The first time I came to China, was to get married. No, it wasn’t some sight unseen mail order bride scenario either. I met my wife when we were both working in Dubai, and finally after four years or so of dating I asked her to marry me. I didn’t know at the time, quite how difficult this was going to be. However that’s a story for another day.
I flew into Hong Kong in June 2009. Sadly for me it was night time and there was going to be no chance to get to know the island. I was on a tight deadline to cross the border into Shenzhen, pick up my bride to be and then head off to her province’s capital city, Chengdu.
I’d arranged for a car to meet me at the airport as I didn’t want to deal with confusing public transport systems after a long flight, and as my wife was unable to meet me in Hong Kong due to the restrictions placed on Chinese nationals travelling into the autonomous region.
The driver was a lovely chap and one of only two Chinese nationals I met on this trip who spoke English. What I saw of Hong Kong behind the street lights looked fantastic, the kind of scenery you see in kung fu movies and lately in those films where evil Chinese geniuses take over the world. Mountains covered with tropical greenery, suspension bridges which go on forever and form intricate patterns in the sky and of course the ubiquitous high rise towers brightly lit and doing their best to look welcoming despite their man made scarring of the landscape.
All in all I was a happy chap as we sped up to the border, which was thankfully empty (particularly in comparison to my usual land border crossing from Saudi to Bahrain and back – which on a Wednesday night can take up to 4 hours to cross). Two cars in front of us were given cursory scans and then we were up close and personal with China.
It was the middle of the bird flu scare (which is now starting all over again) so down came the window and a woman looking like an extra from Outbreak took my temperature with a laser guided thermometer (pointed at my forehead not unlike a taser – but without spikes and electric shocks) and once it was clear I wasn’t diseased we were waved through. Customs opened the boot took a less than cursory look at the bags inside, decided I wasn’t a threat to national security nor any kind of evil smuggler and we were off into Shenzhen.
The first thing you notice when crossing the border is how much less sparkly Shenzhen looks, yes there are still modern high rise towers everywhere but they look grimier. The smaller buildings dotted between them looked positively, well it’s a cliché, communist Russia. Even the vegetation looks slightly put out to be there.
Street lighting was obviously on a budget too, and the off blue colour of the glare gave everything a slightly eerie feeling. The shuffling souls walking the pavements wouldn’t have been out of place in a remake of 28 days later, at least that’s what it felt like from the inside of the car. So I can guess you could say that at first glance Shenzhen didn’t exactly grab me and make me feel at home, at all.
I’d booked a hotel for Zhang Min (my wife) and me for our one night stay in Shenzhen and because I had no idea of local geography, I’d picked a reasonably priced 5 star based on the recommendations of an online travel agent, the Shenzhen Air Hotel. This turned out to be nowhere near the part of Shenzhen in which she lived, so she was having trouble finding it with her taxi driver and we spent much of the journey with our two drivers yowling at each other in Mandarin on my mobile working out how they’d get us there. It should be noted that for some reason a large percentage of Chinese people, who are normally fairly quiet and reserved, scream into mobile phones as though they were in fact tin cans attached to a partner with an incredibly long piece of string. So if I’d been able to speak a word of Mandarin I’d have been able to follow both sides of the debate with ease, as was I couldn’t and it was fast giving me a headache.
Thankfully ten minutes later we arrived at the hotel, which in Shenzhen terms is in the middle of nowhere, so it was surrounded by squat ugly tower blocks which rather diminished its own appearance as a high quality five star hotel.
Zhang Min was waiting for me outside and her smile, it’s at least one megawatt, made the place seem much more inviting than the rest of Shenzhen so far. So I grabbed the bags from the driver and headed into the hotel. Which was odd, to say the least. I hadn’t realized that it was operated by one of the local airlines and all the staff were dressed as airline stewards and stewardesses, they all seemed friendly enough but at check in I came across a problem you have everywhere in China. Nobody spoke English to any real degree (beyond “hello”) and worse they couldn’t read it either making my booking form near useless.
Thankfully my wife stepped in and sorted out the problem, in fact she still does this nearly daily for me – I call her from all over the place and have her talk through complex issues on my behalf. And in minutes we were in an elevator which could be best described as “rickety” with a smiling stewardess pushing the buttons and headed to our room and deep sleep. In the morning I’d get my first real look round Shenzhen.