It is more common for me to visit Shenzhen. It is less common for me to visit Hong Kong unless I am doing so for official reasons. It is equally more common for me to travel by train from Guangzhou to Shenzhen and that is my intention, until that is I learn of an exhibition showing in Hong Kong that is due to end (see my previous blog on Hodgkin). This means I am actually travelling to Hong Kong with an actual purpose other than bureaucracy. And I soon find much has changed there.
It is no secret that I’m a bigger fan of Shenzhen than the supposedly more liberal HK. Shenzhen has space, a newer metro and doesn’t feel squalid or crowded as HK does. However I digress, on this occasion rather than take a train to Shenzhen then the metro down to Kowloon I opt for… the through train. The 10 car beast has journeyed from Zhaoqing in the west of Guangdong province and called at Foshan though will NOT stop in Shenzhen but Changping (Dongguan). It is an older ‘green skin’ train similar to the one to Hanoi and will take just shy of two hours to reach Hung Hom. Why, they aren’t using a CRH on this route, which would surely be faster, is another of China’s perplexing conundrums.
My first jolt of surprise comes when having arrived at Guangdong East station – aside from never being able to remember which metro exit to take – I find the ticket office shutters down and this sends me into a mild state of panic. Normally one is not permitted into the station without a ticket, so where do I acquire one? This time, I’m ushered in by security and rush towards the second level to purchase one.
There is less than an hour to departure and determined to make Hong Kong I’ve sidelined breakfast. Stupidly I’ve also defaulted on changing money and this will chew up some time on arrival in HK but first things first. The good news is the ticket can be bought in either Chinese rmb or HK dollars (at the time of writing 186rmb/$210).
Guangzhou East is a bit like Gatwick, in other words you can’t actually see the station from the outside it’s just a brash series of curves, angles, signage, metro exits and varying shades of brightness you have to negotiate between arrival, purchasing a ticket, waiting for and boarding your train. It feels like being in a multi-story car park. This is the first time I’ve been on an upper level and the reason for that is… immigration.
Once that’s over and done with I can wait for my train. While the outer skin may seem old the interior has obviously been refurbished. There is a plug socket but only for those by the window and I’ve been allocated an aisle seat. Despite the nice interior feel this is still a Z train meaning its inexorably slow. The new Guangzhou to Hong Kong via Shenzhen’s Futian will present an entirely different experience when it opens and that can’t happen soon enough.
My seat is in the 10th and final car and feeling peckish I journey halfway to the fifth to see tables and even a working kitchen on board with chefs splicing up vegetables and a menu that is reliably Chinese; think noodles or rice with duck, hard boiled egg and veggies. For some reason, the Chinese are really cagey about photography on their trains; one of the petite hostesses looks like she wants to tell me no but doesn’t know the words and one of the chefs quickly waves an arm of disapproval coupled with an aggrieved frown.
Though the train does not stop at Shenzhen it may as well as it crawls for several minutes during the border crossing. Once into HK it is a joy to bypass all the stations that the MRT calls at. There are a series of overpasses and new construction is everywhere; footbridges still with polyphene sheeting on and what looks like a new station at Tai Wai (see link below). It’s an area of Hong Kong I would like to explore in more detail if only there was time.
It seems to take an eternity for the train to finally stop and most of the passengers have surrendered their seats minutes before hand, possibly to get through immigration quicker. This too takes much longer than should be necessary and still I can’t use my e-passport. No-one seems to want to help me fathom how I might make this a reality so I remain at the mercy of the queue (good job I’m British eh).
There are lots of adverts for visitgz.com including one for the temple I visited just days earlier and people in surgical masks handing out avian flu leaflets! When I eventually make it outside it’s a nice day with a brisk harbour wind. The station at Hung Hom is under construction for a new line from Shatin that will adjoin it. (see here… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sha_Tin_to_Central_Link)
Sadly I’m too late for the brekkie with pancakes at McDonald’s but spy the Deli France, another long absent favourite, down the corridor. The menu however is alien, what happened? I don’t remember these prices. There are some chicken curry puffs which I pass on in error when really I should have bought some for later. Starving, I end up in Starbucks over the road and for the first time ever, take tea instead of coffee as well as a ham and brie croissant and cinnamon role for good measure, which does for a quick brunch.
Later back at Hung Hom for the return journey my mistakes become clear and I succumb to Burger King possibly for the last time, that however is another story. So is the through train worth it? By a slim margin, yes. It costs slightly more and omits the metro stations on the southward stretch into Kowloon. At the end of the day it depends whether you like your immigration at the beginning and end of a journey as opposed to the middle at Shenzhen. Time wise it ends up being more or less the same. Can’t wait for that new line to open.