For the first time in several days, I am wheeling my own bag. Oh, how pedestrian. No porters or bellhops are in our midst. Well, at least not until we arrive at the Futian Shangri-La in Shenzhen. Actually I find it quite nice to sort of be on my own again. If you count on your own as being with 3 other writers and 2 public relations people. Okay, not so much.
We hop the clean and efficient train to the border and enter a very modern building. We are stamped out of Hong Kong and ride across the river on escalators making our crossing onto the mainland. With very little fuss, we are stamped in and are on our way. Welcome to the ‘real’ China, well, as real as ultra-modern and young Shenzhen can feel. Since Hong Kong is still its own unique area (considered a SAR – Special Administrative Region), there is no need for a VISA. But crossing into Shenzhen, just about thirty minute train ride to the north, is the real deal.
This area became China’s first—and one of the most successful—Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Not long ago, Shenzhen was a small village. In just a few decades, it grew at a stunning pace becoming a modern cityscape thanks to rapid foreign investment. Shenzhen is now said to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.
During previous trips to Asia, I spent the majority of my time in the Southeast (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore). And about a decade ago I spent some time in Tokyo. But I’d yet to visit Mainland China – until now. Although I’m still not convinced the super-quick 2-day trip I’m having to Shenzhen really counts.
My first impressions of Shenzhen (at least the parts that I saw) – a very clean, modern, gleaming metropolis. But I am sure I am only seeing a sliver of the ‘real city.’ My friend, and as far as we know, not family member, Matt Lubin lived in Shenzhen for a few years.
He says, “thankfully, Shenzhen is more than the overcrowded, knock-off-filled shopping centers of Luohu and Futian that are stuffed with excessively pushy salespeople I wanted throw through a window on multiple occasions. There are some beautiful parks and semi-quiet sanctuaries to escape the maddening city, which is necessary if you stay for more than a week. The amusement parks are always good for a few laughs with their cheesiness. Unfortunately, the best features of Shenzhen don’t last long–the city is ever-changing, thus the disappearance of favorite restaurants and shops is inevitable.”
A 2010 study conducted by Forbes magazine ranks Shenzhen’s population density as the 5th highest in the world. Although, the population numbers of Shenzhen are hotly debated due to the massive amounts of immigrant workers from the countryside who come into Shenzhen just to work. Our home base is the newish Shangri-La Hotel, which I actually like more than the Hong Kong Island Shangri-La because of its more modern, clean-lined furnishings and décor.
Plus I had my own personal escort (no, not that kind) who not only brought me to my room, she sat down and had tea with me and then showed me that wonderful ‘pillow menu’. It was nice to have a new friend upon arrival, but I sort of had to shoo her out so I could take a moment to relax by myself (or at least jump on the bed with all my lovely pillows).
For an odd taste of China and Shenzhen we venture into Splendid China Folk Village, a sort of Epcot-like experience of China. This finely-manicured park, which is part of a larger theme park system known as Overseas Chinese Town, gives visitors the ability to ‘travel’ all over China by never leaving the city.
Over 100 major tourist attractions have been miniaturized and laid out according to the map of China. Most attractions have been reduced on a scale of 1:15.
There’s a miniature Great Wall, the Terracotta warriors of Xi’an and other famous Chinese sights all miniaturized in this Disney-esque playground. I imagine it is a fun day for Chinese families, but not how I necessarily want to spend my time – especially since I am actually in China. But I will say it is a bit of interesting kitsch to experience.
A neat spot to check out is the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal and Loft Area where some communist-era warehouses have been converted into artists’ studios, hip cafes (including the requisite Starbucks) and bars.
The OCAT used to be a block of factory buildings, which were built at the beginning of the 1980s and remained in operation until the late 1990s. I enjoy walking around this funky rehabbed space of designers and a ‘new’ China.