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Hong Kong is a major gateway to China. Many first-time visitors to China join an organized tour for excursions to the mainland, though it's certainly easy enough to do on your own. Avid shoppers with a sense of adventure may want to make a day trip across the border to Shenzhen, where fake designer watches and handbags are sold for a song. Two caveats, however, for would-be shoppers: The cost of visas for some nationals, including Americans, is so high that it cancels out bargains on goods; and pirated goods are illegal in many countries, including the United States. Frankly, I've never understood the desire for fake goods, but I do love shopping for fun accessories, and there are plenty of nondesigner purses, watches, and other goods as well.

Organized Tours

Virtually all hotels in Hong Kong work with tour agencies that offer a variety of excursions to China, ranging from 1-day trips to Guangzhou or Shenzhen to longer trips that include Guangzhou, Beijing, and other major destinations. Most of these trips follow identical itineraries at similar prices. When I took a 1-day guided tour of Shenzhen (Shekou) and Guangzhou, we were shown a small, musty museum containing a few terra-cotta figures taken from the tomb of China's first emperor near the city of Xi'an, a local market, Six Banyan Temple, and the outside of a concert hall built in 1931 as a memorial to Sun Yat-sen (on weekdays, tours also take in a local kindergarten). While the sites themselves were uninteresting and not worth seeing, what I most enjoyed about the trip was the journey by hover ferry to Shenzhen, the bus trip to Guangzhou, and the trip back by KCR railway, as these provided good vistas of the surrounding countryside with its duck and fish farms, rice fields, banana groves, and simple living conditions. But probably the most compelling reasons for joining a group tour are to see more than you could accomplish in a limited time on your own and to save money through the tour's group visa, which may be cheaper than applying for a visa on your own depending on your nationality. If the cost of your visa is inexpensive, however , you can save money going on your own.

Companies offering organized trips into China (including day trips to Shenzhen's largest shopping mall, Splendid China, and China Folk Culture Villages) include Splendid Tours (tel. 852/2316 2151; www.splendidtours.com), Gray Line Tours (tel. 852/2368 7111; www.grayline.com.hk), and China Travel Service (see "Visas"), the official travel agency of the People's Republic of China. Unsurprisingly, CTS offers the most extensive list of tours, with trips that include Beijing, Guilin, Shanghai, Xi'an, Lijiang, and other major cities. CTS's 11-day trip, for example, includes train and plane travel from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, Guilin, Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai before returning to Hong Kong. The cost of this trip runs HK$17,140 to HK$17,790, depending on the season.

Visas

If you join an organized tour of China lasting 1 or 2 days, your visa for China will be taken care of by the tour agency, with the price of tour group visas (which cost less than individual visas) included in the tour price. You can book tours up to the day before departure if there's room, but most charge more if you book later than 11:30am the day before departure because the company will have to apply for an individual rush visa rather than submitting your passport along with the others for a group visa. For longer tours in China, however, or if you wish to visit China on your own, you'll need to obtain a visa yourself. Your hotel or a travel agency may be able to arrange this for you. Having your hotel's concierge or tour desk do the work certainly saves time, but prices are higher. Travel agencies are cheaper, but you'll have to first apply and then return to pick up the visa. You can also save money by planning ahead, as rush orders for visas add to the price.

One of the most popular places to apply for a visa is at a China Travel Service (CTS; tel. 852/2851 1700; www.ctshk.com), the official travel agency of the PRC. Hong Kong has several branches, including 78 Connaught Rd., Central District (tel. 852/2853 3533: MTR: Central); 138 Hennessey Rd., Wan Chai (tel. 852/2832 3888; MTR: Wan Chai); and 27-33 Nathan Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui (tel. 852/2315 7171; MTR: Tsim Sha Tsui), which is the most convenient with the most convenient hours: Monday through Friday from 9am to 7pm, Saturday from 9am to 5pm, and Sunday and holidays from 9am to 12:30pm and 2 to 5pm. Although a CTS is also located at the Lo Wu border crossing, residents of the United States and United Kingdom cannot obtain visas here.

To fill out an application for your visa, you will need your passport (with an expiration date of not less than 6 months away) and one passport photograph (you can have your portrait taken at Tsim Sha Tsui's CTS office for HK$35; otherwise, the nearby YMCA Salisbury on Salisbury Road and the Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station have portrait machines). Prices for a visa, unfortunately, vary depending on nationality and are subject to change, but it's always cheapest to turn in your visa application at least 4 business days prior to departure. Americans applying for a visa 4 days in advance at CTS, which is cheaper than most places (especially hotel tour desks), were required to pay HK$1,180 for a single- or double-entry visa valid for 6 months. Americans in a hurry can obtain a visa more quickly by paying more: HK$1,530 for visa applications made 3 days in advance and HK$2,470 for same-day applications made before 9:30am. The cost of applying for a visa from the Chinese embassy in the United States is US$140 (www.china-embassy.org).

U.K. residents fare better: HK$600 for a single-entry visa (valid for 30 days) applied for 4 days in advance, HK$900 3 days in advance, HK$1,350 for next-day service, and HK$1,950 for same-day visa pickup. Otherwise, the regular price of a single-entry visa for many other nationalities, including Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, is HK$210 for applications made 3 days in advance, and HK$480 for same-day pickup. In any case, visa requirements and prices can change overnight; call your embassy for updated information.

Shenzhen

If you're planning a 1-day trip to China, your destination will be either Shenzhen or Guangzhou. Shenzhen (www.shenzhentour.com), located across the Hong Kong-China border, was established in the 1980s as one of China's first Special Economic Zones. Today, this experiment with capitalism looks almost like Hong Kong with its 14 million people, concrete high-rises, traffic, industries, pollution, and relative prosperity. It's a shopping mecca for day-trippers who come for fake designer handbags, watches, and other goods at prices much cheaper than in Hong Kong. However, the HK$1,180 minimum Americans now pay for a visa makes shopping in Shenzhen no longer a bargain. Shenzhen is also known for its many theme parks.

You can travel to Shenzhen via the MTR East Rail, with trains departing Kowloon's Hung Hom Station every 6 to 8 minutes. The trip to Lo Wu, the border crossing (daily 6:30am-midnight), takes about 42 minutes and costs HK$33 for ordinary class and HK$66 for first class. Prices are slightly cheaper if you have an Octopus card, but if you're traveling first class, you'll have to swipe your card again at the First Class Processor located on the train platform in front of the first-class compartment. The Lo Wu Border Control is one of the busiest border crossings in the world. Avoid traveling on weekends and holidays, if possible, when crowds can make the wait to cross over very long. Or, you can change trains in Sheung Shui for a 6-minute ride to Lok Ma Chau, a new border crossing into Shenzhen, also with shopping and connection via the Shenzhen Metro to other destinations in Shenzhen.

After going through Customs, you can walk across the border into Shenzhen. Just across the border from Lo Wu is a huge shopping mall called Luohu Commercial City (also called Lo Wu Shopping Mall by tour agencies), with five floors of tiny shops selling a bewildering amount of inexpensively priced handbags, shoes, watches, jewelry, clothing (including Chinese padded jackets), and bolts of cloth. As for imitation designer bags and pirated DVDs, Chinese officials have cracked down on counterfeit goods (half the fake goods seized by U.S. Customs agents come from China, which should give would-be purchasers pause as well). That is not to say that such goods are unavailable. When I agreed, at a shopkeeper's insistence, to look at imitation handbags, I was whisked to a concealed backroom closet with rows and rows of bags. In a tiny electronics shop, the owner closed all his doors and sent his assistant scurrying up a concealed hole in the drop ceiling to retrieve pirated DVDs (don't bother buying DVDs -- most of the time they aren't fully copied or they don't work). Several salons offer combination manicures and pedicures for as little as HK$40, but lack of hygienic conditions may discourage most tourists from giving them a whirl. In any case, bargaining is the name of the game, and because there are no ATMs around, bring plenty of HK dollars. You should also guard your belongings against pickpockets. Shops are open daily from 10am to 10pm.

As for tourist attractions, theme parks are big in Shenzhen, including Splendid China, a theme park with more than 80 miniatures of China's most historic buildings, sites, and scenic wonders, including the Great Wall and the Imperial Palace; China Folk Culture Villages, which presents the art and cultures of China's various ethnic groups with life-size villages and people dressed in native dress; and Window of the World, which re-creates famous buildings, monuments, and scenic spots from around the world, including the Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, and Grand Canyon. All three are clustered together about 13km (8 miles) west of the border crossing; take the very efficient Shenzhen Metro subway from Lo Wu to Window of the World/Shijiezhichuang Station (otherwise, Splendid China and China Folk Culture Villages are often included in 1-day tours offered by tour companies). Farther afield are Happy Valley, a large sophisticated theme park with a variety of thrill rides, and Minsk World, a military theme park with the Soviet aircraft carrier Minsk. Most visitors to Shenzhen, however, come for the shopping.

Farther Afield

Farther afield is Guangzhou (Canton), capital of Guangdong Province with a population approaching 12 million. A commercial city, Guangzhou is famous for its markets, including Haizhu Square with vendors selling electronics, toys, and souvenirs at great prices. Otherwise, the sights are confined to a Buddhist temple and the monuments and statues in the city's largest park, Yuexiu Yuan, that include a memorial to Sun Yat-sen. You can reach Guangzhou by rail in 2 hours or less from Hung Hom Station in Kowloon; cost of this trip is HK$230 for "premium" class and HK$190 for first class. At last check, through-train service to Guangzhou departed Hung Hom every hour or so from 7:25am to 7:24pm.

Be forewarned, however, that because tourist attractions in Shenzhen and Guangzhou are extremely limited, if you're really interested in a trip to China you should plan on traveling to Shanghai, Beijing, and beyond. For more information on China, see Frommer's China.

 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.