China 1982

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

China 1982

I can now say I’ve been to Canton (sometimes called Kwangchow or Guangzhou), but I haven’t really seen Canton.  We received a wake-up call this morning at 5:30am, while it was still dark, placed our luggage outside the doors of our rooms at 6:00am, had breakfast at 6:15am, and left by bus for the short drive to Canton railway Station at 7:00am, just as the light was beginning to penetrate the thick, grey, humid mist of the morning.

Our main task today was to travel from China to Hong Kong on one of the new “through trains”.  In other words, rather than having to disembark at the border between China and Hong Kong, we could stay on the train and continue all the way into Hong Kong.

The China Railways train pulled out of Canton Railway Station right on time at 8:00am and headed east before turning to the south and heading towards the border.  Once we had left the urban area of Canton the train continued through beautiful farmland of neat rice padis and manicured vegetable gardens.  Very little machinery was evident, but we saw large numbers of water buffalo engaged in ploughing the padis, as well as many areas where rice planting was taking place.

It was clearly evident that in spite of its rural appearance, this landscape was heavily manipulated by human actions.  The purpose of the deliberate environmental modifications we saw were twofold; first, to remove surface irregularities in order to create larger areas of flat land to enlarge the size of the fields, and second, to facilitate the movement of water for irrigation.  It was really interesting to see trees and electricity poles on what looked like raised piles of earth – they weren’t situated on built-up land, but they were remnants of the former higher (natural) level of the land that had been lowered around them to enlarge the fields or expand irrigation.

As we approached the border with Hong Kong I started to keep an active watch through the windows for something special that I had been reading about.  Just under two years ago (in March 1980), the Chinese government announced that a new city was to be established right at the border with Hong Kong.  To be called Shenzhen (which is the name of the small border village that is already there, and sometimes called Sham Chun), Shenzhen is to be a Special Economic Zone.  The idea is that being located on the border with Hong Kong, it will become an urban and industrial area that attracts investment from Hong Kong (and elsewhere), thus bringing in new ideas and technology.  Being a Special Economic Zone, a ‘soft’ border will be established to confine dangerous new ideas – which I think might mean capitalism – to Shenzhen and prevent their spread into Canton and beyond.

Evidence of the new city of Shenzhen appeared only a kilometre or so before reaching the border, so whatever its grand plans for the future, not much has happened just yet.  The tallest building I saw was a small six-storey residential block, and most of the the buildings were just two-storeys high and concentrated along the side of a main road that runs beside the railway line.

Having said that, the plans for the future are certainly ambitious.  On bare blocks of land I saw large billboards with painted pictures of skyscrapers planned for the sites, and these buildings showed plans for multiple towers of perhaps 25 to 30 storeys.  Shenzhen may not be much yet, but if the plans come fruition, it may well become another mini-Hong Kong before long.

One sight was, I thought, especially interesting.  As we crossed a level crossing just before the border (so less than a kilometre from Hong Kong), I saw a sign (in Chinese) which not only warned local people to look out for trains at the level crossing, but also to be on guard for stolen cars.  I would love to know the background story of that sign.

Although we didn’t have to get out of the train, the stop at the border lasted a couple of hours as passports were checked.  Finally, we inched forward and proceeded to traverse the bridge across Shum Chun Creek, which marks the border between China and Hong Kong.  And seemingly in an instant, we had left the People’s Republic of China behind us and had entered the New Territories of the British crown colony of Hong Kong.

Our initial views of Hong Kong were fairly unimpressive, and not just because the skies were grey and overcast.  The farms near the border are small, poorly laid out, and have housing that could only be described as shanties.  The landscape changed as we moved southwards, however, and after about half an hour we were passing through a huge area of new town development called Shatin.

Shatin has been under development for the past nine years, having been established in 1973.  Although most of Sha Tin’s area was made up of bare earth (not unlike Shenzhen), there were several tall buildings that resembled the billboards I had seen just a few hours earlier on the other side of the border.  It made me wonder whether in a few decades it might be difficult to tell the difference between Sha Tin and Shenzhen.

By the time we reached the end of the line at Kowloon in Hong Kong it was raining steadily.  Although visibility wasn’t great, it was obvious that we had reached a very different place than the land where had spent the previous fortnight, and the difference was far greater than simply replacing the red flags with five yellow stars that had become so familiar with the Union Jacks of the United Kingdom.

The great adventure of personally experiencing one of the world’s most enigmatic countries had reached its successful conclusion.  China is now less enigmatic for me, but only just.  I have come to appreciate that anyone who tries to tell me that they understand China is really telling me quite emphatically that they do not!

Day 22

Canton, China to Hong Kong


23 April 1982