For most, a trip to mainland China means visiting the environs of Shanghai or Beijing with perhaps a tour to The Great Wall, or Shaanxi Province and the Emperor’s terra-cotta warriors. But for those who prefer a more local experience without sacrificing fine cuisine and luxurious digs, I would recommend a stroll through Shenzhen.
Located just north of the Pat Sin Leng mountains bordering Hong Kong, Shenzhen is a highly populated city of commerce in Guangdong Province. Many rural citizens flock here to establish a career more promising, and a life more rewarding.
It is mainland China’s most southeastern province, and therefore, its climate is more typical of Hanoi, Vietnam than of Beijing. I found that the best time to travel to Shenzhen is December or early January. By February, the citizenry becomes much more focused on the upcoming Chinese New Year, which is marked by families getting together, usually in their rural hometowns and villages. In December, there is also the anticipation of the advent of Christmas and the stores are decorated, though not as extravagantly as in the states and Europe, with trees, ornaments, and ribbons. The tradition is taking hold here in southeast China.
Because of its proximity to Hong Kong, there are two inexpensive ways to travel to Shenzhen. If you visit Hong Kong and hold a visa to The People’s Republic, one can enter by taking the metro north across the border. (No visa is required for U.S. citizens to visit Hong Kong).
The way I came was transferring through Beijing. There are no direct flights from Chicago to Shenzhen, for example. On the other hand, many carriers provide continuing service through Beijing or Shanghai. (Shenzhen is a three and one half hour flight from Beijing). The cost to continue is only fractionally more expensive.
When searching for your hotel accommodations, you will find that many 4 and 5 star hotels are very affordable. I stayed in Bao’an District at the Hilton Garden Inn for approximately $100 per night, including a wonderful buffet breakfast featuring local dishes and more Americanized fare.
In the mornings I would stroll to the Bao’an street market about one half mile away. It was interesting to see the District waking and the local ladies gathering in a courtyard to perform in unison their traditional dance to lilting Chinese music. it was quite magical.
At the market, one may be shocked to see chicken dinner being sold while the bird is still alive and placed in a plastic bag to carry. Other stalls sell live exotically colored birds and rabbits. Some sell whole skinned duck carcasses, sausages, and other meats as well. The prime draw here are the rows and rows of colorful vegetables ranging as far as the eye can see.
I then traveled by taxi east to Shenzhen’s Louhu District. The most expensive taxi ride I took cost roughly $30. Most rides, including the ride to Louhu, was more in the range of $18. In Louhu, I stayed at the centrally located Crowne Plaza Landmark. It is near King Glory and Rainbow shopping malls. Shopping is a major attraction in Louhu. It is lovely to see young Chinese women dressed in the fashion of the day. They are very smart dressers for the most part.
One must be prepared for the reality that China is still at least 40 years behind America economically. Certain neighborhoods boast wonderful street vendors and shops, but hardly anyone outside of the hotels speak English. Be prepared to use some sign language, or perhaps a translator app on your phone. It is a tradition that they carry a smart phone, but some may even shun a foreigner and walk away.
This may be considered a reason for going to Shenzhen, however. I took a two and a half hour walk one day through Dongmen District to the parks north of there. Though this was a Saturday and everyone was about on this warm, sunny day, I did not see one Caucasian other than myself. However, people are friendly, humble, and helpful in China, so I walked without any fear.
On this walk I visited Shenzhen Children’s park with its small ferris wheel and colorful bumble bee car rides. The park is drenched in banyan trees, palm and fringed by mangrove. In fact, Shenzhen is home to over 1,500 “ancient trees” that are recorded to be over 100 years old.
My path wound further north to the waters of Honghu Park. The weather became steamy in the mid-afternoon sun and the waters were clogged in some areas by briar. I turned back after a while and meandered south through the twists and turns of People’s Park. There was more shade here as the path wound under trees with flowering orange and red petals, and yellow and lime colored leaves.
Returning to my hotel, I was impressed by how friendly and professional the staff was. They seemed more excited that I was visiting than even I felt. The front desk clerks are charming. The manager, Helen, claimed that was how they are naturally. I was also very impressed with the restaurant staff on the 3rd floor. A young woman named Catherine manages the evening restaurant staff with remarkable elegance. She makes one feel as if they are in the hands of a maestro who happens to also be a member of your family. The chef is somebody who knows his way around a kitchen. He gave me a personal demonstration of how to prepare a seafood salad, which was scrumptious.
The Crowne Plaza Landmark is perhaps a 4 star hotel with beautiful rooms trimmed in dark mahogany furnishings. It has a clean and fragrant spa on the 4th floor with a separate elevator for those going down for a massage or sweat. The rates were unbelievably inexpensive, costing me $134 per night.
I made a few friends in Shenzhen as well. One young lady named Sherry was particularly helpful in me finding an old address of a person I knew who once lived in Shenzhen. Another lady, who I met by accident, befriended me and offered that she take me to Fairy Lake Botanical Gardens. This location was not on my radar, but she found out that I like to visit sacred sites and temples.
The Gardens were a short taxi to the east of Louhu District and was home to a Buddhist temple on Wutong Mountain. The temple is known as Hongfa Si. Many gathered there that day to pray and march in unison while chanting their list of virtues. It was quite a humbling experience to light incense sticks and to prayerfully plant them into the ashen furnaces. It was an honor to purchase some flowers and lay them in front of one of the temples.
May all be blessed with such a pilgrimage to such a sacred place in this lifetime and in lifetimes yet to be experienced. And may St. Christopher bring each of us safely home.