At precisely 09h40, my train departs Hung Hom station, Hong Kong for Lok Ma Chau, Mainland China.
I have waited nearly 40 years for this moment...
As long as I can remember, I have been bewitched by Mainland China. Growing up in South Africa, Chinese people were a mysterious lot. Under apartheid they were first classified as honorary whites, then mixed in with Coloured and Indians, and in 2008, they were awarded Black status.
As a child, I had no understanding of the decisions of politicians. My most vivid memories are of our local Chinese restaurant that was a riot of gold and red, run by small dark-haired, smiling people who shouted at each other in a language utterly intelligible to me. I loved it. They seemed so clever and tantalisingly foreign to me and I have watched from the side-lines as that country has ballooned into the economy it is today. I have been dying to sink my teeth into this seemingly impenetrable fortress of culture and communism and with 90 seconds to spare, I got my chance.
For just one day, I had opportunity to visit the city of Shenzhen (in "real" China!). The train trip from Hong Kong takes around 40 minutes excluding the border crossing. For that, you need feet.
I was fortunate to get a window seat even though I was facing backwards: I could only see where we'd come from, not where we were going. It seemed prophetic and ironic as I felt like I was going back in time, revisiting my childhood impressions and excitement about all things Chinese.
My compartment was full of people busily distracted by newspapers or cell phones . I was truly a voyeur of real time life and we clattered past gigantic complexes painted dismal creams, aged browns, worn-out blues and insipid yellows. Surprising flashes of countryside and small scale vegetable farms in-between 100 story flats.
The train came to a halt and I was so engrossed in watching the people getting off, then on again, and wondering about their ubiquitous 4 wheeler suitcases that I never noticed that this was in fact, our destination. Suddenly the doors closed and the train headed back to Hong Kong! I had to jump off at the next stop Sheung Shui, and cross over the tracks to give it another go. Just a small false start..
This time I concentrated on the elegant woman sat opposite me. What business did she have in Shenzhen, so smart in her cashmere coat and clutching her Prada handbag?
When the doors opened again, I just allowed myself to be swept along by the human tide as we walked along the bridge that crosses over the Sham Chun river, the natural border. It is a modern structure, enclosed and complete with travelators like you find in an airport. I noticed security cameras everywhere and was too intimidated to take pictures. I know not to mess with the authorities...
We ultimately flowed into a huge, double volume building that houses passport control, customs and a lot of very fierce-some officials. I somehow felt guilty for having to join the queue that loudly announced "外國人 " (FOREIGNERS). I almost felt like I needed to apologise to someone for inconveniencing them but when I was pulled out of line and taken to a table bristling with computers and instructed with gestures, to give my fingerprints to her desktop avatar, I felt bossed about and less obliging.
However, passport control was a breeze and my stern faced official actually smiled and nodded a greeting. By far the most terrifying moment was turning the corner to find the throng of people being squeezed through a small number of electronic turnstiles, like a wide river entering a narrow gorge. It was unbelievably stressful trying to keep my place but figure out what I had to produce to get through the turnstiles without being THE ONE who jammed up the works! It turns out it was the bar code off my visa and Boy! was I relieved to have worked that out in the nick of time.
One last stop to change some Hong Kong Dollars for Yuan and I was out!
As all my personal electronic devices had been stolen before arriving in Hong Kong, I had no Google Maps or Translate and all printed street maps are in Chinese and were of no use to me, so I thought I would walk the city and just keep turning left until I found my way back to the beginning again. I took this photo of the first signpost I saw in case I had to show someone if I got lost.
The grey skies and light drizzle seemed to make the buildings overwhelmingly big and the colours weak.
I eventually ducked inside the mall above and after going from floor to floor looking at shop after shop of "FRANDED' (fake branded) products and suffering the stares of sullen shop owners, I came across this perfectly Western looking coffee shop. As I sat down, the owner shouted from the back, "Hi! Long time no see!" It was such a lovely welcome and she made an excellent cappuccino. Only slightly disappointing when she later apologised for greeting me like that - she had mistaken me for another friend. Ah well, at least the coffee was good.
Belly warmed by coffee and my adrenaline firing, I set out onto the immaculately clean city streets again and walked solidly for 5 hours. I visited supermarkets so vast that there are travelators to get you and your trolley to the next floor. I inspected dried, smoked, shredded, steamed, boiled or frozen creatures and plants that no-one could help me identify (language problem). There was a lot of gesticulating but when it comes to food it all looks the same (hand to mouth to indicate 'eat-it'). I bought a packet of Tomato Sauce crisps for lunch.
I spent more time in voluminous department stores looking at the array of products. I felt such pressure to buy something for friends and family, probably to satisfy my own desire to BUY SOMETHING FROM CHINA. In the end, I came away with a hairbrush, a plastic pot protector and a few packets of sauces that were really amazingly illustrated.
Shenzhen city is a walk of discipline. My feet were numb and in spite of sensible footwear, I could feel the blisters under my toes. Cleaners dressed in neon pink are everywhere and people are proud and independent. It seems this city is mostly about food; every street is crammed (neatly) with restaurants, grocers, bakers, noodle specialists or wine merchants. Electric motorbikes with unobtrusive hooters are the only unruly presence and they have right of way on both pavements and roads.
Tired and a little hungry, I decided to call it a day. I headed for the main intersection near the port and train station and stood in wonder at all the big expensive cars and SUV's, the selection of new, sparkly motorbikes for hire, the modern architecture mixed with the old and dreary and overall I sensed wealth and ambition. I searched for any old communist-looking veteran but I couldn't identify one. Every face looked like Chinese versions of myself after a days work; in a hurry to get home.
I retraced my steps across the border and collapsed onto the train that took me back to Kowloon, Hong Kong. My senses were utterly depleted. I felt slightly pleased with my efforts of finally getting to China but simultaneously, I felt sad that I hadn't seen more, spent more time there, met more people, got deeper into the city and then the country. I mean, what kind of idiot thinks she can get a taste of China in just one day?
I'll just have to go back....