Getting the ticket was underwhelming. Out at that remote dusty bus stop in Shenzhen Longhua district, there was just one ticket counter and one guard. I showed my passport, paid for the ticket, put my bag through the x-ray, had my temperature taken, the end.
There were only four other people on the bus. Two of them got out along the way.
I do like that ride out of Shenzhen, whether to Dongguan or Huizhou, it feels like the most Guangdong part of Guangdong. Steep hills and reservoirs. Bananas and lychees. When the terrain flattens out, it's factories and tenements far as the eye can see, but on the ridge it feels like humans just dropped some transmission towers and a freeway on stilts, and then they stopped. It makes me happy when the edge of town really feels like an edge.
You know you're in Dongguan when...
The town used to have a reputation for being a haven for prostitution. Migrants who originally came to work in the factories realized that they could earn more money by servicing factory owners and businessmen who wanted to get their willies wet. Supposedly there was a big crackdown a few years ago, but the signs told a different story.
You know you're in Dongguan when... hotels advertize rooms by the hour.
I jumped out at Shilong, which is a district most only interesting for being the end of the metro line and having a train station. Everyone getting off the bus had to pass through two temperature checks (thermal imaging camera and thermometer gun), flash their ID, sign in on a paper form and show a green health code.
I got pulled off to the side because my green health code wasn't the right green health code.
Here in Shenzhen i have already had to install two different WeChat mini-apps to prove my health status. These apps are above and beyond the movement tracking website that the cellphone companies set up in January. It turns out that Dongguan has its own health code app, and Guangdong province has another one. But the Guangdong app - which was supposed to supersede all the local city ones - doesn't work for foreigners. This is just one of many apps that requires a Chinese ID card to sign up, blocking foreign workers from accessing government services that we are allegedly meant to have access to.
After checking with my cellphone provider that i hadn't left Shenzhen in the last 14 days, the guards called someone higher up to confirm that my Shenzhen green status was legit, then they waved me through.
It was less painful than i expected. About the same kerfuffle as what i had to go through to be granted entry to the village where i renewed my temporary residence registration a couple weeks back.
Shilong district was a cluster of shut down wholesale clothing markets, some workers dorms, a KTV and not a whole lot else.
By this point i was sunburnt and spent, my lust for adventure tempered. I wasn't up for trying to wangle a room in one of the no-name love hotels, or even the marginally fancier overnight spots by the train station, so i just jumped on the metro to Dongcheng district where my map showed a cluster of 7 Day Inns (think: Motel 6).
Checking in required me to go through the whole process again. Temperature check. 14 day movement history. Shenzhen green health status. "This isn't the right one." "Sorry, i don't have the other one."
I think they were just happy to have any customer at all.
Walking out of the hotel i immediately remembered why i like Dongguan. It's not like Shenzhen, where urban villages are sort of a higgledy-piggledy mess of handshake buildings jammed in between gated communities and shopping malls. It has a more traditional urban layout, where there are front roads with chain stores, and back alleys with mom'n'pop joints.
I ducked into a Hunan cuisine place and got 老干妈油豆腐 Lao Gan Ma oil tofu. Lao Gan Ma is a popular brand from Guizhou that has become a generic term for black bean chili sauce, and "oil tofu" usually means tofu that was frozen and then deep-fried so it is spongy on the inside and crispy on the outside. It was delicious.
After dinner i decided i needed a beer to soothe my sunburn from the inside out. I could have gone to any of the small restaurants in the alley, but i decided to head out to a street that apparently had a 大排檔 dai pai dong, which is a Hong Kong (now Guangdong-wide) term for cheap outdoor restaurants that are ideal venues for getting drunk in the hot summer moonlight.
I cut through a wet market that was just closing up, and made a mental note of the location. I don't need to stock up on fish heads or pig feet when i'm traveling, but alleys around the wet market are usually a good bet for breakfast.
After crossing the road into a more well-to-do area i stumbled upon an absurd number of plastic surgery clinics. They look a bit like hospitals, except they're not open at night. There weren't many people around either so it started to feel a bit like a scene from a zombie flick.
My walk also passed the usual array of ostentatious KTVs and nightclubs, most of which were closed or boarded up. I walked up to one where the lights were on and the bouncer said it wasn't for me. I mean, i was dressed in shorts and i haven't shaved my legs since coronavirus hit (the "this will change everything" crowd were right!) but i got the feeling this wasn't the standard "you're not classy enough" refusal. There was no obvious indication from the outside because they are illegal in China, but i'm pretty sure it was a strip club.
I never found the dai pai dong, but a bit further along i found an English pub.
I got my temperature checked and installed yet another health code app.
Then i removed my mask and ordered a snakebite.
Even though bars in Shenzhen reopened a month ago, i haven't bothered going because they make me uncomfortable. Bars here tend to be very expensive and full of the kinds of people who are either too rich to care, or desperate to appear that way.
I struck up a conversation with one of the expats who turned out to be a part owner of the place. It's the first time i've spoken to any foreigner in China since all of this started. "America is fucked, England is fucked, people back home should've heeded the warnings, the world's second biggest economy doesn't shut down overnight for a lark."
I asked how the lockdown went in Dongguan. He said they had to close the bar for two months, "not like in Shenzhen where it was only two weeks till Shekou opened back up". I told him i didn't know how long the Shekou bars had been shut down since i never go to that neighborhood, but urban villages around me were fenced off 3 months ago and remain closed to outsiders. I said i was really upset about it all and that i hoped this weekend could be some kind of emotional reset switch. He looked at me like i was crazy.
It didn't really sink in for me till the next morning, but i didn't see a single "temporary" barricade or checkpoint in all of Dongguan.
I wanted to elaborate on the reasons why i didn't know anything about what was going on in the Shenzhen expat scene, but i held my tongue. I wanted to say that i don't feel comfortable going to a bar in Rich China and dropping 50元 on a beer when i could be sitting on a plastic stool in Poor China drinking a 5元 beer, but it would have sounded kind of ridiculous given i was on my third pint and had already spent more on snakebites than on my hotel room.
As i mulled it over in my head, the tears started to well up. Finally, the corona grief. When all the businesses were allowed to reopen, rich people's lives went straight back to normal. Poor people are the ones who lost their jobs, whose businesses didn't reopen, whose houses are now surrounded by razor wire...
I'm rich. My life should have gone back to normal. Why isn't my life back to normal? Because rich people are not my scene. What the fuck? This isn't my scene!
埋單, mai dan, get the check, let's get out of here.
Walking back to the hotel i noticed some of the other Dongguan trappings i remember from last time. Some shops still use Traditional Chinese on the signs. Cantonese is still the first language. And... fucking tongsui.
I talked about 糖水 tongsui before. It literally means sugar water and is the Cantonese word used to describe various sweet soups, often made with glutinous rice balls or other goodies floating inside. In Guangdong it's expanded into a whole category of bubble tea inspired desserts and to me it's a hallmark of the Dongguan experience.
Every other city in China you walk around close to midnight you will find people selling 串 meat on sticks, you will find people doing home fry potatoes, fried dumplings, fried chicken, anything to soak up the alcohol. But in Dongguan there are just tongsui shops.
Inside they serve all the standard tongsui, but most of the kids buy from the off-menu menu. 老板 laoban (boss) will cook up all the Cantonese faves - 炒河粉 hor fun, 炒米粉 rice noodle vermicelli, 粥 congee, curry fish ball, beef tendon meatball, chicken wing, any damn thing...
I got a 椰汁芒果龟苓膏 - coconut milk, mango and turtle jelly. I felt like the bitterness of the turtle jelly would be a good antidote to the snakebites.
Before scooting up the elevator to my room, i picked up some 麻辣豆干 Sichuan spicy tofu jerky, peanuts and a can of beer. Holidays are great.
I woke up late, still sunburnt but newly overhung. And then i realized i probably wouldn't be able to order in a coffee because corona. In Shenzhen, even in buildings that are outside urban villages, delivery drivers are no longer allowed to come inside to bring your food, they just leave the bags on designated tables out on the sidewalk.
I drank a cup of black tea. You know things are grim when i resort to drinking tea.
Fortunately there was a KFC nearby, so i showered and gingerly pulled on my clothes, then headed out for joe. Well, first i made a detour to the wet market where - sure enough - there were some plastic stools scattered around and people making 肠粉 rice noodle roll. The stall i picked sprinkled theirs with black sesame and it was Good.
After filling my stomach, but before getting my caffeine fix, i went to Walmart. We have Walmarts in Shenzhen too but none close to my house, so i thought i'd take the opportunity to buy a few things that are considered foreign luxuries and therefore not available in my neighborhood - deodorant, baked beans, lotion. I bought two travel bottles of lotion and immediately emptied half of one over my scalding shoulders.
And then i went to KFC to get what by that point was the greatest coffee of my life.
Although i knew i had to get home to do some chores, i wanted to climb a mountain, which has become my ritual in every town of China that i visit. Chinese cities with no mountains are bollocks. Dongcheng district is close to the rivers so there isn't much mountain to speak of, but there is still one little bump with a viewing platform called Huangqi mountain.
It was a surprisingly good mountain. It isn't very high, but i took a circuitous route that led me up and down a bunch of hills that gave me that classic Guangdong feeling of climbing a million steps without really ending up anywhere. I also saw a very big snake.
After popping back out the other side of the park i jumped on a share bike to a bus station i remembered from last time i was in Dongguan. I zigzagged through a bunch of tenements and soaked in the atmosphere of the back alleys, then sat down at a Sichuan joint for a 凉面 cold noodle.
It's not just the fact they haven't closed up their back alleys. Dongguan is such a more chill city than Shenzhen. Half of everyone wasn't wearing masks outside, and it felt amazing to just walk around without feeling like 低端人口, so-called "low end population". The whole time i was in Dongguan the only cops i saw were at the gate to Huangqi mountain and at the bus station.
Never was their absence more noticeable than when i took my bike along the river.
In Shenzhen there would be a cop at every park entrance. There would be cops stopping the folks from fishing. There would be cops banning me from taking my bike down to the low path to pedal along the waterfront. There would be cops every 500 meters yelling at you to put your facemask back on. But in Dongguan, no cops. And it made a not especially remarkable riverway into fucking heaven. My eyes filled with tears, finally being able to just move free.
I fucking hate cops, uniformed security guards, city officials, dutiful volunteers, whatever you want to call them. China is full to the brim of these assholes. I mean, usually if you speak to them one-on-one they're not assholes, they're just regular people trying to make a living or "volunteers" trying to amass enough social credit to qualify for hukou (city residence). But the path they chose is evil. I can understand the value of coppers who bust murderers and rapists and other abusive shitheels, but the vast majority are literal fun police who only exist to protect the lifestyles of the wealthy. Fuck all who force us to conform to the party's sterile idea of "civilized" behavior.
Anyway. At the bus station i went through another dance, registered for yet another health check app, bought the ticket then snuggled into the greyhound back to Shenzhen Bao'an. I passed out almost immediately.
I woke in time to jump off at one of the roadside stops before the terminus, completely avoiding another round of security theater.
The city bus home took another hour, but that was just fine.