I have been trying to taper my enthusiasm for this part of my journey, because mainland China was always my last "destination". If it really sucked i think would be left a bit bereft. Fortunately, it does not suck.
I'm not sure why China has slowly grown to become my top holiday destination. I think it's because there is a lot of diversity, and it's a nation that developed relatively independently of the west, which makes it interesting to a wandering savage like myself. Plus, of course, the food is a big draw. I love lots of dishes from the various Chinese regional cuisines, but i also love the philosophy of freshness and color and texture. They just fucking "get" food.
Though, it took me a while to get to the food part.
I had a godawful hangover due to my bad last night night in Hong Kong, but i knew i had to get on the road as soon as i woke up, otherwise i'd pass out again and miss checkout. I got an overpriced coffee as soon as i left the hotel and sat down in Kowloon Park sweating like a pig and feeling miserable. The walk to the train station felt like a marathon, though in reality it was only about 2km. I realized halfway that it was the same route i had taken back from the cross-harbor bus stop the night before, so i went down a familiar street and bought a pork bun and bubble tea, which i consumed sitting on some steps in the beating sun, feeling even more miserable.
The trip to Shenzhen was straightforward. Jumped on the train - there are only two different routes across the border. While i sat on the train i looked out the window and marveled at how the highrises didn't stop for miles, and then looked at my phone and tried to figure out the subway situation. At some point i noticed it would be much shorter to go to the other border stop, so i jumped off at a one-platform station out in the middle of the New Territories and waited all of 2 minutes for the train to the other border crossing. The border was an anticlimax. I was dreading the inevitable interrogation - the kind of thing you get every time you enter Australia or Canada or the USA. There was none of that. It was like entering Europe. Take a look at your passport (and visa), stamp, done.
So, i walked through the border and ignored all the touts and bee-lined for the subway. It was a snap to get the token and go two stops. I was feeling like i could do anything. Then i got out of the subway and holy the fuck shit, i am in the middle of chaos. My phone has stopped working. No offline maps in China because offline maps are illegal. No fucking data, so fuck that fucking Hong Kong cellphone dealer who scammed me on the SIM card i got there. No signs in English. I didn't even know where my hotel was vaguely, because the 6 different subway exits going through a half dozen underground malls got me all turned around. I eventually walked into a fancy department store, hoping they might have wifi. I got just enough to get Baidu Maps working and get a general lay of the land. But as soon as i walked out, the map was gone and i had to go by memory. So i did my search spiral thing where i walk a block in each direction and then check out where i am. This was possible because on every big block corner there was a street map with a "you are here" dot, thank Christ.
It took me about an hour of muddling my way around to find my hotel. All i wanted to do when i got there was pass out, but the wifi didn't work (of course it fucking didn't) so i knew i needed to get a SIM card ASAP. Now, normally getting a SIM card in a foreign country is easy as pie. You just walk into any old convenience store and buy one. But i know in China (just like Taiwan) they don't sell burners to foreigners, plus i specifically needed to get a China Unicom SIM, because the other providers run on bands that most western phones do not. The clerk at the hotel found a China Unicom branch on her phone and i took a photo of her Baidu to get me there. It was still confusing as hell with all the flashing lights and bustling crowds and blasting techno music and loose cobblestones and alleyways. I swear, once i got that SIM card - 18 fucking gigs of 4G data for some kind of pittance - i danced a jig in the store.
With the security of being able to open my phone and see a dot on my map, i relaxed a lot. You have to use Baidu, by the way. Your regular phone's GPS dot is "randomly" offset by the Chinese GPS scrambler so it is almost completely useless. I managed by using Bing Maps to find the English names of things and Baidu Maps to find my GPS dot and all of the streets built in the last year or two. Because, lordy, there have been a lot of streets built in the last year or two. Every map is out of date by the time it's printed. There are entire new subway lines that didn't exist, new freeways, new bullet train stations. And you see it all around you. There is non-stop construction, everywhere. It's fucking incredible. If we built things a tenth as fast in the west as they do in China (or Shenzhen, at least) our cities would not have half the affordability and gridlock problems they do.
So, i had my GPS dot. I had my map. I relaxed into the pace of the place, which is fast. Hong Kong fucking nothing. Hong Kong is like NYC. Shenzhen is another level again. There are 10+ million people living there, and nowhere you go lets you forget that. It is seriously busy, everywhere. People zoom around on electric bikes and regular bikes. Cars hit a decent pace too, perhaps because they are most only on the expressways. My hotel was in the pedestrian center, which is a spectacular chaos of big Chinese-flag-lined avenues, tight alleyways, food courts, department stores and malls. I walked into one department store and couldn't find my way back out again for half an hour.
The interior design here is very different from what we are used to in the west. Department stores feel like indoor markets, where each "section" (for a designer or fashion label etc) has its own layout, own staff, own cashier. If you imagine the make-up section in a western department store and then extend that concept out across the whole store, and then add random food carts and massage parlors and non-working escalators and dead-ends and other weird shit in the middle of all of that, you are getting close. It is a beautiful fucking mess. The best part is, you get completely lost, but it's totally fine because there are people everywhere. Eventually you just follow someone walking fast and they are probably walking to the exit.
Either that or you follow the crowd to some kick-ass food stall selling some kind of meat on a stick or tentacle on a stick or insect on a stick or stinky tofu or spicy potato or glutinous rice cubes or dumplings or buns or noodles or hot pot or God knows what. Everything is reasonably priced. I cannot even tell you how goddamn fucking cool it is to walk around these food courts. It is SO GOOD. It shits on Hong Kong, it shits on Taiwan, and it shits on everything in the west from a very great height. It is a glorious mess and it took me a lot of restraint not to buy one of everything. I have been using my "mostly vegan" excuse to avoid just pointing at random foods and pigging out. Trying to stay vegan greatly limits my options, and usually means that the times i get meat it is either a surprise because i ordered a mystery meal or i just fucking gave up because pork buns are amazing.
I mean, fuck. How much more can i gush about it? So much more. I tried the local stinky tofu, it's different from Taiwan-style, all blackened on the outside and filled with various spicy goodies. I had red bean buns. I had red oil small noodle (红油小面 or hóng yóu xiǎo miàn). I had weird pancake with mystery meat and beansprouts inside. I had red bean honey (?) bun. I had vegetable bun. I had spicy soft tofu slab i don't know what it is. I had spicy potato. I had steamed nothing bun (breakfast speciality). I had rice noodle and fried peanuts. I had working man's rice plate with bak choi and tofu skin and something i thought was tofu but turned out to be lap cheong. So much bubble tea. Occasionally coffee. Coffee is very fucking hard to find. It is far more of a "status drink" here than in Taiwan, and it's priced to match. Starbucks costs the same here as Starbucks everywhere else in the world. When bubble tea is half that and regular tea is even less or free it's hard to justify.
Fuck, this is just Shenzhen. In Guilin i had the best noodles of my life. (And the blandest, most shitty American-Chinese style noodles, let's not lie - i'ma guess the noodle guy saw i was white and cooked me garbage.) The best noodles were from some random guy in an underground market full of clothing stores. People were sleeping on the benches, there were kids and parents sitting around everywhere, and i noticed a few were digging into bowls of noodles so i resolved to find the vendor. It was just a guy in the middle of the mall with a cart and mise en place. I ordered 一个 (yī gè) or "one", and he picked up fresh (cold) noodle, chili, cilantro, garlic, peanuts, julienne cucumber and various sauces and just tossed it all in front of me. That was the whole dish. It was orgasmic. I had a mystery ball of rice from another street vendor who just shoved random shit into the ball (chili, cilantro, garlic, wonton wrapper, weird red stuff that looked raw hamburger meat, lap cheong) and gave you the ball in a plastic bag. I had no idea how to eat it so i just used the plastic bag to roll it in a tighter ball and then took bites like an apple. It was awesome. Back to my old fave red oil small noodle, which is basically what it sounds like - noodles in chili oil broth with some bak choi and crispy things that might be wonton wrappers, maybe peanuts. Weird white gelatinous cubes of probably glutinous rice with something brown and sweet inside. Spicy dougan (dry tofu). The local stinky tofu which is different again to both Shenzhen and Taiwan. Just. Fucking. Everything.
But let's rewind to Shenzhen a bit, because there was more there than just food. I want to address the elephant in the room - the Chinese "police state". Something that no one ever really talks about is that there are police fucking everywhere in China. My mom mentioned it to me in an email and said it creeped her out, like she was being watched all the time. I get why she felt that way. One thing that made the place difficult to navigate for me that first day was that there were roadblocks everywhere. I have been trained from living in the west to fear and hate the police. They are universally fucking assholes who only exist to oppress. Every time i see a police i get nervous and stressed out. So when i saw the roadblocks in Shenzhen i crossed to the other side of the road and assumed that the area was closed off.
I realized after a few hours that i was totally misunderstanding the kind of "police state" that China is. Yes, there are a shit-ton of police around. And they are very conspicuous. Almost every block - and sometimes several times inside one block - there is a police box with flashing red and blue lights on top. Many side streets have a barrier that the cop needs to open to let cars through. Some routes even have pedestrian checkpoints that force you to single-file through. All the subways have an X-ray machine for your bag. You climb a mountain with only crickets for company, then there's a cop sitting in the pagoda at the top. But the police don't appear to care much who goes where or why. On one hand, it's a very explicit show of power - if any shit went down, it is clear to everyone that the police are ready to crush it. On the other hand, people jaywalk, people smoke in no-smoking areas, people litter and sit around and chat and go about their lives as if the cops aren't even there at all. And, in fact, everywhere feels much safer as a result. You know you will never get in too much trouble because at all times there is a cop literally a stone's throw away. I'm not sure how i would feel about things if i was a local, and particularly if i was an oppressed minority local, but coming in as a tourist it feels almost sensible and reassuring that the police are around to make sure traffic keeps flowing steadily and everyone is safe. I mean, like what cops in the west are actually fucking supposed to do but don't because they are too busy shooting black people and kicking out punks.
Once i got over the culture shock of seeing benevolent cops everywhere, and the other culture shock of the incredible chaos and hustle and bustle that is Chinese market and street food culture, i walked. Shenzhen is a very modern city that has gone from a handful of small villages to a metropolis in 30 years. You can almost sense the different generations of urban planning.
My first excursion took me into a maze of very tight, crowded alleyways with stalls on all sides. It was exactly like the China you imagine from TV shows that is probably only the China of poor and rural areas these days. Water running in the middle of the street, people with meat cleavers chopping up live animals, bits of blood and flesh and goop everywhere. Dudes arc welding, sparks shooting out of doorways and fairy lights over here and people yelling over there and slime dripping onto your head. Everyone rushing and pushing and squeezing and i can't see the sky and i can't turn around and i don't know where the fuck i am and holy shit am i going to have an anxiety attack? Nope. Just flow with the crowd, don't stop, take in all the sights and smells and sounds and eventually you'll pop out and things will be fine. They were.
These older parts of the city still have tight alleyways and lots of mixed-use development with shops underneath and apartments on top. Almost exclusively (electric) bicycle and foot traffic. Many buildings are 5-10 storeys, but there are still super-talls here and there with more modern malls and upscale stores and hotels and offices inside. I had no reason to go to those places.
In other parts of town you have that Milton Keynes concept, except here they do it with 20+ storey highrises instead of piddly bungalows. So, a section is surrounded by a "big block" (as we called it in Toronto) which is, i dunno, maybe 500m or a kilometer, and then going into that block are only a handful of road entrances with the obligatory police checkpoints. But although they are technically gated communities, you can just walk in, and there are tons of residential highrises, and a few local businesses that look just as scruffy as the ones in the "oldtown". I bought a 百香红茶 (bǎi xiāng hóng chá) - passionfruit black tea - from a local stand in one of those places and the girl beamed. I think it's rare for foreigners to go into those areas, and it's probably nice to get a random sale outside of rush hour. I've made a point now of buying 百香红茶 and/or 红豆包 (hóng dòu bāo) - red bean bun - whenever i find one of these local kids trying to earn a few kuai in their local area.
Then in the really new areas you get these awful condo hells that actually are gated communities, or - at least - i wasn't allowed in. Those ones fucking suck. But, then again, i guess those might have been just the upper-crust developments. Or still under construction. Because even though there are tons of potholes and loose tiles and exposed pipes and unfinished concrete spaces all over town, God forbid you walk onto a construction site owned by some big-time property developer. I mean, i get it - it's a safety issue. It's just amusing to me that safety is a concern on construction sites when everywhere else there is so much stuff that'd make western workplace health and safety inspectors cringe. Perhaps it's more that on a construction site there's no reason to be there other than build, whereas populated areas become The Public Space. The cops know that everyone there has got shit to do, even if it's just sit on a cinderblock or act like a dopey foreigner taking pictures of walls.
And between all these areas, millions of subways stops. The subway goes everywhere, and when it hasn't been built in the new place yet, there is a bus there. The buses go everywhere too. And they come all the time. When you get on the main arteries there is tons of car traffic, but there are pedestrian underpasses and overpasses and bikeways and parks fucking everywhere. If there's one thing the Chinese can do (and i include Hong Kong and Taiwan in this), it's build parks. Amazing little ponds and walkways and exercise spaces and whimsical bridges. I love East Asian parks. In Shenzhen they've even built mini-parks underneath the freeway stilts and various other weird in-between-y kind of places like between a couple of shopping malls or between the freeway and the coastal mudflats/mangroves. The city is big. If you want to walk, you will spend hours and hours and hours hiking across it. But you can be in a greenspace or pedestrian-friendly food center almost all the way.
I hiked everywhere. I ate everything. I climbed two mountains with gorgeous city vistas. I took a bunch of photos that could probably be CPC propaganda shots because every goddamn angle is so sexily laid-out it just makes you cry.
I have gone on too long so i don't want to spoil this post by talking about Guilin, which is different but also awesome. Tomorrow i leave for Guiyang. Perhaps i will try to write on the train. Short version? China is fucking awesome.
Oh, and PS. You remember my container ship stopped at a place called Shekou? Yeah, turns out that's just an outlying suburb of Shenzhen. I walked there from "midtown", so about 15km. Here's a photo from the start of my walk along the coastal mangrove park. If you look very closely there are some tiny gray things between the highrises and the bridge that i believe are AT-AT cranes at the port.