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China :: The great escape to Shenzhen

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Thursday, 07 October 2004

I'm sitting in a café, being as much of a tourist as you can get.

Today, I decided to make a short trip into mainland China: to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.

Upon my arrival at the frontier, and after completing border-control papers for the 6th time in 2 days, I was unpleasantly surprised by the unusually high fee of HK$ 450 (£35 or 65 cheeseburgers from McD's) to get a Visa. Had I travelled on a French passport, I would have got away with HK$ 150.

After queuing for 15 minutes to get my passport stamped, I finally entered Shenzhen. My 1st impression of China was, and still is, a rather unpleasant one. All the signs and posters are in Mandarin (which I find very strange as everything in Hong Kong is written in both Chinese and English). Only the exit signs of the passport control building had 'exit' written on them. However, this was completely unnecessary, as all I had to do was follow the stream of people entering China with their large quantities of 'western' goods (crates of canned Fanta, packs of 'exotic' foods, etc.).

With no Tourist Office anywhere, all I had was a very limited map to help me get around. This map of Shenzhen serves only as an extension of Hong Kong's new territories map. No road names, no place names, just a greyed out area on the edge of Hong Kong's new territories. To add to this, I had completely ignored the scale, and only realised less than an hour ago that the place I wanted to get to, Nan Fu Tian District, is not a short walk away but a 30 minute bus ride (note: the map I have of Hong Kong is probably the worst map you could ever find: it’s a small book, where you need to flip the pages when you get to the edge of a page – just like any other map – with the exception that every single page has a different scale! Which is why I made this stupid mistake).

So I was running around, asking people how to get to Nan Fu Tian, but with no one speaking a word of English it was a huge struggle. I finally found a security guard who appeared to understand what I was asking as I showed him the district on my map. He told me to get onto bus 233. This, of course, he had to write down, as he did not know a single word of English. I then walked to the bus stop he pointed at, but found no sign of a 233 bus. No map either, or bus route, or times. Simply loads of text in Mandarin.

I walked on for a while, until I crossed a café. I was getting annoyed and tired under the heating sun, so decided to sit down and have a drink. And this is how I ended up sitting in this café with a Mocha and a slice of New York style cheesecake, happily renouncing my goal.

Very soon, I'll be heading back to the station as now I'm convinced border control have closing times: I would hate to be stuck in this area overnight. I feel cheated. For an economic zone created for trading purposes, I would have thought things would be a little more 'international' than this.

(A few minutes ago, a 5 year old kid walked up to me, stared at me with hesitation, then rapidly screamed out 'hello', laughed, and ran away. Since then, 2 more children have walked by staring at me as if they had never seen a white man before! This zone, despite its huge tower blocks and crowds seems really desolate. Do tourist ever come here?)

I'm off now, back to homelier Hong Kong. I don't think I can stay here much longer.

---

Note: since writing the article above, I decided to have another go at getting to Nan Fu Tian district, home of Window of the World, Folk Village and Splendid China. Once again, I asked around, until someone understood what I wanted and kindly stopped the number 1 bus (a tour bus) and told the driver where I was heading. I'm glad I continued my trek, as I found a simple explanation to the disappointment I was feeling: at the entrance of Window of the World, a huge banner was lit up and read: "Welcome to Our World" (see photos). Everything suddenly seemed clear: China has no time for tourist like me. They are too busy dealing with their economic expansion, continuously building new tower blocks and towns to try and accommodate their ever-expanding population.

My judgment of China might have been a little harsh, but the language barrier really was a problem. With no tourist office, guide or detailed brochure of Shenzhen, and not a single person able to speak English (even the pre-recorded tape on the tour bus I took was entirely in Mandarin) you cannot do much but go out and explore for yourself and simply hope to land in the right areas at the right times. Now I am really looking forward to South America, as my 'limited' Spanish will certainly help me get around and communicate more with the locals.