It was all
arranged. After four nights in Shanghai, I would travel back to Beijing on Friday evening – arriving in time for
dinner. And then, on Saturday, I would enjoy a Valentine’s day with my wife. What could possibly go wrong,
I naively thought.
Life is full of uncertainties, but life in China seems to deliver more than one’s fair share of them. At 2pm on
Friday afternoon my plan was changed. And it wasn’t a slight change either. Instead of flying north to Beijing
that evening, I would be flying south to Guangdong province’s “special economic zone” of Shenzhen, which
is just across the bay from Hong Kong. And instead of meeting my family for a Friday evening dinner, I would be presenting
some ideas to someone from one of China’s leading technology companies.
The arrangement edged into what I can only describe as the surreal, when
I realised that the meeting would start after midnight.
I was picked-up at the airport and, by 12.30am, the meeting was underway.
At 3.15am, handshakes all round signalled that it was, at last, time to check into my hotel. I’ve been in China
for so long that I’ve somehow been able to cultivate a tolerance level – at odds with my genetic make-up –
that enables me to shrug off minor irritations. But the next thirty minutes would have even tested the patience of Job.
It took three
return visits to the check-in desk to get a room card that worked. And when I at last managed to get the door open, I wished
I hadn’t bothered. It was literally at eye-level with a rather busy overpass. Shenzhen doesn’t sleep,
so even at 4am, it was like being in a track-side hospitality box at Silverstone on Grand Prix day.
I was too tired to even contemplate
changing my room, so I put the television on, hoping the drone of CNN or BBC World would enable me to forget the decibel level
outside of the window. But the TV wasn’t working.
Things couldn’t get any worse I thought. Until, that is,
I flushed the toilet. The handle came away in my hand and, with it, water sprayed everywhere. I managed to stop
the surge of water; and was left with nothing worse than a very noisy water tank (that refused to fill despite its cacophonous
efforts to do so).
Strangely, the noise from the bathroom seemed to neutralize the road noise, and with about eighty decibels coming from either
direction, it was not unlike being in a sleeper carriage of a Chinese train. Last year I did 10,000 miles on Chinese
trains in a month and never had any problem getting to sleep, so I gave it a try.
I woke up at 8am. The noise levels were exactly the same, but I had somehow
managed to sleep soundly for four hours. I went downstairs to politely ask for a change of room. The new room
was perfect – except, that is, for a used condom on the floor that the cleaner had somehow failed to notice. But,
at least, it was wonderfully quiet.
By 9am I was in a taxi and heading for Hongshu Park – the “red tree”
mangrove bird sanctuary. The area hosted a magnificent array of birds – of particular note was the flock of about
60 Black-faced Spoonbills (one of the rarest birds on the planet); and tens of thousands of various ducks and waders, which
were making the most of the low-tide.
I visited the public area first, which was also great for people watching. And,
being Valentine’s Day, there was plenty to look at. Valentine’s Day is widely celebrated in China and one
could see from the number of couples walking hand in hand that the marauding bands of rose-sellers – Shenzhen’s
entrepreneurs are never slow to spot an opportunity – were well-placed for a busy day.
But Miss Zheng, a migrant worker
from Hunan province, who’d invested a sizable amount in 30 roses, was feeling less confident.
“I’ve only sold
three all morning,” she lamented. “It’s a disaster… I guess [the slow traffic is] because of
the poor economy”.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure business will be better this afternoon,” I reassured her.
“How do you know?”
she said, “You’re only trying to make me feel better”.
“Afternoons are more romantic than mornings,” I joked.
didn’t think it was funny.
I tried to placate her. “Really; when it becomes obvious that quite a few girls have
roses then the ones that haven’t will soon make sure that their boyfriends buy one for them. It will swing really
“Would you like to buy one?” she asked.
“If you haven’t sold at least two-thirds of them by the time
the sun sets, then I’ll buy at least one,” I promised.
I then spent the next five hours walking several miles around the paved
paths of the bird reserve (despite the patrolling police and soldiers). Somehow, the sight of my camera with a long
lens and me mouthing “sshhh!”, with a raised finger in front of my mouth, deterred people in uniforms from getting
close enough to ask me to leave.
I returned to the promenade as the sun was going down. As expected, there were now dozens upon
dozens of young ladies clutching beautiful red roses.
There was no sign of Ms Zheng, who had most-probably managed to sell
all of her roses and head off home for an early dinner.
I checked with another seller – Mr Deng – who had just a few roses left.
was good,” he said, “It was slow in the morning, but really picked up”.
I was happy that my hunch had been right,
but I was left hoping that business in Beijing hadn't been quite so brisk...
The key question,
of course, is... would there be any roses left at the airport when I arrive home tomorrow?