SHENZHEN

The morning of September 9 I am a bit anxious; I am aware that Hong Kong and Macau are not the "real" China. The strict immigration procedures, the barbed wire and the armed soldiers at the border all contribute to reinforce the concept. It is only once I get through the immigration at Lo Wu that I'll be in "real" China, in Shenzhen.

The train from Sha Tin to the border is very crowded. All the people get off at Lo Wu and walk towards the border. Why so many people crossing the border on Sunday, early in the morning? I ask around and I am told that they go to Shenzhen for shopping. The reason is that goods are much more expensive in Hong Kong than in Mainland China. Therefore, for many Hong Kong citizens, Mainland China is first of all Shenzhen, especially in week-ends: they cross the border, buy what they need and then come back to Hong Kong. An enormous mall is conveniently located immediately across the border and it attracts most of the visitors. More or less everything is sold here in hundreds of small shops. This very large area also includes the underground station and the train station. This is its northern part:

I am supposed to catch a train in the late morning directed to Tunxi, near Huang Shan (The Yellow Mountain), my next destination. Something goes wrong though: the Bank of China ATMs at the border are out of order[1] so I have to waste time looking for a working ATM in the town centre. When I finally get to the train station to make the ticket it is too late: the train will leave from the Shenzhen West station, several miles away, and there is no chance to get there in time. I somehow manage to make the ticket for the same train leaving the day after, but now I am one day late with respect to my original travel plan. I do not worry about that (better: I don't have enough time to worry), I'll make up for it later in my travel. And looking back at it, the day spent in Shenzhen is a blessing.

I read on my travel book something about this town, created no earlier than 1980 as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) by Deng Xiaoping and strategically located close to Hong Kong, so as to attract its money. In practise, a SEZ is an area where communist rules and regulations do not hold: the Chinese government turns a blind eye (or both, if needed) so as to allow entrepreneurs a free hand. The plan certainly succeeded, because in less than three decades Shenzhen turned from a fishermen village into a town of 11 millions people, and growing. Figures refer to the official population; illegal migrant workers coming from China and other countries of South-East Asia to take their chances at Shenzhen's economic miracle are estimated at 3 millions.

One of the main differences with Hong Kong is the language: here very few people speak English and this makes everything more difficult for me. Even simple tasks such as making a railway ticket become complex. Out of the train station, after having made the ticket for the day after, I meet a man who speaks English. He helps me to find an accommodation. I planned to sleep in a hostel in the West of the town, near the theme parks, but he says to me that the hostel has closed down. I say: that's impossible, it is reported in my travel book, printed in March 2007. He replies: things change quickly here. He also helps me to buy a telephone card and, when I call the hostel, I get no answer indeed. So I change my mind and I take a room in a tall building which hosts several hotels, nearly one per floor. The place is not too bad and the price is also good - there is a smell of smoke in the room but, once I report this to the reception, I get another room. The sight from my room could be better:

but a quick tour around the town persuades me that this is all you can get in Shenzhen: the population density is very high and tall buildings are common.

The underground is brand-new. Coaches have LCD displays which broadcast news and ads. Young people use all sorts of portable devices connected through infrared (or bluetooth?) to play electronic games against each other. I realize that Chinese, especially the young, are great fans of technology - probably a good indication for the future, but with a question mark: the passion for smartphones and portable devices, video games and internet is certainly something, but is it enough? I do not see the same passion for more "meditative" intellectual activities such as reading. Further experiences in my tour will reinforce this impression: I have never seen a Chinese reading a book - a sharp contrast with what I experienced in my previous travel in Russia.

After wandering about aimlessly for some time, in the afternoon I get tired of this enormous and bustling town so I seek comfort in the beautiful Litchi Park. The park entrance has a gigantic picture of Deng Xiaoping (no need to explain why the town is grateful to Deng).

I see a group of Chinese in the park who is practising one of those "physical trainings" made from slow motions which can be seen in some movies. I stop and stare at them with amazement for some time; when I look away from them I realize that I was the only one who was looking at the group and meanwhile all the other passers-by were looking at me, laughing at my astonishment. When I later spoke about this circumstance with my friends at home, they said to me that I am the only one, even in the West, who ignores Tai chi. Later in my tour I will run again into people practising Tai chi in groups or alone, in parks or on pavements. This picture was taken in a park in Beijing:

The few who know English try to button-hole if they can - this is also a good chance for me to learn. When I say I am a tourist they are surprised because Shenzhen is not for tourists, it's just for business. I meet a man, approximately 35 years old, and we start a conversation. He says that he would like to travel, if he could afford it, and the first country he would visit is the United States. I will run again into this curiosity of Chinese for other countries and other cultures several times in my tour.
He also says: "There are too many people in China" and asks me "In your opinion what can we do to resolve this problem?"; a question which makes me smile: I have just arrived in Mainland China so I am the last person entitled to answer this difficult question. It seems to me, however, that the question is just an opportunity for him to communicate with a foreigner.

I have learnt my first two words of Chinese (hello - nihao and thanks - xiexie) and that's enough for now. After all, learning the language is out of reach: an Icelandic girl who studies Chinese at the Hong Kong University said to me that it takes one year of uninterrupted study to learn the language fundamentals, so I give up for now. This does not come without a cost, however: for example, the maps in my travel book have street names written in both Pinyin and Chinese characters, so that you can compare them with road signs (written in Chinese characters). It is not as simple as it may seem, though: it is dark, you think to have identified the right road on the map, you walk along it for a mile and then you realize that no, it is not the right road, because the sign had one more (or less) stroke. And, needless to say, the right road is in the opposite direction . Yes, you guessed right: if I am going into such details it is because I experienced it the hard way.

At night the new and well-lit town is nice:

  1. ^You need to draw money once you cross the border because the Hong Kong currency, the HK Dollar, is different from Mainland China currency, the Yuan.