Train Station Rating ****
Reception of locals *****
Writing about China was never going to be easy, and my first trip to mainland had me a little unsure about what it might be like, how I might be treated at borders or even within the country. But I also wanted to push through and experience China for myself rather than just hearing the narrative.
Let's get one thing out the way. What the Chinese are doing to the Uyghur is horrible and the way the Muslim religion is being wiped from the map in China is worrying. It's worrying in itself because these are human beings whose lives are being destroyed, and it's also worrying because of the parallels to Sikhs in India given the small size of both communities.
Conversely, we can see some of the decisions being made politically in the UK and wonder whether it is fair to look at another country while at home the government silently watches atrocities in the Middle East, or worse still, has been actively complicit over the years in atrocities there, as well as Operation Blue Star.
It's a difficult one to unpack and maybe one day I'll come to an educated conclusion, but for now, I offer a travel article, while understanding the country raises emotions for a lot of people. China is home to over a billion people, and whatever decision the leadership makes, the population is large and one you can't ignore, and you can't really hate or dislike a billion people given the significant diverse feelings and views that must exist in that country. For me, I wanted to get to know at least a handful of those people and see for myself what China is really like.
Shenzhen: China's modern gateway
Less than half a century ago, Shenzhen was just a small fishing village just across the border from Hong Kong, a city that was rapidly growing to be an international financial centre. Today, Shenzhen is one of the largest cities in the world, with a gross domestic product greater than many countries.
To understand Shenzhen's significance today, we must first think about how things changed so much so quickly. In the late 1970s, China, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, was embarking on a series of economic reforms. These reforms, known as 'Gaige Kaifang' (Reform and Opening Up), marked a significant shift from the rigid, centrally planned economy to a more market-oriented system. They call it Socialism with Chinese characteristics. It was against this backdrop that Shenzhen, then a small fishing village with a population of around 30,000, was chosen as the site for one of China’s first Special Economic Zones in 1980.
The establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was a bold experiment, after all, when the Soviet Union tried to open up to a more market-based economy, it collapsed completely. The zone was designed to attract foreign investment, technology, and expertise, and to serve as a testing ground for economic policies that could later be implemented elsewhere in China. The choice of Shenzhen, located adjacent to Hong Kong, was strategic. Its proximity to this major global financial centre allowed it to tap into Hong Kong's capital, managerial expertise, and international connections.
The impact was immediate and staggering. Shenzhen became a magnet for both foreign and domestic investment. Its policies of economic liberalisation, including more relaxed regulations and tax incentives, fostered an environment conducive to business and industrial growth. Manufacturing industries, particularly electronics, flourished. Companies like Huawei and Tencent, which are now global giants in their respective fields, have their roots in Shenzhen.
This transformation was not just economic; it was also demographic and cultural. The population of Shenzhen skyrocketed, growing from that small fishing community to a megacity with over 12 million residents today. This growth was fuelled by an influx of migrants from all over China, drawn by the promise of opportunity and prosperity. This migration has made Shenzhen one of the most culturally diverse cities in China, with a young, dynamic population.
Shenzhen's growth has been integral to China's overall economic strategy. It demonstrated the viability of economic reforms and played a pivotal role in China's transition to a market economy. The success of Shenzhen prompted the establishment of other Special Economic Zones and paved the way for the broader opening of the Chinese economy to the world.
Today, Shenzhen's importance cannot be overstated. It is a hub of innovation and technology, often dubbed as China's Silicon Valley. Home to some of China's most successful and influential tech companies, Shenzhen is at the forefront of China's ambitions to be a global leader in technology. The city is a powerhouse in sectors like telecommunications, biotechnology, and renewable energy, and it continues to attract talent and investment from across the globe.
Shenzhen's evolution has also been reflected in its urban development. The cityscape, marked by gleaming skyscrapers and modern infrastructure, is a testament to its economic achievements. Shenzhen is also striving to be a model of sustainable urban living, with significant investments in green spaces, public transport, and environmental initiatives. There were two things I noticed stepping out the train station and driving into Shenzhen - one was the multitude of skyscrapers that stretched for miles, and second was the incredible amount of greenery. It was both unexpected and pretty unique.
On the size, I can't stress this enough - the city is HUGE! Like, Tokyo levels. I drove in each direction from my hotel for over an hour, and the city remained an urban sprawl with skyscrapers - no sign of countryside. The whole place is on a scale that we in the UK or even in Europe would scarcely believe, and even in the US and Canada where everything is bigger, the scale here is something else.
A green city
I caught the bullet train from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. The 14-minute train journey uses very stylish and modern trains and tickets start from as low as a couple of pounds, up to £25 for business class seats. The immigration is a little full on, with forms to fill, long queues, and a requirement to go through security and customs as well. It means that while the journey itself is short, by the time you add on everything else, the whole thing takes closer to two hours.
Getting into Shenzhen Futian station is something else. The size of the train station is extraordinary. The concourse, the entrance, everything is just on this extra-large scale, and unlike Hong Kong West Kowloon station, Futian didn't seem overly busy on either my outbound or inbound journey.
Very close to the train station is Lianhuashan Park, the equivalent of Hyde Park in London or Central Park in New York. Covering an expanse of over 150 hectares, it's not just the largest park in Shenzhen but one of the largest urban parks in China. Much like the city, the park is also relatively new as it was only established in the early 1990s.
As you enter Lianhuashan Park, you're greeted by a vast array of green spaces, from meticulously manicured gardens to natural grasslands. The park's design is a blend of traditional Chinese garden aesthetics and modern landscaping, creating a harmonious environment that's both ecologically sustainable and nice to be around. The variety of flora within the park includes native tree species, seasonal flowers, and ornamental plants, each contributing to the park's biodiversity.
As you walk in there are vendors selling kites, balloons, children's toys and food. Inside, there are people walking, jogging, practicing tai-chi, or just sitting around under the shade of trees. There are various pavilions throughout the park, one had a small band where a lady was singing Chinese folk songs accompanied by instruments which I thought was pretty cool.
The paths wind through the park but aren't always very well marked. On a couple of occasions I walked into a dead end but on the whole I found the park relatively easy to navigate.
The park's main attraction is a 106-metre high hill, a prominent feature that provides visitors with a panoramic view of Shenzhen's skyline. Climbing the hill, you'll find winding paths lined with trees and benches, leading to the summit where a 6-metre tall bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping, the former President of China, stands. This statue, a tribute to the leader who spearheaded China's economic reforms and basically created the modern city of Shenzhen. The climb is relatively straight forward but can be a little tiring on a hot day (and Shenzhen has plenty of those).
The views of the city from the top of the hill are incredible. You can see the entire city skyline and it looks incredible. The city is often covered in a blanket of smog and pollution, so visibility isn't always great, but you can still see a decent way into the distance, and certainly during my visit the views were incredible. I visited on a weekend and so the entire park was quite busy, but it was particularly busy on the hilltop - not uncomfortably so, but it was definitely noticeable.
Shenzhen's cultural side
A short distance further east is the Dafen Oil Painting Village. This was the furthest I ventured from the city centre, and the journey really gave me a feel for the size of Shenzhen. It was only getting closer to Dafen did the relentless skyscrapers give way to a more flatter cityscape.
Of all the places I visited in Shenzhen, this was comfortably my favourite. Covering approximately 4 square kilometres, this village has transformed from a small-scale workshop area to a vibrant community of artists and galleries. Established in the late 1980s by a group of artists led by Hong Kong businessman Huang Jiang, Dafen quickly gained a reputation for producing high-quality oil painting reproductions at affordable prices.
As you walk through the narrow alleys of Dafen, you're surrounded by a myriad of art studios and galleries, each bustling with activity. The air is thick with the smell of paint and the sounds of brushes on canvas. Artists can be seen working on a diverse range of pieces, from replicas of famous artworks to original creations. The village has become a hub for both aspiring and established artists, attracting art enthusiasts and collectors from across the globe. Everywhere you look there are painters, or paintings. It is incredible.
Dafen's impact on the global art market has been substantial. In the early 2000s, it was estimated that the village produced around 60% of the world's oil paintings. I've never seen anything on this scale before in the art industry. The village's success has led to the development of supporting industries, including framing, logistics, and art supplies.
The main street of Dafen is lined with larger galleries showcasing a wide array of paintings, ranging from classical European art to contemporary Chinese works. These galleries not only sell paintings but also offer custom art services, allowing visitors to commission bespoke pieces. Along the narrow corridors you can even pay money and paint your own pictures. I saw hundreds of children sitting and painting - and some of the paintings were pretty good.
It's the paintings of the professional artists that are on another level. I went into several workshops and saw many artists working on paintings and some of them were so good I couldn't distinguish them from photographs. In fact, if I hadn't seen them painting myself, I could easily think they'd been faked. But these are some seriously talented people.
These days the village has also evolved into a cultural and tourist attraction, with its unique blend of art production and commercial activity. Annual art festivals, exhibitions, and cultural events add to Dafen's appeal, drawing visitors interested in experiencing the vibrant art scene. The local government has supported the village's development, recognising its cultural and economic value. Efforts have been made to preserve the artistic heritage of Dafen while encouraging innovation and artistic experimentation.
There are bars, restaurants, and some really cool and quirky cafes (I visited one that was inhabited by lots of cats). There was a real buzz about the place, and it still retains a community feel, at least, that was the general vibe of the neighbourhood. I don't think it'll stay like this forever, but right now, it's definitely my favourite thing about Shenzhen.
The second tallest building in China
Moving into the city centre, and if you want a symbol of Shenzhen then it is defintely the Ping An Finance Centre which stands at a staggering height of 599 metres, making it one of the tallest buildings in the world (and the second tallest in China).
It's a tower you can see from the city if you manage to find a half decent vantage point and it certainly dominates the skyline. Being completed in 2017, it is still relatively new, and it's sleek design reflects the types of towers that went up around the world during this time period.
The building houses the headquarters of Ping An Insurance and hosts a range of other corporate offices, reflecting Shenzhen's status as a growing financial hub. The tower also includes a high-end shopping mall and a variety of dining options, catering to the needs of both the business community and the general public.
One of the building's key attractions is the Free Sky observation deck, situated on the 116th floor, and I visited it to try and get a good view of the rest of the city. The cost of entry during visit from 150rmb, which is about £16, making it cheaper than most observation in Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The lift to the top is one of the fastest in the world, and my ears popped twice during the ascent and descent. I felt that difference in air pressure more here than even the Burj Khalifa - perhaps due to the speed of ascent.
This observation deck offers panomaric views of the city, but the problem is pollution. The air quality in Shenzhen is notoriously poor, and during my time in the tower, visbility was limited during the sunset, but improved as the day turned to night. I wasn't a fan of the small, slanted windows which made viewing a little tricky, and as soon as the sun went down, the glare from the lights inside made looking outside a bit of a struggle. Inside there are exhibits, both static and interactive. I had a go on an interactive VR headset that puts you in a rollercoaster, complete with a tilting table that you lie down on. It was fine. Nothing too special, and probably not worth the money.
That being said, it's a tower that reflects Shenzhen's modernity and in that respect it is every bit as impressive as the likes of the Burj Khalifa, the Shard, or the Empire State. While views from Ping An are slightly better than the Burj Khalifa, they are far removed from the incredible city views you get from towers in cities like London (which you can read about here) and New York (which you can read about here).
The world's largest electronics market
Take a few short stops on the metro and you arrive at Huaqiangbei, the world's largest electronics market, a title that reflects its sheer scale and the volume of business conducted here. First, the metro. It's not as extensive as it is in many European countries, but it is several levels better than metro systems found in the United States. The trains are clean and punctual, as are the stations. Travel is relatively cheap, but I also thought the same when catching taxis, so you have some options here.
Back to Huaqiangbei, and it's something that you need to see to believe. Spanning several square kilometres, this area is a maze of multi-storey buildings and streets lined with countless shops and stalls selling a vast range of electronic products, from components and gadgets to sophisticated technological equipment.
Huaqiangbei's origins date back to the early days of Shenzhen's economic boom. It started as a small electronics market and has since grown into a bustling hub of innovation and commerce. The market's main building, SEG Plaza, is a landmark in itself, towering over the surrounding area and housing hundreds of small shops specialising in electronic components. The nearby streets and buildings, such as Huaqiang Electronic World, offer everything from consumer electronics to bespoke technological solutions.
The market's significance extends beyond its physical boundaries. Huaqiangbei is a barometer for the electronics industry, reflecting the latest trends and innovations. It's a crucial link in the global electronics supply chain, with many products and components sourced from here ending up in gadgets and devices worldwide. The market's economic impact is substantial, not only for Shenzhen but for the global electronics industry. It's estimated that billions of dollars' worth of transactions occur here annually, making it a pivotal economic zone in the city.
The main markets close relatively early in the evening around 6-7pm, although some stalls stay open much later into the night. I spent a couple of evenings in the area and was impressed by scale of things here - much like the rest of the city. Go into any large building and you enter floors and floors of electronics. You might have a whole floor just for laptops, another floor for games consoles, another for mobile phones, it's incredible to see. When the shops are open people are standing ready to sell you anything as you pass by, and when they close, shop owners are busy taping and packing things up like microchips, phones, and laptops and putting them into shipping boxes to be transported around the world.
Small vendors selling questionable products are next door to well established technology stores, but the key difference is in the price. Go into any Huawei store (they all look like Apple Stores btw), or any established manufacturer and prices are almost as expensive as they are in the UK or US. Go into the independent retailers and you might not believe just how cheap things are. I saw beats headphones for less than £10, and Apple Max headphones for less than £50. Here's the kicker, the quality is so incredibly poor, it is laughable. On three occasions I asked to test headphones and drones, and on each occasion the product was broken or faulty. On one of the occasions the shopkeeper sheepishly started laughing - he knew many of the products were defective.
The area is also home to some nice bars, restaurants, and performance areas, and I spent both evenings relaxing listening to singers and getting some food. It's good fun, but just don't buy anything from here!
A look into Shenzhen's past
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Nantou Ancient City, a living museum into the past of the city. China might be old, but Shenzhen is new, although even the older cities have lost a lot of their history during the cultural revolution where, under Mao Zedong, the Chinese destroyed much (but not all) of their own past.
But under the towering skyscrapers, countless shopping centres, and brand new neighbourhoods, lies a bit of a link to the past. Covering an area of approximately 70,000 square metres, Nantou has a history dating back over 1,700 years. It was once the administrative centre of the region, a status that is still echoed in its ancient walls, gates, and the labyrinth of narrow lanes that intertwine traditional architecture with a contemporary lifestyle.
The main gate, a remnant of the Ming Dynasty, is a majestic structure that has stood the test of time and welcomes you into the ancient city. The gate feels a world removed from the modern city around it and is a nice reminder of China's past. The ancient city's layout follows the traditional Chinese pattern of streets and alleys, creating a sense of intimacy and community. Unlike the grid like layout of Shenzhen, here you have bit more character. The streets are lined with traditional Chinese buildings, many of which have been preserved or restored to maintain their historical charm. Some of these buildings date back to the Qing Dynasty and earlier, each with its own story and architectural significance.
The ancient city is not just a tourist attraction; it's a living, breathing community and that's what makes it so special. Its narrow lanes are home to residents who have lived there for generations, as well as newcomers drawn by its historical charm. The streets buzz with the activities of daily life, interspersed with shops, cafes, and small businesses that cater to both locals and visitors. Traditional teahouses sit alongside modern art galleries, showcasing the blend of old and new that characterises Nantou.
Walking through the neighbourhood was a surreal but fascinating experience. In one moment you feel you are in a very residential neighbourhood with traditional buildings, narrow streets, and a quiet, almost homely feel - and then you'd turn a corner and it was like hipster central with art galleries, small restaurants, or winebars. The neighbourhood has a bit of everything and it's certainly one of my favourite parts of Shenzhen.
...And moving into Shenzhen's future
But if we are talking hipster, then the Overseas Chinese Town (OCT) is definitely top of the list. The area is a mix of commercial and residential developments with a massively western. but also experimental, feel to it.
The area's development began in the late 1980s, and since then, OCT has become synonymous with innovation in urban living. It comprises several theme parks (which I didn't visit because they looked almost as bad as the vomit inducing Global Village in Dubai) but also other commercial areas.
My favourite part is OCT Loft, a creatively repurposed industrial area, that is now a booming arts and culture district, often compared to Bohemian neighbourhoods like Shoreditch in London or SoHo in New York. It hosts art exhibitions, live music events, and is home to trendy cafes and boutiques. The whole place used to be manufacturing factories and warehouses but today are buildings for art galleries, restaurants and bars. There is a nice energy to the place, youthful, creative, but not overly flashy. It's a nice place to spend an evening, and there are enough options to ensure there is something for everyone.
Dongmen: the energy of the city
When we talk about overly flashy, there is only one place. And I don't mean flashy in the Dubai way. I mean bright lights, sensory overload, and a feeling almost like you are in Times Square, Dongmen Pedestrian Street, located in the bustling Luohu District of Shenzhen, is definitely one place you have to check out when you're in Shenzhen. Stretching over a kilometre in length and encompassing several city blocks, Dongmen, which translates to "East Gate," has a rich history dating back over 300 years. It has evolved from a traditional market street into a dynamic modern shopping and entertainment hub, attracting millions of visitors annually from all corners of the globe.
The story of Dongmen begins in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, when it was established as a market area near one of the gates of the old Shenzhen town. Over the centuries, it grew in prominence as a commercial centre, thanks to its strategic location near the border with Hong Kong and its accessibility to various transportation routes. As Shenzhen began its transformation into a Special Economic Zone in the 1980s, Dongmen underwent a significant metamorphosis, evolving from a traditional Chinese market to a bustling urban shopping area, reflective of the city's rapid economic and social changes.
Today, Dongmen Pedestrian Street is a microcosm of Shenzhen's retail diversity and vibrancy. The area is teeming with over a thousand vendors, offering an eclectic mix of products ranging from the latest fashion apparel, accessories, and electronic gadgets to traditional Chinese crafts and souvenirs. The whole area is packed as neon signs light up the area, creating a lively and colourful ambiance that really makes you feel that you are in the centre of a large metropolis. The narrow alleys and lanes that branch off the main pedestrian street are like little mazes full of surprises.
Beyond shopping, Dongmen is renowned for its food and you can get everything from upmarket restaurants to insects on a stick being sold on market stalls. It was the food that bought me here, and I tried a lot of food from the market stalls and didn't feel bad for it, some of it was super tasty. The night market in Dongmen is particularly popular, offering a different shopping experience where one can find unique items and enjoy the cool evening breeze. In these respects, Dongmen feels more like a major city in south-east Asia, more akin to Bangkok (which you can read about here). It's got that concentrated energy which seems to dissipate in other parts of Shenzhen, probably because of the size of the city.
It was on the way to Dongmen that the car I was in was stopped by police. In the city, police seem to be absolutely everywhere, and that's only the police that are uniformed and visible, I'm sure there are just as many police undercover too. Me, and a couple others, had not put our seatbelts on. They asked for my ID and I told them I had nothing (luckily they didn't search me because I absolutely did), but with the locals they took a photo and had all their information within a second, issuing a warning that goes on their record. It was a reminder on just how tightly lives are policed in this part of the world.
Dongmen isn't the only area where you can find that concentrated energy. Two other parts are Sea World, and Coco Park.
Forget about what you know about Sea World, this isn't the same thing you are thinking about. This Sea World is a neighbourhood rather than a prison for Orca. Sea World is located in the Shekou area of the Nanshan District and is centred around the Minghua, a decommissioned French cruise ship which stands proudly in the middle of the district.
The Minghua, anchored permanently in Sea World, is a focal point of the area. It has been repurposed into a hotel, restaurants, and a nightclub, offering visitors a unique experience of dining and entertainment on a ship. The area around the ship has been developed into a bustling plaza, housing a diverse array of international restaurants, bars, and cafes. It feels like the modern China that is cosmopolitan and bringing in tastes from across the world. There are restaurants that serve everything including European, Indian, and East Asian cuisine. It wasn't my favourite place, but it's well worth a visit. Just be warned, it is quite an overpriced area.
You can catch a similar vibe in Coco Park, one of the largest shopping centres in the city. Much like some of the cities in the middle east, sometimes Shenzhen just feels like a city of malls, but this one actually has a few surprises to it.
Established in the mid-2000s, Coco Park quickly became a landmark in Shenzhen, catering to the growing demand for high-end retail and leisure spaces in the city. It covers an impressive area, boasting multiple floors of retail space, a wide array of dining options, and a vibrant nightlife scene. The shopping centre's architectural design is modern and sleek, with spacious interiors, wide corridors, and contemporary aesthetics, making it a visually appealing destination.
One of the standout features of Coco Park is its dining scene. Much like Sea World you have everything from casual eateries to fine dining establishments. International cuisines, including Italian, Japanese, and American, sit alongside traditional Chinese restaurants.
Coco Park is not just a daytime destination; it transforms into a lively nightlife hub as the sun sets. The area around the mall is known for its vibrant bars and clubs, attracting a young and energetic crowd. The nightlife scene here is diverse, with establishments ranging from laid-back pubs to high-energy nightclubs, making it a popular spot for socialising and entertainment. I spent an evening out here in a pop up exhibit that bought together people from across China and it was good fun. It also seemed to attract alot of the city's international crowd of mostly students.
Would I recommend visiting Shenzhen?
This is difficult to answer. I certainly wouldn't recommend flying across the world just to visit Shenzhen. but if you find yourself in Hong Kong and have a couple days extra on your itinerary, then a trip to Shenzhen might not be a bad idea. It gives you an insight into how quickly China is developing but also highlights the challenges of that development, for example a lack of much history.
Another aspect I found quite interesting was the dichotomy of development but also development challenges. On the modern side, transport is cheap, punctual and effective. The city is completely digital and unless you have WePay or AliPay, you won't be able to get very far in the city (and that brings with it some privacy challenges). On the challenging side, the shoddy goods at Huaqiangbei were a microcosm for what I saw in the rest of the city. There were plenty examples of buildings not having the same finishes we might expect in other countries. Even outside, bannisters and staircases were not quite right, and it reflects the use of low skilled labour which was the result of millions of migrants moving from the countryside to build Shenzhen with little previous practical experience.
That being said, the people I met were fantastic, very nice, very polite and extremely patient. Some wanted to say hello, some wanted photos, but everyone seemed happy. It's a side of China we don't really see in the media in the West and I'm glad I experienced it.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.