Buddha House (Shenzhen) – 30th April 2001

Popcorn at the Buddha house
Everything for sale
Rubbish piles up mountain high
Incense blows away
There seems no peace
Outside this house
Can you find peace inside yourself
It’s hard for me to say

27th Aug 2021 – Vivian had a day off work and took me to a Buddhist temple, at least I presume it was Buddhist. I have no idea where it was or what it was called. Maybe the Hongfa Temple? We got a taxi there and it felt like the area was a little less developed at that time. From what I’ve since learned about these temples I’m guessing it was on a hill and facing the water. The temple was big and the incense smoke cloying but obviously what stood out most was the trash, both for sale and as rubbish piled in plain sight. I would come to understand this garbage phenomenon a little more into the trip. I also quickly learned the Chinese word for rubbish (垃圾) having to tell every walking talking hawker that I didn’t want to buy theirs! I was still quite a lot in culture curiosity mode, rather than culture shock. It was obvious to Vivian that I wasn’t interested in being her ticket out of China though I’m not sure if I told her directly.

Anyway, I decided it was time to arrange to leave Shenzhen and I asked Vivian to help me book a plane ticket. We went into the city, or somewhere suburban at least, and she took me into a hotel foyer. I thought this was a little odd but I was learning new things. In my closeted western experience, buying plane tickets was an officious affair carried out in expensive storefronts. Now here I was in a hotel foyer buying them from some guy set up at a table in the corner.

Strangely, again, Vivian decided she wanted to visit a friend near Beijing and booked us both on the same flight. Perhaps she also wanted to make sure I was set once we arrived there but it was a little surprising to me that she suddenly made this decision where before she wasn’t even sure if she had time to hang out in Shenzhen. In retrospect, I can understand it a little more.

pic: Ivan Herman (chosen as a representation, as I couldn’t find a modern picture that didn’t look like it was from a brochure)

Gob On You (Shenzhen) – 28th April 2001

Surviving on my wits! Finally got some money! Otherwise was in trouble! Forgot my PIN number for my card – idiot. Luckily Bank of China let me withdraw over the counter – feel much better now. Met a nice lady on the train who looked after me and got me on a bus close to my hostel. Vivian came to meet me in her lunch hour. She will be very busy so not sure will see much of her. Not sure whether to stay in SZ or go to Beijing early to meet Yuan Yuan – call her later. SZ is better than GZ and where I’m staying is well developed. Food is good – seems reasonably priced and I found coffee – thank god! China has a strange smell – kinda cross between soy and dirt and old incense – and that is when it doesn’t stink like shit – if China wants to attract more foreigners it should figure out what the hell that smell is – could be raw sewerage…. There’s people everywhere of course – and girls – beautiful girls – everywhere! Slept a lot so far. It’s about 30 degrees here. Too hot. But will venture into the city later, it looked very trendy.

5th August 2021 – I’m enjoying looking on Maps to try and remember more about Shenzhen. I can see there are lots of interesting places around the area I was staying now. This is around Shennan Avenue. This highway was relatively new at the time and a lot of landscaping was being completed. There were a few high rises but not as many as I can see now. Although I didn’t go and look, it felt like the development hadn’t gone out much further yet but I can see that has all changed.

The nice lady (and her friends) on the train worked for Amway, which I found surprising. I knew of Amway when I lived in the UK but never came across it in Australia and yet here they were in China. I felt a bit guarded that she might try to sell me stuff but she didn’t and she kindly got me from the train station to the bus station (right next door I think) and explained to the driver where I was trying to get to.

I knew only a little about Shenzhen at the time. I’d heard it was developing quickly from its original farmland and that it was next to the Hong Kong border. In fact, at that time there were so few skyscrapers that it was obvious that those I could see in the distance were in Hong Kong. It’s only looking on the map now I realise how close to the sea I was. There was definitely no salty sea breeze going around. I can also see that there is a metro or train line now, where a bus was the only option before. There was also not many cars on the roads.

Vivian was a smart young lady around my age but it soon became apparent to me that she was looking for a husband and a way to progress her life outside China. This would become a common theme amongst almost every female who approached me on this trip. Looking back, I think I jumped to many conclusions at the time without understanding much about the nuances.

Anyway, Vivian was nice, kind and helpful and we went sightseeing together a few times over the next few days even though, as I mention, I was already thinking about getting up to Beijing more quickly.

I compare Shenzhen with Guangzhou but I really only got a superficial look at both places. I think it was just that there were fewer people in Shenzhen and as everything was newly built it seemed a lot cleaner and modern.

I was staying in a hostel which was pretty big, maybe 6 or 8 floors and many rooms per floor. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting from a hostel and I found that many people were migrant workers and students living there semi-permanently. I was in a small room of eight that was pretty much 4 bunk beds in one room and a shower/toilet in another. This was also my first time coming across squat toilets which was a real test of my skinny thighs.

Luggage was just kept on the floor or your own bunk. Despite the room being fully occupied I barely saw anyone else whilst I was there. There was an older Portuguese guy on the bottom of my bunk and he was making connections for production, import and export of furniture. I made friends in the evening with a happy-go-lucky Chinese student who took me to the restaurants next door where he helped me find food for my pescatarian diet. This involved some finger-sized fish that I would spend ages trying to take the bones out of before realising that it was easier just to crunch them up and swallow them! I was on a steep learning curve but revelling in it.

It was stupidly hot and humid for me, not like the dry heat I had grown accustomed to in Australia. This necessitated finding beer which was a successful endeavour with one caveat. Despite beer being ridiculously cheap and available, it was almost never cold! On that first night returning to the hostel I asked if there was a fridge anywhere but I was out of luck. Seeing my disappointment (and disgust at having to drink warm beer – oh, how I have changed since leaving England!) they quickly offered a solution. Grabbing a set of keys they took me to the Coke vending machine, opened it up and stored my beers inside. Anytime I wanted one I just had to come and ask them to open the machine. I found this delightful and caring, though I think they weren’t quite prepared on how fast I would drink and keep asking them to open the machine up for me. The beers weren’t strong and due to the humidity, it was easy to drink quickly. This also required navigating toilets more often than I would have liked too but that problem becomes less a stress the more you drink anyway.

The coffee I found was probably just the 3-in-1 sachets but at least it was caffeine. The struggle to find coffee when travelling was real then!

New countries have new smells, as I had discovered on arrival in Australia. The smell in China may just have been people, the close proximity of everyone, their flasks of tea….I don’t know. The stink of shit was probably the reality – at a point where it wasn’t a stench that made you gag but like the sweet aroma of your own farts. Though sometimes it could veer dangerously close to inducing vomiting. Anyone Chinese person I mentioned this to had no idea what I was talking about. Not only for them was it the normal smell of fresh air but I later learned through experiences with durian and stinky tofu that many did not view smells as either good or bad, but that the smell was just the smell. This realisation was quite dramatic and made me understand, or at least view, things a little differently.

The girls, the pretty girls….well I have no particular memories about girls in Shenzhen and I’m sure there were far more plain, ordinary girls around that I did not pay particular attention to. But, there was one afternoon when I was walking to get some food along the completely quiet pavement next to the highway and a beautiful girl in a tight black dress was approaching from the opposite direction. She didn’t notice me at all and as she was about 20 feet away she hocked up a huge gob of spit and deposited it on the sidewalk. My first real spitting experience shattered illusions.

Touchdown in China – 26th April 2001

Guangzhou – Arrived late – no one to pick me up except touts after my $$ – Li Tao looked after me – chubby, gay, nice guy! Didn’t want money. Accidentally bargained a great deal at the hotel and for that I got to sleep on a plank. My back is ok. The taxi to the hotel was hairy – I haven’t seen a westerner yet! I’m in the wrong part of town! Some parade on at the railway station – a disappointing show – looked like police displaying criminals in trucks!! On a train – don’t know how I managed it. This place is crazy and out of order – China maybe a second world country! Saw workers at midnight laying pavement – about 40 feet away someone else was digging it up! People are very curious about me – but not enough to talk – just to stare. Next stop Shenzhen – which was supposed to be first stop!

19th July 2021 – Somewhen around 1998 I joined the Asia Friend Finder website, not particularly to be looking for a girlfriend, but to make contact with people in China which was becoming a major interest as a place to visit. Through the site I met many women (I found out why when I got to China!) but a couple in particular I thought were interesting enough to stay in touch with.

At that time there were no English language versions of chat software but my new Beijing friend Echo (Yuan Yuan) talked me through setting up QQ – which I believe was only a chat program at that time. This made it much easier to communicate and I even had many more women contact me there once they found a foreigner to chat with there.

After much planning, intricate visa arrangements and money saved up I jumped on a plane. I was lucky to receive my new Visa card just before leaving but not lucky enough to set the new pin!

I had arranged to meet a lady at Guangzhou airport who would get me to the train to Shenzhen that evening, where I planned to meet Vivian, my first main contact for the trip. However, my flight was delayed out of Sydney and it was about 11pm when I finally arrived in Guangzhou. I was not shocked that she was not there waiting. When I got back to Australia I found out that she hadn’t come to the airport either as she had to accompany a friend to the hospital after breaking an arm in an accident.

Having taken the precaution not to have too much cash on me, and ensuring passport, cards and extra cash was strapped to me in a pouch under my shirt (I was really paranoid at that time) I was standing around the airport, which appeared to be closing down for the night, wondering what to do next. Seeing a lost foreigner, about 10 taxi touts surrounded me and not understanding the differences with personal space got right up in my face. Completely flustered, I asked them several times to wait whilst I got some money from the ATM. It didn’t help though and they all followed me and surrounded the ATM, looking over my shoulder. That’s when I lost patience. I looked at one guy, pointed at him and said “You. You help me, tell everyone else to go away.”

As I attempted to get money from the machine I suddenly realised I didn’t know the pin number for this new card. Fuck! What can I do now!? I asked my new taxi driving friend, Li Tao about a youth hostel or anything similar that would be near the train station. He said he knew just the place. I was still feeling cautious and wondering where this guy might take me but Li Tao was a kind man and I started to relax a little. His English was poor but good enough and I had next to no Chinese language skills. We managed to communicate well enough though.

When we got to the hostel I asked Li Tao to wait as I needed to check that they could swipe my Visa card as payment – something that was outdated in the west but luckily still in use here. Finally feeling more settled and relaxed Li Tao said farewell and gave me his number and told me to call him if I had any problems. With the little cash I had I paid him and tried to tip him but he wouldn’t hear of it. Damn, I was so lucky to find the right person to meet by chance. I started to feel good about things.

I’m not sure about the plank to sleep on that I reference originally, perhaps just implying it was a rock hard mattress. It was around midnight by now and I thought I’d take a look around. The hostel was right outside the main train station and there were thousands of people there. I had arranged these dates to travel to China because all my contacts told me that they had free time. It was only now that I was learning about the May Day and National holidays in China. All these people were heading back out of the city to their rural villages.

At the time I had dyed red hair, tattoos and a nose-ring so it was no surprise when I stepped into this maelstrom of people that they all stopped and stared, jaws dropping open. It was very uncomfortable but I pushed on, wanting to check out what I could about the station so that I knew what to do and where to go in the morning.

Suddenly a parade of vehicles came through the crowds and I later found out, as I had guessed, that there were indeed parading criminals. Usually done before they were taken out of the city to a field and shot! It felt very medieval.

The comment about people laying bricks and then digging them up again struck me as a bizarrely communist scheme to keep everyone employed. I was probably reading too much into it but I did come across several other instances like this. The reason construction work was happening at midnight was because it was too damn hot to do during the day. But my guess is that the work was going on 24/7 and that it was just better to have the night shift.

I’m unsure about my comment on China being a second world country. Did I think it was a first world country or third world country?

From the text it appears I wrote this on the train to Shenzhen the following day. I don’t really remember much about how this came about so it couldn’t have been too torturous.

I found a picture of Guangzhou train station in the 80s – I think the 6 or so floor building to the right of the square may have been the hostel where I stayed. The palm-treed roundabout was where I saw the people laying bricks in the ground.