Our first time in Mainland China, the city of Shenzhen
Updated: May 7
Whilst in Hong Kong we had to cross the border into the ‘real’ China. It doesn’t mean Hong Kong isn’t really China but it is. Hong Kong is a very diverse city with a lot of western culture thanks to its British landlords who vacated the area nearly twenty years ago. We wanted to see China for the first time with its own heritage and history. We managed to get a visa to go into the city of nearby Shenzhen in the Guangdong province, literally on the border of Hong Kong. We only had one day but it was possible to get a quick feel and first thoughts of the place.
How did we get there?
Shenzhen is a very reachable city with most modes of transport but we travelled in from Hong Kong. We took the MTR East Rail Line to Lo-Wu which is a terminating station. From here walked down the platforms and straight into the passport control of Hong Kong before walking across a bridge to the Chinese passport control. After the checks and customs, We were in Shenzhen (next to the Luohu Commercial Centre) and took the MTR (station: Luohu) into the centre.
The Border and visas
We had to do my research about last minute visas (We are British citizens) and despite what tour companies and other websites say, the only way to get a special Shenzhen-zone visa is at the border. The visa is valid for five days but visitors can only visit the Shenzhen region. Once we passed the Hong Kong passport control and walked across the bridge, there was an escalator on the right hand side. Go up this and there is the Shenzhen Visa processing room (only Shenzhen visas, if you want a Chinese visa then this needs to be done elsewhere). Here, fill out the forms, hand it over with a payment fee and a visa is usually granted within minutes. The whole process of going through the two passport controls, customs and visa processing took about twenty minutes.
First glance of the ‘real’ China
Stepping out of the border control building was this –
The outdoor views didn’t last long as we headed into the MTR system here at Luohu. Now we have to admit, we may have done the research the previous night on visas but we had no clue on what to see, where to go and what to do in Shenzhen. This was a bit scary as we had never been to China before, didn’t know any words of the language and couldn’t read it. We also heard that there would be nothing shown in English on maps, shops, food menus and this would be the first time ever we would have to encounter this problem.
How shocked were we when we saw signs in the MTR station and English translations of stations on the maps inside the train and the ticket machines displaying an English option. This made life a lot easier and within a few minutes we had our ticket (well, it was a chipped coin) and away we went but where to? We looked at the MTR map and looked at the English translations and headed to a station called Civic Centre which we thought would be a good start.
The Civic Centre
How wrong were we when we left the MTR station here, all we saw was a huge dual-carriageway road and skyscrapers at the end of the road. We didn’t know what exit of the station we took but the city upstairs looked deserted. We walked around a bit and like Hong Kong, the place was very clean but what we couldn’t get was that there were no people about. It was after all nearly lunchtime here in midweek and we thought the pavements would be bustling; the roads full of traffic and may even see chickens roaming on the grass. None of that happened and we were starting to think it was a public holiday and everyone has buggered off to other parts of the world. After all, we found out afterwards that this city was one of the smaller ones in China but had more people living here than in London back home. Nine million people....so where was everyone?
Eventually we came across the Civic Centre and its fancy architecture. To our eyes it wasn’t that pretty but the roof was pretty amazing, the way it curves. All it needed was six feet of snow on top and then go sledding on it. The Shenzhen museum is located here, so we walked in and were ushered out by security. Eventually we found out it was closed as it was a Monday. We were wondering if this city had much of a history as it is one of the newest cities to hit China and all we saw was brand new skyscrapers and new roads.
We gave up on this area and headed back into MTR and landed up at the Grand Theatre. Like any city in Europe there would be things to see and do near the theatre. We were kind of right. Leaving the station we came to more impressive skyscrapers, to which one of them was the Stock Exchange for Shenzhen. For some reason China has several mini-stock exchanges around the country, mainly in Special Administrative Regions which Shenzhen is classed as one as well as Hong Kong and Shanghai. We weren't really interested in this and moved on.
Nearby there was the Lizhi Park (which we noticed on a map at the MTR station) and thought it was a pleasant day to check it out (as we knew bugger all what else to do here). Here whilst walking around, the park is full of several pretty pavilions and a few landscaped gardens. We noticed several pretty ornamental plants as well as cocoa plants and other types of woody plants dotted all around the lake side. This was a really nice place to sit down and once again like Hong Kong park over the border, We didn’t feel like we were in the city and it was so peaceful. All we could hear was the birds in the trees and the water coming up to the lakeside shore.
We got a little bit confused later when it came to a late lunch. There was a shopping mall nearby and we found a really good looking buffet-style restaurant with different styles of the local cuisine from all corners of China. As we went up to one of the counters to order some food, the guy behind the counter started shouting and waving his hands up in the air. With no English, he managed to blurt out the word ‘pay’ and pointed to a cashier on the other side of the restaurant. So off we went over and then another conversation with the lady throwing her arms up in the air whilst we looked bedazzled. We gave up and thought we would never get any food here. It turned out later on that we needed some sort of electronic card to give to each buffet stall and they put all the details of my order on there and then eventually gave that to the cashier to pay. Oh well, it's a system we are not used to.
We noticed most of the shopping malls in Hong Kong and here in Shenzhen are full of clothing designers from Europe and America along with watches from Switzerland and jewellery from France. We didn’t really see any companies from China. The shops were very empty but were overstaffed, one watch shop had several staff just standing around looking out towards the window display. This seems to set the trend around here and we did wonder if these shopping malls get packed at certain times of the week to justify the retail outlets having so many staff!
McDonald's in China
After walking around like a headless chicken for a while and looking for somewhere to eat, we gave up and headed back to Luohu (the border area). Here we found a small McDonald's (as they were huge queues for the local cuisine) which filled a hole but once again we noticed the amount of staff. There were three members of staff just to clean several tables and when there wasn’t any table cleaning to be done, they kept cleaning the windows! Another shocking thing we noticed when it came to these sorts of establishments is that customers never returned their trays of rubbish and empty them in the bins. They would just get up and go. It took me a while to get used to seeing this as we always clean up after ourselves but we have to admit, we always took our rubbish to the bins whilst here in China (and Hong Kong) and the members of staff will look at us as if we were crazy fools. We had to keep explaining that we were from Europe and we always clean up after ourselves!
That was about it
It wasn’t much of a day trip to be honest but we did learn quite a few things like ‘the locals in this area are not bothered about tourists and left us alone to get on with our trip’ to ‘do not mess with the police and security guards in the MTR stations, even the members of public are scared shit of them’. We honestly thought when I entered the city that every time we would take a photo we would be stopped but nothing like that happened. There seemed to be no crime, no homeless people, no graffiti or mess on the buildings and in the underpasses of roads, apart from our trip to Iceland, We have never been anywhere so safe and clean before. We didn’t really get to speak to the locals (we did more arm throwing than anything) but they seem to be a nice friendly bunch around here. That was really our first glimpse of ‘proper’ China but we know next time wherever we land up, it will be totally different from this brand new city with nine million souls living here but are very good at hiding themselves (it was like a ghost town walking around). We really did enjoy ourselves and we hope next time we will do some more research before going somewhere where we didn’t have a clue what to do and where to go.
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