will tell you I spent a little more than $300 to see the adorable, clumsy panda.

Every school has breaks, thankfully, and East China Normal University has several. One time the school had a field trip, but only a certain number of students could attend and there was an agenda each day of the trip. Already being an independent traveler, I decided with another friend that we should do our own thing. My friend was named Chloe and she was from Michigan. She has long blonde hair that the Chinese people were obsessed with, along with her green, blue and grey eyes. She was very friendly and I knew she and I would get along great!

We really wanted to go to Thailand, but Chloe did not have a tourist visa. In the end, we decided to go to the capital city of the Sichuan province, Chengdu. With this we booked our flight (which was more expensive than what it would have been if we planned ahead of time), our hostel and were set to go.

Sichuan is known for many things: its extremely spicy food, panda exhibits, beautiful women, one of the largest Buddhas in the world and the city life in Chengdu. We mainly picked Chengdu because of the pandas. We learned that you could “donate” your money to volunteer at the research base in Chengdu, which allowed you to clean up after the pandas, feed the pandas, and TAKE A PICTURE WITH A PANDA. When you enter a panda exhibit in America, it is expected that you will view them from afar. The fact that I could sit next to a panda was incredible!

Once we arrived in Chengdu, we approached our hostel with hungry tummies. The hostel was okay. I would not stay there again. Still, the people working there were cool and open to talk about topics you hear people talk about in America. I usually never got this in Shanghai. When I would talk to Chinese university students, they were more reserved and got embarrassed to talk about personal topics.

Once we settled in, we asked the people in front where to get some good, cheap food. Steven, a receptionist Chloe and I got along well with, recommended a hot pot place, though it was tough to understand one another. Chloe and I went out and, sure enough, Steven’s friend came looking for us to help us find the place. At first I thought his name was “Otis.” “Otis” came along with us to eat hot pot. His English was better than Steven’s; To my surprise, he said he learned his English on a mobile app. “Otis” was also was planning on going to America to travel and study abroad for the upcoming semester in Chicago.

As our meat and vegetables were cooking, we exchanged stories and enjoyed one another’s company. In the end, I figured out his name. His name was Oldies. That was a very interesting English name, but hey, Steven was completely confused about my name. When he tried to pronounce my name (using Google translate) he and girls passing by were laughing. He also told me it sounded like a very ugly name. I did not take offense; I actually laughed with him because I believe this is how you make friends with people from different cultures. You accept and respect the fact that people may see or think differently from you and understand that their intentions are not to hurt you.

The next day, Chloe and prepared for our adventure to see pandas! We were so excited to have the opportunity to sit next to a panda and share that memory of Chengdu. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is one of the largest panda reserves in the world. This was a place for rehabilitation, but I could tell it was a bit commercialized. We saw pandas of all ages and we also saw the red pandas. The research base also included places to learn more the base, how pandas reproduce, the life of a panda as well as other interactive educational material. After exploring this, we made sure to get to what we came for — our picture with a panda!

We looked for the sunshine nursery, which was next to the baby panda exhibit. Once we entered we asked where to pay for a picture with a panda. The ladies at the desk looked at us with concern and told us that the volunteer services that had people interact with pandas has been cancelled for 12 years. Chloe and I were so disappointed and confused to why this would happen since another friend at our school just went to Chengdu and took pictures with pandas.

But that did not stop me. After three hours of researching and calling internationally (yes… I had to pay $147 dollars just for the call) I booked a tour on Viator for someone to pick us up from our hostel, get a picture with the panda and drop us back at the hostel. It cost us each $265 dollars. Even as a college student with not much money to spend, I thought it was TOTALLY WORTH THE MONEY TO HUG A PANDA.

The next day, we went to the panda reserve with the tour guide. The research center was called Dujiangyan Research Center of Giant Panda Breeding and Release, which actually takes care of more sick or injured pandas than the other center. This one did not seem so commercialized either. Before we took pictures, our tour guide showed us around the research base. We first came across volunteers cleaning and feeding the pandas. The first panda we saw was named Pupua. He was definitely a lazy male — so lazy that he got stuck in his little obstacle course while trying to get food!

My favorite panda at this reserve was Bing Qing. She was so playful, energetic, and clumsy. I loved watching her play and eat her food. So cute!

After Bing Qing, we saw twin teenage pandas and one injured panda that will be staying in the reserve because he lost half of his leg and is not showing any signs of improvements.

At this point, Chloe had probably taken already 50 pictures with Chinese locals because they were in such awe of her light skin, blonde hair and different colored eyes. Then I killed a spider by slapping her neck as she was FaceTiming her dad. Never a dull moment!

Now the time had come to hug a panda. To be honest I will not have to even tell you how I felt, just look at these pictures.

I was actually really frightened here!

But extremely happy here!

It was incredible! I got to sit next to a cute little female panda cub that was only 3-5 years old. She was fluffy and cuddly and the way she munched on the bamboo was so loud, but so cute. The panda was so silly too because it would only pay attention to men!

After we achieved our goal in seeing the panda, we went back to the hostel and spent the rest of our day napping — we were exhausted. We would need our rest because the following day, we planned to see one of the largest sculpted Buddhas in the world.

Leshan Buddha was supposed to be an hour train ride from Chengdu, but it took us about two hours because I forgot my passport at the hostel. Once we finally arrived in the city of Leshan, we got on a bus to the Buddha. Leshan felt like the ancient Chinese towns you see in movies. Our destination was full of vegetation and it seemed like the kind of place people would come for spiritual healing.

We had the option of either walking to the Buddha or going by boat. We decided to walk since it was cheaper. To our surprise it was definitely a workout, but we made it and boy was it packed. There were scores of tourists from everywhere, and many of them wanted pictures with us (OK, mainly Choe, haha!). Walking around we saw the top of the Buddah’s head. It was incredible how large and tall it was. We were anxious to wait in line to go down to see the rest.

Left to Right: Me, Chloe, and a young lady we met at the panda reserve who joined with us to the Buddha. She works in the fashion industry, travels, and is so sweet!

This is an example of how Chinese locals would come up to you and ask for a picture. This is also one the reasons why I love the Chinese people so much!

Leshan Giant Buddha is about 71 meters tall, which is about 233 feet. You can imagine how dizzy I was going down the peak admiring him and how dizzy I was admiring him below.

Once we got to the bottom, we saw people giving offering to the Buddha, praying and taking pictures. It is a must when coming to Sichuan!

As they say, “what goes up must come down,” but for us it was the opposite. We had to climb back up the peak, which was definitely scary, but had a beautiful view.

After we walked up, our stomachs were growling a bit for some spicy Sichuan cuisine.

This trip, just like any, reminds me to always approach everything with an open mind and to know that the world is full of knowledge. I believe that admitting to yourself that you have much to learn about the world is what traveling is all about. To get the full experience, you must enjoy the moment and learn about the place you are visiting!


Nasreen Nabizadeh is a public health junior. She studied abroad this spring at East China Normal University in Shanghai, China.

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