The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 8

This is the last part! Find part one here.

Day 5: 成都 / Chengdu to 香港 / Hong Kong to 深圳 / Shenzhen

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It was as good as it looks

It was as good as it looks

The last day of my trip was travel done right. A lazy wake up was followed by a trip to a wonderful waffle and coffee house that I could talk about for the next six paragraphs. The restaurant is called Maan Coffee and turned out to be a chain that can be found throughout China (including in Shenzhen!) I entered to find an intriguing atmosphere—the whole shop looked almost as though it was built inside a treehouse, or maybe your grandmother’s attic, with tables and floors made of wood and chairs that were well-cushioned. The walls were lined with bookshelves and warm lanterns dangled from the ceiling. I felt like I could curl up there and daydream for hours on end. Honestly if they consulted me to build a relaxing coffeehouse this is exactly what I would build!




And then it kept getting better. I ordered a coffee and was handed a huge mug equal to about two to three cups worth of coffee. What is this? A large coffee in China? Upon ordering French toast with whipped cream and caramel they handed me a little teddy bear to keep at the table to wait for my order. The food was incredibly delicious, and the coffee was great. The best part by far was when I went to the bathroom and there was not only a Western toilet but real toilet paper! I was so pumped I took a picture! There was even soap! Ten out of ten for this place for sure.

After eating my food and feeling quite warm and cozy I decided to wander through the streets of Chengdu one last time. It was a chilly, gray day, like each day there had been so far, and I walked alongside the river with all the old people out for their morning strolls. I later headed to People’s Park to relax and drink some tea, and then it was off to the airport to catch my flight back to Hong Kong.

All in all, by the end of the trip I felt as though I’d gotten the hang of this travel thing and was a bit sad it was ending and back to life as usual. But at the same time, I was glad to be returning home.

Here are all the things I learned from my trip:

  1. It’s true. You will ALWAYS find a room.
  2. Chinese people are generous, helpful, and endlessly loving towards foreigners.
  3. But they are terrible tourists.
  4. Always pack a lunch.
  5. Expect things to go horribly wrong in China, so that you are not disappointed when they do.
  6. This country should do its holidays in shifts.
  7. I don’t care how culturally acceptable it is, I’m not going to pee into a plastic bag.
  8. Burrito bowls are delicious. But let’s be real, I already knew that…

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 7

Day 4: 成都 / Chengdu to 青城山 Qing Cheng Shan

If you were paying attention last time, you’ll already know the third character of this one, 山 / shan, or mountain. The first character, 青 / qing, means blue-green, or often just green. You may notice that the second character 城 / cheng looks a lot like 成都 / Chengdu’s “成,” except for this extra little radical on the side which is 土 / tu, and means “earth,” as in dirt. So in conclusion, the words for “become” and “city” are written quite similarly, which may seem strange, but it is because they are both pronounced “cheng.” All in all, 青城山 / Qing Cheng Shan means something like, “Green City Mountain.”

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I was determined to make the last full day of my time in Chengdu a success, since the first two had been, ah, notably rough. I started the day off by visiting the panda sanctuary, which was an excellent choice.

IMG_3054 (3)IMG_3032 (3)Chengdu is famous for being the city of pandas. Sichuan is one of the few places in China where there are still actual pandas left in the wild, and Chengdu also has this nice panda sanctuary. It is not just a place where pandas can live in their natural habitats, but is also a center for panda breeding, which of course preserves the species and also means baby pandas!

Baby pandassss

Baby pandassss

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I feel this.

I feel this.

I got up early enough to still actually be early to the panda place, arriving at about 8:30 AM. Visiting in the morning was definitely the right choice. By the time I left, the place was only just filling up with those obnoxious Chinese tour groups where the lady in the front waves a little flag around and everyone around her crowds out the attractions while gabbing on loudly about the surroundings. And the pandas were also feeding early in the morning, which meant I got to watch the chubs shoving copious amounts of bamboo into their mouth, which of course is adorable.

Then I headed off to my final big destination, 青城山 / Qing Cheng Shan / “Green City Mountain.” I had to take another bus to get there, which I regretted as soon as I stepped on, but actually the ride was surprisingly smooth and quick this time, just over an hour of driving. We were dropped off (by a second bus, of course) at the base of a lovely green mountain. There, much to my delight, was another ancient town, bursting with street food just as Jinli had been. Luckily it was notably less spicy than the stuff I’d had back in the city, so I bought a ton of it with no regrets.
Old town of Qing Cheng Shan

Old town of Qing Cheng Shan

They had all these cool riverside

They had all these cool riverside “cafes”

After eating my fill, I was able to progress over a violently rocking suspension bridge and onto the main attraction of Qing Cheng Shan—the nature. For the next hour or two, I meandered up a winding path up and into the mountains. There were plenty of green trees and waterfalls to remind me of what that stuff looked like, after only living in a city for the past few months. The only problem was that the people were still so 人山人海 that I could barely even see the path. Still, it was by far the most enjoyable destination of my trip.

Not exactly an isolated trek

Not exactly an isolated trek

That night the bus dropped us off at a subway stop, which was fairly convenient as I could use it to easily get back to Tianfu. As I hopped on the train and rode along, seeing stops that were designed in a very similar way to the Shenzhen subway, I realized it for the first time—I genuinely missed Shenzhen. I missed the way people didn’t point and stare at me on the subway, and I missed its cheap crazy flashiness and I missed its daunting sprawl. In Shenzhen each subway stop is its own new adventure, but in Chengdu the city is small and compact and similar.

I enjoyed walking through the quiet streets of Chengdu, and I enjoyed the city’s history, I really did. I had considered moving to the city at the beginning of this year, in fact. But I now know I made the right choice in deciding to come to Shenzhen. It’s a place where I’m beginning to feel at home.

For the record this girl was at the mountain, NOT the panda sanctuary

Best outfit of the day. For the record this girl was at the mountain, NOT the panda sanctuary

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 6

This next leg of the trip might be my favorite part, mostly because I met French hippie Jesus.

I am a staunch believer in the notion that God is always with me when I travel, but sometimes it’s difficult to see it. Sometimes, however, God just likes to smack you in the face with obviousness, just to make sure you’re paying attention.

After seeing 人山人海 waiting for the Buddha, I simply quit. I was totally over Leshan. The Giant Buddha will likely forever remain unseen on my list of places to go, and I’ve made my peace with that.

I managed to squeeze my way onto a jam-packed public bus at the top of the mountain, but from there I had to find the bus stop in Leshan to get back to Chengdu. Very quickly I realized I’d run out of that attraction so quickly that I hadn’t even bothered to look at, like, a map of where I was headed, or what stop I needed to get off at. So I had a moment of moderate panic where I pondered what to do next.

Not ten minutes later, the bus stopped, the doors opened, and Jesus got on. This guy had the hair, the beard, and the sandals game going strong. He came and stood next to me for the next few stops. “So,” he finally said to me in a thick French accent, breath heavy with the stench of cigarettes, “do you know what bus stop you’re getting off at?”

“I have no idea,” I admitted.

“It’s four from the end to get back to Chengdu,” he said.

“Cool, thanks!”

I got off the bus with him and used the bus stop’s super ratched bathroom, the most ratched I’ve seen in China yet except for the literal holes I used outside the Great Wall. These bathrooms were indoor, but were also just a pit in the ground with nothing but waist-high walls separating each pit and a short door that didn’t fully close. Basically you could still see the person next to you and across from you as you peed. Yeah, it was time to go back to the overpriced hotel, that was for sure.

After I bought my ticket, French hippie Jesus continued to help me out by showing me where to board the bus and getting in line with me. Some little children stopped to play with him and he gladly took a photograph. And when we finally arrived in Chengdu and the bus dumped us off at some random gas station that was absolutely not where I’d gotten on, he suggested I get a taxi back home. We each grabbed one and went our separate ways.

In short, I’ll remember this day as the one where at totally random stranger who was seriously rocking the Jesus look helped me to find my way home without me ever asking for it. Somehow, without me ever voicing my thoughts, he knew exactly what I needed, and guided me all the way home. Coincidence? I think not. But that’s up for you to decide.

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 5

Day 3: 乐山 / Leshan

Fun fact: 乐山 / Leshan literally translates to “happiness mountain.” The first character is found in a commonly used word for happiness, 快乐 / kuai le, which is like happiness which occurs in the moment. There is a whole different word for long-lasting happiness. And lastly, 山 / shan is the word for mountain, which I think is pretty apparent from the character!

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The next day, I decided it was time to be ambitious and go on a real adventure. I planned to blindly hop on a bus and get out of the city, and I knew just the place. I’d seen pictures online of this sweet-looking massive Buddha carved into a mountain called Leshan, which was apparently about two and a half hours from Chengdu, which admittedly sounded like a long time to sit on a bus. But I was determined! I was making it to Leshan, no matter how hard the journey!

Well I got rolling a bit later than I’d wanted to that morning, convincing myself that this was my vacation and I could sleep in if I wanted to. I finally got to the bus stations at about 9:45 AM, but figured no problem, I’ll get to the mountain by 12:30 or maybe 1:00 at the latest and would still have a few hours to wander around and explore. So I unassumingly took a seat in the very back row of the bus, and soon two young Chinese girls hurried up to sit with me.

“Hi!” the littler one cried from beside me, staring up at me wide-eyed.

“Hi,” I replied. “How are you?”

“Five!” she shouted, holding up five fingers.

“Ah. And what’s your name?”


Not even the biggest Buddha there

Not even the biggest Buddha there

Strawberry and her (presumably) cousin, who went by the name Michelle, both studied English in school and were eager to practice with me by asking a series of non-sequiturs such as, “What colors do you like?” and, “What’s your favorite animal?” They couldn’t understand why I kept laughing at their persistent interrogation.

Nice view from the top at least

Nice view from the top at least

Talking with the girls was fun at first, but three hours later and with no end to the bus ride in sight things got weird. First Michelle had to pee. Now, this bus didn’t have a bathroom but that doesn’t stop a determined Chinese person. Why hold it when you can allow your child to pee into a plastic bag with no social stigma attached whatsoever?

So the fact that Michelle’s mother asked the man next to us to move seats and then had Michelle pee right beside me wasn’t even shocking at this point, just moderately unpleasant. Then things got even more unpleasant when out of the blue Strawberry decided to throw a huge temper tantrum. Half the bus turned to stare as the girl started letting out wails of pain the likes of which I have never heard leave a child’s mouth before. Thankfully, the bus soon stopped, allowing me a fast escape.

It means peace

It means peace

Little girl with a Chinese flag was running by the Buddha

Little girl with a Chinese flag was running by the Buddha

By the time I got up to Leshan, which required switching to a second bus first, it was already 3:00 PM. I was all set and ready to go see this massive Buddha already, but apparently I had to start all the way around the other side of the mountain.

Well, that ended up being a good thing, because as it turned out there were actually a lot of cool, much smaller Buddhas carved into winding caves throughout the mountains. I meandered through snapping pictures on my dying phone and wondering just how far away this giant Buddha was exactly. About an hour later, I got over to the other side of the mountain.

Remember me mentioning that I was traveling during National Holiday, which meant that approximately 1 billion of the 1.3 billion Chinese were also trying to simultaneously have a holiday? Well, there’s this expression in Chinese that goes 人山人海 / Ren Shan Ren Hai / “people mountain people ocean,” or more colloquially, “a sea of people.” That is approximately how many people were also waiting to see the giant Buddha at Leshan.

It was 4:00 PM and the attraction closed at 6:00. If I waited in line, there was probably no way to catch a bus back to Chengdu. It was time for me to head home.



Prayer candles

Prayer candles

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 4

Day 2: 成都 / Chengdu

Fun fact: Chengdu literally translates to “become capital.” So basically way back in the day, this king selected a random city in Sichuan province and was like, “okay, let’s move the capital here now.” That’s Chengdu for ya.

I decided to set my first full day in Chengdu aside just to see the city. Especially after the chaos of the night before, I wasn’t in the mood to plan anything too big. I’m glad I did it, because things were chaotic enough without having big plans to follow through with.

Jinli Pedestrian Street. Just a liiiiitle crowded

Jinli Pedestrian Street. Just a liiiiitle crowded

I started the day off at a place called 锦里 / Jinli Ancient Street. China seems to really like these “ancient” places as tourist attractions, whether streets, “temples,” or full towns. Each one looks like what most Westerners might picture as the stereotypical China—sloping rooves, red buildings, lanterns strung up everywhere. And each one honestly seems to be a glorified tourist shopping area. But somehow I still find them kind of cool. If you are very creative enough and can ignore the selfie sticks, iPads, and cheap souvenirs spilling out of every building, you can almost feel like you’ve been transported back to ancient China.

In Jinli we walked in a thick pack through the street, with no hope of stopping, turning back, or changing direction at any point in time. (It wasn’t quite to the point of crowd crush, but it was pretty tight in there) A woman blatantly pointed at me as I walked next to her and yelled at her baby, “Look! A foreigner!” I was beginning to feel like I was a bit more out of place here in Chengdu than I’d ever felt in Shenzhen.

Then the crowd turned to see a beautiful sight—an entire road lined with stalls selling street food for as far as the eye could see. I started buying things left and right, not stopping to ask anything’s name, and everything I purchased was amazing, and of course all of it left my mouth totally numb.

Mala fries

Mala fries

Chengdu is the capital of 四川 / Sichuan province (commonly Romanized as “Szechuan”). Sichuan is notorious for having some of the spiciest food in all of China (as well as the most beautiful women, interestingly enough). Sichuanese food is defined by a distinct flavor called 麻辣 / mala / “numbing spice.” Food so hot it leaves your lips numb and tongue tingling is just breakfast in Sichuan. I think it’s great, but even within China many avoid eating Sichuan food if they can. And I can see why—as I learned throughout the trip, my stomach is not really well-equipped to handle flavor that intensely awesome, much to my dismay.

Koi Pond, People's Park

Koi Pond, People’s Park

People's Park

People’s Park

After Jinli, I went to go hit up another one of Chengdu’s most famous sites—人民 公园 / Renmin Gongyuan / People’s Park. More than just a regular park, the area contains several traditional gardens, a koi pond, a mini amusement park, a lake where guests can rent boats and paddle around, and a sprawling tea house to relax and enjoy the atmosphere.

The tea garden in People's Park

The tea garden in People’s Park

On the last day of my trip I returned to People’s Park as I did enjoy the place, even with so many tourists everywhere. I took a seat at the tea house and ordered a cup of green tea leaves. Quickly I was handed a massive jug of boiling water and was able to drink as many cups of tea as I would like. As I sat and read my book outside, I suddenly heard a man yelling at me in English.

Clean ear?!

Clean ear?!

“Clean ear?! Clean ear?!” he was shouting. I had no idea what he was talking about so I just said no, but a few seconds later he approached the table next to mine. Sure enough, they agreed to have “clean ear” so he whipped out a few medical-looking instruments and started sticking them up in the ears of the guy seated right next to me. It might actually be the weirdest thing I saw in Chengdu, and I also saw a woman who was holding her child’s pee in a plastic bag (see accompanying photo).



Anyways, at this point in the day I was actually starting to get worried about not having a place to sleep that night, so I decided to go track down housing. I thought that maybe because it was still early in the day, I could find somewhere to accommodate me even in the central areas of town. But I still must’ve tried out ten or more hotels before I finally found one with space. Once again it was a lot more money than I’d wanted to spend on a room, but at that point, just having a bed was something to appreciate! And besides, it had a king size bed and free unlimited drinking water in the bathroom, so I learned to love it.

The hotel ended up being in a great location after all, as it was about equidistant from People’s Park and the main center of Chengdu, 天府广场 / Tianfu Guangchang / Tianfu Square. Tianfu actually translates to “heavenly province,” which is a descriptor commonly used for the entire province of Sichuan, which as I mentioned Chengdu is the capital of. And Tianfu Square is at the center of the center of Sichuan, so I see why it is so important for travelers to come see.

Tianfu Square--daytime

Tianfu Square–daytime

The square during the day wasn’t honestly too special in my opinion. There are some interesting swirling sculptures that double as fountains, and the square faces a towering sculpture of 毛泽东 / Mao Zedong, who of course established the People’s Republic of China and set the country on a path towards Communism back in 1949. It is also surrounded by some of Chengdu’s most impressive, modern buildings so it is clearly supposed to represent the newest side of the city.

At night, the square actually gets really awesome. It was a few days later when I stumbled upon the hidden “sunken plaza”—open during the day too but way cooler at night. Basically there is a big pit in the middle of the square with an underground mall hidden inside, and awesome views of the city! The rest of the plaza is all lit up at night too, and the surrounding buildings play around with lights in different colors. Overall, it’s definitely a good idea to look at the plaza both during the day and at night for the full effect.

Tianfu Square from the Sunken Plaza

Tianfu Square from the Sunken Plaza

Tianfu Square--nighttime

Tianfu Square–nighttime

The last area of Chengdu which I stopped by that night was 春熙路 / Chunxi Road (translates to something like “Sunny Spring Road”). This was actually a huge, modern shopping area located in the streets next to Tianfu. Almost any desired store was to be found here—from designer brands to Gap and H&M to numerous Chinese brands I didn’t recognize. The streets were packed with shoppers of all ages and backgrounds, and stores were blaring American and Chinese pop music left and right. It was a pretty cool place, but unfortunately I spent most of my trip regretting all the street food I’d so eagerly devoured earlier. So I returned home early to my overpriced hotel room, hoping to get lots of rest for the next day. I sure was going to need it…

Chinese Starbucks, near Chunxi Road

Chinese Starbucks, near Chunxi Road

Dat LV

Dat LV

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 3

Part 3: 成都 / Chengdu

My hostel in Chengdu, which is not to be named, pulled the ‘ole switcharoo on me. And by that I mean I showed up at around 9:30 at night and they were like, “LOL what reservation?” Followed by the ever-adorable, “Yeah, we’re all booked up for the night, and so is everywhere else! Don’t you know it’s National Holiday?”

I had never set foot in Chengdu in my life, and I was suddenly left homeless.

Someday in the far distant future when I’m trying to get into politics, and all the other candidates are pretending to be homeless for a week to try and be relatable, I’m glad I’ll be able to cite Chengdu 2015 as putting me a step ahead of the competition.

What kept me calm in the situation was actually an extremely fortunate coincidence which involved me downloading a free travel guide off of Reddit during my first week or so in Shenzhen. I’d perused only the first few chapters, learning that this guy had backpacked Southeast Asia for years and was now sharing what he’d learned. And one piece of his advice that was suddenly clear in my mind—possibly the only piece I actually remember reading—was that you will always find a place to sleep, no matter where you are or what the circumstances.

It makes a lot of sense in hindsight, because barring an extraordinary circumstance like the Olympics, what would it actually take for every single room in every single hotel in a city to be filled? If not even National Holiday can do it, then it’s tough to say. So I would have to say that after this experience, I absolutely endorse this advice 100%. If your hostel cancels your booking, you will find a room. It might be a crappy room, or on the other hand a room that’s a bit out of your intended budget, but it’ll be there. Don’t stress.

At the time this advice was only acting as a skinny little lifeline attaching me to my sanity. I wasn’t exactly breathing easy. Still, I totally credit that guide with keeping me level-headed that night, and will totally go read the rest now!

So there I was, this one lone white girl wandering the streets of Chengdu armed with nothing but a backpack half my size and some kick-ass leg muscles thanks to 20-odd years of dance practice. And so I began my quest, to find that one open bed waiting for me somewhere, faith resting in God and one random Redditor who I’ll probably never meet.

Two things happened to me that night. For one, something clicked in my brain regarding my Chinese level, and continued to click with me for the rest of the trip. For the first time, I had to really face the facts—messing up my pronunciation of a word is just far less terrifying than sleeping alone on the streets of an unfamiliar city. At each hotel I had to figure out how to ask for rooms and what the prices were (if I even got that far…) which involved operating solely in Chinese. You just don’t get to that kind of a crossroads sitting in Chinese class, and that is why I believe in travel.

Second, I stumbled upon one aspect of Chinese culture that it turns out I absolutely love. In China, your personal problems are looked upon as everyone’s problems.

At first glance this seems awful and sure, to our American minds it is, and I can think of at least 1,000 problems that I wouldn’t want to be anyone else’s problem. Example being a village I visited once in Anhui province where whether or not each woman in the village was using birth control was posted up on a public display board.

However, when you are in need of help in China, this habit is really quite excellent. Several times, people went far out of their ways to help me out, offering directions, hastily scribbled instructions, and gestures in the right direction when words wouldn’t do. And this has been a common theme since I got here. On my first night in China I missed my connecting flight to Shenzhen and got stuck at the Beijing airport and a Chinese man helped me and another woman translate with the staff at the airport to figure out where the free hotel the airline put me up in was located and how I could get there. Expecting nothing in return, people here will go to significant lengths to help you out with whatever you need.

I still struggle to find the words to directly describe it, but it’s like a heightened awareness of the people around you and the fact that they are all people too. I suppose one could just call it having a greater sense of empathy. Either way, it’s something America has likely never had, as we prioritize remaining true to our individual beliefs and responsibilities rather than the needs of others. Both ideas are equally valuable and each has its positives and negatives, it’s just nice to experience a change every once in a while.

I didn't ask for all this luxury, but I might as well enjoy it.

I didn’t ask for all this luxury, but I might as well enjoy it.

And yes, I did eventually find a room, granted for far more money than I had wanted to pay. Though this was to become a common theme throughout the rest of the week, and all thanks to the madness of National Holiday.

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 2

Part 2: 香港 / Hong Kong

I’m convinced that I may have superpowers somewhere in the realm of being able to seek out the best food possible, anytime, anyplace. My beautiful fifteen minutes in Hong Kong proved that. I had been hoping to get at least an hour, maybe two, in to explore what is notoriously one of the coolest cities on this planet, but unfortunately things took so long at the border that I literally had about fifteen minutes before I had to leave for the airport.

The following restaurants are what I managed to find in fifteen minutes: Pret a Manger, Mrs. Field’s cookies, and a place that sells burrito bowls.

Now to understand how important this last one is, you have to understand the sad state of burrito bowls in China. It’s not just seeking out the actual full bowl that would be difficult, but it’s the fact that almost every individual component of a burrito bowl—beans, salsa, sour cream, grated cheese—is in short supply here on the mainland, and would possibly involve trips to several different international grocery stores and shelling out a good chunk of change. Spending time, effort, and money all at the same time is something I try to avoid, so I’ve been forcing my growing burrito bowl cravings to the back of my mind for weeks now.

I probably looked like an actual savage based on how quickly I wolfed that thing down. At the time I avoided spending $18 HKD just to add guacamole, but now I look back and think it may have been a mistake. However, it was really the sour cream that got me hard. Try depriving yourself of sour cream for the next month and a half and you’ll see. It’s a food that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. There is a sour-cream shaped hole in my heart, and I can try to fill it with sour cream and onion flavored Pringles, but a part of me is always going to feel empty. Luckily my burrito bowl filled that deep spiritual need and I was able to move along with my life. For the time being, my heart is whole.


Anyways, after about fifteen minutes of finding and eating said burrito bowl, I returned to the subway stop to catch an express train to the airport, where yet another glorious food-related surprise greeted me. I was wandering the airport halls when out of the corner of my well-trained eye I spotted a recognizable logo. It couldn’t be—could it? But yes, it was! A Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits, right in the Hong Kong airport!


I vowed to eat there every time I was in that airport for life. Except for today. I was still full from that wonderful burrito bowl. The verdict: the best part of Hong Kong so far is food, hands down.

I hopped on the plane and spent the next two hours being gaped at by a middle-aged Chinese couple. The woman kept feeding me snacks, which I think means she wanted to keep me as a pet. Lots of Chinese people have had that reaction to me. It honestly doesn’t even phase me anymore.

But I disembarked in Chengdu to an unpleasant surprise…

The Chengdu Chronicles: Part 1

The following story covers my adventures in Chengdu, China over National Holiday at the beginning of October. If you enjoy both pandas and pandemonium, this one’s for you.

Day 1, Part 1: 深圳 / Shenzhen

The morning started bright and early, as I rolled out of bed as quickly as I could to start the morning (which in all honesty wasn’t very quickly). I’d been up late again the night before, trying to pack, trying to figure out what exactly I was doing with my life for the next few days, and then of course trying to go to sleep at night. But finally the morning had come, and I was heading off to Hong Kong for the first time.

It was the second day of National Holiday week in China, a blissful time where all 1.3 billion Chinese citizens enjoy a shared vacation. That is, everyone except employees of the tourist industry, because obviously 1.3 billion travelers means that gets pretty busy. Think of it this way: even if everyone in America took a vacation at the same time, it’d only be about 300 million people, so imagine four times the population of America trying to run around the country and sightsee. Yeah. “Chaotic” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The city of Shenzhen, where I’ve been living for the past two months or so, borders Hong Kong in several places. This allows residents of either an easy transit to the other side, or so in theory. In reality, I arrived at the border in Hong Kong at about 9:30 A.M. to see massive crowds of people already waiting to cross the border at 福田口岸 / Futian Kou’an / Futian Port, one of the many border connections between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. At this one, there was an on-land immigration port, a glass walkway over the body of water separating the two locations, and right on the other side was the Hong Kong subway, waiting to take passengers into the center of the city.

Here are the steps I went through to get from Shenzhen to Hong Kong:

  1. Border security on the mainland China side. Time: 1 hour
  2. Border security on the Hong Kong side. Yes, in fact, this security is the exact same as the security on the China side. But for some reason they felt they should do it twice. Time: 1 hour
  3. Purchase subway tickets for Hong Kong. Not as easy as it sounds. Time: 1 hour. See sub steps:
    1. Wait in 15-person line for ticket machine. Discover that they do not accept RMB, nor debit cards, despite being just over the Chinese border and catering directly to people who have obviously just come from China. Set off to find Hong Kong dollars.
    2. Decide not to wait in 60-person customer service line to exchange cash. Find ATM instead. Obtain HKD!
    3. Wait in 15-person line again at new ticket machine to use HKD. Discover that I cannot use $100 HKD on machine unless ticket is greater than $50 HKD. Ticket is $49.50. Scream in rage.
    4. Return to ATM only to find that it solely distributes $100 HKD.
    5. Wait in 15-person line for third time trying not to rip out my hair. Purchase two subway tickets and call it a day.
  4. Ride subway into Central. Time: 1 more hour
  5. Grand total to reach the city: 4 hours. 啊呀!

And then I was in Hong Kong for the first time ever…

Life in the Village

One of the cool things about my time in Shenzhen so far is that I was able to get housing in a residential village. Called a 村 / cun (pronounced “tswun”), these villages are scattered all across the city, and make apartment living much more bearable.

View from my window

View from my window

View from the porch

View from the porch

Because Shenzhen is a planned city, it was built with certain things in mind that other cities were not. For example, Boston was not built with the intention of ever allowing cars to drive along its roads, a fact which becomes pretty apparent to most visitors pretty quickly. The city also was built up randomly and sporadically over time, which results in roads that are almost parallel but not quite, intersections that don’t make any sense, and all in all, a pretty tightly packed living space.

But since Shenzhen was built all at once and in a place where there was previously nothing, it was built with a purpose. Not only is my village packed densely enough with tall apartment buildings to house thousands of people, but the village is also packed with meandering paths, green spaces, and areas for people to gather and relax.

For the first few weeks in the city, I mainly stuck to the village, just trying to master its wandering pathways, dead ends and surprise gardens. You could probably spend at least an hour or two exploring the space, if you went down each and every path, and the great part is that it is all very public. Everyone shares the space evenly and respectfully.

The village is always full of life, from young kids riding their bikes to old women walking or practicing tai chi. Walks in the morning reveal people exercising in the large public square or at any of the public exercise equipment available throughout the village, and walks in the evening are filled with high school students returning home for the night or, if your timing is right, large flocks walking to the subway stop from their jobs nearby.

A typical building looks something like this

A typical building looks something like this

A typical row of houses

A typical row of houses

In the center of the village is a strip of shops to make life easier—a bookstore, a bakery, a few small restaurants. Just outside the parameters is the subway stop, bus stops, a small grocery store, and a huge vegetable market where everyone heads at night to prepare for dinner. In the morning vendors sell steamed buns or bing, Chinese pancakes.

Because the village is almost entirely Chinese people, I do stick out a bit as I walk around. Many people have given me an odd, concentrated glance, like I don’t belong there. But it never makes me feel unsafe—in fact the neighborhood feels quite peaceful and protected, as it is mostly inhabited by families. And the neighborhood is full of security guards and protected by gates in various places, not to mention that I live on the seventh floor with no elevator, so it’d take quite a bit for something to go wrong at my house.

I have really enjoyed living in the village so far, as it has enabled me to feel a part of a genuinely Chinese neighborhood. It is peaceful compared to the city which closes it in, and yet is still vibrant and full of life.

Sunrise over the village

Sunrise over the village

More morning views

More morning views

There are lots of stray cats around!

There are lots of stray cats around!