Using Tianjin preserved vegetable in Dan Dan Noodles the other evening reminded me of the lovely day we spent in that city while we were in China in late June, just before we travelled far inland to Xinjiang Province.
After nearly a week, the air quality in Beijing was getting to me and I had an overwhelming urge to see clear skies and get at least a whiff of fresh air. A bit of google-mapping and a trawl of our guidebooks suggested that the city Tianjin, about 140 km from Beijing on the edge of Hebei Province and close to the Yellow Sea, was our best option as it could be reached in half an hour by bullet train. So we set off alone on our first venture outside the city, taking a taxi to the metro, a metro to Beijing South station and a bullet train to Tianjin.
Getting hold of a train ticket as a “lao wei” (foreigner) is not for the fainthearted. Foreigners need a passport to buy a ticket so we couldn’t use the sophisticated electronic ticketing machines which require a Chinese ID card. Even in Beijing no English was spoken at the station so, despite having the destination written down in Chinese characters, it still took a phone call to Shan and handing the phone to the perplexed and cranky clerk to make sure we had return tickets for the correct time. Our return tickets cost 160 RMB or about €20 each
The bullet train is an incredible and enjoyable experience. We travelled at a maximum speed of 300kph for the 30 minutes it took to get to Tianjin on a spotlessly clean, streamlined train to and from spanking new, state of the art stations resembling airport terminals.
The care and attention to cleanliness reminded me of the way my Dad used to wash his car and polish the hubcaps after every trip when I was growing up, so proud was he of his new acquisition.
I loved Tianjin on sight, a bright airy city with the wide river Hai running through it and a palpable breeze off the sea. The sun even shone for us there.
As you exit the train station you are greeted with a cacophony of bristling new architecture rising up behind the old concession buildings.
Tianjin is an important part of China’s economic engine. It is one of four municipalities directly controlled by central government. It’s the sixth largest city in China and estimates for the population of the municipality vary from 13 million to 42 million. Like many Chinese cities I suspect it is growing daily.
It may now be a modern city but it has a long history. It’s position near Beijing and its port location on the Grand Canal made it the economic hub of north China as far back as the early part of the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911). The Treaty of Tientsin opened the city to British and French concessions in 1858 and others followed giving it that European architecture redolent of Shanghai. More recently it has been subject to waves of investment and a massive face-lift. It plays host to the Summer Davos Forum which has been on there in recent days (11th September 2012).
The old buildings which you can see across the river from the station concourse have been spruced up so much it took me a while to decide if they were real or fake.
These old concession districts survive and thrive against the constantly evolving backdrop of skyscrapers. The sound of hammers on metal, echoing from high above is the underlying signature tune of this city.
Our aimless wanderings took us to a wide open shopping street Bin Jiang Dao which stretched for over a kilometre and was bustling in the stifling summer heat. Little trolley buses tootled up and down speeding shoppers along the way and making life as a pedestrian precarious.
McDonalds and KFC jostled for position at regular intervals while in a side street a Chinese street food market was in full swing lined with stalls selling noodles, dumplings, chuan’r and lots of other unidentifiable foodstuffs.
The stores reeked of affluence and eastern tiger consumerism. In one a karaoke singing competition was under way. The enthusiastic audience clapped with their cardboard hands. I heard enough to learn that I can live without Chinese pop songs.
After a Costa Iced Coffee Mocha (my only concession to a western way of life while there, well almost), we set off to find the old town, only to find our google-mapped way blocked by the construction of new skyscrapers.
We were running out of time anyway and so we made our way back to the station along the peaceful riverside walk, where locals sat fishing, with the stunning, curving world trade centre in our line of vision.
On the way we passed a group of men playing cards on the bonnet of a car before returning to work.
The city has something of the feel and energy of Shanghai but is much more manageable to get around. It’s not for nothing this city was described by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the “most livable city in China”. It was not always thus. Shane’s business partner Dave lived there for some years before the redevelopment took hold. He and Shane were somewhat surprised by our glowing reviews.
We barely made it to the train on time and we were glad we had taken Shan’s advice and got a return ticket because the train was full to the gills with commuters and the queues for tickets snaked around the terminal and out onto the concourse. In the time we spent in Tianjin we never saw another westerner.
We left intending to return some day to continue our explorations. We didn’t get time to track down the Great Mosque, the Tianhou Temple dedicated to the goddess of seafarers, the Monastery of Deep Compassion (a Buddhist temple), several cathedrals and churches and the Confucius temple – sights which reflect the cities cosmopolitan religious history. Nor did we get to the market in Ancient Culture Street, the Antique market or the rather more bizarre Italian concession which trys to mimic the real thing as a photoshop backdrop for wealthy Chinese and charges jaw-dropping prices to match.
So the next time I find myself in Beijing with a day to spare I know where I will be heading.