How to Shop in Hong Kong

The headline should read, “How to Shop in Tuen Mun,” actually. You see, there’s no experience quite like making a little pilgrimage from Shenzhen to Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun neighborhood. This is a convenient little trip–one need only go to the Shenzhen Bay Checkpoint, and after crossing the border, it’s a cinch to hop a bus (the City Bus operated B3X) which terminates right in front of a shopping mall. The bus ride is a mere 20 minutes duration, and the double decker bus accommodates over 100 people.

Accordingly, this is a popular day trip for Chinese nationals in pursuit of goods not as easily or perhaps as cheaply picked up in Mainland China. The Shenzhen Bay Checkpoint has a reputation around here for being quicker than others–take the Futian crossing, for example, which is always crowded–but timing is very important with the Shenzhen Bay crossing.

Saturday we set off for HK via SZ Bay, arriving at the border around 9:15 am. We had a great day mapped out: watch The Last Jedi, then do some Christmas shopping. Based on our last trip, we’d be at the Town Plaza Mall, where the bus drops people off, in roughly an hour. But it didn’t go quite that quickly. Crossing the border took forever–it looked like every other person in Shenzhen was heading the same direction, all with wheeled luggage in tow. Wheeled luggage–the kind you take on a multi-night trip somewhere. Lots of travelers, I observed.

In terms of avoiding crowds, it seems 9:15 am was exactly the worst time to go. After waiting with toddler in carrier, back starting to ache quite thoroughly, for about an hour, we got through both passport checks. Much to our chagrin, where the previous time we’d been, there had been a line to the B93X bus that wasn’t terribly long, today was different. The line basically reached to the point you emerge from the border checkpoint building. Now they load those buses up quickly–two at a time, almost constantly departing, and that enables the queue to keep moving. However, one small hassle is the lack of signage. Sure, you can join the line easily, but how much will a ticket cost? That’s only posted down by the bus. So we had to make a little trek down there to find out. $11 HKD is the price, in case you’re wondering, and $5.50 for the 4 year old. We had that much cash, so no problem. Next, we headed back to the rear of the line, and being the sort of obedient Westerners we are, joined the queue there. Or, ok, maybe we merged into the general melee sort of near the back. Come on, we’d been there as long as anyone else, having made a mostly unnecessary trip to the front, so cut us some slack. Anyhow, this line didn’t move nearly as fast as before, but we finally ended up in a bus, and in the best seats in the house– the front, on the top.

This position gave us an excellent view of the nifty right-side-of-the-road to left-side-of-the-road switcheroo engineered into the highway. China drives on the right, same as the US, and HK on the left, so the transition seems like it would be awkward, but courtesy of a little loop and swoop, it’s easy as pie.

It was 11:30 before we arrived at the mall, which seemed an awfully long time. A handful of people had disembarked before the final stop, but most took their luggage and hopped out. We made for the movie theater, spent too much money on oily popcorn (I declined both the wasabi and tomato flavored options), and enjoyed seeing Star Wars on its opening weekend.

Afterward, we joined the hordes of people who’d thronged the mall. And as it turns out, the throngs we’d shared floor space with like human cattle at SZ Bay border crossing weren’t going away for the weekend. They were going shopping. The suitcases were for their purchases. You’d have thought you were on the concourse at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, there were so many people rolling luggage around.

It looked like suitcase parking outside Yves St Lauren, which didn’t allow folks to haul the things into the store.

As luck would have it, our return trip also coincided with the returning time of thousands of other people, and we found ourselves again in a humongous line back into China. I can tell you the worst time to return from Tuen Mun is nightfall because that’s when everyone else is also heading home. A little earlier, however, around 4:30pm, and the border is a snap. We finished both HK and China inside 25 minutes on our previous journey.

As for those suitcases, everyone was just whizzing them home. “I wonder about customs?” We mused, as we watched everyone roll their stuff blithely past the customs line. Turns out, according to this article on the website China Highlights, you’d have to buy quite a lot of stuff to have any taxes levied. Guess the suitcases are just an ingenious way of carrying your loot easily. So it turns out the best way to shop in Hong Kong is to hop a bus at the border, roll your wheeled luggage along, and fill it with goodies at the mall.


Al Ain’s Old Souk

Al Ain is a city of texture. Some areas are quite polished and upscale. Other areas are anything but. There are buildings that are literally palatial, and others which make a bomb shelter look comfortable and inviting. On the outskirts of town you will find shanties housing those willing to subsist on the meagerest of wages.  Al Jimi Mall is the place to go if you feel like watching the locals cruise about in their Rolls Royces, tarted up Bentleys and Ranger Rovers, AMG Mercedes’, or the rather less common Ferraris or Lamborghinis.  By contrast, in the town center, not so far away, there are Pakistani workers, entirely carless, squatting on their haunches.

And in the very center, in a series of garage-like structures nigh to the bus station, there lies an amazing market known as the “Old Souk.” For years, the souk has functioned as a place that vendors can come to sell their wares free of any charge. Those who are selling come from a variety of locations, and sell all sorts of things. They have certain areas they usually set up in, and most of the shops, with some exceptions, look more or less permanent. There is a new souk established outside of town, behind the nicest of Al Ain’s malls, but an attempt to move things out there failed, and the sellers were soon back in their traditional place in the middle of the town center. Fridays are the best day to visit, for that is when things are busiest.  Much of the souk is indoors, or semi-indoors, but there is also quite a bit outdoors.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter.

The Old Souk, here made a bit more vivid with a snappy filter courtesy of that funky smartphone app known as instagram.

One building houses the vegetable and meat market.  Seeking some good flat cabbage?  Or maybe a nice, succulent camel hump?  This is the place to get it.  Maybe you’d rather skip the camel and get some nice, fresh goat.  That’s readily available, as it’s a very common meat here, usually served with biryani (an Indian style rice dish).

As we approach, we encounter an Omani woman who is happy to show us her wares, which include a number of interesting items uniquely Middle Eastern.  She has come from Buraimi, just a short way off, almost every day for years. She is also pleased to allow us to take her picture, something that isn’t always to be counted on here. Jenia purchases a souvenir for herself, and one for her friend–the golden face covering that seems to be known as a “burqa” here.  The burqa is meant to accent the woman’s eyes, we are told.  Jenia decides to buy a second one to give to a friend of ours, and the woman, noticing that Jenia is with child (yes, we did this before the baby came), refuses payment (a mere 10 dirhams) for it, and insists on giving it as a gift.


If you’re looking for fresh Emirati fish, this is the place to find it. The types that are most renowned are available here: hammour, Sultan Ibrahim. They’re all freshly caught from around the Emirates. The vendors are happy to show you their catches.  If you’re trying to find a good price, you can probably get it here–but you should know what the going rate is, and it helps if you read Arabic, because most of the signs and numbers aren’t in English.  The best way to get a deal is to bargain, which is expected.  I, of course, have no idea what a reasonable price is for any seafood, but I enjoy looking at the huge number of fish, big and small, and the sellers enjoy telling us what is what.  Jenia strolls about with her camera, snapping the images you see here.

In the image above, Amro, one of the main folks involved with Al Ain Weekends, a lovely group which organizes excursions for anyone interested in learning more about the area, shows off a fish.

Despite the stern expressions these two men wear in the photographs, they are happy to explain all about the fish they are selling and let us take their pictures.

Leaving the fish souk, we pass smiling faces, families, and virtually no other westerners other than the ones we came with.  There is Yemeni honey for sale, and one of the guys selling it gets me to try some.  It’s good, but I’m not about to pay the kind of money they’re asking for it, and I don’t feel like bargaining in the first place.  The wife and I are interested in seeing the people, smelling the odors that flavor the air, and simply being a part of the bustle of the souk, a place that seems mostly left out of the rush toward hyper-modernity that Al Ain has generally embraced.  Incidentally, you’ll notice the reduction in quality of most of the pictures after this–they’re the ones I snapped with my phone.  Jenia gets all the credit for being the better photographer of the two of us.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Beautiful, characterful people enjoying the souk.

Soon, we are standing outside a shop that makes a traditional Omani sweet called halawa (spelling?).  This is basically made from sugar or corn syrup with added sugars.  It’s boiled for a long time in huge basins, being stirred the whole time.  If memory serves, the boiling/stirring must go on for at least two hours.  The sweet is rather delicious.  There are all kinds for sale, and there are buyers in and out while we are there who purchase big boxes full for parties or weddings.  We are lucky enough to be invited to the back room to watch it being made.

Boiling the halawa.

Boiling and stirring the sloppy goop that will become halawa.

Next, we stroll through the camel souk.  Here we see anything you might need for your camel.  If you’ve ever seen a camel wearing anything, it’s probably for sale right here.  There are blankets, muzzles, ropes, and much more.  I enjoy seeing some of the simple things for sale, like camel shampoo.  When I took the dog to the vet back in the States, I used to see horse shampoo for sale, but I’ve never seen this before.  Naturally, I whip out my trusty old iPhone and snap a photo.  Good instagram, right?

Gotta have that camel shampoo if you have a camel.

Gotta have that camel (and horse) shampoo if you have a camel (or horse).

Finally, we get to the tobacco area.  Here folks can purchase the very strong type of tobacco that is so popular and which a bunch of my students smoke in the bathrooms.  I forget the name of it, but it’s actually no longer legal to grow it in the Emirates, so this stuff we’re seeing is imported from Oman.  The guys here are also selling the slender little pipes that are used to smoke this stuff, and a number of accessories handy for this kind of addiction.  The men have the sort of faces that make great photos.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

This tobacco seller has a great face, just oozing coolness.

In this post, I’m afraid I omit a lot of interesting details about the wide range of merchandise for sale in this bustling market.  There’s so much more than I can write sufficiently about.  I don’t remember what many things are called, and I forget the reasons some of the unusual items are for sale.  There’s pollen for date palms, palm fronds, harnesses of rope for climbing and trimming palm trees, saws for that purpose, dried goods, liquids of all sorts, and on and on and on.  If you’ve been to the souk, you can no doubt think of something striking that I neglect to mention here.

Furniture and Faux Pas

It’s 4 in the morning. I’m awake because there was a fight of some kind outside, and even on the 16th floor, I could hear some of the shouting and, when I cracked the drapes, see the police cars and ambulances. I’m guessing that there was a brouhaha between drunk Americans (hopefully not teachers). One fine fellow, amidst the hubbub cried out, so loudly that I could hear it clearly from my (closed) window, “I’ll take your head off, motha (you can guess the rest)!” There was wild gesticulating from various members of the crowd, and a woman sat crying on the sidewalk for the duration of all this, until she was escorted to a freshly arriving ambulance.  As I snapped this photo, the crowd had mostly cleared out and one police car and ambulance had already departed.

A run-in with the authorities in these parts could be a terrible idea. Like my Middle-Eastern acquaintance says, “they don’t mess around.”  From my vantage point up here on the 16th floor, I’d guess the various parties were all American, which might make it easier for everyone than if they’d tangled with Emiratis, much like it’s better if foreigners in the USA don’t get into a melee with well-established locals. But who knows. I’m mostly speculating because I’m awake and it’s the wee hours of the morning. Whether I’m right or wrong about the nature of the conflict though, I consider it quite the faux pas to get acquainted with the Abu Dhabi police in such a fashion.

Say, does “wee hours” mean that these are the smallest hours, by the way, or the hours when normal people wake up just long enough to go “wee” in the bathroom? Apologies. Just wondering.

On a whole different note, yesterday (which feels like today, of course) I spent the day furniture shopping. I’ve mentioned before that I suck at shopping. I do. I found stuff I liked in Home Centre (conveniently located across from one entrance of the Marina Mall), but I quickly discovered that if I bought what I liked, I’d have no money left after furnishing only one room in the house. Home Centre offers a 20% discount for ADEC teachers, as well as free moving and set-up. That’s a good savings, but most of their stuff is low quality, and I don’t want the stuff I can afford, I want the nice, expensive stuff!



I then went across the parking lot. This was a short journey, but one where I had the double pleasure of thawing out and getting very hot. It was downright chilly inside, and of course it’s over 100 degrees outside, so the contrast is intense. After I made this journey of extremes, I went inside the Mall itself and downstairs to Carrefour, where I looked at kitchen appliances and priced various household goods. That was not thrilling. Dishwashers, stoves, washing machines–they’re just not exciting things to shop for. I got a bunch of prices and left, having filled up a couple pages in my trusty notebook and snapped several photos with my lovely iPhone.  Oh, and I can’t forget to tell you that I did a lot of dividing by 3.67, the exchange rate, to get a feeling for prices compared to home.  I don’t like doing math.  Even on a calculator.  How ridiculous am I?

Back at the hotel, I hopped on Dubizzle and spent a while searching for bed sets and used appliances. I have a lead on a decent bedroom set and a full-sized 700 liter fridge, so I hope to follow those tomorrow and see what happens.

I forgot to say that I consulted with the wife repeatedly about this stuff via facebook’s video chat. I held my iPhone up so she could see photos I took, and we talked price, and decided what we need now and can get later, and so forth and so on.

It was a very ordinary and rather tedious day, for the most part. Yup. Sucky shopper. I know. Anyway, now I hope to go back to sleep.

Ta ta.