Brian's Blogs

Around the World in 80 Minutes

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Everyone knows that the EiffelTower is in Paris and the Taj Mahal is in India,don't they? Well, as Brian Salter has been discovering, the answer is ' not necessarily'!

If you ever thought that skiing in subtropical Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates was a unique proposition, then maybe it's about time you thought again. Just across the border from Hong Kong in mainland China's Guangdong province lies the city of Shenzhen – often referred to as the playground city of the People's Republic.

It was formally established in 1979, following Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalisation policies, due to its proximity to Hong Kong which was then a prosperous British territory. The area became China's first — and over the past three decades, arguably one of its most successful — Special Economic Zones.

In 2003, China relaxed travel restrictions to allow individuals from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, as well as Beijing and Shanghai, to visit Hong Kong. And the resultant two-way flow of human traffic now makes this one of the most populous border crossings in the world.

Many western visitors to Hong Kong are unaware how easy it is to cross into Shenzhen for a visit of up to five days, which is a shame as the city has so much to offer the casual tourist.

Although there are six land crossing points between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, the easiest and most popular are at Lok Ma Chau and Lo Wu, both of which connect to Hong Kong's Metro (MTR) East Rail Line. You can apply for a visa on the border itself, and if you get there early enough, you can be across in as little as 20 minutes. Once over into China most people head for the shopping malls for some serious retail therapy. The prices in Shenzhen are incredible - considerably lower than in Hong Kong – and the people are friendly and approachable and bargain in a friendly, non aggressive way. Many HK residents pop across to Shenzhen just for a haircut!

The shopping mall most visited by day-tourists is Lo Wu Commercial City, situated within walking distance of the border crossing. This contains a huge array of beauty parlours and stores selling clothes, handbags (usually fake-designer), fabric, jewellery and electrical goods, as well as pirated software and DVDs, counterfeit goods and mobile phones. However, a quick ride on the Shenzhen Metro to Lao Jie Station (two stops) for the Dongmen shopping area, or five stops to Hua Qiang Bei, brings you to the shopping areas most favoured by locals.

Restaurants, too, are cheap and plentiful, usually costing a quarter of those in Hong Kong, whilst massage and beauty parlours are about one tenth the cost. Hong Kong dollars are accepted almost everywhere and are almost at par with the Chinese RMB (Renminbi). You get about two for every dirham.

But shopping is not all of what Shenzhen is about. It has also gained for itself a reputation for its theme parks. ParkS??? Plural? In my travels I've been to a motley selection of places describing themselves as the Venice of the North (Amsterdam), the Grand Canyon of Iceland (Fjadrargljufur), and even Athens of the North (Edinburgh).  On this basis, I would suggest Shenzhen's alter-ego moniker should perhaps be the Orlando of China. 

Not just content with Window of the World – a Chinese version of Florida's Epcot Centre - you can also visit the Chinese Folk Culture Village, Happy Valley, Splendid China, the Safari Park, the Dameisha Promenade, Xiaomeisha Beach Resort, Xianhu Lake Botanical Garden, and Minsk World (a military theme park based on the huge former Soviet aircraft carrier Minsk, redesigned as a tourist attraction). The city also offers free admission to over twenty public city parks.

The must-see attraction Window of the World contains large replicas of the major natural and man-made monuments of the world, scaled to 1:3, 1:5 or 1:15 of more than 130 world famous sites, from each of the five continents. Here you are able to visit many of the world's great landmarks in just over an hour.

Dominating the 480,000 sq metre park is a third-size replica of the Eiffel Tower which makes an impressive backdrop to Sydney Opera House, the Tower of London or the Temple of Abu Simbel!

You can see the Taj Mahal, walk through the Grand Canyon, (complete with rushing Colorado River), visit Indonesia's Borobudur Temple, gaze at Dutch windmills and waltz in Johann Strauss Square. You can view the towers of Kuwait City, the Merlion of Singapore or even Copenhagen's Little Mermaid. Underneath Switzerland's Matterhorn is an indoor ski area, offering four thousand square metres of piste, and inside the rainforests of South America is a four-storey rock climbing wall. 

Throughout the day are continuous performances featuring folk singing and dancing from across the globe, acrobatics, a mock wedding ceremony, changing of the guard, fireworks every evening and – if you are still around at 9pm – a volcanic eruption courtesy of the Hawaiian Volcanoes!

Just up the road, Splendid China is the largest miniature park in the world.  Over 80 replicas of typical Chinese ancient buildings, natural landscapes and folk dwellings, which reflect 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture, have been constructed on a scale of 1:15.  Among them are the Great Wall of China, the Imperial Palace, the Temple of Confucius, the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River and you will even find the famous Xi-an Terracotta Army in its entirety!

The park also hosts several performances depicting various events in Chinese history, such as a battle led by Genghis Khan, and various Chinese cultural shows. And in just 2-3 hours you can skim through the history of China and the various attractions around the country. 

There's no doubt about it. The Chinese 'do' theme parks extremely well. And of course, once you have finished with all the theme parks and the shopping, you will also want to visit the jade factories and the silk worm factories and the 101 other things that will guarantee you will want to return to Shenzhen time after time.

Travelling to Shenzhen is best done via Hong Kong. The rail journey from Kowloon to the border typically costs around HK$40 (AED20) and the visa is around HK$160 (AED80) depending on your nationality. (British and American visitors are charged considerably more.) Entrance to each of the theme parks is about AED60. Consider signing up for one of the many one-day group outings arranged from Hong Kong, for even bigger savings.

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