Today turned out to be a very strange days travel.
It started normally enough, with a shower before making my way outside with plenty of time for my pickup. But as I got downstairs I was told that my lift had left about 20 minutes before, and I should ring the tour company ASAP.
During a pretty stressful phonecall, it emerged that I had been provided with a pickup time that was 40 minutes later than the one that the driver had been given. I was very unhappy with the attitude of the person I spoke to at the office, who first suggested that it was my own error (despite having evidence to the contrary), and then informing me that there was nothing that they could do and I would not be able to do the tour.
All this 20 minutes before the time that I was expecting to be picked up.
After a little negotiation – mainly my threat to contact Visa and have all payments that I had made to the company disputed and reversed they finally acquiesced and allowed me to at least attempt to join up with the tour party.
So it was that I found myself in the back of a taxi heading for the train station to meet a guy named Jamie so that I could catch the express train to Shenzhen.I got out my phone as soon as I arrived, dialled his number and the phone of the man stood next to me rang. It would appear I’d located Jamie. He then told me that there was no hurry and that we had at least 20 minutes before the train departed, and if I wanted to grab some breakfast from a shop then I had plenty of time.
Munching on my hastily bought panini I explained the issues of the morning to Jamie and he gave me a response that in retrospect was pretty chilling – “don’t worry it happens a lot”!
Well, at least I was here now and could just sit back and relax until we reached Shenzhen.
There were about 15 other people with us, mainly Australian and Kiwi visitors who were much more pleasant then the hen party of yesterday. I got chatting and did the now traditional explanation of Guernsey and its location in the world. Only this time one of the Aussies had actually heard of Guernsey.
I knew what was coming next; it always comes next – the tax question.
I’m seriously considering getting leaflets printed so that I can just hand them out when I’m next faced with The Question.
Jamie then came and sat next to me and explained that the other guests would only be with me for the first hour or two. They were here on a shopping trip, whilst I was here for a cultural trip. This would mean that I would be on my own for the afternoon and evening; but not to worry as they had arranged a personal tour guide for me who would join us in China. My reaction to this was fantastic. I’ll get to have a chat with someone from China and have access to them that I wouldn’t be able to have in a group.
We crossed over the border into China. A painlessly simple process that did fill me with a little disappointment as it was explained that as we were on a group visa they would not be stamping my passport. But, but, but I want my passport stamped; I felt like crying. It’s bad enough travelling through Europe and not getting a single stamp. But arriving in China and not getting a stamp just felt unfair. To they not understand that to us weirdo’s that want to visit as many places as possible that passport stamps are like drugs?
Leaving the station I felt hit by a wave of humidity and heat. Shenzhen it was fair to say was hot. Very hot. The second thing I noticed was that most of the buildings were tall, as in Hong Kong. But looked cleaner and newer. As it turned out this was pretty much the case. Twenty odd years ago Shenzhen was a small fishing town, with a population of around 20,000 people. Today it is one of the fastest growing cities in the world with a growing population upwards of 14,000,000 people. This is because Shenzhen had been declared a Special Economic Zone by the Chinese government. Specifically to try and drive this sort of rapid growth and attract business to the area.
Shenzhen is now one of the worlds largest manufacturing hubs. Primarily specialising in the assembly of electronic goods. With companies such as Foxconn having large hubs here. This has led to one of the more unusual situations in China – a country that has a surplus of men when compared to woman. However in Shenzhen woman are the primary recruits as they work on the assembly lines, whereas men do more manual work. This means that the female/male ratio is around 7:1.
Even I fancy those odds!
Our first stop was the Diwang Commercial Centre, or more specifically the 69th floor where there is an observation deck. This gave us a spectacular view of the city, with highrises stretching away into the mist.
At the top of the tower is something quite unexpected – a waxwork of Margret Thatcher. Thatcher is immortalized together with her Chinese counterpartChairman Deng Xiaoping (who was introduced with solemnity as ‘the dear leader, Deng Xiaoping’) as they negotiated the Sino-British Joint Declaration regarding the handover of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule. The guide at the tower said to me that Thatcher was held in great esteem, and asked if this is the still the view in Britain. I tried to give a diplomatic answer. But the look I received after I did not give anything but unequivocal praise to the former Prime Minister made me feel like I had surprised them by suggesting that people in Britain may not universally admire her.
Escaping I was then introduced to Rosie who was to be my guide for the rest of the day. We were dropped off at what was described as a Theme Park. This was called Splendid China, and was not a theme park in the way that Westerners would recognize one.
Splendid China is basically a series of miniature versions of Chinese landmarks connected by beautifully landscaped gardens and paths. Very pretty, but not really what I was expecting on my ‘cultural tour’. But as I had Rosie with me, I envisaged picking her brain about Shenzhen and hearing what she thought about her country. Unfortunately, this was not to be.
We entered the park, and Rosie handed me a map and told me to meet her back at this spot in a couple of hours. Er, ok but what I supposed to be doing. She sighed and waved a hand dismissively. ‘Just be back here’. Ok, fine but what is this place? She then told me about the miniature landmarks, and I could rent an electric car to drive myself around the park. I took one look at these cars which looked suspiciously like invalid carriages I said that I would walk. Another dismissive wave later, one which would suggested I could fly as far as she was concerned and she’s turned on her heel and walked off in the opposite direction.
So I stood in the middle of the entrance, with my guest map written in Cantonese, the signposts written in Cantonese no grasp of the language and even unsure if I’m able to spend Hong Kong Dollars here. I looked around and did what I always do when I’m unsure where to go – went left.
As I’ve said the park itself was attractive. But I came to realize three things as I made my way around.
1.It was hot. Very hot. Hot enough for the locals to all be sat on benches, umbrellas in one hand, fans in the other. If there is one thing I’ve learnt it is that when the locals are wilting then you have no chance.
2.It must have been either the start or the end of season because everything was closed up. Stalls, amusements, shops all boarded up and closed.
3.No matter how fascinating the exhibits, it was me that was the center of attention.
At first I thought I was imagining it. But out of the corner of my eye I’d see people stand up as I walked by and stare at me. Then it became a little more obvious, then it became bloody obvious. People were quite literally stopping in their tracks and grabbing for their camera or grabbing friends as they pointed at me.It was a very odd sensation. It didn’t feel unsafe or even particularly rude as it was obvious even to me that this was purely fascination. Just particularly unsubtle fascination.
I fixed what I hoped was a friendly smile onto my face as I didn’t want to give off any vibes of being uncomfortable under all the scrutiny, but I was starting to wish that I could walk without the stares for one reason – it was so hot that my shirt was starting to get wet through and stick to me which was making me feel more self-conscious than any amount of pointing had done so. That pretty much anyone I passed also had huge dark sweat stains didn’t seem to occur to me.
I found a nice shady place to sit for a while and finally found a use for my map as I folded it and turned it into a makeshift fan. I was starting to blend in with the locals already!
Making my way back to meet Rosie, the sun started to drop which in turn led me to another two conclusions. First that I wasn’t going to get back before it was completely dark, and secondly that it wasn’t getting any cooler. In fact it was actually getting hotter!
I met Rosie who asked if I’d really been walking around the park, and when I answered in the affirmative it turned out to be the end of the conversation as she turned and told me to follow her.
Where she led me was to a large dining hall, where I was seated at a table that could easily have seated twelve or more. This was in the center of the room and surrounded by similar tables, only these were all packed with other diners. After taking my seat I looked around for Rosie, but she had disappeared once again. I sat for a good five minutes at the empty table before a waitress turned up with a huge jug filled with tea, poured an eggcup sized cup and handed it to me before putting the jug onto the table and fading back into the crowd. Rosie then reappeared and said that he had ordered food and it will come soon.
Evidently not learning from experience I still half expected her to pull up one of the chairs and take a seat. But no sooner had she finished speaking then she was gone. The waitress reappeared with a small rice bowl and chopsticks. She was followed by a chef carrying a huge bowl of boiled rice who then set it down on the table. People on the surrounding tables started staring at me, and then the giant bowl and then behind me. I soon realized why. The waitress reappeared with another huge bowl, this time filled with soup and a large plate of what looked to be pork in a sweet and sour sauce.
Each of the bowls and plates held enough food to feed a good six of seven people on their own. Yet the waitress had reappeared with another plate of what turned out to be beef with onions.
People were now staring open mouthed at this apparent display of gluttony.
It slowly occurred to me what was happening.
My tour company would likely have had a standing order for a reserved table, with a set menu. The restaurant was likely just bringing out the standard order, but Rosie must have neglected to mention that there was just one person.I was tucking in when Rosie reappeared and went ballistic . Not because of the amount of food. No, it was because I hadn’t been given western cutlery. She grabbed the waitress and started berating her. The waitress quite reasonably pointed to the food and me which was quite obvious she was saying he’s doing OK without. I was repeatedly telling Rosie that I was fine and I can use chopsticks, but she told me that I didn’t have to, and in the end I had to demonstrate to her that I was able to use them before she left the poor waitress alone. Then watching for a few seconds to make sure that I suddenly hadn’t lost the ability to use chopsticks when then burst out into applause and walked away again.
If I hadn’t been self conscious already, I was now as half the restaurant had stopped to watch this little display. Then I noticed the eyes focus behind me again. My heart fell as I watched another three dishes appear before me.The photo above doesn’t show even half of what I ended up with in front of me. The beef and pork were great and I made sure to try at least a little of everything which helped cement my opinion that bean curd is rank.
Rosie then reappeared to tell me that she would come back in 40 minutes to take me to the show. Show? Turns out my evenings entertainment would be a dance display. I said that I was full, and that I’d like to go for a walk rather than waiting here. She then bemoaned my ‘waste of food’ and ‘not finishing it all’. I genuinely don’t know if she was serious, or if this was her being humorous. Either way, the only way I’d physically be able to get all of it into me would be with the aid of a scalpel and strategically placed cuts in the stomach area.
I went for a short walk and found the most amazingly lit pagoda and bridge. Which I stopped at and took photos of until it was time to head back to Rosie.
The dance show was surprisingly good. A whole company featuring acrobats, gymnasts, animals, fireworks and an amazing rig that simulated a waterfall.
I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but the show was thoroughly entertaining.Youtube proved a bit of a dry well, but I did manage to find the below clip.
Finally it was time to return to Hong Kong, and say goodbye to Rosie. I felt we’d really become close during our time together….. OK, not really. But despite the weirdness of the day, I’d actually had a really good day. It was a shame that I was pretty much clueless throughout it, but somehow I feel that being dumped in the middle of somewhere with no way to communicate may have been more fun then being part of a large group. It was certainly a strange way to get my first experience of China.