This morning I got back from my trip to China and Hong Kong. I've had a little sleep and I don't feel too bad actually, but I'm down quite a few hours (I can never sleep on planes) so I'm sure it will hit me again in an hour or so. So, let's soldier on!
As I mentioned previously, my trip in to China was uneventful. I met the limo driver at Hong Kong airport with no trouble and followed him out of the airport where the heat really hit me - it was over 30 degrees and very humid, and I'd just been at more or less a constant 15 for hours. It was fairly oppressive and I feared that I was going to sweat to death in a shirt and tie over the week, but it turned out that the day was particularly hot. Anyway, no problem for the limo with its aircon. I traveled in style through the Hong Kong / China border without leaving my seat and before long I was at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in Shenzhen.
The hotel is relatively new and the entrance/lobby is very grand. My room was very nice and the view pretty good. No complaints at all really, the main downside being that I only had a room until Tuesday as it was booked up after that. Annoyingly there was a huge trade show going on all week (the guy sat next to me on the plane was going to it so I knew a bit about it) and lots of hotels were full. I didn't worry as I thought we'd find something. Anyway, that evening my colleague and his wife arrived and we had a nice dinner and caught-up (he's based in Japan these days).
For five days we were based at a customer site in the city, so we'd catch a cab from the hotel in the morning and another back in the evening (the evening being much more difficult, both finding a cab and with the traffic). The journey was about 40 - 50 minutes, and.. well... if you've not seen Chinese driving then you wouldn't quite believe it. Maybe it's not all of China and is just Shenzhen, or maybe it's an asian thing? I don't know. What I do know is that it scared me silly. The roads are massively busy and nobody pays much attention to lanes, signs and so on. You progress through traffic by barging in and hoping for the best, beeping your horn a lot and flashing your lights. It's all very aggressive, although in some way everyone seems very calm. In the huge number of very closely missed collisions that we had nobody seemed to shout or get out of their cars to have a go at someone else. It's was bizarre. I'm amazed hundreds of people aren't killed every day, especially pedestrians, who seem to weave in and out of the traffic without looking like they are too bothered. They don't even particularly hurry.
As well as the mad drivers there is the whole scary communist thing going on. One day on the way back from work the army stopped us and asked to see our passports. I didn't have mine of course (don't they always tell you to leave it in the hotel safe?!) and I sat there with images of dodgy Chinese prisons and visits from diplomats going through my mind. Thankfully it was rush hour and the soldier didn't seem to want the fuss, so he waved us on. I carried my passport after that. It was scary, and if anything it reinforced my view that a British ID card would be bad. Not only would I not like to go through that feeling again, but I don't think it gives a very good impression of the country to tourists and the like. Anyway, it was all ok in the end.
The hotel had a couple of reasonable restaurants in it and on Monday we went to the 'Chinese' one (they were all Chinese of course, this just happened to do Chinese food). It was very good, if slightly bizarre. We ordered a number of dishes including a roasted duck. With some fanfare the chef brought it out and sliced it for us before showing us how to do the pancake bit (much like a Chinese in the UK). The strange bit was that he started with a whole duck and sliced off the skin before wheeling the trolley away. We sort of assumed that he was off to do the boring meat slicing elsewhere but he never came back, so from the whole duck we just got the skin. Very odd. The next day we quizzed one of the people in the Chinese firm if that was normal and she looked at us as if we were crazy, so God only knows what was going on there. For dessert we were offered ice cream or something but we thought we'd try something authentic so we asked for a 'Chinese dessert'. With some trepidation the waitress brought us some pots with a very dark jelly and a pot of honey, the idea being that the jelly was a bit bitter and the honey is for sweetening it. We ate it and it was ok (with the honey), but I wasn't a massive fan. The waitress seemed vaguely impressed that we'd eaten it anyway. Later we pondered what it was over drinks and couldn't decide. I didn't think about it again until we found out that it was probably made from the inside of a turtle shell (which is scraped to get the black stuff). Yum.
Luckily someone at the Chinese company we were working at found us a hotel for the rest of our stay so on Tuesday we checked in to the Landmark Hotel, much nearer the centre. I was impressed - it certainly looked nicer in the rooms than the Sheraton, the food was pretty good, and the service was impressive. There was rosewood everywhere and you even get a 'butler' who leaves you cute little notes. He's just one of about a million staff who seem to be employed just to say good morning to you as you leave, but hey, I'm shallow and I really liked that. The location is more central as I mentioned but seems to be a bit of a seedy district at night. That might be your thing of course, but if it isn't then the hotel food is good.
On Friday we got our work done (on time and more than was asked for, of course!) and checked out of the hotel and got the limo back to Hong Kong. The way back was less smooth - the queue at the border took ages and customs went through my bag (I must look dodgy to the Chinese army) but in the end we were through. My colleague and his wife flew back to Japan but I couldn't get a flight until Tuesday, so I went to a hotel in Hong Kong. I got a room at the Grand Stanford. It was ok but I felt rather unimpressed after the Shenzhen hotels. It was more money (everything in HK is more) and the service was far worse. I also had a really rubbish view of a wall from my room! It's true that the hotel itself does have an excellent view of Victoria Harbour but don't expect that in all the rooms! Anyway, there's more to life than views so I didn't worry too much about it.
The hotel is in the Kowloon district which is known for its shops, and boy are there shops! However, a lot of these seem to be hairdressers (bizarrely) and Indian guys who make made-to-measure suits. These guys almost ruin any stroll around town as they are good at spotting Europeans and chasing you around trying to convince you to get measured-up. You have to be pretty forceful to get them to go away and... well.. it's just not British to shout at strangers is it? I did feel like telling them that I might have been interested in a fitted suit if they'd just shut up and let me look at their posters (which is true), but starting any conversation with them is daft.
Hong Kong was generally very hot and I restricted my strolls to relatively short bursts. Sadly, as I was in China on business my suitcase was full of suits, shirts and so on rather than summer wear so I had to improvise a bit around what I had on me, and it wasn't massively suitable. Still, I did get a good poke around the place. I'd really recommend it for a holiday - there's lots to do and there's enough English spoken for it not to be a problem (much more than Shenzhen). It's got quite familiar touches too thanks to being British until so recently so you sort of feel at home. Be prepared to spend quite a lot of money if you like a drink though (a pint often costs more than your main course). If you were there for a holiday rather than killing a couple of days then it wouldn't be cheap.
I'm a bit of a newbie to business travel and one thing really hit me on this trip. My hotel has its fair share of 'business men' and they were easy to spot since they were like me, sat at the bar reading a paper or something rather than chatting to obvious wives/girlfriends. There was a purpose to this though as most of them seemed to come to the hotel bar to pick up hookers. It was a real eye-opener - you sit at the bar on your own and within about two minutes a girl will come and talk to you. Now these aren't trashy-looking women and some were beautiful, but it was a bit odd. Thankfully they weren't pushy at all and it all seemed to operate on a bit of an 'understanding' - the men would say very little to them before wondering off to their rooms. Somehow the whole thing wasn't at all seedy though and you only noticed it if you watched what was going on. Most of the bar was filled with couples and groups. It did serve to give me a pretty negative impression of men traveling on their own though. I don't doubt that some of those men have wives or girlfriends, yet a lot of them probably 'relax' with hookers quite often. It's sort of depressing really.
Anyway, here I am back at home. China and Hong Kong were great and it was a fascinating trip. China is the 'most foreign' place I've been and it was a bit of an eye-opener in many ways. Still, every new country I go to reinforces the idea that people are all the same pretty much anywhere you go. The Chinese may live in a dodgy state that does questionable things, but most of them seem to be happy and are just getting on with life. Of course I didn't go to any poor or rural areas where it's completely different, so I'm not blind to the fact that it is completely different. One thing I do know though - there's a lot of money there and a lot of big companies with big ideas. I'm sure we'll all see more Chinese influence in the world at an rapidly increasing level.
See some pictures including the fascinating view from my hotel room in Hong Kong on Flickr.