Saturday, 2 November 2019

Shenzhen: Window of the World

That's Sydney Harbour Bridge visible behind the Little Mermaid, just in front of the opera house. To my left is St Mark's Square in Venice, and behind me is Parc Guell, Barcelona. Behind that? The pyramids.

Today we're going to look at Window of the World, a theme park in Shenzhen, China. It has small-scale recreations of global tourist attractions, including Wiltshire's very own Stonehenge, which is why I went. I wanted to see if the stones were in danger of being crushed by a little person. I can confirm that they were not.

Where is Shenzhen? It's in China, just across the border with Hong Kong. It's a popular day trip for Hong Kong residents because their dollars go further there. I am not a Hong Kong resident. I am a British person, and so a trip across the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border is awkward, but not particularly difficult, so why not? I can tick another country off the list of countries I have ticked off my list. China, and also China.

The Chinese authorities made Shenzhen a city in 1979, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s it grew into a thriving megalopolis. In 1985 its population was 175,000, around the size of Reading or Portsmouth; now it has more than ten million citizens, a million more than Greater London. The greater Shenzhen area is one of China's Special Economic Zones, essentially tax havens where the local government can set a lower rate of tax than the mainland. Huawei, Anker, and Tencent are all based there. I think of it as Basingstoke, but on a larger scale, and without that fair city's rich history. Basingstoke is the birthplace of Elizabeth Hurley and has one of Britain's few remaining Wimpy restaurants. It's an important railway interchange.

The greater Shenzhen area was selected to be an SEZ because it was directly across the border from Hong Kong, which made it easier to deal with international companies. I like to think that the Chinese authorities also wanted to show that China could beat Hong Kong. After several years of explosive growth Shenzhen's GDP finally surpassed that of Hong Kong in 2017, so in terms of raw numbers Shenzhen is the most important city in that part of the world.

I visited in mid-October. Halloween is big in the Far East.

Is that a good or bad thing for Hong Kong? From the point of view of the Chinese authorities Hong Kong is presumably an embarrassment, because it's a legacy of colonialism, but its economic success was in the past a powerful argument in favour of maintaining Hong Kong's unique Hong Kong-ness. Now that Hong Kong is no longer special on an economic level why not just absorb it into Shenzhen, and turn it into Shenzhen's southern province?

But on the other hand Hong Kong still has a very large, stable economy, and even if it loses its status as a financial hub it's much more popular as a tourist destination than Shenzhen. Not just for nostalgic British people like me but also because the coastal location is more attractive. On a practical level visa requirements are much easier for Hong Kong than mainland China, e.g. British and American people don't need one if they're visiting. I have no idea if the visa regime will persist beyond 2047, when Hong Kong is finally absorbed into the rest of China.

On the other, other hand Hong Kong isn't just a location, it's a population, and for the majority of people who live in Hong Kong the place is expensive and crowded. Do the people of Hong Kong benefit from the city's elevated financial status? If the money only flows to a tiny minority of people who live in penthouses, who commute to work via elevated walkways, who might as well be foreign colonists even though they are locals, are the people of Hong Kong any better off? Hong Kong was once a fishing village, and perhaps it might be again.

I am and always will be an outsider, so that's enough about the future of foreign cities. There are too many complexities to predict anything.

* NB Shenzhen is a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), but Hong Kong and Macau, former colonial possessions of Britain and Portugal, are Special Administrative Regions (SARs). They are even more independent from the Chinese mainland and have their own laws and currency.

How do you get to Shenzhen from Hong Kong? In theory the new high-speed rail link from Kowloon will take you there in half an hour, en route to Beijing eight hours later, but you need a visa first, and you can't get one at the high-speed station. If you already have a proper long-stay visa the high-speed rail link is the quickest route, but for a day trip a long-stay visa is overkill.

As I gazed over Window of the World I pondered how we aren't all that different from each other. I was mesmerised by this sculpture; the Chinese people who elected to put it at the entrance of Window of the World twenty years ago were also mesmerised; the Indian people who created the original centuries ago likewise.

So how did I cross the border? I popped along to Lo Wu station on the Hong Kong MTR instead. It has a border crossing with a visa post. I bought a five-day, short-stay visa. Lo Wu (Luohu in Shenzhen) is at the far north of the blue line, the East Rail Line. The stations get further apart as you go north, so although the line looks short it actually takes about forty minutes from downtown Kowloon.

You have to bring your passport, with your Hong Kong entry slip. A pen is useful. Once at Lo Wu you need to go through the first layer of passport control, then head upstairs when you see the PORT VISA sign.

Sit in the photo booth, take a photo, fill out an entry card, then take a ticket. Imagine that you're Harry Palmer in Funeral In Berlin and you're trying to arrange passage into East Berlin. That way it'll feel glamorous.

For "address in Shenzhen" I just put "day trip" and they didn't seem to mind.

There's a bureaucratic system whereby you take a ticket with a number - mine was 55 - then when your number appears on the LED display you go to the first window, hand over your passport, entry card, and photo ID, then go back to your chair and wait for the number to appear again, then you go to the second window and pay for the visa, then you sit down and wait for your number to appear a third and final time, then you go to the third window and collect your passport. This is how things will be if Britain ever leaves the European Union. It'll give people jobs, what's wrong with that?

I paid for the visa with my credit card. There are cash machines in the station, but when I was there none of them dispensed Chinese money, at least not for me. The cost for a five-day visa for a British person is ¥304, which is about £33.

Scroll up and look at the list of prices again. Notice how the symbols for Britain and America are similar. The second little picture is the same - it means "country". In America's case the first little picture means "beautiful", and in Britain's case the first picture means "brave". Isn't that nice? Britain is a brave country.

Sadly I learn from the internet that the words were chosen because they sounded a bit like America and Britain to Chinese ears, not for their literal meaning, but still, it's nice to have a good country name. Imagine if Britain was called Rotten Fish Slop Country or Underpants Country or Rabid Donkey Country or Ugly Bin Bag Country.

As I sat in the waiting room I studied the other people. Most of them were probably travel bloggers. You know. The woman used to work as a marketing executive and is the face of the brand. The man - a banker who had a big bonus - pays for it all and takes all the pictures. In the waiting room there was an older German-sounding man, plus a young couple who didn't understand the queuing process and therefore couldn't have been British, plus a well-dressed young man with floppy hair who looked like an early-80s pop star, from a time when blonde men were still the Western world's idea of beauty.

Where were they going? China, obviously, but what did they want? I bet you a million pounds their travel blogs have the word "passion" in the sidebar. They have a passion for travel, and they want you to click on affiliate links for luggage and hotels and dry shampoo so forth. Am I any better? No, I am steeped in sin. We are all steeped in sin. Our lower bodies are saturated in sin. Saturated in a vinaigrette of venality. Basted in a broth of baseness.

Visa in hand I proceeded to the security gates and then proceeded back because the actual gates for foreign visitors are downstairs. After reaching the correct gates I again backtracked because you also need to register your fingerprints with a machine and fill out an entry card, and then I went to the security gates and entered Shenzhen, where a man offered to direct me to the nearest shops, which were directly to one side, so I politely declined.

So this is China. The place where they make everything, at least until they set up factories in Africa. Then they will make everything in Africa.

Hey, it's Baofeng. They make ham radios.

I went on a weekday around midday, and Shenzhen is huge, so it felt less busy than Hong Kong. I followed OSMAnd to the nearest McDonalds, purely so I can say I have been to McDonalds in China, but in the end I skipped past it and went to KFC instead, which was right next to a Vanguard supermarket. The supermarket sold things from Tesco, with Chinese stickers over the ingredients; apparently the two companies have a deal. The Zinger burger was just like a Zinger burger anywhere else.

"Heaven and Earth are sinks". Yes, they are.

As I stood in a supermarket in China looking at a bag of Tesco own-brand sweets the melancholic thought struck me that if I had done this twenty-three years ago I would have been able to parlay it into a career as an internet travel pundit. Maybe even a Great Thinker.

Just writing a blog about shopping in China would have been enough, except that twenty-three years ago I couldn't afford a passport, and without the likes of Wikivoyage and OSMAnd I would have found it difficult to navigate Hong Kong and China, so perhaps the people who did it before me had some things going for them after all.

OSMAnd's map of Shenzhen is far more accurate than Google's map. Google's map isn't aligned properly with the satellite image. It's all over the place. After eating KFC in China I popped into Xiangxicun station, which was just across the road. I changed at Chegongmiao for the green line to the station at Window of the World, which is literally called "Window of the World".

EDIT: After doing some research - imagine that! - it turns out that China uses a slightly different GPS coordinate system to the rest of the world. Google's maps go wonky near the border with Hong Kong because Hong Kong uses the same coordinate system as Britain, and there's an area on the border where the two maps overlap and interfere with each other. It also turned out that using OSMAnd on your phone, and perhaps even leaving the location system turned on, may or may not be illegal in China. Let's hope that the Chinese authorities don't read this.

My trip to KFC was accidentally a good idea because it split up some of my Chinese banknotes. Shenzhen's metro machines only take ¥5 and ¥10 notes. Nothing larger, and no cards. Off the top of my head the price of a ticket from Xiangxicun to Window of the World was ¥20, but fortunately I had the right change to go there and back. The ticket was a little green disc that I had to tap against the barrier to enter and then drop into a slot to leave. I also had to feed my bag through an X-ray machine before I could go through the barrier, which must be awkward during the rush hour.

While on the train I gazed at the safety video, which was an animation about terrorism. A sweaty, shifty-looking man with a jacket and moustache was trying to smuggle a bomb - a bunch of dynamite with a timer - through the X-ray machine, but he was caught. Another loop showed a businessman taking a selfie of himself, and in the background of the selfie the same sweaty, shifty man was putting his bag underneath a bench. The businessman alerted the police, who found a bomb in the bag and tackled the shifty man before he could escape. Did they defuse the bomb? The animation didn't show that. I have to assume they did.

When I visited Chernobyl last year one of the things that struck me about the Kyiv metro was the cheapness of the adverts. Instead of having posters for BMW and PrettyLittleThing it had posters for local garages and payday loan companies. It made Kyiv feel parochial and small-scale. I have been conditioned to find adverts for premium brands normal. They calm me down. Adverts for lesser brands make me feel nervous. The Chinese metro was different; it was large, bright, and clean, and the adverts were incomprehensible, so instead of feeling low-rent it just felt alien. It felt like the metro stations in computer games, the ones with generic adverts that don't violate anybody's trademark.

Window of the World has its own metro station. Entry was ¥220, around £20. Is that expensive for an attraction in Shenzhen? According to the South China Morning Post the average monthly income for workers in Shenzhen is a little over £600, but I have no idea how much it costs to live in Shenzhen, so I can't tell if Window of the World is a rare treat or a regular day out for the locals. As with a lot of relatively new megacities "the locals" are mostly recent immigrants, their numbers dwarfing the relative handful of people who lived there before 1979. They will leave if and when Shezhen no longer has money.

From my point of view Window of the World was odd. Some of the modelwork is genuinely good, particularly Angkor Wat. The miniaturised, but still large Eiffel Tower and the park surrounding it are impressive, and would be very attractive if the sun was out. Unfortunately I went on a dull, overcast October day.

On the downside some of the models have seen better days and could do with a lick of paint. I managed to miss the American section, but the model of New York apparently still has the Twin Towers, which suggests that the place was constructed in the late 1990s and hasn't been updated much since. Another problem is that the backdrop was office buildings with cranes. I'm not sure how the organisers can solve that, short of building a giant dome over the place.

Stonehenge was in a little grove. Hidden speakers played Jean Michel Jarre's "Oxygene II" on a loop, presumably because it sounds spooky. Jean Michel Jarre played a series of concerts in China way back in 1981, but there were only a handful of gigs, and it was almost forty years ago. Does anyone in China remember them?

Venice was like a dream. I've been to the actual Venice. Window of the World's version of Venice was like a dream. The geography was accurate and the details were on point, but there was no beginning, no end, nothing behind the facade. It was like It's a Good Life or Inception. I was bamboozled. I was in Venice just two months ago. I kept expecting to see a miniature model of myself.

This is the entrance to the Doge's Palace, but it's not there. There's no door. There's no queue of little people because there's no door, nowhere to go in. No inside. No palace.

The recreation of St Mark's Square confused my brain and put me into a special trance for the rest of the trip. Is this why pandas find it hard to reproduce in captivity? Are they so disconcerted by their surroundings that they can't concentrate on their natural bodily functions? I can sympathise with them.

The rest of the exhibits didn't have the same impact from that point onwards. There was a recreation of Uluru; it didn't look particularly accurate, and it was boxed in by the rest of Australia. There were signs warning people not to climb on it, just like the real thing.

The Egyptian section had camel sit-ons - not exactly camel rides, but camel sit-ons. 

Directly behind the Egyptian exhibit was an African village, which had a scheduled dance routine from some African people. That must be a strange job. Being a stereotypical African person in a Chinese theme park. I didn't photograph it because by gosh that would be a can of worms.

The park has lots of little gift shops and restaurants and several attractions beyond the miniature buildings, including a little railway and a song and dance performance in the evening. There was also a military-style laser tag event and these fun-looking inflatable water ball things. 

Not for the first time in China my penis was confused. Women are basically skeletons, aren't they? Underneath the flesh they are skeletons.
Depending on the environment human bones can survive for thousands of years, so before they crumble to dust our bodies spend the majority of their time on Earth as skeletons. We tend to ascribe more importance to the fleshy, ambulatory period of a human lifespan, because skeletons just sit around doing nothing, but we are mostly skeletons.

And that was Window of the World. It's spread out over a hundred acres, and looking back I missed a few exhibits. I don't recall seeing the Vatican, for example, and as mentioned I missed New York and Mount Rushmore.

The park doesn't have a miniature recreation of Hong Kong, which makes sense because Hong Kong doesn't have a signature building. The Bank of China building? There isn't a miniature Beijing either. I think the assumption is that the people of Shenzhen can go to actual Chinese destinations if they want to. Imagine if there was a miniature recreation of Shenzhen, complete with a tiny copy of Window of the World. That would be something.

Getting back to Hong Kong is relatively simple. I took the metro back to Luohu. There's a big shopping mall where people try to sell you watches. It was almost a little village, as if the shopkeepers lived in their shops, with kids playing with balls and people chatting. The goods seemed to be mostly mobile phone cases, handbags, fans etc, none of which were much use to me.

When I was there Hong Kong's MTR came to a halt at 22:00 because of the protests. I suggest you budget about forty minutes to get from Window of the World station to Luoho, then fifteen minutes to go through border control - you end up with a second entry slip into Hong King - then forty more minutes from Lo Wu to Kowloon. Window of the World closes at 22:00 so if you stay late you'll end up stuck at Lo Wu station. That would be a very expensive taxi to Kowloon, in fact it would be cheaper to rent a hotel for the night in Lo Wu or Shenzhen. Is there enough in Shenzhen to spend two days there? Don't know.

You can only use the five-day visa once, e.g. you can't return to Hong Kong and then use the same visa on the high-speed rail link later in the week. You could in theory pick up the visa in Lo Wu, then return to Kowloon and hop on the high-speed rail, but it would be slower than simply crossing the border at Lo Wu.

Could you use the five-day visa to travel into mainland China? Could you, for example, hop on a bus in Shenzhen and make your way to Shanghai or Beijing via regional trains, avoiding high-speed rail in case someone checks your passport? My hunch is that it would be an appallingly bad idea. You would need to get there and back within five days, with the risk that at any time the police might decide to check the passport of the only Western-looking person for miles around. Given that south-eastern China is dominated by industrial cities that have very few tourist attractions the risk would far outweigh the reward.

Could you have a cheap holiday in Hong Kong by staying in Shenzhen, and commuting into Hong Kong? Sadly not. As mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago the visa is single-use only, so you'd have to apply for a fresh visa every time you crossed the border. Even if the authorities let you do that, it would add £34 to your costs per day. Judging by the prices on Shenzhen is slightly cheaper than Hong Kong, but not £34-per-day cheaper.

Furthermore it would be pointless, because a one-year multiple-entry tourist Visa for a British person visiting China is only £151. You might as well apply for one of them. My hunch is that unless you stayed for several weeks if not months the cost of the visa would outweigh whatever savings you made, and even if you did stay a long time the absolute cost of your stay would make the savings comparatively trivial. Sadly there is no free lunch, unless you fly long-haul with British Airways, in which case there is a free lunch and also a free breakfast, the end.