While my previous post pretty much summed up my thoughts about Shenzhen (specifically, the feeling of a lack of a distinct culture to the city), there were a couple experiences in the last two days J and I spent there that stood out for me.
The first was a trip to Rita, a café owned and operated by one of our host Kevin’s friends. Unlike your the Starbucks, Bridgeheads, and Costa Coffees of the world, and even your typical trendy cafés (which, to be fair, I do usually enjoy… looking at you, Little Victories and Ministry of Coffee in Ottawa), Rita is wholly focused on the process of making the coffee. Laptops and phone use are not permitted in the space, as it’s meant to be a social environment where people can discuss face to face, uninterrupted by technological intrusions. The company imports a massive variety of ethical sourced, single origin beans from all over the world, and roasts them themselves, at a secret off-site location.
The brewing itself is something between science and theatre. The beans — batched out into single servings in little, hand labeled jars — are ground right in front of you, and weighed out to make sure the dosage is accurate. The beans are transferred to a little cheesecloth-like filter, held over top of a real labware beaker (see? science!), and the filtered water — heated to a specific temperature for any given batch of beans — is slowly, painstakingly poured over the grounds.
Every now and then, the barista (though I feel like an entirely different term is needed for this process… brew technician?) would chime in to explain the rationale for any given step in the process. And the end result was that each of us — Kevin, Chloe, J, and I — had a unique cup of some of the best coffee I’ve ever had (I went with an Ethiopian variety). I was also, finally, convinced to buy a gooseneck kettle when I got home, for my own coffee brewing setup at work; our brew technician (yeah, I’m using that) explained that the narrowness and shape of the gooseneck’s spout allows for additional precision in pouring.
The second standout was Haidilao. I wrote about the experience in my mini-guide to eating vegan in China, but it bears repeating; Haidilao does damn good hot pot. The ingredients we ordered were fresh and reasonably priced, the selection of sauces was massive, even the experience of waiting for a table was good; we were led to a little waiting area, where there was an assortment of social games to keep us occupied (Kevin, Chloe, and I only got in a few rounds of Chinese checkers before a hostess led our group to our table… it was not a long wait).
Crossing the Border
Our last morning in Shenzhen, we woke to find that our gracious host Kevin had not only brewed us each a great cup of pourover coffee, he’d also bought two bottles of baijiu — a Chinese alcohol, made from grain. We bade our Kevin a warm farewell, and headed out on yet another hilariously long metro ride, this time bound for Coco Park.
Coco Park could easily serve as the archetypical Shenzhen Mall. A sprawling edifice with a large open courtyard in the middle, the mall is a blend of mid-to-high end international stalwarts like Coach and The North Face (and of course, Starbucks), interspersed with bizarrely named Chinese stores like “Marisfrolg” and “O’Chirly”; pretenders wrapped up in vaguely European-seeming names (that is, if you don’t speak any Euro-languages), using their Latin-alphabetted gibberish as a sort of halo of respectability. As I write this, I can’t believe I’ve been so remiss in mentioning Marisfrolg, given that J and I spent much of our trip using it as a punchline.
Anyway, after a short wait at Coco Park’s Starbucks, where I finally managed to bash out another post, we were joined by Chloe and Paul (whom you may remember from KTV night). We searched around for a suitable restaurant for our last meal in Mainland China, settling on a Korean place (does that count as irony?). We ate, we laughed, we made tentative plans to see Chloe on her next return to Canada, and then we said goodbye to our friends and boarded a metro, heading toward Futian Checkpoint.
The border crossing was weirdly uneventful. We managed to bypass the main lineup by feigning ignorance and heading toward the “special” line, meant for elderly people, diplomatic personnel, and other people who might need a faster way through the throng of border-crossers, and somehow managed to get through with no issue. We spent maybe ten minutes in line, skipping a massive queue that could have easily taken us a half-hour or longer, and just like that we were through the Chinese checkpoint.
The crossing into Hong Kong was similarly uneventful. With nothing to declare, we showed the border guard our passports, were granted our entry visas (Hong Kong has separate visas from the Mainland), and boarded a bus to Kowloon.
The Promised Land
While Hangzhou was my favourite city in Mainland China, Hong Kong was without a doubt the centrepiece of the trip. We got into the city in the early afternoon, but by the time we’d registered at our guesthouse in touristy Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Kowloon side of the city, and dropped off our bags, the sun was starting to set. J led us down to the harbour, where we marveled at the sight across the water; skyscrapers gleaming in the late afternoon light, against the backdrop of lush green hills.
We tarried in the golden light for who knows how long… it didn’t really matter, I was just happy to see Hong Kong, and to have J with me. We had precious few days left before heading home, and we were determined to get as much as we could out of them.
There was just one catch…
The Guesthouse: A Cautionary Tale
When planning this trip, we’d exclusively booked hostels for the Mainland segment; they were all places that J had stayed in during past voyages, so she could vouch for their quality, and they were all reasonably inexpensive. Hong Kong was another matter; invariably, the hostels seemed to cost 50% more than the ones in China proper. Instead, we took our chances with a guesthouse.
Guesthouses, I’m given to understand, can vary wildly in quality. You can splash out a bit of cash for a well appointed little room in the Mid Levels or Causeway Bay, or you can pinch every penny and wind up in a tenement in Sham Shui Po, the most economically depressed section of the city. We mitigated some of the risk by going through Airbnb.
We wound up with a room in Chunking Mansions, a notorious old tenement in the otherwise gentrified (or still-gentrifying) Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, on the Kowloon side. The building consists of five 17-floor blocks; constructed in the 60s as low cost housing, it was quickly divided up into guesthouses, ultra-low rent apartments, and mixed commercial spaces, all connected at ground level by a shopping arcade filled with money-changers, cheap electronics vendors, luggage salespeople (we ended up buying a cheap rolling bag for next to nothing here), and food vendors and micro-restaurants, most of them dedicated to Pakistani and Indian cuisine. The block of towers is also notorious for bad wiring, lousy plumbing, and cockroaches.
So why in the hell did we settle for Chungking Mansions? Well, first off, it was soooooo cheeeeeaaaaaap (obviously), at least in comparison to the alternatives. Second, the Airbnb listing had us in a surprisingly spacious and well appointed room, high up on the 17th floor, well above the height that roaches typically get to. It was a steal and we jumped on it.
Things that seem too good to be true usually are. When arrived on the 17th floor to check in — having dodged the touts at the entrance of the building, hawking everything from “the best Indian food” to “real Rolexes” (why would you need to specify that they’re real, if they actually are real?) — we were dismayed to be given our room key and sent to an entirely different block of the building, on the 6th floor, banished to a room little bigger than a twin bed. The upshot is that our shitty room may have been something of a blessing, as we resolved to spend as little time there as possible.
We resolved to stay close to Chungking Mansion that night, as we were planning on getting up reasonably early the next morning to meet one of J’s friends from law school, who was in HK visiting family. With a little time to kill, we had the perfect opportunity to get just a little lost, and so we took it.
We didn’t go very far, but I wound up getting some of my favourite shots of the trip, in the short hour or so that we were out.
By now, we were starting to tire, but even more pressing, we were starting to get hungry. When J suggested we grab some food back at Chungking Mansion, I was apprehensive, to put it euphemistically. Turns out she was right, though. We sat down at a small restaurant offering up Punjabi cuisine, nestled at the very back of the first floor shopping arcade, where they served us some of the best aloo gobi and chana masala I’ve ever had in my life (and believe me when I say I’ve eaten a lot of both of those dishes in my life). After the letdown of our guesthouse’s little switcheroo, it was nice to have my expectations completely subverted in the opposite direction.
We finished our meal, thanked the staff and effusively complimented the food, and headed upstairs to our shoebox of a room. An early morning was beckoning, and a good night’s sleep was in order.
- Again, a massive thanks to Chloe, Paul, Kevin, and everyone else we met in Shenzhen. They were incredibly generous with their time, and in Kevin’s case, his money as well. The guy didn’t know us at all and opened up his house to us (and got us two bottles of baijiu as a goodbye gift)! Kevin, you are a testament to the unending friendliness of Northeasterners.
- I want to sneak in another random shot from Rita, just because I thought the little figurines were so cute, so here it is:
- I won’t publicly call out the guesthouse we stayed at in Hong Kong, as I’m not sure how libel law works there. I will boil it down to this: Caveat emptor when looking for a guesthouse in Hong Kong, especially if the price doesn’t match the pictures; the place we wound up in was not a complete shithole, but it definitely was sub-hostel quality; and if you’re interested in knowing which guesthouse it was, to be able to avoid it (as the guesthouse in question has rooms all over Chungking Mansion, and operates under more than one name), email me.
- As for the border crossing… there are plenty of foreigners who fall back on the excuse of “ting budong” (basically, “I don’t understand”) when confronted with any issue, as it will often mean getting a pass on behaviour that wouldn’t be accepted from a local. When the trip started, I’d resolved to avoid falling back on that excuse, but failed, as that’s exactly what we did to skip the regular lineup at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border crossing. I can certainly understand why other foreigners use it as a shortcut to get what they want, but I’m still disappointed that I wound up using the tactic myself.