Archive from February, 2013

Finding my way around Shenzhen

HTC Locations App view of Futian, Shenzhen

Shenzhen doesn’t have a London-like A-Z that I could find. And since it’s a relatively new city growing in leaps and bound, maps are very quickly going to be out-of-date, inaccurate, or missing useful travelling information (e.g. Metro stops). So I looked out for a few alternatives.

Static digital maps

At the most primitive, the day before I flew out, I went to Google Maps, full-screen on my 27″ iMac, and took multiple screengrabs of the Google Maps’ view of Shenzhen, and copied them to my netbook and my Nexus 7. That way.

I also took screenshots of chachaba’s 3D map of Shenzhen. In a city of uniquely architected skyscrapers, it’s going to be a useful navigation cue if the signs are unreadable to me.

So worse case, I have a digital static map offline if nothing else worked.

Offline Google Maps

The Android Google Maps app offers saving maps offline, so I saved an offline copy of a map that covered all of Shenzhen I was likely to visit. It’s a 28Mb download. I saved offline copies on my Nexus S phone, and my Nexus 7 tablet. The phone download refused to complete, so it was unusable.

The tablet proved the right device for an offline Google Maps. The offline capability did work on this device, so I had a static map I could pan, scroll and zoom through. But the finding my current location didn’t work for me, it kept insisting it needed a data connection.

So this is an improvement on the digital static map offline, but not by much.

Offline maps

I bought a second-hand phone off eBay a few weeks ago, it’s an HTC Desire Z. I bought it with the idea of getting a Chinese sim card during my stay, and one with a data plan, so I could use it with Google Maps. From serpentza’s video on buying and topping up sim cards he was using this phone, with Google Maps using a China Unicom sim card. So I aimed to replicate that. I know the Desire Z is an old phone, but with a flip-out keyboard it’s an interesting device, and I’d feel safer carrying around a second hand phone than say, and iPhone 4.

Now, I didn’t get to the point of buying a sim card – I needed someone to help me with that. But, I discovered something unexpected. HTC have their own map application called Locations. It’s not available on the Android App Store. This application is awesome.

Locations allows you to download high-quality maps of a list of cities and areas. I downloaded maps for UK, Hong Kong, and Guangdong province (where Shenzhen is). These maps are big, about 280Mb for Guangdong. Locations offers a 2D and 2.5D “driving” map perspectives. It works offline. It works with GPS on the phone (without a data-plan or sim card), so you can get the phone to show you a 2.5D map of where you are right now. The second very useful feature is a compass, and the map rotates as you turn around. So you see the map as you see the road in front of you. It works quite well while driving too, so what you already have in a TomTom or Garmin device. That’s what Locations brings when offline.

The combination of an offline map that works with GPS and rotates based on a compass is a killer set of features for the geek traveller. It’s what made me exploring Shenzhen possible. So everyday, I took both my phones with me, my Nexus 7 to take pictures, and the HTC Desire Z for navigating.

I’ve accidentally uncovered a gem in the HTC Desire Z – well I guess any current HTC phone has these features. But it’s the HTC-specific app, Locations, that melds everything together into a very capable and handy tool for me.

GPS and China

Although there are a few little gotchas with GPS positioning in China. There are mutterings online that GPS location services are out by about 40-100 meters in China. I don’t know if this is the case.

Every once in a while the app suggested I was located several miles out in the South China Sea. It was only when I was at the Futian Checkpoint yesterday I figured out what the problem was. The Guangdong map ends right at the Shenzhen/Hong Kong border, everything outside of Guangdong is blue, like the South China Sea. At Futian Port, the phone kept flipping to the Hong Kong map. So there is some resolution inaccuracy in GPS signals. And it gets very noticeable when you are at the edge of a map. Perhaps if HTC could extend their Guangdong map a little distance outside of Guangdongs’ borders it would mitigate this problem slightly.

I thought skyscrapers may present a problem, and sometimes the GPS would tell me I was a block or two further away from where I knew I was. These little niggles happen, but overall I found it got my location right a lot more than it got it wrong. But I took care to be in an open area, not too close to skyscrapers. You know, just be logical.

Data plans

I didn’t get to a working data plan. With the usefulness of the HTC Desire Z plus the Locations app I really didn’t need it.

So being an introvert, and the need to know where I am, I had sufficient options to allow that. Certainly, not needing to ask for directions avoids the language barrier and the introvert barrier. Left to my own devices, and my devices succeeded. But, only because of HTC’s Location app on an HTC device with working GPS, compass, and enabled offline maps of Shenzhen. Travelling has improved considerably since the days of fold-up maps, and visiting a newly created city means the symmetry of design is pretty consistent, so there were no real surprises to worry about. Me and my GPS. Thanks HTC!

Feb 16, 2013 - China, Shenzhen 2013, Travelling    19 Comments

Shenzhen to Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA)

Inflight map: route from Hong Kong to London

I spent Thursday trying to figure out how to get from my hotel in Shenzhen to Hong Kong International Airport. Again, the ferry was a tempting route, but still too much uncertainty, and I didn’t have the time to get to Shekou and scout around and recon, nor was I confident about my knowledge about how it works.

I looked around for a bus that picks up from my hotel, and I did find one, but it was every hour, and exits via Shenzhen Bay, getting to the airport after a 2 hour trip. Other information was very limited on line, like the cost and how to know what bus to get.

I dug back into the Web about the Huanggang Border Checkpoint, since that’s where I entered Shenzhen, it made sense there should also be a reverse route back. Huanggang is the largest border point in Shenzhen, the Hong Kong side is called Lok Ma Chau. It’s the primary route for pedestrians crossing the border.

The main process of exiting Shenzhen back to Hong Kong is:

  • Arrive at Huanggang Checkpoint with your passport, departure card and your luggage
  • Depart Shenzhen through the passport control
  • Make your way to the Lok Ma Chau control point on the Hong Kong side through their passport control.
  • Exit Lok Ma Chau and make way to the airport

There are a number of ways through that process, including a full customer service limousine experience costing 1700 RMB (about £190) right down to doing it on foot (effectively free).

I think how it works is that everyone has to go by foot through the Shenzhen passport control. Then on the departure side of that you can get on a bus, taxi, people carrier to the next stages.

The bus that stops as Lok Ma Chau sounds tempting, but there is a risk you need to be aware of (judging from the comments and stories on the web). You store your luggage on the bus, and at Lok Ma Chau you have to get off the bus to go through the Hong Kong Passport Control, leaving your luggage on the bus. If you get held up, or take longer than expected through the Hong Kong Passport Control, the bus is liable to leave without you, with your luggage still on board. It isn’t obvious then how to get your luggage back, or whether you have to pay for another ticket on a later bus. That wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take.

Another idea I had was to take the Metro from the hotel to Huanggang Checkpoint. So I gave that idea a run on Thursday, went from the Shopping Mall Metro station, to the Exhibition Center Metro station and then changing to the Longhua line for two stops down to Futian. I hoped there would be an easy access to Huanggang from the Futian Checkpoint, but I didn’t see it. And I don’t know enough about Futian Checkpoint to figure out how to get to Hong Kong International Airport from there. So I scrapped the idea of using the Metro.

Using transportation other than the Metro, then Huanggang is the logical choice for people in the Futian district. Louhu has it’s own border crossing, which is ideal for cross-border shopping trips in either direction. People in Shekou, the ferry is a useful alternative if your airline allows a check-in from that ferry port. There’s also what looks to be a scheduled bus route from certain hotels to Hong Kong International Airport via Shenzhen Bay, but details are a little scarce. The price looks about right (RMB 150), and the trip takes 2 hours.

So my plan was to take a Shenzhen taxi to the Huanggang Checkpoint, get through passport control, buy a ticket for a people carrier there. So almost the same method I entered, in reverse. The benefit of taking a people carrier service is that you and your luggage stay in the car through Lok Ma Chau, and the driver takes your passport and gives it to the controller at the drive-through checkpoint. That should cost me whatever the taxi fare is, plus another 170 RMB for the people carrier.

My hotel, Marco Polo Shenzhen, got me a taxi and told the driver where to take me. Perfect. I was in Huanggang Checkpoint inside of 20 minutes from leaving my hotel.

I was dropped off on the drive-through drop-off which is on the level above the ground floor, and the departure passport control in on the ground floor (judging from the signs). Going down the escalator I was greeted by a guy offering transport to Hong Kong International Airport, I though he was guiding me to departures, but he was actually selling me a ride from Shenzhen departures to Hong Kong International.

After establishing the price (150 RMB), that it would take me all the way to Hong Kong International airport, and someone would meet me the other side of Shenzhen passport control, I handed over the cash and got back a blue sticker for my t-shirt (so that staff on the other side could spot me), and a printed receipt clearly showing the amount paid and the destination. (Another thing to be careful is not to rent a people carrier for yourself, that will cost about 1700 RMB because you are paying for exclusive use of a people carrier. Prices around 150 RMB and 170 RMB mean you are travelling with other people, and that’s the way to go).

Then entering the departure lobby I got a bit lost looking for a Tourist or Foreigner lane because every other lane said “Chinese National”, until you looked away and looked back, and some of them say “Foreigners”. I had the wrong mental model (entry in Shenzhen they have separate aisles for foreigners and Chinese Nationals, so I assumed it would be the same thing). Leaving the distinction is made for groups (like tour groups), and individuals. The staff at Huanggang noticed me having my lost face on, and politely guided me to the right queue. It took about 30 minutes of queue shuffling to reach a passport control counter. Hand over my passport, and departure slip (the smaller part of the yellow slip I received in Hong Kong International and filled in en-route to Shenzhen 5 days before), and my best effort “Ni Hao”, the slip and passport were stamped, and I received my passport back. Then through the “Nothing to declare” channel of customs, and through a busy exit.

Again, the staff of the people carrier travel service (the same Go Go Bus company I used to get me to Shenzhen) spotted me and guided me to the car that would take me to Hong Kong. There were already five people waiting, which means there wasn’t long to wait before we got started. We were in a 7 seat people carrier, but were quickly moved to a six-seat one, since then we had a full complement of passengers going to Hong Kong airport.

I quickly filled out the Hong Kong arrivals slip that the travel service company provided me with (the same type I filled out on the flight to Hong Kong, a triplicate departure card), and handed that along with my passport to the driver just before we reached the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint. I was in the backseat this time so I could see the process. Driver hands over all the passports, which the clerk visually checks the picture with each passenger, and then takes the main copy of the departure card. While he is doing that the main passenger door is open and a security guard pointing a sensor of some sort at each passenger in turn.

Then doors closed, passports handed back and we are on the highway toward Hong Kong International Airport, via Tai Lam Tunnel under a mountain, and three suspension bridges between the islands and mainland that makes up Hong Kong. We were dropped off outside Terminal 1 of Hong Kong International Airport. So about 2 hours door-to-door. And it went far smoother than I expected.

And so, the introverted cautious me is sitting in Hong Kong Airport 5 hours before my flight is to depart. And the departure boards show all the flights leaving in the next 2 hours. I am very early, which is fine, because I am exactly where I need to be, and there is zero risk of me not making the check-in gate late. I have heard horror stories on taking 5 hours to get from Shenzhen to the airport – using a special hire-car and driving through the Huanggang Checkpoints. The extra time would quickly evaporate if risks happened:

  • Hotel checkout not being open, or there was an issue in checking out.
  • Waiting for a taxi to Huanggang Checkpoint, or having to make other arrangements
  • Huanggang being exceptionally busy, because it’s still Chinese New Year, and weekends are renown for being exceptionally busy as Shenzhen residents spend shopping weekends in Hong Kong, so why not a long weekend this weekend, starting Friday, today
  • Finding a company who could take me to Hong Kong Airport
  • Waiting for a full people carrier before being able to leave Huanggang
  • getting off the bus/people carrier and going through Lok Ma Chau by foot with all my luggage, that could be just as busy as the Huanggang Checkpoint.
  • If I caught a bus, and got delayed at Lok Ma Chau, finding another bus or taxi there to get me to the airport. Hong Kong Taxi from Lok Ma Chau to Hong Kong International Airport quoted cost about HK$250.

So I gave myself about 7 hours for the journey from my hotel room to Terminal 1 in Hong Kong. And it was plain sailing all the way and took only 2 hours almost stress-free. Now I can relax, and try to figure out how I’m going to deal with flying against an 8 hour time-zone difference. I’ve been up since about 7am Shenzhen time, and will get home about 11pm UK time, so I am living a 24 hour day today. Only 20 more to go. It will be at least another hour before I can check in my main luggage.

Feb 13, 2013 - China, Shenzhen 2013, Travelling    No Comments

Shenzhen Convention & Exhibition Centre

Shenzhen Conference & Exhibition Centre

I spent this afternoon walking around the Shenzhen Convention and Exhibition Center. It is one of the most recognisable buildings in Shenzhen, and is the heart of Shenzhen. It’s about five or six blocks from my hotel, but with the ongoing construction work there isn’t a straightforward route to it. At least the Exhibition Tube station means there’s a subway underpass for pedestrians under the busy Shennan Avenue.

From a distance you can see the distinctive architectural curves of the Exhibition center. What you don’t realise is that on the south side is a massive plaza. Nor do you realise that on the North side is a very wide path from the exhibition center to Lianhuashan Park.

Emerging from the subway you are greeted by a huge square plaza. Crowds of people were there taking tourist photographs, as well as groups of people rollerblading. It is an ideal spot for rollerblading, flat, smooth and huge.

As you climb the steps of the Conference center you start to see the immense size of the space. The entire space is raised above the street level, so it covers about 6 city blocks right into the Park at it’s northern most point. The conference center itself is quiet, but all around there are families enjoying the day outdoors. There’s a group of guys breakdancing under the vast roof.

Kites are a popular outdoors activity in Shenzhen. I first noticed them when trying to find my way to Lianhuashan Park on Monday evening. It’s the busiest place in Shenzhen this week, as crowds of people are picnicking there while their kids are flying kites. That’s a pleasant surprise.

I saw a guy on a bicycle selling turnips. How odd, I thought. Then a few minutes later there was this fabulous smell wafting through the plaza. Do roast turnips smell that good? People we buying them.

Since this is the biggest gathering of people I’ve been with during my trip, I got quite a few looks, and greetings because I obviously stand out. It’s been fine, it’s all been very lighthearted, very welcoming, it’s just curiosity. One kid asked to take a picture of me the second time our paths crossed, so I did my best Spock greeting.

The moments I’ve enjoyed are seeing kids and their parents together, in shopping centres, in theme parks, in open-air plazas, in parks. There’s something refreshing, that I don’t see in the UK any more. I admire that, that sense of family, that sense of togetherness. I’m most likely being naive, but isn’t that what naivete is, looking for the good side of things. And maybe sometimes, you do find it. Not all the time, but when it counts and when it matters.

Feb 13, 2013 - China, Shenzhen 2013, Travelling    No Comments

Splendid China Village

Splendid China Village: Potala Palace

Yesterday’s successful Metro venture meant that today I could do the touristy thing. I opted to visit Splendid China Folk Village, which is part of the massive Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) segment of Shenzhen (Window of the World is also part of OCT).

Splendid China Folk Village used to be two separate theme parks, one with miniature replicas of famous Chinese buildings and landscapes, and the other a collection of sets about the various cultures that make up the Chinese nation. Window of the World features miniature replicas of buildings around the world, the Splendid China focuses on miniatures of Chinese structures.

All of the Chinese structures known internationally have a presence in this theme park: The Great Wall of China, The Forbidden City, the Emperor’s Summer Palace, and Jiayuguan Fort protecting the western end of the Great Wall. And places not so well known.

The park is spread across about 30 hectares, it is just not possible to get through everything in a day, so expect repeat visits. Also, China has a very very long history, so there are lots of diverse locations. China isn’t one culture, although they all share a common written language, there is a lot of diversity, a lot of richness.

The model of the Great Wall of China covers a lot of ground, and at times it seems to protect all the other models. I really liked Jiayuguan Fortress, it’s something I’d love to see reconstructed in Lego, just a gigantic defensive structure attached to an even more gigantic structure.

The first visible model is the Potala Palace, built on a mountain top, and home of the Dalai Lama until 1959. It’s a beautiful structure build on an equisite location, and the model replica is superb.

Because of the hilly nature of the park, as you spend time looking at the Great Wall, the Jiayuguan Fortress and the Potala Palace don’t forget to look behind you because you get to see the rest of the park far below.

There’s also a segment of the park covering the architecturally advanced bridges, beautiful and using revolutionary techniques that are now well understood. And still structurally beautiful and well crafted.

The park was quite busy today, it started off as a cool day but warmed up to a typical Spring day. With the live open-air performances and the size of the crowd it was noisy at times. The food stalls were doing a roaring trade, lots of kebabs/skewers, and I notice corn on the cob being quite popular. And there was a Korean skewer stall playing Gangnam Style on repeat throughout the day, what is there not to like!

The culture village is a more hands on full-size replicas, of homes and pagodas, and bridges. All celebrating the diverse cultures of China. A wind and rain bridge, designed for people seeking shelter in that weather, is also known as a place where couples meet and fall in love.

There is also full size replicas of selected examples of the Stone Forest, and other naturally occuring features of Chinese landscapes.

There is a lot of history and stories crammed into this park, it is quite something. And a good place for a long walk.

Walking around Luoho, Shenzhen

Shenzhen  Great Theatre

Luoho is known as the shopping district of Shenzhen. So densely packed with shopping malls, and hotels. It’s a perennial favourite for Hong Kong weekenders.

MixC Shopping Mall

MixC is one of the largest shopping center in Shenzhen, it’s 6 floors spread over three city blocks. It’s another spotless shopping mall, with famous brands, Gucci, Louis Vitton, H&M, Miss Sixty, Burberry. The usual catalog of American Fast Food and pizza places.

One interesting aspect were the large city model displays on the ground floor. I guess they are advertising new builds, future new homes and city expansions. There’s a lot of creativity and ambition in these designs.

One of the model landscapes

The main supermarket is Ole, which has a lot of imported goods, and priced accordingly. Though the locally sourced goods are cheap by UK standards. I had a wander around, couldn’t find sandwiches, but everything else was there. Cheese and margerine are expensive, so I guess that’s all imported.

The mall itself feels very Western, I could be in a US city if I didn’t know any better. There were quite a few people there today, not busy, but not quietly empty either. Toys-R-Us was busy.

Shennan Avenue, Luohu

I walked down Shennan Avenue, trying to make my way to Lizhi Park. On the way I came across the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, a splendid blue-tinted-glass skyscraper, Panasonic head offices which reminded me of a rubix cube mid-twist, and the Shenzhen Great Theatre which is a low slung building compared to its neigbouring skyscrapers. The Shenzhen Great theater takes up a city block, it is as big as the wide empty space around it.

On an adjacent corner to the theatre is a huge painting of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese premier who established Shenzen as a Special Economic Zone. That took Shenzhen from a fishing village into a huge and thriving city with strong commercial ties with major international companies. It is an experiment that resulted in a huge success. Shenzhen has flourished because of that, and so Deng Xiaoping is deeply respected.

Deng Xiaoping: Father of modern Shenzhen

I passed Lizhi Park. The entrance was right next to the Den Xiaoping painting. Hey, I’m an introvert, and there was a crowd there on the plaza, so I walked past. When I realised I walked past the Park I turned around and headed back. I didn’t go through the main gate, but walked down the boulevard outside for a bit.

And then I headed back to the hotel via the Grand Theatre Metro stop. 4 hours on my feet, at my old age.

Feb 12, 2013 - China, Shenzhen 2013, Travelling    No Comments

Using the Shenzhen Metro system


The Shenzhen Metro is surprisingly easy to use. The ticket machine offers the choice of Chinese, pinyin and English and is touchscreen-driven. Which means selecting a station (optionally filtering by metro-line first, and then picking a station from it), then selecting the number of tickets. At this stage the default option is one adult ticket, but it’s very easy to add multiple adult and childrens tickets. Then deposit the money, and out pops a green plastic coin-shaped token. This is an RFID chip.

The RFID chip, and any change drops into your palm when you insert your hand into the deposit slot. That means you should insert your hand palm facing upwards. Today I got it wrong both ways, and when I pulled my hand back out there was a couple of yuan coins and the green RFID token on the back of my hand.

One catch is that the ticket machines only accept coins and the 5 RMB note. No other notes. I knew that before I arrived in Shenzhen (thanks to “China: How it is“, an awesomely useful set of YouTube videos by serpentza, a South African who has been living in Shenzhen for 6 years. One in particular about Shenzhen’s Public Transport system). I took the option of asking the concierge of the hotel to exchange a 50RMB note for 10 5RMB ones.

You scan the token at the ticket barrier much like an Oyster card, and it opens the gate. At your destination, you insert the token in the coin slot to open the ticket barrier for your exit.

Shenzhen’s ambition is to be a global city, and the Metro is designed expressly for that purpose. Everything is clearly signposted in Chinese and English, On the platform a vertical list of stations colour-coded to make it easy to understand which platform goes which direction. Each platform also has an overhead TV displaying the number of minutes to the next train.

Onboard the train, the announcements are in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Also, above every door is a map of the line you are on, with red lights indicating the stations already visited, and green lights for those still to be visited, and an orange light for the next stop. And an arror to indicate which door to use when exiting the next station.

The trains, and the station are immaculately clean. There’s no eating or drinking permitted on the train. Travellers are advised not to lean on the doors. And there are feet markers at each station platform to indicate where to stand to wait for a train in a way to allow passengers on the train to get off quickly. That’s something Transport for London should consider.

As a regular London underground user, I found Shenzhen’s Metro a far more pleasant experience. Granted, I wasn’t travelling during an equivalent rush-hour. I don’t mind standing on a train, I just don’t like being crammed in.

My first trip was taking the Metro Luabao line from the Coco Park Shopping centre stop, five stops eastwards to the Great Theatre, and taking the MixC shopping center exit. And the return trip

So, I now have a piece of one plan of getting back to Hong Kong International Airport, using the Metro to get me back to Hong Kong. That puts both Futian Port and a ferry from Shekhou right on the radar as options now.

Feb 11, 2013 - China, Introverts, Shenzhen 2013    No Comments

Introverts: communicating and adapting

Introverted Thinkers
Conversationally, I’m well aware I’m in the deep-end here in China, and the people here are very helpful despite my obvious short-comings. Certainly that limits what I can do here, what I can express and talk about, but I have moderate ambitions and expectations. But intentions don’t always need words. A nod and a smile is sometimes all that’s needed (that’s all the lady at passport control in Huanggang Port on Sunday to tell me my paperwork was in order). It is less of a learning curve and more of a adapting curve. It’s the experiencing a different culture that’s important to me right now, not checking into a list of venues. My success is whether I can be myself and have good memories of this trip, or fail fast by figuring out pretty quickly that I’m not up for travelling to foreign countries.

Learning Mandarin, like any language will take time. I managed a week working in Paris by myself once, falling back to French learned in high school 15 years earlier. I managed, including a shopping trip for necessities. It was only a week, and I had the fallback plan of asking a French work colleague for help if I ever did get stuck. I followed their lead for a visit to the sandwich shop for lunch, to the extent I went back twice more by myself, with everything I needed memorised, politeness, and a slightly nervous smile. Small steps, set up a comfort zone base camp, a secure foundation in which to grow.

Not understanding scares me, I really don’t like not knowing what is going on. I had some uncertaintly about whether I bought the right ticket for getting from Hong Kong to my hotel in Shenzhen, but it looks like I got the important bits right. I had a backup plan of getting from Huanggang Port to my hotel; several slips of paper with the address of the hotel written in both English and Chinese. That’s my backup plan throughout my trip if I ever get lost. Hop into an official maroon-coloured taxi, give the driver the paper, and just accept that there’s the risk of being overcharged, but I’ll get back to my hotel.

My friends know me well, when I’m not in my comfort zone, even my backup plans have backup plans. They joke, but they know that is how I deal with uncertainty. I overthink things, in relationships that’s a problem, but in expanding my always-too-limited comfort zone, it’s how an introvert breaks out of his current shell into a newer and bigger shell.