WHO: Laura Flanders, 66, of North Eastham
WHERE: China and Bhutan
WHEN: Three weeks in September and October
WHY: ''I wanted to see the giant pandas," she said. ''The trip was kind of a tribute to my father. When I was 4, he had given me a huge giant panda. It became something I carried around by the ear. He would have loved to have done this with me."
PANDAHOLICS UNITE: ''I went with a group, with Natural Habitat Adventures [800-543-8917, www.naturalhabitatadventures.com] and we were all pandaholics," she said. ''I'm not a zoo person. I really wanted to see them in the wild; there are only 1,500 of them left in the wild." Flanders, a world traveler, chose this time to see the pandas because ''it might be my last trip." In 2003, she said, ''I was very ill with chronic kidney failure and cancer. This could be my last hurrah."
FIRST, THE CITY: ''We met in Beijing. It was absolutely overwhelming. It's so overindustrialized you can't even see the sky. We had a wonderful guide who knew when to take us places when it wouldn't be so crowded."
HEADING SOUTHWEST: The six Americans first were flown to Xian, China's first imperial capital. They saw the famed terra-cotta warriors, made to guard the tomb of Qinshihuang. The next day they flew to Chengdu. ''That was our access point for Jiuzhaigou National Park. They refer to it as their Eden," she said. ''It was absolutely stunning."
LAP PANDAS: The final three days revolved around the Wolong Nature Reserve, about 75 miles northwest of Chengdu. It's the closest one can get to seeing pandas in the wild. ''Our guide had worked with pandas at San Diego Zoo," Flanders said, including one now at the reserve. ''So we could do things you normally wouldn't be able to do. I had no idea we could play with them," she said, adding that it was a dream come true to hold a panda in her lap.
CROSSING BORDERS: Flanders wanted to visit Bhutan because she had stayed in touch with a college friend who had been a prince there, ''Lenny" Dorji. ''Now, he's way out of succession; he's a lord. Lenny was still in London. . . . so he sent his son, Palden."
CAR AND DRIVER: ''I set up a custom trip, which was me, my driver, and a guide, Garab, with Geographic Expeditions [800-777-8183, www.geoex.com]. People say it's the last Shangri-La. It's the most incredible place. There's very strong nature worship and they really live their Buddhism," she said. ''They just opened the country to tourism in 1974. You have to pay $200 to get in; they let in about 10,000 tourists a year."
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO HER: ''Palden and Garab planned my birthday when I was there. In 2003, ''I was dying," Flanders said, but for this trip ''I was actually alive."