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.

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Noise.

Big city life is noisy, right? So is country life, but in its own way, you might say. And you’d be right. I never knew how many weird noises cows make before moving to rural Georgia, after all. Big city noises are different, though. The unceasing clatter and din of human beasts. Traffic. Construction. Demolition. Reconstruction. Jackhammers.

In Shenzhen, there’s hardly a day goes by without the obnoxious racket of a jackhammer. There is a construction site adjacent to our residence–everyday for months they’ve been excavating there, cutting and drilling and slamming out rock so they can erect another skyscraper. Are you familiar with that process? Huge hydraulic breakers are employed to do the job, mounted on large crawler tractors. They repeatedly send a heavy chisel point into the rock. Eventually an excavator comes along and digs out the debris, whereupon a dump truck hauls it off. As you can imagine, it’s a loud and drawn out process.

Last week, a crew started demolishing the vacant Longzhu Hospital which is just across the road on the other side of our domicile. Now the clamor of jackhammers and breakers echoes off Tanglang Mountain from that direction, too.

There’s no relaxing outside in the beautiful fall weather because it’s so loud all the time. Even relaxing on the balcony is unrealistic. Luckily, after 6:30pm all is quiet.

Unless, that is, the road is being torn up so a sewage line can be replaced. Or they’re paving the other road.

Bearing all this in mind, when Jenia and I spent the night at the fantastic new Hard Rock Hotel in Longhua, some 45-60 minutes away, I was delighted that it was located in Mission Hills, where a posh golf course exists, and where things must surely be quieter.

Imagine my dismay when I was awakened on the 15th floor by the noise of what appears to be a metro line under construction. The entire median separating the highway was a big work zone. Curses.

But that’s all part of the deal with Shenzhen. It is a really big city, after all. Much of the construction really does make life better, ultimately, but it’s a drawback to living here as well.

Impressions: Shenzhen After 4 Weeks

In lieu of a straightforward narrative per the usual, here’s a post that aims simply to catch the feelings of some recent moments. Some paragraphs are present tense, some past, so don’t get all English teachery about it. It’s about emotion.

Dafeng Oil Painting Village: Man, most of these rip-offs/copies of other people’s work are actually not even good. Low-caliber. Also, this whole street reeks of sewage. But where are the bathrooms? This toddler needs to pee! No luck with a bathroom. A while later: look, there’s a local mom holding her son in the air, buck naked, over a diaper so he can do his business (again, judging by the state of the diaper).

Princess at Dafeng

Princess doesn’t care that this is a low-caliber knock off. She likes it.

Walmart: no thanks. Holy too-packed-for-me, Batman!

Electric buses used everywhere in SZ for public transportation are made by BYD (who has a factory in California now). Slick! Quiet, modern, nice. The buses also have English announcements, making using them painless for foreigners like us.

More cloudy days than not. Glimpses of blue skies and rare clear days. I’m enjoying one of these on my balcony now, sweating like a stuck pig, but thrilled with the sun beaming down on me.

Clouds keep the heat down.

Buddhist (i.e. Vegetarian) restaurants and Muslim (i.e. halal) noodle places. Who knew?

Curse those wretched silent electric bikes which disregard all rules. Sidewalks, opposite traffic lanes, you name it, they go there. Royally irritating. Can’t let your guard down while walking, and especially not with little ones.

Curse also the miserable excuse for a human who decided to start putting durian into all manner of otherwise delectable foods. Breads, ice creams, you name it. If it’s yellow, watch out.

Speaking of durian, why in the whole world would anyone ever want to eat it? It is the most sense-confusing fruit ever–the nose says, “Hey, that’s going to be sweet!” and the tastebuds, caught off guard, say “Holy unexpected crap, this tastes like rotten onions!” If at first it’s not revolting, try and try again.

Walked into a restaurant. Evidently they were using Szechuan spices as they prepared something. Whole family felt vaguely pepper sprayed and started coughing uncontrollably (but not severely).

Best mango ever! Huge and, oh, words can’t express how soft and sweet.

Breakfast

Delicious–fresh mango and a Cantonese breakfast food called chong fen (pork excluded, of course).

Risky business, making an order for food. Being vegetarian adds a serious layer of challenge to eating out.

Spying a toddler clad in split pants, Turtle points and laughs. “Hahaha! Mom, look! You can see his butt!”

Fuquing St.

Sometimes you need to laugh a little.

People slap themselves while exercising. They also walk backwards.

There are eye exercises at school, wherein pupils shut and then rub their eyes in various patterns.

“That’s called the Beijing bikini,” says a coworker, as I point out the guy walking past our bus wearing his T-shirt rolled up so everyone can see his jiggling waist. This style of dress is common.

Style? It’s all over the place. From none to wow, there’s something for everyone.

Bentley. Porsche. Tesla. Maserati. Those with wealth flaunt it.

Caddy in Nanshan

Cadillac is well represented in the area.

Yeah, it gets crowded. Mornings are less busy.

You could get mowed down in a crosswalk. Keep your eyes open–not just for cars, also for the jerk on the e-bike I mentioned earlier.

I’ve only seen one automobile accident. How is it possible, given the way these people drive? “There’s a rhythm to it,” says another coworker, describing the near-chaotic traffic. “It seems to be about occupying the space,” my coworker continues. “If you’re there first, you can have it, and if you turn and get partly there, then other drivers will yield to you.”

Amazing architecture.

Ping An IFC

Newly completed, Ping An International Finance Center reaches 599 meters into the sky, making it the world’s fourth tallest building. It comes within about 10 meters of being the third tallest and is indeed impressive.

Chegongmiao

Outside the Chegongmio metro stop there are a number of impressive buildings.

Dafeng Houses

These buildings in Dafeng Oil Painting Village suggest the massive growth that’s taken place in the last thirty or forty years.

Mall interiors that defy logic. Why the devil isn’t there an escalator right here, with all the others, to get down a single floor?

Windows that get opened and left open for no reason, including while air conditioning is running.

Noise.

People often shout when they talk.

Shoddy workmanship.

Tropical vegetation. Lush.

Banyan 1

That banyan tree blew my mind. The dude outside started examining it when I aimed my camera up.

Shopping for big items isn’t easy without a car.

Buying food is cheap, unless you opt for the high-end stuff. It’s possible to spend a lot if you’ve gotta have all the same stuff as you do at home. Also, cooking is a hassle when you can’t get all the same stuff as home (and you aren’t versed in Chinese foods).

Banks take forever. Under no circumstances change money at Bank of China. Just leave your cash at home (or swap it in HK at the airport’s forex) and use the friggin’ ATM. Jenia’s going to write an entire post about this.

Korean food

22 kwai (if memory serves) buys a delightful Korean dish (kimchi fried rice), plus water and appetizers are free.

What a modern and efficient subway system. It actually is a pleasure to use.

It really is possible to eat out for less than it is to cook at home. Quality varies.

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Break Travels: Musings on Thailand

It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine.  Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual.  But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks.  We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand.  We explored three distinct areas of Thailand.  Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).

Map borrowed from this website: http://samui-attractions.blogspot.ae/2012/04/map-of-thailand-koh-samui-hoh-phangan.html

You’ll see Udon Thani nearly at the Laos border in the northeast; Bangkok is center on the gulf; Krabi and Ao Nang are near Phuket.  Map is borrowed from another website, but it seems to have come from EmbassyWorld.com.

Let’s talk about scenery first.   Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters.  In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all.  It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph.  There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  But it isn’t beautiful.  Bangkok was a surprise.  We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is.  What, exactly, I’m not sure.  But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part.  Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained.  Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.  

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous.  Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy.  They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction.  Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.

In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around.  They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases.  It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.

So what are some insights we gained from our trip?  Would we want to live in Thailand?  Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else?  Here are three things that made an impression on me.  Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon.  For now, here are my thoughts.

Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now.  Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended.  There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles.  This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding).  It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations.  Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe.  But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.”  The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said.  Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with.  “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done.  Otherwise you could wait forever.”  This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency.   If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post.  The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.

Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century.  In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though.  The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage.  Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them.  We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure.  In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally.  At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes.  Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.

IMG_4958

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching.  We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice.  We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous.  It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks.  Want a crispy grasshopper?  Check.  Maybe  silkworm larvae?  Got it.  Other insect?  Probably available.  Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long.  They don’t really have any taste.  They’re kinda crispy.  Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country.  If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

Insight four: the place is hot.  Really hot.  In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April.  It’s also extremely humid.  This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.

Would we move to Thailand?  No.  “It’s too third world,” says my wife.  I agree.  It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back.  The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea.  That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.

Surprise Day Off!

Even Google is celebrating Dubai’s hosting of the Expo!


It’s almost 6:00pm in Al Ain as I write this. Today is Thanksgiving for America, and we’re thrilled to be celebrating it with a surprise day off here in the UAE. You see…

Yesterday Dubai won its bid to host Expo 2020. This will supposedly generate billions of dollars ($35 billion, according to one article) of revenue for the area. Accordingly, Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, up and decided that today should be a national holiday.

As my friend PJ Smalley wrote last night, “The ruler of Dubai just informed the nation that there will be no school tomorrow in celebration of winning the bid for World Expo 2020. Why doesn’t President Obama order more spur-of-the-moment holidays? Gosh, who voted for that guy?”

You know nothing can happen in a way that allows people to plan anything in advance around here, and this is no exception. But it’s nice anyway. Let me tell you how the official word came around. This begins at 10:45pm. 1) Text Message from Pj–no school tomorrow. Check Facebook. 2) Facebook groups for EMTs and such–“No school tomorrow!” “Is this true?” “It’s true–here’s a link to such and such a newspaper website article.” 3) Phone call from my school’s English department coordinator: “My neighbor’s Principal said they’re off tomorrow; my wife’s Principal says they’re off tomorrow, and I’m assuming we’re off tomorrow. So don’t come to school.” My coworker who rides with me every day didn’t even believe me at first when I called him at 11:00pm to inform him that we wouldn’t be working the next morning.

To sweeten the deal a bit more, Baskin Robbins, everyone’s favorite purveyor of fattening junk food, announced they would give away free ice cream today. Our neighbors got some before it ran out.

Another of my friends, Katrina, writes: “I love this – the stuff legends are made of. A whole generation of today’s schoolchildren will grow up and tell their grandchildren, ‘I remember the day Dubai won the World Expo. They closed all the schools and there was free ice cream for everyone.'” I think she’s right.

Any way you slice it, this is the kind of thing that makes living here so wildly, and in this case, wonderfully, different from living in the USA. Surprise days off are nice!

If you’re interested in more of the stuff that’s been going on today, click on this link to The National. There’s been more interestingness…