Navigating the Shenzhen Metro via the Shenzhen border was nerve-wracking.
No matter how well-travelled you are, and no matter how ‘immune’ you think you are to culture shock, nothing can prepare you for China.
China is a giant in many ways and meeting a giant for the first time is always overwhelming. It’s often positive, negative, intimidating and intriguing all at the same time.
I considered myself a pretty experienced traveller before my first trip to China. I’d been all over south-east Asia. I’d spent four months in India, staying with local hosts in huge cities and tiny villages.
After India, I believed on some level that for the rest of my travel career, nothing much would shock or surprise me. India’s ‘intense’ reputation is no exaggeration – yet I now look back on that trip with immense fondness.
Compared to India, I expected China to be very different, but not nearly as exciting or intimidating.
I was wrong.
Arriving at the Shenzhen border
The very first place I arrived in China was not an airport full of foreigners.
I’d been in Hong Kong for the past week, so crossing the border overland seemed to be a relatively quick, fuss-free option.
A train to the Shenzhen border takes just over an hour from central Hong Kong to the international checkpoint. The checkpoint is virtually in between two metro stations – Lo Wu in Hong Kong, and Luohu in Shenzhen.
As the train approaches Lo Wu, looking out the window, it’s glaringly obviously where Hong Kong ends and mainland China begins. The border may technically be an invisible political line, but here, it’s strikingly visible.
The last views you’ll get as you leave the Special Autonomous Region of Hong Kong are of small farms, swamps and lush, untouched plots of land.
The land south of the Sham Chun River is a Frontier Closed Area. No one goes there without a permit and a good reason. Development here is all but impossible.
And then, out of all that emptiness, a towering, all-modern, all-manmade China appears, making a statement that’s impossible to misinterpret.
Shenzhen looks like it could go on forever if no river existed to halt its advance.
Almost right up to the water’s edge are rows upon rows of skyscrapers, all tightly crammed together to make space for more skyscrapers. Shenzhen is clearly booming.
The contrast between the two sides of the river is one of the most astonishing sights belonging to any border crossing worldwide.
See also: Shenzhen, the drone capital
Caught in the crowd
With a single, stunning view from out the train window, China had already pried my eyes wide open, even before I’d crossed the Shenzhen border.
There is nothing relaxing or enjoyable about arriving in an unfamiliar country and immediately having to figure out its public transport system.
But me being the worldly traveler I am, I’d been through this a bunch of times before. So I stepped over into Shenzhen, mainland China relatively stress-free.
It took less than five minutes for my confidence and composure to go completely out the window.
I had to find my way from Luohu Metro Station to Shenzhen North Railway station while trying to control my stress levels in a place that seemed to literally be powered by stress.
Crowds in India tend to absorb you. Crowds in China are more likely to just trample over you.
I soon realized my fellow commuters regarded each other as rivals, all competing to stay one step ahead. The Chinese are determined not to be left behind.
In many places, looking like a lost tourist will attract the helpful attention of a sympathetic passer-by.
But this does not happen while standing outside the gates of the Shenzhen Metro.
After being physically pushed aside by hordes of hurried passengers, I realized if I were to make any progress at all, I would need to become like one of them.
It was time to get the elbows out!
While not overtly aggressive, the atmosphere was one of ‘every man for himself’.
A Chinese train station is a place where only the completely self-centered survive.
After 15 minutes of aimless wandering, I accidentally block someone trying to use the ticket machine. I tell him them where I’m going and hand him the correct change.
Stone-faced, he taps the screen a few times, then gives me my ticket so I can get out of his way.
“That wasn’t so bad”, I thought.
At least my first interaction with a local got me the help I needed, even if it came from a place of necessity rather than kindness.
It would get easier each time, I thought, until it was second nature and I was dominating commuter queues like a true local.
Then I arrived at Shenzhen North Station.
Welcome to the jungle – Shenzhen style!
Not all my first day in China was spent on public transport (although most of it was).
I walked the streets between Shenzhen’s colossal malls. With only a few hours to judge the entire city (unfair, I know – sorry to anyone who actually likes Shenzhen!), I found it clean but entirely uninteresting.
Nobody seemed to speak English, even here in China’s Silicon Valley.
A dish as basic as a bowl of noodles in gravy tasted totally unfamiliar to anything I’d tried before. They were great, though.
My first day in China was one of my most memorable, and I have the absolute madhouse that is Shenzhen North Station to thank for that.
Shenzhen North Railway Station is a major junction for metro, intercity and high-speed trains.
One of the busiest stations in China, the estimate of 52 million passengers per year is expected to rise sharply as the rail network expands.
From outside, Shenzhen North is a monstrosity. Once you’re inside, the scale is almost beyond comprehension.
Crazier still, it seems there’s not a single square inch of empty floor space anywhere.
All I see is swarms and swarms of people. A vision of barely controlled insanity.
Looking back, I couldn’t tell you if this was a normal day at Shenzhen North or an extra specially overcrowded occasion.
All I knew was I had to find a service counter that would swap my printed receipt for a genuine ticket.
I had somewhat unintentionally arrived at the station way ahead of time. Four hours early to be exact.
I was fairly certain such earliness would prove unnecessary.
One again, I’d assumed wrong.
There were so many different queues, counters, signs and announcements, I was overcome by the knowledge that I was utterly clueless about what to do.
No one spoke English
I approached dozens of people.
Not one spoke a word of English – even the two friendly young women who had the word ‘volunteer’ printed in English on their official-looking jackets.
These girls at least, showed at least some sign of comprehension at the sight of my English and Chinese printed receipt.
They looked at the paper, ran around for a bit, and then pointed me towards one of the counters.
I queued as instructed. But after waiting 40 minutes, I discovered it had all been for nothing.
When I finally reached the front, I was met with a blank expression that told me the woman behind the counter knew as much as me regarding what to do with this god forsaken print-out.
There seemed to be a never-ending number of counters and no signs or symbols to indicate their purpose.
After watching awhile, I chose a very, very busy counter where I’d seen people walking off with tickets in hand and relieved looks on their faces.
Travel tip: Download all your China apps before you go, including a train booking app like Trip.
Lessons in public boundary-pushing
Arguing in public is a fine sporting tradition in China.
Many Chinese have no inhibitions at all when it comes to loudly airing their grievances in a busy public space.
Pushing, shoving and obstructing are just part of the high-pressure environment survival toolkit. Making a scene is just another one of those tools.
Now, I understand that out of the thousands at the station that day, some would have been in genuinely desperate circumstances.
Lining up for hours, then being denied the possibility of returning home is a sadly common scenario among China’s rural migrants.
In a few hours, I saw almost every human emotion on display. I watched people start to sob uncontrollably or tremble with anger and had no doubt their reactions were sincere.
But I also discovered that putting on a performance is another tactic employed to get to the front of the line faster.
Shenzhen North provided the most entertaining four hours stuck inside a train station I have ever experienced.
It takes a special sort of confidence to yell at a complete stranger with the kind of intensity I witnessed from some of the commuters I observed that day.
As the queues remained at a virtual standstill, Shenzhen North erupted into a complete cacophony of confusion, frustration and raging self-entitlement.
Send in the riot squad (literally)
A new argument or furious complaint seemed to erupt every few minutes.
At one point, a physical altercation broke out and threatened to spread through the station like a gigantic bar fight.
First, station employees tried to control the revolt, barking orders through their megaphones.
This failed miserably.
With the violence starting to look like it could get actually get serious, a troop of uniformed officers, riot shields and all, were brought in to break up the angry mob.
This wasn’t a political uprising in the making, but a collective expression of sheer impatience.
It was the first and only time I’d seen riot cops (and an actual riot) at a train station.
What I learned on my first day in China
As fun as it was to watch it all unfold, I also felt immensely grateful that through it all, I was really just a spectator.
For many of my fellow commuters, this was just another day of surviving life in modern China.
This is life, when your life is in one of the most crowded cities in the most populated country on earth, and you’re just one person out of another four million in the very same space, who simply have a train to catch.
I learned traveling successfully in China requires you to both stockpile immense reserves of patience, and to know when to come out guns blazing to go after what you want.
To run the human obstacle course gauntlet but come out the other side with no hard feelings. Perhaps even a little sympathy.
China schooled me on the very first day. And from that very first day, I was captivated.
Did you enjoy my blog about navigating the Shenzhen border and metro? If so, check out the one I wrote called 7 really interesting things about China. I think you’ll like it!