Being British, I learned long ago never to take the TV weather forecasts as gospel. Sure, they may give you a foretaste of what is to come in the next 24 hours, but really – you’d think I would know better by now. So why was I so concerned on hearing CCTV announce that Saturday would be riven with stormy rain clouds and thundery showers?
I wake up at the crack of dawn – well, maybe not quite the crack - to find clear skies and the sun struggling to push away the morning mists; which bodes well for the day ahead, since my new employer has laid on a day out for its expat staff in the coastal city of Tianjin.
I emerge from my apartment and step into the lift with an Indian girl who, it later transpires, is a very close friend of one of my best friends in Dubai. It really is a very small world!
Some 30 of us get into the bus from the Golden Dragon Bus Company and are whisked on our way to Beijing’s South Railway Station. One of the guys from HR stands up to address us and give instructions for the day. We will be travelling on the Beijing-Tianjin Inter-City Express Railway – one of the first sections of the newly finished Beijing Shanghai Express, the fastest of its kind in the world.
We are each given a ticket which, we are informed, gives us a reserved seat in a specific cabbage and that we should therefore make sure we get into the correct cabbage on boarding. Cabbage? A look of amusement settles on a number of faces before Mr HR suddenly corrects himself. Of course he meant to say carriage! Maybe his translation calculator has been difficult to read that morning. But we all start comparing notes as to which cabbage we will be sitting in.
Beijing South is a massive railway station that would put any station in London’s metropolis to shame. An advertisement above our platform entrance proudly advises China Telecom’s latest snappy slogan: Customer First - Service Foremost. But this is hardly noticed as we jostle to slide our tickets with their 3D-barcodes through the electronic barriers to allow us onto a gleaming white bullet train. Comfortable seats; massive leg room; ultra clean. Oh British Rail – could you learn a thing or two from the Chinese!
We take off, a minute early according to my watch, while piano music is played over the loudspeakers and a quick welcoming video is shown on the TV screens overhead. Thank goodness the music soon comes to an abrupt end as we accelerate up to around 330km/hr – proudly displayed on LED screens at each end of the carriages.
A smartly dressed stewardess wanders down the aisle selling souvenir keyrings and I simply can’t resist buying one featuring a little train which opens up to reveal a “nail cut, nail file, earpick and eyebrow clamp”. I discover subsequently that an eyebrow clamp is actually a pair of tweezers and an earpick is just that – a little metal rod with a mini-spoon at its end with which I am presumably meant to clear out my orifices should the need arise. I put it away for future use.
As we speed through the countryside of endless fields, the LED display advises us that outside it is 30 degrees and rising. Hardly a cloud in sight. Pure sunshine all the way. Within no time at all we are pulling in to an ultra clean city and come to rest in the station.
As we disembark, an army of cleaners immediately set to washing down the outside of the train lest a single fingerprint should sully the paintwork. The train gleams in reflected gratitude for the TLC it is receiving.
To greet us on the platform is a posse from Tianjin’s Municipal Information Office who hand out leaflets to “Welcome Foreign Experts…To experience New Achievements in Tianjin and to Promote the Image of the City”.
“Tianjin is full of vigor, openness and generousness” the leaflet reads, while setting out a tour for the day, which we are to discover will cram practically everything there is to see into our 11-hour visit. We are led up an escalator to a door which is clearly marked No Thoroughfare but we carry on regardless as our new minders make welcoming small talk while ferrying us to another fleet of buses.
I have recently come to Tianjin after working in Beijing, my newfound minder informs me.
Oh, say I, are you from Tianjin originally?
No, I am from Tianjin he replies.
I make yet another mental note to improve my pronunciation.
The tour guide on our bus is called Chiang and he welcomes us again to Tianjin, while laying out the itinerary for the day.
Our first stop will be Tianjin City’s Planning Exhibition Centre where we will learn about the city. We are also advised that here would be an excellent place to try out the ‘facilities’ … and as if to emphasise the point, bottles of drinking water are then handed out.
We pull up outside the Exhibition Centre and are told to memorise the number plate of the bus before we leave in order to ensure we get on the same bus afterwards.
And then we traipse inside where a large map gracing the facing wall inscribed with “The International Port City Economic Center in Northern China Eco-City” shows the trade routes of which Tianjin can now boast. A clutch of cameramen and a TV camera follow our every movement to record this historic moment of the arrival of ’30 Foreign Experts’ for posterity.
We are shown a model of some buildings in the French Concession quarter; we are shown a 1:750 model of the entire city which must have taken an age to make. It spreads out below us and is truly a work of art.
But this is just the beginning. For now it lights up in various sections, demonstrating aspects of the city, the course of the river, the location of hotels and business centres and the docks and the station and the parks and the bridges…. It must have cost a fortune and its effect is truly amazing.
We are shown another model; and then another; and another; and another; and by the 12th it has to be said that model fatigue is starting to settle in.
But soon we are shown into a 180-degree cinema where a truly fantastic computer generated film shows how the city is being developed. We have to keep on reminding ourselves that much of what we are being shown doesn’t actually exist at this point. The strains of sweeping violins fight against the backing of a full orchestra while sound effects are thrown in to tremendous effect. Unfortunately, it is practically impossible to actually hear and comprehend the commentary that is desperately trying to make itself heard against this son et lumière, and my mind is swept back to my former days in the BBC where surely the sound managers would have wept had they heard the overall sound mix. But the message is clear. We leave the exhibition having learned that “Tianjin will emerge on the global stage with a brand new image”.
The Centre itself is located in the Italian Concession quarter (some of the European powers were allocated concession areas following the opium wars of the late 19th century) where a number of wedding photographers are making use of the sunshine to capture some blissful moments.
We wander around the Italian Concession area which contains 30 former residences of celebrities and in which over 60 buildings have been renovated. We are told that the Italian-style area has been pinpointed as the biggest cultural cooperation project between the Chinese and Italian governments. Scenic spots like Marco Polo Square, the former residences of Liang Chichao and Cao Yu and the Italian barracks are now open to the public.
But to be honest with the numerous French cafés, German beer gardens, and even Czech beer on offer, there is little to suggest much of a modern Italian presence, save for a spaghetti hall tucked away down a side street.
The French Concession area is easier to identify. You get there by crossing the Jie Fang Bridge which, it turns out, had been built by the same company that built the Eiffel Tower and had used practically the same construction methods.
Back in the Russian Concession area (wherein lies the station) is a huge Millennium clock which is fantastic and wonderful, or hideous in the extreme, depending on your point of view. I have to say I quite like it!
In temperatures now reaching the 40s, we are once again asked to pose for the photographers
before getting back on the buses for a half hour journey to our next stop. We pass a memorial in the British Concession area to victims of the 1976 earthquake;
a memorial to Chou En Lai; the old May 1st Watch Factory (it is said that ex-President George Bush owns a May 1st watch); and Tianjin’s Number One Hospital which, we are told, specialises in liver transplant. Someone on the bus wonders why they should transplant the river. Did they divert the river around the building they wonder? Flied Lice or Fried Rice? Liver or River? The Chinese accents still obviously leave some confused.
Soon, though, we arrive at our next stop: the newly opened Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club where we meet Derek Reid, Australia’s former National Polo Team Captain who has taken up an offer he simply couldn’t refuse and is helping build up this equestrian paradise from scratch.
There are two international standard polo fields, stabling for 150 horses, indoor training facilities and a riding school. These are the largest Polo facilities in China and it is hoped that Tianjin will one day become the host of a World Cup in China.
Slap bang next door to the Polo facilities is the Metropolitan Tianjin Goldin Hotel which boasts 167 rooms and 14 very stylish restaurants.
We are shown in to the Derby Café for a scrumptious buffet lunch featuring such delicacies as Peanut and Chicken’s Feet soup; seafood of every description; green molluscs, which are a new experience for me
‘Petittoes’ – which I learn later are pigs trotters (from the French Petits Toes, perhaps???); and ‘Yabbies with chilli’ – a type of crawfish which taste a little like lobster tail.
But time waits for no man and now we are shepherded into the hotel shop to have the finer points of Polo explained to us before being taken to see some of the horses in the beautifully equipped stables. Huge dragonflies hover about outside as we tramp around a paddock or two and learn more about this Polo heaven.
But now it’s once more into the bus and onto the Shi Grand Mansion.
The ancestral home of the Shi family in ShanDong Province, this early 19th century shipping magnate built this 10,000 sq m residential complex of 18 yards and 278 rooms. Pride of place goes to the home theatre – the largest folk theatre in China, we are told by yet another guide, though despite her use of a megaphone it is very difficult to hear a word she is saying.
Back on the bus and on to the Tong Qing neighbourhood and its Ancient Culture Street. After a fast mini tour of the area we are given 15 minutes in case we are tempted to buy any of the souvenirs here. I am intrigued to see that even Mr Bean has made it to this far flung outpost.
Now, with the memory of our lunch fading into the past, it is time for a top-up and we are taken to one of Tianjin’s most celebrated restaurants at the Go Believe Steamed Buns Hotel. Something in the name gives the game away and sure enough one of the main items on the menu is steamed dumplings. A steamed bun master chef gives us a demonstration in how to construct such a dumpling
not nearly as easy as it looks as one of the Tianjin interns who is sitting at our table discovers when she tries her hand in what looks like something straight out of the 1970s British TV game show Generation Game. I am very glad that I didn't accept the challenge as I am sure my efforts would have been even worse. The meal, though, is excellent, washed down with a local red wine and a glass of Snowflake beer.
Finally it’s time to head off for our last port of call – a cruise around Haihe Port.
Despite the hot night air, we head up onto the top deck to see Tianjin’s many scenic sights lit up against the night sky. The ferris wheel at night looks truly spectacular and on our return to the embarkation point there is a firework display – a truly memorable end to a memorable day.
The guys from Tianjin Municipality have really done us proud and we are all sorry to have to say goodbye. We are given gift bags with information about Tianjin (just in case we missed anything!) and a coloured clay Peking Opera Master Zhang figurine to hang on our walls.
On arrival at the station, there is a slight delay in which we say our goodbyes to our new friends
But soon we are making our way through the electronic barriers and onto the bullet train to settle down once again in the comfort of our spacious seats. We accelerate into the night while outside some ominous streaks of lightning fill the sky and by the time we reach Beijing the rains have set to in earnest. The rain soaked streets slow the traffic down and it seems forever before we get back to home base. And then it is a mad dash through the rain to the apartment block.
It’s been an amazing day out but thankfully CCTV’s weather predictions have only now finally come true.