When in Guilin, my Nepali buddy pointed out I’d need a multiple-entry visa if I intended on going to Hong Kong and being able to get back to China. I checked my Tibet travel permit/visa and lo and behold, my tour company had flubbed that as well (they almost gave me too few days in China, then corrected it at the last minute, of course only after I had to prove to them that it wasn’t my mistake).
Anyway, after going to the Hong Kong border station for the hell of it to see if I could get in and out again, and finding out what I couldn’t. I was stuck in the Chinese border town/living shopping mall of Shenzhen. Luckily, not only did I have an old Tongyeong English teaching buddy, Krista, in Hong Kong, but one of my best friends my first year in Korea was also living in Shenzen, so I spent the next few days there, hanging out after she and her roomies (and a surprising number of Korea export-expats from our neck of the woods) got out of work.
Shenzen’s essentially a brand-new city and one of the SEZs (Special Economic Zones) proliferating in Southern China, meaning lots of foreign investment, making up for what it wholly lacks in history and character with brand-new, easily navigable infrastructure, a variety of amenities, and a far greater level of English than I’d seen in China up until then. The first night we met up at Shenzhen’s mini-Koreatown and caught up over some pretty legit kimchi jigae and makkeoli before grabbing some drinks.
The next day, while everyone was at work, I went ahead with the daytrip I planned from Hong Kong, Kaiping. Buses were easy to get from Shenzhen, but how long it was going to take was grossly misrepresented, so I ended up investing about 9 hours of travel time into a less than two hour sightseeing payoff. Luckily, it was a pretty cool payoff.
Around Kaiping, which is just another mid-sized Chinese city of not much distinction, are several country towns whose native sons returned in the 1920s and 1930s from their immigrant diaspora that carried them to places as far afield as Malaysia and good ‘ol Chicago. They came back quite rich by local standards, and immediately got to building small concrete houses/fortress towers (roving gangs of bandits still being a big concern at the time).
The style of architecture, called Diaolou, incorporated all of the various styles they saw in their travels wedded with local designs, so each tower rising out of the green rice paddies has a distinct character quite unlike anywhere else on earth (which director Jiang Wen noted in setting his Let the Bullets Fly there, which remains China’s highest domestic grossing film).
Four of the villages have UNESCO World Heritage Site status (if you want a too-see checklist of the world, World Heritage Sites are a good place to start). Unfortunately, I only had time to see one, Zilicun, but its peaceful nature, the gorgeous, cool worker (a rarity down here), and the interesting surroundings were well worth the literal pain in the ass of getting there.
After returning to Shenzhen a good hour and a half late, I met Katie and a group of old friends from near Tongyeong to check out a Chinese beer garden, where we spent the next several hours drinking pretty good Chinese beer and sampling various Chinese snacks from tongue-numbing Sichuan beef to incredibly spiced, crispy tofu-like fried been skins to better than it had any right to be crunchy chicken gristle. It was a great night, and a great pause to collect my thoughts, get in some English socialization and a bit of illicit Facebooking, and prepare for the last train-heavy push northwards.