Browsing "Shenzhen 2013"

China high-speed train between Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South

China's high speed trains

In December last year China linked up the last piece of the high speed railway line between the two Chinese powerhouse cities, Beijing and Hong Kong. This high speed train reaches speeds in the excess of 300 kilometres per hour, covering the distance between Shenzhen and Beijing (2400 kilometres) in a little over 10 hours.

This is a train ride I want to try, as with all geeks, the idea of sitting comfortably surrounded by gadgets while the countryside whizzes past unconcerned at high speed is somehow relaxing, and invigorating. One of the nicest bits of the Eurostar from London to Paris is whistling through the French countryside, just an endless sequence of green, punctuated by little towns and villages just going about their lives.

Shenzhen to Guangzhou

Shenzhen and Guangzhou are linked by China’s high speed railway line, and so it takes just 36 minutes to cover the 120 kilometres, that’s including slowing down for intermediate stops. The train peaks at over 300 kilometres per hour twice in that time, topping out so far at 310 kilometres per hour.

[China high-speed train at 310kph]

And the ride is very smooth. It also feels counter-intuitive as I feel the train is slowing down, yet the speed indicator keeps notching ever upward. There’s no clackety-clack so typical of British railways, no loud engine noise that’s distinctively Eurostar, just a continuous high speed forwards motion accompanied by a gentle roar of the engines.

Watching the countryside fly by I get glimpses of China that’s not so obvious from the heavily modernised and urbanised Shenzhen. Rice fields, towns congregated around river banks, three-lane highways carrying lots of industrial traffic, some cultural landmarks slowly losing the battle against modernisation.

[passing by rice fields on the high speed train to Guangzhou]

Some sections of the rail network are spectacular, including miles and miles of elevated track, like a bridge over vast spaces of China, curving gently towards a mountain range in the far distance. Yet at such a speed that far distance quickly disappears behind us in our ever onward journey towards Guangzhou.

The high speed train process

The high speed trains feel very much like an airport, even to the point it is safer to book your train tickets in advance if you want a specific time. When arriving at the station without a ticket, the process for getting to your destination is as follows:

  1. You need to bring your passport, or an appropriate travel visa.
  2. Go to the ticket office (or ticket machine if you can read Chinese) and buy a ticket. You ask for the time you want to travel and the class, and the staff search for available bookings. Services fill up quickly, so you may not get the time or the class of service you want, but the staff are very helpful in finding the next available service you can take, so some discussion is needed, if only pointing out acceptable train times. Politeness and patience does help.

    Sometimes the service you want to catch is fully booked. Do expect that to be the case, and have alternative services lined up as backups. You can sometimes buy a ticket for a much later service, and catch an earlier service with it, but that’s entirely at the discretion of the gate keeper. So be polite and respectful, and expect to be turned away.

    You will need a passport or valid travelling visa to use the train. The ticket shows the time of the service, the train service number (e.g. G6421), the platform it is leaving from, the coach number, and the seat number you have been allocated. If your booked train is later, you can try to catch an earlier service, but do so politely, but also don’t expect to have a seat, let alone the seat you booked. You may get lucky, but don’t depend on it. If you catch the train you have a ticket for, your seat is guaranteed.

    [Single first class ticket between Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South]

  3. With a ticket in hand, you can enter the departures area. This involves showing your ticket, and then passing your luggage through an X-ray machine, while you get a quick pat-down and body scan. This is a lot more relaxed than airports, and the staff are efficient and mostly adept and guiding bumbling clueless foreigners like me through. Just have some common sense, leave the automatic rifles and hand grenades at home.
  4. You are now in the departures hall. Your ticket indicates which platform you are on. For example B17. This means platform 17, entrance B. So far the entrance is either A or B, and the one you take depends on the coach number, so A tends to be the back half and B tends to be the front half of the train service you are catching. Watch the departure boards for your service, not all departure boards cycle through both English and Chinese, so don’t depend on it. Look for the train service id and the departure time, that should be easy to spot and follow. The status of a service is either on-time, boarding, or boarding closing. These are also colour coded as White, Green and Red respectively (I have yet to see a late service, since Shenzhen is a terminal station, so no passing through trains to get delayed). If your train service is Green or Red, go to your platform departure gate immediately.
  5. If your departure time is still a considerable time away, there are shops between each platform gate, mostly food and drink, with a sprinkling of trinkets and gifts. Also, there are restaurants and the usual collection of fast-food places in the departures area. Though keep an eye on the time, the train will not wait for you. If you miss your train, you need to change your ticket back at the ticket office.
  6. People start queueing up about half an hour before the departure time. There seems to be two sets of queues. But if you have a blue ticket, either queue will work, so I take the natural introvert option and go for the ticket machine gate. The gate allows people through 10 minutes before the departure time, and they close the gate 3 minutes before departure time, so don’t linger around too long. Get your bowel movements and lubrication options sorted before the gate opens.
  7. Once through the departure gates, find the right coach, they are numbered from the front to the back. Each coach has an LED display that shows the coach number. Once you’ve found the coach number that matches the one on your ticket, get on and find your allocated seat.
  8. The service itself is fairly relaxed, so take your seat and enjoy the ride. The scenery is spectacular. If you have a window seat, and it’s a daytime service, awesome.
  9. Listen and watch for the station announcements. One trick I found useful was to write the name of your destination station down in Chinese, that makes things a little less scary when getting off the train. They do announce stops well in advance, punctuated by a two-toned horn. So when the train is gliding slowly into the station it’s time to make your way to the door.
  10. When the train stops it takes a few seconds for the door release to trigger and the doors open automatically. Get off as quickly as possible, and get a reasonable distance away from the doors before stopping to have a gawk, or a fumble, or fine-tuning your baggage straps, or have a natter. Activity in stations is managed in bursts, so lots of people will be getting off and on through the door you are using.
  11. On the platform look for the exit signs that lead to the arrivals area of your destination station. At this gate you’ll go through another ticket barrier or manual check and arrive in the arrivals hall.
  12. In the arrivals hall, which is typically enormous, find your way to the exit appropriate to your next stage of travel. So the Metro, taxi-rank, long-distance buses, parking levels are the typical options.

The train stations

The train stations are spectacular. It’s like someone actually thought about the requirements of a modern railway system. Both Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South are massive structures. I though Paddington was huge, but that’s nothing. The stations take up an enormous amount of space, and much like the Shenzhen Civic Centre, there’s a distinctive feel that this was purposely designed to managed a staggering amount of people every day.

Shenzhen North (ShenZhenBei)

[Shenzhen North Train station main entrance]

The Shenzhen North Railway Station is a massive structure (I guess after two weeks travelling of China I still consider these places huge, it’s a bias of living in London for so long). It consists of 18 platforms. It is at the junction of the Longhua (Line 4) and Huanzhoug (Line 5) Metro lines, and easy to get to from the Futian CBD, and Futian Checkpoints, so great for Hong Kong weekenders travelling to Guangzhou.

Getting off the Longhua line and descending the escalators we arrive at the main entrance to the Shenzhen North station. Before entering the departures area you need to buy a ticket. On each side there are ticket machines, unfortunately they are all in Chinese, unlike the Metro with it’s dual language interface. Currently only one of the two ticket offices are open, so far, in my two solo attempts to negotiate through for a ticket resulted in success, but as a chronically shy introvert, I did struggle. The staff at the ticket office were very helpful and patient with me, and I got the ticket I needed.

Entering the departures hall you go through a baggage check and quick body scan and pat down. These are routine and nothing to worry about. The departures hall is predictably massive, with four rows of chairs stretching right across from gate A to gate B of each platform. Small food and drink shops are between each platform gate, and the restaurants and fast food establishments are on the level above.

The departure board on the far (West) side of the departure hall switches between Chinese and English, but the statuses of the trains are so unexceptional that it doesn’t take long to notice the change from a service being on time to something else, no matter what language it’s displayed in.

There are two arrivals corridors either side of the departures hall. The entrance to the underground Metro (Longhua or Huanzhoug lines are on one side, so look for the Metro logo on the various signs.

Guangzhou South (GuangZhouNan)

[Guangzhou South Arrivals Hall]

Guangzhou South is a thoughtfully designed structure. The arrivals area has the distinctive features of massive concrete arches running in parallel to the length of the structure. These are the actual tracks, all of Guangzhou South’s 24 platforms make up the structure and roof of the arrivals area.

The arrivals area is devoid of shops. The toilets are Chinese style (so be prepared and take your own tissue paper). The main signs of life are on the East side of the station, that’s where the ticket office is, along with a decent coffee-shop (called SPB) and a fast food establishment or two.

The departures hall is two floors up. Again, to enter this you have to go through a baggage scan and body scan. Although, they do regularly let people through to the upstairs restaurant level and shops, so the Guangzhou South station isn’t as strict with who can get into departures as Shenzhen North. But, don’t expect to gain access to the departures level without a ticket, it’s at the discretion of the people manning the security check.

The ticket office is on the ground floor. It’s a little bigger than Shenzhen North’s, and despite my trepidation for maybe not understanding English, I managed to buy a ticket there after a little preparation.

The design for high volume visits

The onboarding system runs meticulously, the information boards always seems to say either the train is on time, or boarding is now open, or boarding gates are about to close. The whole atmosphere is a well-designed, well-implemented and professional service. It is a pleasant experience, quite like flying was before 9/11. The staff are courteous and accommodating.

Train classes and prices

The ticket prices are cheap between Shenzhen North and Guangzhou South.

A second class ticket is 75RMB, a first class ticket is 99.50RMB, and a business class ticket is 199.50RMB. The difference in class is, much like an aircraft, more legroom, wider and less seats per row (four versus five for first and second class respectively). First class has better condiments and choice, plus an iPad for every seat with the onboard entertainment, and a folding table instead of a back-of-the-seat variant.

Second class still is far better than an aircraft’s cattle class, the legroom is better than business class, the seats lean back, and on a global standard railway gauge, it’s only five seats per row.

[China high speed rail second class, decked in blue]

In all cases the journey is comfortable, pleasant, spacious, and air-conditioned, even when it’s 36 degrees outside in Guangzhou.

The quality of the service is top notch. There is no over-crowding of these services, but also, services are regularly booked out. It is a great and economical way of travelling in China. Maybe one day I’ll get a chance to travel the entire 2400 kilometres from Shenzhen to Beijing, and just gawk at the extraordinary engineering effort that went into building this modern marvel.

Aug 30, 2013 - China, Shenzhen 2013, Travelling    4 Comments

OCT-East theme park, Shenzhen

[OCT-East as seen from the top of the cable-car ride]

OCT East is another of Shenzhen’s sprawling theme parks, among the mountains east of Shenzhen in the Yantian District. It is a diverse park, so there is something for everyone, from sedate and amusing 3D rides to insane looking rides that make bungee jumping look like a Sunday afternoon hair wash in the sink, and there’s an impressive roller-coaster, and a cable car to the summit of the mountain OCT-East is built around. And a sky tower ride just in case the mountain summit wasn’t high enough for you.

OCT East is about a 40 minute taxi ride from the central Futian business district, this costs about 82RMB each way. The other alternative is a bus, as the Shenzhen Metro system doesn’t reach as far east as Yantian.

The park is huge, so trying to walk through it in the summer is quite a feat. Luckily there’s a steady stream of golf-carts riding around you can hop on and off. For a 40RMB ticket, you can use the cart 4 times during that day. It’s useful when it’s just after noon and the overall temperatures are hovering around 40 degrees Celsius.

Water park and Swiss village

Near the entrance of OCT East is the water park, suitable to keep kids entertained throughout the day. Considering the current average temperature in Shenzhen is in the low thirties, and the post-typhoon humidity adds an extra 10 degrees on top of that, it makes sense to hide in there for a large chunk of the day.

After a few sets of stairs we arrive at the OCT Village, which is decked out in a quaint fairy tale style, so green creepers growing on the walls of rustic buildings. There’s a sense of calm on the outside, and yet on the inside we find a bustling Starbucks and Pizza Hut. There’s a lake still under construction next to it, as with much of Shenzhen, it’s a city that’s still growing and accumulating new buildings and features.

[OCT-East: Possibly the most rustic Starbucks branch anywhere.]

The rusticness of this village means it’s a regular place for couples to have their wedding photos done. These photos are stylised and carefully choreographed pictures, either taken before or after the actual wedding day. I was hot in the loosest and thinnest clothes in my armoury, I can’t imagine how it felt to be in a tuxedo or wedding dress in the same heat.

The electric bobsleigh

The first ride we tried was a two-person bobsleigh-like series of twists and curves taking us high enough to get some splendid views of the coast and the buildings around the famous Dameisha beaches of Shenzhen. Thankfully, the sleigh is electric powered, with the driver controlling the throttle, no gravity or assisted launch is needed.

Like a bobsleigh, the occupants are sitting in very close proximity, the driver’s legs are wrapped around the front passenger, so it’s a cosy ride.

The bird sanctuary

The next attraction over is an enclosed space which turns out to be a bird sanctuary. There are a few talking birds there, but they weren’t playing along today. Regularly there’s a bird show going on, this is an entertaining demonstration of trained birds. With the typical fare of repeating words, riding bicycles, lifting barbells, and walking on a rolling drum, there are some clever demonstrations going on like birds working out the answers to addition or subtraction by picking up the square with the right answer on it.

Even more clever is the money demonstration, where a bird can collect the requested bank note correctly, as well as the more amusing exchanging a small denomination bank note to a bigger one.

3D journey to the centre of the earth

A 3 minute ride on a mining cart though a series of 3D iMax style movies is cleverly done, through a combination of spinning the mining cart around the 3D scenes almost blend in seamlessly into the physical rocks. As we dig ever downwards with a nearby digger, we break through into a place where dinosaurs still roam freely and aggressively pursue us out. Then we discover a massive Mayan temple, but as ever-curious our team is, we trigger off a detonation and we don’t have much time to escape before everything around us collapses. Luckily we make it out of the tunnel just before it collapses shut. Hopefully the people on the next mining cart have better luck than us.

Cable car to the summit

There’s a steady stream of cable cars to the top of the nearby mountain. I’d like to say the views from the cable car run are impressive – and they are – but as you go ever higher, the views just get better. The cable car ride is smooth and fairly quick, with the typical lurch to a stop at either end.

[View of OCT-East and Yantian from the summit

The summit is breathtaking. There’s a bridge walkway to a funicular. This is a platform that’s almost hanging mid-air – like a floating shelf. So you feel like you are suspended in mid-air looking down at the tall buildings that make up Shenzhen’s eastern coastline. In the distance you can see the mountainous coastline that makes up Hong Kong, the massive Shenzhen shipyard, and a number of gigantic ships navigating their way through. From the top of a mountain all the way down to the coastline and beach, straight past the waters of the Perl River Delta, right through to the coastline mountains on the North side of Hong Kong, on a clear or even slightly misty day this view is incredible.

[OCT-East viewing platform suspended in mid-air]

If you need more excitement than that, there’s a terrifying-looking ride that consists of sitting at the end of a long pole and being rotated around at not-very-gentle speeds. About half the time you are upside down, so if you like mountain top views, while in a gyroscope, being tossed around like a salad, and just being stuck at the very top for a few minutes while they change occupants on the other side of the long pole, well, if that appeals to you, then this is most certainly the ride for you.

A little more sedate is the Sky tower, which is a circular platform that twists as it elevates. It’s like Seattle’s Space Needle, except the platform rises and falls as part of the ride.

[OCT-East: View from the top of the Sky-Tower to the Cable-car summit level]

The funicular platform itself is suspended in mid-air. There’s a little warning sign that no more than 50 people at a time should be on it. Thankfully, I don’t think we were anywhere near it. Slightly disconcerting is the semi-opaque glass floor, I managed to walk along that path, gingerly. I don’t like walking on glass, so a couple of deep breaths, and it was well worth it. The views from it are stunning.

And if you like insane rides with spectacular views while upside down, try this:

[OCT-East insane upside down view of the world, from the top of a mountain]

OCT East is a fascinating place, something for everyone. From rides and spectacular views, to bird sanctuaries and journeys to the centre of the earth. It is definitely a family theme park, and definitely worth spending a day or two experiencing.

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.