Welcome to the jungle
It is not easy to stare into the eyes of a tiger, even one that is on the other end of a milk bottle.
'I can lick you, and I don't mean with my tongue,' the three-month-old white tiger says telepathically as his gaze hardens.
I am at the Xiangjiang Wild Animal World, a zoo in Guangzhou's southernmost district of Panyu. It is food-and-photo-op time for the baby tigers, and one has just been thrust into my lap by a handler.
I look down. Our eyes meet. I scratch his ears. We hit it off, the photographer tells me later. It is easy for him to say; he hasn't just had a cat with piercing blue eyes stare straight into his soul.
Now I know why tigers are so equally feared and adored. If the lion is the king of the jungle (whoever decided that?) then the tiger must be its consiglieri.
In the leisure and entertainment complex that surrounds the Chime Long Hotel in Panyu, tigers rule. Their pictures are everywhere. There are about 20,000 other animals in the 130-hectare zoo, and every one deserves to be seen. They include Bengal tigers, African lions, leopards and cheetahs, who are enthralling to watch even in their sleep.
Playful monkeys will keep children entertained for hours, as will the Albert Einsteins of the animal kingdom, otherwise known as the elephants. The giraffes are peerless for grace. The deer are the cutest.
All can be seen within a morning, or even a full day, on foot or by air-conditioned bus.
There is a lot more available in the vicinity. In fact, it is impossible to really appreciate all that this safari-world complex has to offer in less than three days. It is without doubt the classiest, most fun-filled tourist destination in southern China.
If you are going to stay for the full duration, there is a five-star hotel to use as a home base. And if you do not have any children, well, you had best get some because they will love the place. Modelled on the owner's impressions of the Lost World in South Africa, the Chime Long Hotel has stuffed crocodiles mounted on its walls. Vultures stand guard over the buffet area of one of the restaurants. And outside the main restaurant are a pair of white tigers. Just to make sure your kids finish their greens.
There are also the usual distractions, such as an enormous swimming pool and a bowling alley. But do any other hotels have a 60-seat film theatre?
Despite Panyu's location in the middle of one of the world's most aesthetically challenged urban sprawls, the Chime Long hotel is tastefully designed by a team from the Guangzhou Art Museum, and well-run by an experienced general manager from Hong Kong, Terence Wong. It has an average 90 per cent occupancy rate, so do not expect to be able to just drop in unannounced.
What really sets the experience of staying there apart from anything else in China, however, is the Safari Night Zoo. Here you can cruise through South American valleys, Indian forests, South African bush and even Chinese plains, observing animals in their regular evening routines.
The highlight comes at 8pm, when the park's Moon Arena, a 10,000-seat domed amphitheatre, hosts a one-hour show featuring the Galaxy Stars, a space-themed circus. Think Electric Light Orchestra meets Barnum and Bailey. Stars include dancing hippos and boxing kangaroos.
The hotel also offers plenty of excuses for companies to pay for their executives to visit. There is a 1,000-seat convention centre and 16 conference rooms, plus the world's largest golf driving range.
Who does Panyu have to thank for all of this? The two Su brothers started with a small seafood restaurant 25 years ago, and today own most of the land that can be seen from the US$8,500-per-night presidential suite of their plush hotel.
According to staff, the elder brother travels the world looking for new ideas, while the younger one takes care of day-to-day operations of the hotel and its zoos. Being entrepreneurs in China, they like their privacy, so it's hard to know more than that.
What they have created is not just a money-spinner, however. The zoo is also a professionally run research and protection centre that promotes public education of wildlife.
The 80 white tigers, more than half of which were born at the zoo, now account for 40 per cent of the species' global population. Many other species, such as the white lions, are being similarly bred and protected.
The costs of running such an operation are substantial. Mr Wong says the group lost nearly two billion yuan 'in a few months' last year during the Sars scare. 'Not once did we think about retrenching any staff - or the animals,' he says without a trace of irony.
There is no issue of space for future expansion, thanks to the owners' far-sightedness in buying up so much of the surrounding land. 'We have enough here for another five hotels, easily,' Mr Wong says.
And, one can only assume, enough for a growing tiger population to go looking for pale-faced visitors.
Chime Long Hotel
Yingbin Road, Panyu, Guangzhou (86-20) 8478-6838
Room rates start at US$140 (package tours booked through travel agents have discounts)
Chime Long Safari Night Zoo
Entrance fee: 50-150 yuan
Xiangjiang Wild Animal Zoo
Dashi county, Panyu, Guangzhou
Open: 9am to 6pm
Entrance fee: 90-100 yuan