Guangzhou / Xingping and Yangshuo County, Guilin, China
September 3 – 8, 2017
Quinn was my (reluctant) star student. He was engaged and engaging, inspired and inspiring – qualities that earned him the title Mr. Total Package in class. No matter how equally embarrassing and annoying to him, the nick stuck. He held up a paper with my name as he welcomed me at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. I screamed, “Ni hao Mr. Total Package!” Not only could he not live it down, but he still lived up to it a year on and many miles away from the classroom. Let me count the ways.
First, he insisted to be my personal airport pick-up. I caught the red-eye; he caught the last train to the airport and waited for hours. “Don’t take this flight again,” he quipped. He was serious, though, about not letting an old fogey venture out to a strange city at wee hours alone or wait the dawn out at the airport lounge. Instead, I got my power nap and a refreshing shower at Guanghua Hotel conveniently located at Baiyun but reeking of cigarette smoke. And I had my first taste of authentic Cantonese dimsum for breakfast before we took off to the train station.
Second, Mr. Total Package enlisted the company of his brother-in-law and former boss, squashing any awkward bromantic angle to a couple of traveling guys. The party of four converged at sleek and snazzy Guangzhou South Railway Station, which could rival the airport. Clearly, China had joined the modern world by taking its train technology from substandard to superpower. A CRH (China Railway High-Speed) train zoomed ever so smoothly 427 kilometers to Guangxi Province in just a couple of hours.
Limestone spires jutting into view from the train window all but announced we had reached Guangxi. Our stop was at the ancient heart of this karst kingdom – centuries-old Xingping in Yangshuo County. The town, quaint as it was, didn’t exactly show its age. Far from a rundown rural outpost, Xingping was infused with new vitality – and paint and varnish and economy – that came with tourism. Old houses may have been touched up, but ancient architecture of flying eaves and lattice windows was retained.
Third, Mr. Total Package had advised me to travel light. Why I ended up bringing two backpacks I came to regret when, between the train station and our accommodation, we pounded cobblestone streets. Amidst houses of wood, tiles, and brick, we came across Wu Temple Museum imbued with dynasty feels of old. A dark hallway, adorned with intricate wooden carvings depicting ancient life, lured us to a courtyard below an elevated opera stage decked with mannequins in traditional garb. The Ming and Qing Dynasties were frozen in time.
The tourist trail wound through a residential community tucked behind the touristified center of town. The townsfolk carried on with their lives unperturbed by our prying eyes. Perhaps it helped that my Chinese looks blended with the crowd. I couldn’t help snapping a photo of a group of elderly villagers playing cards by the river, oblivious to passing visitors and more so to the passing of time. Retirement goals right there. I didn’t want to be stalkerish, but resistance was futile. A few paces past them, I snuck a quick pic.
Fourth, Mr. Total Package let me ride on the back of his scooter through the Ten-Mile Gallery and back. Flat and straight for the most part, the bike-friendly highway, two miles more than its name suggested, cut through the verdant valley ringed by towering teeth of rock. But first, a scooter. We came across a bike-riding ayi (a Chinese term for a woman of a certain age in the service industry) hawking scooter rental. An inexperienced biker, I was deemed by the rental lady incapable of driving on my trial run. Mr. Total Package was none too thrilled; I was going to be his backy.
I could not speak for my driver, but it was a fun ride through this otherworldly landscape. Our bikes had a parasol to keep out the scorching summer sun, and I had the luxury of taking in the view without minding the road. The stretch was akin to our river cruise the previous day, but on land. Had we taken this ride earlier – as in 200 million years back – our scooter would’ve been a submarine swooshing close to the seabed 200 meters below sea level. The marvelous monoliths, seemingly static and set in stone, were a stark reminder that our world was in a constant state of flux. For now, though, in this blip on the geologic timeline, the peaks were oddly-shaped that they aroused imagination. The fun was in matching the fanciful names, such as Kissing Dolphins, to the mountains.
We passed a wall of fountains, rather contrived but invitingly refreshing, by the roadside. Ayi suggested that we stop at the gated garden with a profound oxymoron for a name: Eternal Flowers. How delicate and ephemeral were these flowers in the shadow of mountains primeval looming over them. The contrast was nothing less than visual poetry. Until we got to the sunflower field at the far end. It was perfect for Instagram, no filter needed. Mr. Total Package couldn’t believe his eyes. Too good to be true? I tried to pluck a petal; it wouldn’t come off. Fake flowers! We had been punk’d! Oh well, this was China, after all.
TTT and Captain Quinn @ Eternal Flowers, Yangshuo
Fifth, Mr. Total Package was truly the captain of the ship. Including literally. No rest for my scooter driver, he also paddled the bamboo raft on the park’s presumably man-made lagoon. The raft had threatened to topple us over several times, but we never lost our game. Somehow the captain of our trip kept the balancing act going among four headstrong guys who could go off in different directions.
Sixth, Mr. Total Package delivered the goods all the way. Up to the end of the gallery at the foot of the iconic Moon Hill, named after the round hole penetrating it from north to south. Like the moon, the hole changed shapes from new to full depending on location. But anywhere, it begged for special-effects selfies by the roadside. Binu, our captain’s brother-in-law, begged to climb the hill’s 230-meter rock face. Mr. Total Package had to put his foot down as none of us had the mojo for hardcore rock climbing.
Seventh, Mr. Total Package delivered the goods and then some. He instructed our tour guide, biker chick ayi, to take a detour. She led us through rolling terrain where the air was decidedly cooler under the cover of forest. We stopped for an energy boost with a cup of roadside soy yogurt before hiking down to Yulong River, a painting-worthy tributary of the more famous Li River. It ran through an agricultural valley. Without motorized tourist boats drowning out the peace and quiet, the languid river meandering through rice paddies and bamboo forests harked back to Yangshuo’s rustic past. At present, though, it had become Yulong River Scenic Area where even agricultural technology were tourist attractions: a waterwheel and small dam for irrigation proved to be a quaint backdrop to selfies of city folks like us.
Eighth, Mr. Total Package combed through two shopping streets – West Street in Yangshuo and Zhengyang Walking Street in Guilin – to hunt for a specific souvenir my colleague wanted in no uncertain terms. Four guys with zero passion for shopping had to look for women’s clothing. And not just any. It had to be a red silk nightgown. I had thought of giving up several times as we pounded Zhengyang Walking Street, the first street in Western China. Its history went back more than a thousand years to the Ming Dynasty. It had since become a modern shopping mecca in Guilin. After two days of shopping and, finally, at the last hour, Mr. Total Package found the item at a boutique called SX.Silk. Eureka!
For the entire tour, and especially the agonizing shopping, Mr. Total Package and friends deserved a tasty treat. I bought the group dinner at cutely named Forest Gump Restaurant as a token of my appreciation. The servers pressured themselves with an hourglass timer to measure their serving time, a curious and unique gimmick to attract “hangry” shoppers.
Ninth, Mr. Total Package’s friends later revealed out of his earshot that he had told them not to order expensive dishes for my dinner treat. Awww, that consideration was way sweeter than any dessert could ever be!
And lastly, Mr. Total Package gave me the most apropos souvenir, one that, not only represented this wonderful land, but was an intrinsic part of it. I got to take home the taste and fragrance of Guilin, literally forest of sweet osmanthus, in a box of guihua cha – osmanthus tea.
After a week of touring, Mr. Total Package collapsed onto our first class seat and slept off much of the train ride back to Guangzhou, understandably and deservedly so. He outdid himself in this tour, a tall order in itself – plotting the itinerary, booking hotels, carrying my extra backpack, driving and paddling, showing and shopping. He did it all, and then some. It was then it could be said – he exceeded being Mr. Total Package. Quinn became Mr. Total Package Tour!