Shenzhen China – It’s Like a Whole Other Country

I thought I had acclimated to China after almost two months of living in Hong Kong. Boy was I wrong. Once I arrived in Shenzhen, China, the culture shock was back on! Below is Part 1 of my 2 Part post diving into China head on.

March 2nd, 2010

The entrance to Nirvana for just $21 USD for 24 hours.

The entrance to Nirvana for just $21 USD for 24 hours.

Though all parts of the same country, Hong Kong has little in common with mainland China.  The differences were stark and stunning. After my first visit I could barely express how glad I was to be studying in Hong Kong, China and not mainland China.  I thought I had culture shock in Hong Kong; but I was going through a culture earthquake in Shenzhen and Guangzhou! Let me back up though, and start from Friday when we left for the motherland.

Hong Kong is located very conveniently about a half-hour’s MTR ride from mainland China, so Friday morning my four girlfriends and I met in the middle of HKUST’s main atrium, hopped aboard the MTR and by 10:30 AM we were in Shenzhen and going through Customs & Immigration.

Once we arrived in Shenzhen (first city in mainland China after Hong Kong), we had been told by many other exchange students to spend the night at Queen Spa (described as one of the most magical places you can imagine; all the fruit, ice cream, and non-alcoholic drinks you could eat, full reign of a 30,000 sq. foot room of pools, hot tubs and saunas, an hour and a half massage of choice, matching pajamas everyone must wear while inside the uni-sex spa areas, and Chinese and English movies played at various intervals throughout the day and night nonstop – and you could get all this for 24 hours for the low, low price of about $21 USD! Pinch me!).  Have I mentioned how much I loved the exchange rate of the majority of Asian countries? Loved it, love it still – it’s awesome! I was forever doing sums in my head figuring out just how inexpensive almost everything was compared to the US.

So we went located a taxi driver to take us to Queen Spa, dropped off our bags, and proceeded to check out Shenzhen for the rest of the afternoon. Being that it is the first city across the border from Hong Kong you might think it would resemble the other city a bit.  Let me tell you right off the bat, it is NOTHING like Hong Kong; it is so much more staunchly Chinese it’s unbelievable!  Almost no one spoke English; thank God for our two friends who came with us and could speak and Mandarin well.  Without Angela and Soohyun, we wouldn’t have had nearly the great experience we did.

The first meal we ate was actually at a Muslim-Chinese fusion restaurant called Blessing, courtesy of the Lonely Planet guidebook.  Shockingly, this was really one of my first encounters with Indian food (my dad has a thing against curry, so it never was on the menu at home), and I had the chicken tikka masala and garlic naan, both were delicious. Apparently I’d really been missing out on that aspect of cuisine. That was also where I encountered my first “squatter” toilet. I really hadn’t been missing out on that.

My first look at a squatter up close. The horror.

My first look at a squatter up close. The horror.

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. Don’t even get me started on our spring break trip to Beijing and Shanghai for 10 days. I’ll just say I’ve never in my life been so happy to sit instead of squat upon returning to Hong Kong.

After lunch we embraced our inner foreign tourists at an attraction called “Splendid China,”  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!) that all we wanted to do was luxuriate at Queen’s Spa.  And luxuriate we did!

Miniature minions in a miniature palace. Nice attention to detail.

Miniature minions in a miniature palace. Nice attention to detail.

After finding our way back to the spa, checking in, and immediately jumping into our bathing suits (which were not actually required in the female-only section of the spa if you didn’t have a “modesty” issue), we all went for a swim in the seven or so different pools (of varying temperatures and with varying bubble jets) located conveniently in one big room.  This was followed by  a sauna and shower, then changing 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. I mean everyone – even middle-aged business men were in them) to see the famed “Third Floor.”  Now picture 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 personal TV screen, people you can order to give you a head, foot, or leg massage while watching your TV, pool tables, and a public movie viewing area. Now you have an idea of what the third floor is like. Close to 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 (the menu being only in Cantonese), but I can tell you, one of them was skewered mutton, and I now knew I liked mutton. Yet another food missing from my diet previously. The restaurant was fantastic – very good recommendation.

A portion of our fantastic dinner across the street from Queen Spa. You need to go there.

A portion of our fantastic dinner across the street from Queen Spa. You need to go there.

We toured Shenzhen at night after dinner, came across a Wal-Mart with Sam Walton’s image on the entrance sign (I kid you not) carrying things you’ve never seen (raw meat on ice – but only occasionally), then returned to Queen’s Spa for more fruit 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. That was the quickest hour-and-a-half of my life. I looked half mad afterwards though, because the masseuse gave me scalp massage making my curly hair a mad halo of frizz. Ah well. Finally, at 2 AM, exhausted but thoroughly satisfied we were led into a giant room filled with partitioned-off cubby beds where we slept among something like forty other women in our semi-private cubbies.

Why yes, this is a chicken foot in a vending machine. What, is that odd?

Why yes, this is a chicken foot in a vending machine. What, is that odd?

No country can escape Wal Mart's low cost presence. It's a little different from the US version, what with the raw meats and all though.

No country can escape Wal Mart’s low cost presence. It’s a little different from the US version, what with the raw meats and all though.

On Saturday, we went shopping in Shenzhen – a prime past time of many Hong Kong residents and foreigners because everything’s so darn cheap there. 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, clothes, bags, candy, sunglasses – you name it, they sold it.  He helped me bargain with a local seller 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 a frantic waving hands to regain 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 toilet seats eating at a bathtub covered with a clear pane of glass. The kitsch-ness of the whole experience was better than the actual food, but it made for some good pictures. Late in the afternoon, we said thanks and goodbye to the boys, grabbed our stuff from Queen’s Spa, and hopped on an hour-long train ride to Guangzhou, China. Destination #2.

Dessert sundae at Modern Toilet. It's in a urinal bowl.

Dessert sundae at Modern Toilet. It’s in a urinal bowl.

One of the oddest things I noticed about Shenzhen was that multiple people asked our Asian friends if we three Western girls were Russian. None of us looked particularly Russian (a redhead, blonde and dirty blond), but more than once people asked.  They also asked if Angela and Soo were our translators and tour guides. Nope, just our friends. I guess Shenzhen might be a Russian tourist destination?  Nobody knew.

Don’t miss the conclusion in Part 2 of this post when the group got separated in the middle of China and stumbled upon the best food I’d had to date.

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