Hong Kong visitors should consider a day trip to Shenzhen

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Travelers headed to Hong Kong for business or pleasure can see mainland China's economic miracle for themselves, thanks to the proximity of booming Shenzhen.

Busy downtown Shenzhen, a fishing village just 30 years ago, is a mere 45-minute ride from Kowloon via Hong Kong's rapid transit system, making even day trips feasible. This city of 8 million, designated a Special Economic Zone in 1979 and growing ever since, offers shopping, dining and sightseeing.

All that's required is the round trip rail fare, around $8.95, and a Chinese tourist visa. After boarding the East Rail line of the Kowloon-Canton Railway system at East Tsim Tsa Shui station in Kowloon, Shenzhen-bound travelers pass through Hong Kong's hilly and verdant New Territories before arriving at the Lo Wu (or, in Mandarin Chinese, Luo Hu) border station.

There, travelers must clear China's internal immigration and customs posts. It was a relatively quick and painless process on a recent visit, contrary to the guidebook horror stories.

Once across, a sense of profound deja vu quickly sets in: Shenzhen, like Hong Kong, is a modern city packed with glittering skyscrapers. One tower, Shun Hing Square, is the world's ninth-tallest, climbing to 1,260 feet.

Stepping from the customs building into the sunlight, visitors are presented with the city's main rail station on the left and the Luo Hu Commercial City shopping mall to the right. The latter, packed with vendor stalls selling everything from chopsticks to Chinese folk art to mobile phones to pirated DVDs, once offered real bargains but is now more of a tourist trap. Better prices can be found back in Hong Kong or at the Hua Qiang Bei retail complex favored by locals. The city also offers luxury shopping and Western brands at upscale malls such as Coco Park, KingGlory Plaza and MixC Shopping Mall.

A good way to get a feel for Shenzhen -- and access inner-city theme parks Chinese Folk Culture Villages-Splendid China, Window of the World and Happy Valley -- is to hop aboard city bus No. 2.

The double-decker vehicles, called "sightseeing buses," make a roundtrip circuit on Shennan Road from the bus station parking lot abutting Luo Hu Commercial City to Window of the World and back.

The miles of futuristic skyscrapers along Shennan Road have facades blazing with neon by night. They stand as silent, towering testaments to China's unrelenting economic march.

The roundtrip bus fare, about $1.25, buys an hour or so of jaw-dropping sightseeing. Fares are paid aboard the bus.

Visitors can hop off halfway at one of the theme parks. Splendid China and Window of the World offer miniature replicas of the world's most famous monuments and buildings, while Happy Valley offers amusements such as thrill rides, games of chance and restaurants.

The kid-friendly theme parks are also accessible more rapidly via Shenzhen's new metro system; board Line 1, or the green line, at Lo Wu/Luo Hu and alight at the last stop, Window of the World (Shi Jie Zhi Chuang) station.

Shenzhen is also noted for inexpensive massages, of the non-erotic variety. Prices for full-body treatments range from about $5 to $20 for one- to two-hour rubdowns. Flier-plying saleswomen hawk massages up and down Jiangshe Road, near the main train station.

Culture vultures, meanwhile, might like the He Xiang Ning Art Museum, China's second-largest repository of modern art. It's near the Hua Qiao Cheng station on metro Line 1. Admission is about $2.65.

Spending the night

For all the bargains available in Shenzhen, the indispensable visa required to enter from Hong Kong is more of an investment. Fees range from $100 for a single- or double-entry visa processed in four days to $130 for same-day service.

Visa-processing agencies and many hotels in Hong Kong can get visas for visitors but tack on surcharges. At those prices, travelers may want to make the most of it and stay overnight in Shenzhen. A good hotel and dining option near the city's main rail station is the Shangri-La Hotel.

Other options include hotels operated by Novotel, Kempinski, Crowne Plaza (opposite Window of the World), Best Western, Four Points by Sheraton, Holiday Inn and Days Inn.

Shekou, in the Nanshan District, is home to most of Shenzhen's Western expats. The bars and restaurants there are well suited to U.S. palates. Visitors can board ferries back to Kowloon, Hong Kong Island and Chek Lap Kok Airport in Shekou.

The East Rail line will be extended to Lok Ma Chau by 2009, with connections to Shenzhen's Huang Gang metro station. The new station, an additional access point from Hong Kong, will feature shopping and immigration/customs areas.

Visitors arriving from bilingual Hong Kong will note that fewer people are proficient in English in Mandarin-speaking Shenzhen. However, much street and subway signage appears in both Chinese characters and English.

For more on travel to Shenzhen, call the China National Tourist Office in New York at (888) 760-8218 or Los Angeles at (800) 670-2228. Or visit www.cnto.org.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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