Brian's Blogs

Return to Tianjin

It’s been over a year since I last visited Tianjin (天津), the port city half an hour’s train ride from Beijing. I had previously been there on a works outing and we had been shown around in style by the local tourism authority. Much to my delight I recently received another invitation from one of the ladies who had looked after us – Wenya – who has been following the ramblings of your favourite blogger over the last few months. She wondered if I would like another day out in this beautiful city.

So Saturday at the crack of dawn sees me heaving myself out of bed and getting ready for the off. To get to Tianjin from Beijing I need to get to Beijing South Railway Station. To get to Beijing South Railway Station I have to travel down Subway Line 5, change onto Subway line2 and then change onto Subway line 4. It’s an hour’s journey, but I get there in plenty of time, having paid the standard RMB2 for the whole journey.

The current Beijing South Railway Station (北京南站) opened on August 1, 2008. It is truly gigantic - the second largest in Asia, after Shanghai Hongqiao .

Trains to Tianjin are frequent, leaving during rush hours practically every 10 or 15 minutes. The whole operation is dead impressive, resembling an airport in its efficiency. In fact I’m sure the planners must have taken a good hard look at the runnings of an airport and imported the best bits.

With so many trains running every hour, nothing is left to chance, and everything runs to split second accuracy. In typical air-terminal style, arriving passengers are kept separate from departing passengers by the simple expedient of having them on separate floors: arrivals downstairs, departures upstairs.

You can’t get onto the platform at all until about 15-20 minutes prior to departure, and that’s only once you have been through the gamut of X-ray machines and body searches. Then you walk through the terminal to your gate and queue up in orderly lines before you swipe your ticket through the platform barriers, show your ID card (to show it really is your ticket – tickets are only valid for the person who bought them) and shove your way down to the sleek white express trains below.

I never cease to be impressed by China Railways. Yes, they have had a number of safety problems over the past year or two, but the Europeans could really learn a thing or two from the way the system is run here.

Not only are the trains comfortable and affordable (the journey to Tianjin costs a mere RMB55 – or just over £5), but they are ultra clean and packed to capacity as a result. As we board the train, an army of cleaning staff is already washing down the outsides of the carriages – which they do after every journey! Oh, British Rail do you have a lot to learn!

They even have stewardesses patrolling the train – smart blue outfits for first class; slightly less smart red ones for turnip class.

We set off, quickly reaching speeds of 290km/hr (slower than last year, following the high speed rail crash incident in Zhejiang province last July in which at least 35 people died) and arrive in Tianjin 34 minutes later.

Tianjin is the largest coastal city in northern China and the sixth-largest city nationally – but you never feel overcrowded the way you do in Beijing. Compared with Beijing, Tianjin on a Sunday is almost empty. Certainly Wenya is wandering across roads without a care in the world in a way that would almost certainly land her in hospital in the capital.

The city really is splendid. It’s all a huge conglomeration of ageing nineteenth and early twentieth-century European architecture, juxtaposed with the concrete and glass monoliths of wealthy contemporary China. Much of the colonial architecture has been placed under protection, especially in the French, Russian and Italian concessionary areas around the central train station, and south of the Hai River.

Facing the Bohai Sea, the name Tianjin means 'the place where the emperor crossed the river', and as the one time imperial port, it serves as Beijing's vital gateway to the sea.

One of the bridges crossing the Hai River is known as Liberation Bridge. And immediately opposite in the middle of a roundabout stands one of the unmistakeable landmarks of the city - The Century Clock. It’s almost 40 metres high, weighs 170-tons and is embellished with relief carvings of the 12 symbols of the Chinese zodiac in bronze. The S-style rocker symbolizes the substituting of Yin and Yang, apparently.

Well, I guess it’s one of those things you either love or hate. Personally I think it is whacky and zany enough to be quite attractive in a funny kind of way.

True to form, Wenya ambles her way from the middle of this huge roundabout across some eight lanes of traffic, almost defying any car to even think of mowing her down. I follow a little more sheepishly and we finally jump into a cab which takes us 2 kms to the Dabei Monastery – otherwise known as the Great Compassion Temple.

The monastery was first built in the Ming Dynasty, but has been heavily rebuilt and renovated since. It covers over 10,000 square metres and houses the Tianjin Buddhist Institute.

Entry is 5 Yuan, but not only does that get you in, you also get given three sticks of incense to add to the general smoky melée.

A signpost near the entrance informs us that the ancient Compassionate Temple is renowned for “worshipping the merciful Goddess of Mercy”; and that “after the vicissitudes of centuries, only the west yard of small scale remains” – errr, yes! In 1979, renovation work started on the halls, which had been ruined during the Cultural Revolution; and in 1982 the temple took on the status of a protected historic site.

On either side of the entrance way stand bell and drum towers and the whole complex appears much less formal than some of the temple complexes I’ve seen in Beijing.

In front of the Grand Hall stands a – well, I’m not quite sure what you would call it! It’s like a very tall tower into which visitors are attempting to throw coins through the little entrances at each storey. Presumably the higher up they can throw their coins, the more good luck it brings them. Who knows - but it is charming whatever it is.

We leave the temple and wander out to get a bottle of cold tea. In the street, outside a police station, is – what appears to me, anyway – a clever street sign admonishing people not to drink and drive, lest they get injured. There is a whole series of these signs positioned across the city. Obviously the marketing gurus have had a field day attempting to make a boring but necessary campaign for road safety come alive.

We wander on across one of the 12 bridges traversing the Hai River. Through the mist we can just make out the outline of the Tianjin Eye - a 120-metre tall giant Ferris wheel built above the Yongle Bridge (formerly the Chihai Bridge). It has 64 exterior transparent capsules, and a complete revolution takes 40 minutes. It is the only such wheel to have been constructed over a bridge; and on a clear day they say you can see 40 km from the top.

But time waits for no man, and perhaps more importantly, it is now many hours since your favourite blogger’s tummy was pampered with a bit of nourishment. Wenya tells me that Tianjin is famous for a number of snack items, including deep fried Goubuli (狗不理包子) - a traditional brand of baozi (steamed bun with filling).

She leads me to a restaurant, outside which snakes a long queue of people waiting to be served through an open window. We dutifully stand in line. There is a plethora of choices available, including bean paste (her favourite), pineapple (my favourite), strawberry (everybody’s favourite) and various others too numerous to mention.

I get handed a large bun-shaped object inside a plastic bag and sink in my teeth. It’s lovely, but so thick with oil that I wonder what on earth it will do to my cholesterol levels. But I throw caution to the winds and munch it down before then wondering how on earth I’m going to get rid of all that oil that has covered my hands in the process.

We wander further on down the street where a makeshift stall is selling off kittens and puppies - balls of fluff locked up in tiny cages. Eager kids are anxiously explaining to their parents why they need to take on the responsibility of looking after one of these sad balls of fluff, while some of the parents are doing their best to ignore the pathetic squeaks and mewls and lead their kids on to more worthwhile pursuits.

We stop for a coke and then decide to chance our hand at the Tianjin metro. The original network started in 1984 when it was the second metro to be built in China with a total track length of 7.4 kilometres. To reduce construction costs, the transport authority decided to use an abandoned canal bed to form part of the system, which meant that the underground section was only 2–3 metres beneath the city streets, and was the world's shallowest metro.

Seventeen years later the service was suspended for reconstruction, only reopening to the public in June 2006. And within a further three years, the entire network had grown to 50 stations and 4 lines.

This year in July, after a lengthy construction delay and a structural accident, Line 2 finally opened to the public, as two separate sections.

The entire system has now been kitted out with 114 new passenger cars that are very similar to some that are found on Beijing’s subway system.

In 2009, the Tianjin transport authority announced plans for 8 subway lines (including the current Line 1) with lines 2, 3, 5 and 6, currently under construction, due to be fully opened next year.

Unlike Beijing’s subway system, which has a flat fare of RMB2 for any distance, Tianjin’s metro has a sliding scale of fares; but it still averages between 1.5 and 2 kwai per journey. Instead of getting a ticket to ride, you get instead a plastic disk which you have to wave at the turnstile to get though.

The metro system itself, though, is desperately underused and the passageways linking the surface to the platform areas are virtually deserted. But that’s a wonderful feeling after the desperately overcrowded conditions on BJ’s equivalent MTR system.

Anyway, it’s piggy time once again… and Wenya takes me to a fast food outfit which specialises in fried tofu. It’s a little like a miniaturised version of a British fish-n-chips shop…

Once the tofu has been extracted from the oil, a liberal smothering of various sauces is poured over it and we are given two wooden spikes to go away and eat them with. Delicious! But what was I saying earlier on about cholesterol?

Now it’s time to take in a bit of culture. We head on over to Chifeng Dao (赤峰道), where we pass the former residence of Zhang XueLiang - the effective ruler of Manchuria and much of northern China after the assassination of his father by the Japanese in 1928. As an instigator of the Xi'an Incident, he spent over fifty years under house arrest and is regarded today as a patriotic hero.

It’s a nice house, but it is not what we have come to see.

No, no. For that we have to walk a few more metres down the street … to the China House Museum. Now, whether your reaction on seeing this building is Wow! Art! or OMG what a travesty!, there’s no mistaking the uniqueness of this building.

The blurb will tell you that China House “is a priceless building decorated with about 4,000 pieces of ancient porcelain, 400 pieces of jade stone carving, 20 tons of crystal and agate and a million pieces of ancient Chinese ceramic chips”… or another blurb which tells you “700 million pieces of ancient Chinese porcelain, 15,000 ancient porcelain bowls, dishes, and vases; 300 ancient porcelain-cat pillows; 300 stone lions; 300 marble sculptures; more than 20 tons of natural crystal…”. I guess I’m not too fussed either way.

My first reaction is that it wouldn’t look out of place beside some of the Gaudi buildings of Barcelona.

But unlike Gaudi’s works, this is – in my very humble opinion – absolutely GHASTLY and has been put together in the worst possible taste. The front wall - called the ‘peace wall’ - consists of 635 vases and a whole load of ceramic pussycats.

China House museum is a private house which belongs to the Tianjin Yueweixian Cultural Industry and Investment group. Originally a 100-year-old French style villa, the residence is a five-storied building with a total area of 3,000 square metres.

On the roof of the house is embedded a 768-metre-long dragon relief made from over ten thousand pieces of porcelain. Inside the house there are many famous paintings made up of ceramic pieces, including the world famous painting, Mona Lisa. OMG, I hear myself crying yet again…

We decide to forego the pleasure of actually going in to this “museum” and instead wander off into the sunset in search of more food, before eventually it’s time for me to think about heading for home.

The station area is absolutely crowded out – much more security than usual, I am informed. Apparently Tianjin is gearing itself up for the annual Meeting of the New Champions of World Economic Forum (also called Summer Davos) which starts in two days here with the Premier and his entourage descending on the city. But I manage to get a ticket for a train in an hour which gives me enough time to catch a photo or two along the river where the French quarter is alive with lights. Did I mention that Tianjin is stunning at night?

I finally get into BJ in time to just catch the last subway trains to get me home, where I arrive an hour later.

It’s been a great day out. I really like Tianjin!

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