March 2nd, 2010
Though all part of the same country, Hong Kong has little in common with mainland China. The differences were pretty amazing. After my first visit I could barely express how glad I was to be studying in Hong Kong and not mainland China. I thought I had had culture shock in Hong Kong; I was going through a culture earthquake in Shenzhen and Guangzhou! But let me start from Friday morning when we left for the mainland.
Hong Kong is located very conveniently just about a half-hour’s MTR ride from mainland China, so Friday morning my four girlfriends and I met in the middle of our school’s atrium, hopped aboard the MTR and by 10:30 AM we were in Shenzhen and going through Customs.
Once we arrived, we had been told by many other exchange students to spend the night at Queen’s Spa (it was described as one of the most magical places you can imagine; all the fruit, ice cream, and non-alcoholic drinks you could want, full reign of a 30,000 sq. foot room of pools, hot tubs and saunas, an hour and a half massage of your choice, matching pajamas that everyone must wear while inside the unisex spa areas, and Chinese and English movies played at various intervals throughout the day and night – and you could get all this for 24 hours for the low, low price of about $21 USD!!!!). Have I mentioned how much I loved the exchange rate of the majority of Asian countries? I was forever doing sums in my head figuring out just how inexpensive almost everything was!
So we went to Queen’s Spa, dropped off our bags, and proceeded to check out Shenzhen – the first city across the border of Hong Kong. Let me tell you right off the bat, it is NOTHING like Hong Kong; it is so much more Asian/Chinese it’s unbelievable! Almost no one spoke English; thank God for our two friends who came too and could speak/read Mandarin well. Without Angela and Soohyun, we wouldn’t have had nearly the great experience we did.
The first meal we had was actually at a Muslim/Chinese fusion restaurant called Blessing. I had the chicken tikka masala and garlic naan, and both were delicious. That was also where I encountered my first “squatter” toilet.
It seems that in most of China (except Hong Kong and maybe other big cities, silly extravagances like Western-style sit-down toilets don’t exist – or rather, they’re the exception, not the rule). It was definitely an experience, and one that I’d become much more familiar with over the coming days (and don’t even get me started on our spring break trip to Beijing and Shanghai)
After lunch we went to be true tourists at an attraction called “Splendid China,” which is a huge amusement-type park with life-size replicas of all kinds of Asian structures (Tibetan monastery, ancient Chinese hill-dwelling, Japanese pagoda, etc.) and miniature versions of important structures (the Great Wall of China, the Emperor’s Palace, and so on). We trekked around this place for hours until we were so hot and sticky (you’ve never felt such humidity as exists in Asia!) all we wanted to do was luxuriate at Queen’s Spa. And luxuriate we did!
After finding our way back, checking in, and immediately jumping into our bathing suits (which were not actually required if you didn’t have a “Western modesty” issue), we all went for a swim in the seven or so different pools (of varying temperatures and with varying bubble jets) all located conveniently in one big room. After that we had a sauna and shower, and then changed into the required “pajamas” uniform (imagine really comfy, oversized pink striped t-shirts and pants that everyone had to wear while in Queen’s Spa) to see the famed “Third Floor.” Now imagine, if you will, a floor with an all-you-can-eat fruit bar, soft serve ice cream machine, and coffee bar, plus huge La Z Boy type reclining chairs, each with its own TV screen, people you can order to give you a head, foot, or leg massage or a manicure while you watch your private TV, pool tables, and a public movie viewing area, and you have an idea of what the third floor is like. It’s like Heaven on Earth, really.
After stuffing ourselves with fruit and an ice cream cone or two (or three…), we decided not to completely spoil our dinner, changed into street clothes again, and went across the street to a student recommended restaurant.
I’ve no idea what half the dishes we ordered were, but I can tell you, one of them was skewered mutton, and I now know I like mutton. We toured the city at night after dinner, came across a Wal-Mart (yes, I kid you not!) carrying things you’ve never seen (raw meat on ice – but only occasionally), and then went back to Queen’s Spa for more food and pampering. Around midnight, after feasting some more, we finally decided to get our massages; we all chose the hour-and-a-half traditional Chinese massage, and although all of the masseuses dug their thumbs in a little too deep in some places around our spines leaving us sore the next day, it was totally worth it. Fastest hour-and-a-half of my life. Finally, at 2 AM, exhausted but thoroughly satisifed we were led into a giant room filled with partitioned-off cubby beds where we slept among close to forty other women in our semi-private cubbies.
On Saturday, we went shopping in Shenzhen. We met up with three boys who were local students from HKUST and had come to Shenzhen for the day to shop too – one had parents who lived there so they were going to visit later in the afternoon. Micro (yes, that’s his English name) and his pals proceeded to lead us through the most cramped selling stalls you’ve never imagined. Places the size of US closets were selling everything from watches and jewelry, to shoes, to clothes, to bags, to candy, to glasses – you name it, they sold it. He helped me bargain with a local and get a watch she originally wanted $85 HKD for down to $25 HKD (about $3 US). I was so pleased with myself – the key was to never act too interested and be ready to walk away the moment you didn’t like their price – they would almost always lower it yet again after waving hands frantically to get your attention again. Lunch was at a restaurant called “Modern Toilet” which is themed (you guessed it) as if you were in a bathroom. They brought our dishes to us in bowls shaped like urinals, toilets, etc, and we sat on toilets and ate at a bathtub covered with a clear pane of glass. The kitsh-iness of the whole experience was better than the actual food. Late in the afternoon, we said thanks and goodbye, grabbed our stuff from Queen’s Spa, and hopped on an hour long train ride to Guangzhou, China.
One of the oddest things I noticed in Shenzhen was that multiple people asked our Asian-speaking friends if us 3 Western girls were Russian. None of us looked particularly Russian (red head, blonde and dirty blond), but more than once people asked. They also asked if Angela and Soo were our translators and/ or tour guides. I guess Shenzhen might be a Russian expat or tourist destination? Nobody knew.
There was a little drama at the Guangzhou train terminal, because two of our friends, Soohyun and Ilaria, didn’t get off the train at the right stop at first, but luckily, they were able to contact us (normal Hong Kong SIM cards don’t work in mainland China), let us know, and get back on the same train just 20 minutes later. We found our hostel, which was super nice and clean and safe, without too much trouble or asking people on the streets, checked in, were directed to yet another cheap and delicious restaurant a 5-minute walk from where we were staying (there was absolutely no English or pictures on that menu, but thankfully Angela and Soo knew enough to order great food for us all), and then we walked along a street right beside a river running through Guangzhou which the hostel was situated on before collapsing for the night.
Sunday was yet another action packed day.
The previous day, Micro had written down the name of a restaurant in Guangzhou that was famous for its dim sum. We found the restaurant, called “Guangzhou Restaurant” (I know – super original), waited for about 40 minutes, then feasted on THE BEST dim sum I’ve ever eaten for about 2 hours.
It was SO delicious: BBQ pork buns, custard buns, dumplings, tea, something resembling crepes, fish balls, and so much more! We somehow finally rolled ourselves out of there, and went sightseeing with the little time we had left that afternoon, but boy, did we see a lot! Let me remember: Huali Temple (which was packed as this was the last day of the Chinese New Year – it lasts for two weeks every year – and I saw incense sticks as big as baseball bats being brought in), the Jade street (I got a beautiful jade bracelet for a bargain price – about $2.50 USD), Yuixuie Park where the Statue of the Five Rams was located, plus the Sun-Yat Sen Memorial, the stadium for the upcoming Asian Olympics, and numerous flower gardens, and the Orchid Garden, right across the street from the park. Sadly, there wasn’t time to go to another park where bungee jumping and grass skiing was offered (even without US safety standards, I totally wanted to bungee jump), or a number of islands which were still in the colonial style of the Portuguese who inhabited them during the Opium Wars and before. Next time, I guess.
Finally, we dragged our worn out selves back to the hostel, collected our things, grabbed a bite to eat at the train station, and took the train back to Shenzhen and the MTR back to Hong Kong and home to HKUST. I can tell you my feet have never been more tired, but that was one of the best trips I have ever had!!! It was so much fun because of the people I was with, the things we saw and ate, and the absolute fun we had exploring it all and sharing it together. I would and am eager to go back to both places in China in a heartbeat!
So you can have a taste of what I saw and ate and did, I’ll include some pictures. Stay tuned for future articles of mischief and madness abroad!