My Travel Map

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Your girlfriend must be really beautiful!

This is what a certain Mr. Tony Ho, SVP (Sales & Marketing), Contel Corporation, had to say to me when he had realized the full implication of what I was attempting to do. It was 6:30 in the evening, I was in a car in a perpetually smoggy forbidden provincial town in China called Dongguan and I was attempting to cross the border some 80 km away and reach Hong Kong that night. All this for a 12-14 hour stay, since I'd have to leave HK (assuming I reached there) by 12 PM latest next morning to have any hopes of getting on my return flight to Singapore. Before you ask, the flight was from Shenzhen Int'l Airport. And just half an hour ago, I didn't have a single Yuan on me.

Okk...cut...rewind rewind rewind...

The trip I'm talking about is a plant visit organized for Singapore analysts and fund managers by a Singapore-listed Chinese consumer electronics manufacturer called Contel Corp. The plant is in Dongguan, one of the big three cities in the affluent Pearl River Delta region of China, just aft of Hong Kong. And the nearest airport is in Shenzhen, which is the electronics workshop of the world and also the nearest point on the mainland from Hong Kong. Well the airport is strictly not in Shenzhen but lets leave that for later.

So this trip of mine was initially planned to happen in the last week of September but was postponed owing to lack of interest among other participants. Back then, I was a trifle disappointed since I was quite aware of the proximity of Hong Kong and Shenzhen and on paper, a journey to and forth seemed quite do-able. Anyhow, chance presented itself once again 2-3 weeks later and the trip was happening this time on the 17th and 18th of October.

Early morning flight and I head for the airport in an early morning taxi. Finally, I find myself on the flight, next to a kiddish looking guy and a senior looking guy, who I supposed were also on the same analyst visit. The kiddish guy really turned out to be a kid, fresh out of graduate school into one of the local brokerages. The older guy was indeed, an industry veteran, who had retired from professional life to run his personal investment firm with his family's money. Towards the end of the flight, when people start planning how best to spend the night in Dongguan, I deem it imminent to break the news that I won't be there, as I would be going to Hong Kong. "So you are flying back from Hong Kong eh?" "No, I'll meet you guys back at Shenzhen!” I see some dumbfounded faces around me. But being peaceful Singaporeans, they don't press the matter any further apart from assuming that I must be on some kind of illicit mission to make so much effort worth the while.

I let them assume whatever they could and then I made the biggest mistake of the trip. We land in Shenzhen; I come out of the airport with the group, and being the organizer-type, start hunting around for the tour bus assigned to us and conveniently forget about foreign exchange! Halfway on the hour-long bus-ride to Dongguan, I realize this stark truth and my mood gets gloomier while the others sleep it off. The surroundings don't help at all but I'll spare you a description of the journey on the highways of China. Suffice to say that it is not a pretty sight - especially being accustomed to the lush green paddy fields along NH2 (the erstwhile Grand Trunk Road) and NH6 (Bombay Road) of West Bengal. Probably, with modern marvels like the Singur car factory coming up, we'll get to see less of the same, too.

Having reached Dongguan, and having disembarked at the hotel, I wonder aloud if I might find some transportation to Hong Kong from the hotel premises in the hope that some fellow analyst would care to translate and ask the hotel guys. The only female in our group was a pretty friendly one and she takes pains to find out, from various sources, including the doorman, concierge and tourist booklets, that the last bus to HK leaves at 5:30 PM. Realistically, we couldn't be back to the hotel by that time - my plant visit starts at 2 PM! My spirits suitably dampened, I seat myself at the lunch table and nibble at meats of various species while acquainting myself with executives from Contel. The COO, on hearing my HK predicament, immediately rushes off to enquire about options from the hotel management, but in spite of all the blessings I showered on him and his family, he returns with nothing new. Ditching the tasteless desserts and fetching my bag from my room, I saunter confidently towards the reception desk, where I'd hitherto spotted a foreign exchange counter. Woe and dismay, for they only convert HKD and USD. A big jolt for the Singapore Dollar and to the egos of the Singaporean analyst team. I sms my friend in Hong Kong, asking her not to wait up for me.


The gloomy day turns gloomier as we drive deeper into a perpetual haze covered country interspersed with gaunt white buildings. One of them turns out to be our final destination - Contel factory. After a boring presentation, we get to the Q&A session - and I am praying that my fellow analysts keep their interrogation short. However, it seems that they are intent to know all kinds of inane stuff in glorious detail and I am left in the lurches, counting the minutes as time rolls on beyond 4 PM. After what seemed an eternity, Tony, whom I have introduced before, suggests we proceed on the plant tour as the employees' shift would end shortly. I skip along with the Group, not deigning to ask a single question of the management in truly unprofessional analyst style (though I would end up as the only analyst filing in a plant visit note). As dusk envelops the hazy environs, I am itching to make a dash for the hotel or train station or bus station or somewhere. But not having a single Yuan in my pocket, kind of thwarts all my instincts and I wait for the ordeal to finish. When it’s eventually over, and we have seen assembly lines churning out electronic guitars for video games and LCD TVs and VCD recorders and all sorts of other useless stuff at one-tenth the price that Walmart and Circuit City retail them for, we get back to the Boardroom.

They gift us an E-Bible (if anyone is interested, I can forward it) and people take a lot of time to move out. I place my pleading eyes on Tony and Lip Kee (the CFO) and Tony (good man!) asks around for the best way to get to HK. 6 PM already. I had done extensive research on the Internet, which had informed me of trains at 7 40 PM and 8 40 PM, direct to some station in HK, but they seemed to have no knowledge of it. As I keep getting more despondent, the guy says there is a train to Shenzhen at 6:30 - do I want to try that? It seems people can cross the border there to HK. Of course, what are we waiting for? Our car, the CFO offers, rather apologetically. Some hope, at last, but there remains one last barrier to cross. Currency. And no bank will be open at 6 PM. I turn to the CFO. " Excuse me, do you have some extra Yuan on you? Can I pay you in SGD now...say 500 Yuan or so?" Flustered for a while, the guy fishes out five 100-Yuan notes as we settle on a willing buyer-willing seller exchange rate of 5 Yuan to a Singapore Dollar. "You might use it when you go down to Singapore once in a while", I offer helpfully. Phew! I had currency. Confidence back, I steel myself for a lonesome journey from nowhere to anywhere.

On the journey from the factory to the hotel where the management guys got off, the CEO, CFO and COO of Contel Corp offered me valuable advice on the dos and don'ts of travelling in China. "As long as you have your passport and your money with you, you are safe." "Keep my number. Any problem and you call me. Even if you lose your money, don't lose your mobile". "You know, if you get off and walk on this road, there is no guarantee you will not be robbed right now." Very helpful, all, but it left me feeling much less confident than I initially was. "So how many times you have been to China?” First time, Tony, first time. "So you can speak Mandarin?” NO. "You have been to Hong Kong before, right?" NO. "This is your first time in China, you can't speak the language, and it will be your first time in Hong Kong. And you are travelling across the border, in the evening. BOY, your girlfriend must be REALLY beautiful!!!" And, content in their assumption, they all had a hearty laugh about it. Not really wishing to contest their theory or interrupt their mirth, I joined in. "Oh yes, she is. Good guess, Tony!”

So they get down and the driver takes me to the train station. He gets down, locks the car and comes with me to the train station. Oh no, I can't read a single thing anywhere. It’s all Chinese (no, not Greek). I look on gratefully as the driver-chappie goes to the ticket counter, buys 2 tickets and hands me one. Without a murmur, I follow him as he rushes off towards the platform, and I'm relieved when a train rolls in 2 minutes later, which has a "Shenzhen" sign in English. As I try to push a 100-Yuan note into the helpful chappie's hand for the ticket, he refuses to have to do anything with it and instead motions me on to the train. An empty compartment beckons and I'm about to be in for a shock as the train covers the entire 90km stretch at an average speed of 160km/hr and in some stretches 180km/hr. If you are wondering how I calculated the speed, there was a LCD panel above the door of the compartment, which indicated as much. It took me about 45 minutes I think to cover the stretch. Whoa - China rocking!

As I get down at Shenzhen and follow the direction signs reading Hong Kong, I am reminded of what Tony had earlier told me - "When you exit the train station, you will see the Shangri-La Hotel. Don't go towards it. Go to the building in the opposite direction. You will find the immigration counters on the first or second floor. Be very careful!" - so I follow the signboards and eventually exit the train station at street level. I can see the Shangri-La at some distance but the signboards saying HK have petered out. So I walk all the way to the Shangri-La, click a few photos of night-time Shenzhen and discover that the only building that could be opposite it was the point where I had started walking. No problemos. I am way ahead of time, anyway, thanks to that super fast train. I meander back to the building and find the Chinese immigration counters on the first level. Forms filled out and they happily let me leave China. Oh did I forget to mention that my visa was a double entry visa. I had to re-enter PRC again the next afternoon for my flight back to Singapore.

After a pretty long walk through corridors and bridges of no-man's land, I somehow reach the HK immigration counter and after the guy had taken a look at my Indian passport, and heard my story about landing in Shenzhen, going to Dongguan, returning to Shenzhen, crossing over to HK, then back again and on to Singapore, he must have assumed I'm part of some currency racket on some quick errand. So I'm promptly shipped to the senior immigration officer's office to be interviewed. Frustrating wait and then I shove down the visiting cards of CEOs, CFOs and the like down the interviewer's throat in a brave attempt at intimidation. Bored with my version of events, he lets me continue on my journey of discovery. Dignity restored, I find a restroom, change out of my formals and fork out my maps of the Hong Kong public transport system. Having worked out my destination, I reach the ticket counter, only to realize the currency of business has changed. Bang opposite was a money exchanger, probably offering the worst rates in town, having set up shop to cater to morons like me. HKD in hand, I now had a ticket to East Tsim Sha Tsui (ETST). It was 7 30 when I had reached Shenzhen - it was past 9 PM now.

Anyhow, I reached ETST and then found the interchange to Tsim Sha Tsui - the subway/train system is way too complicated compared to Singapore - and here I met up with my friend AJ. I'll leave out the details of the remainder of the night except for the fact that the time between 2 AM and 4 AM found me having a few drinks with a banker friend of mine in Hong Kong's famed Lan Kwai Fong district and the remainder of the night till 8 AM found me sleeping it off on some other unsuspecting friend's sofa. The next morning brought with it my first glimpse of the great city in natural light and it was quite awesome and much beyond my expectations. There is a certain life in the people and a vibrant all-pervading spirit, quite reminiscent of Calcutta. I guess having a planned city takes the fun out of it. The narrow roads, congested alleys, British styled architecture, street side vendors, and modern high-rises jostling for space all lend to the unique aura the Hong Kong emanates. Singapore, by comparison, is sterile and lifeless.

So having taken in the sights and sounds, I now turn my attention to my return journey. I had gathered from various sources that the ferry from HK across the Pearl River Delta to Shenzhen is the quickest and most convenient way of getting to the airport. Smugly complacent in this knowledge, AJ and I call up the ferry companies but as luck would have it, all are fully booked. 11 AM in Hong Kong and I still have no transportation. Flight back at 4 PM. Will I make it? Tension tension. Train would take one hour to the border. God knows how much time at immigration. And then no clue how to reach the airport from Shenzhen train station and I had a fair idea it was 30 km away. No Tony and no driver-chappie to help me out this time around. I am pretty much royally screwed.

We make our way to the nearest ferry terminal in the hope of some ferry company we had missed out on but we can't even make out which boat is headed where, far less, when. Just when I'm beginning to think that I have to risk the train journey, we find ourselves standing in front of a bus terminal with colourful buses sporting Shenzhen/
Guangzhou signs. After some painful attempts at communication, we discern that a bus for Shenzhen airport will be leaving in about 10 minutes, but I'll have to change buses in between. Still not convinced that I am on the right bus, I try to ask the driver when we would be reaching the destination, but he remained unconvinced too. Running out of options and having already purchased a 100 HKD ticket, I decide to risk it and wave goodbye to AJ and Hong Kong.

A Good Samaritan on the bus decides to be my interpreter for the rest of the bus trip and safely guides me through all the formalities on either sides of the border. Finally, some pretty girls in traditional costumes notice a pink bus company sticker on my shirt as I come out of Shenzhen bus terminal and take me to a mini-bus and a short bus journey later, I'm inside Shenzhen Int'l Airport within one and a half hours of leaving Hong Kong. Wow! A fitting finale to a whale of an adventure. I'm damn pleased as I make my way home and promise to write about it someday. That day is finally here!

P.S. Took me about 6 months to pen this down. Apologies to all concerned :)