China: Tea ‘N’ Gin

So I’ve finally stepped over the breach into the mainland. The end of my last post was actually a lie – my next stop wasn’t Beijing. First, I had a pit stop in the nearby city of Tianjin. 30 minutes away from Beijing on the bullet train, I’d like to say I stopped over in Tianjin for its quaintness and charm, but the truth is a flight to Tianjin from Hong Kong was much cheaper than a flight direct to Beijing. Still, even without the financial benefits, I’m glad I did it.

Tianjin Century Clock
Tianjin Century Clock

After a stress-free flight with Hong Kong airlines, I landed in Tianjin nearly 3 hours after leaving Hong Kong (gives you an idea of just how big China is) and caught the subway into the city. Here I experienced the ritual aimless wandering that seems to come hand in hand with every new city I arrive in. My hostel in Tianjin really didn’t want to be found. It didn’t help that China has blocked just about everything so my usual crutch of Google Maps was useless. After over an hour of walking up and down the same street again and again, I remembered I had the hostel’s phone number and gave them a ring. Luckily, I had managed to get myself to the lobby of the building it was in when I rang so the owner came and collected me, whisking me up to the 19th floor. It’s a cracking view up here but I’d never have found it alone!

Something I pondered in my last post was how different China would be from Hong Kong and I’m definitely seeing some stark differences after just one day. The thing that has struck me most is the lack of English that’s spoken here. I was warned about this before I came but underestimated just how bad it would be. And why would they need English? Mandarin is an equally dominating language, particularly here. But even in rural Vietnam or India, people had basic English. Here, even numbers or food orders involve excessive pointing or counting on fingers. Perhaps it will be slightly better in Beijing. It allows me to muddle through with practising my Mandarin whilst I’m here anyway!

The other major difference with Hong Kong is the traffic. I’d got used to red lights actually being obeyed in Hong Kong but China seems to follow the South East Asia policy of ‘anything goes’ on the roads, which are ridiculously wide to ensure that every crossing ends with you in a stand-off with hundreds of angry Chinese drivers who won’t stop for anything. I’ve already seen several road rage incidents, though none of them have been as bad as the baseball bat wielding Indian drivers as of yet.

A slightly smoggy Tianjin.

In terms of attractions, Tianjin doesn’t have much but it’s a nice city to wander round and has a distinctly European feel. Most of it centres around the Haihe River which flows through the city. It’s lovely at night when everything’s lit up, particularly the giant Ferris wheel, which is the only one in the world to be built on a bridge.

I’m not sure if I was in Tianjin on the day of some sort of festival/event as there were constant bursts of fireworks along the river, followed by people lining up to cast off Chinese lanterns (with mixed results). There was a really great atmosphere. I particularly liked the outdoor ballroom dancing session that I wandered through on the way to the subway. Having seen next to no other tourists, it was good to see a normal Chinese city going about its life.

Tianjin Eye
Tianjin Eye

The next morning, I headed into the smog-strewn city to have a mooch about before getting the train to Beijing. In daylight, I was amazed at just how European this city was. Wandering round the centre along the the river, I could have easily been in Germany or Switzerland. It was a very weird feeling to fly to China and end up feeling the closest to home since I moved here! Despite the smog, the sun was pretty warm (though the amount of judgmental stares I got for wearing shorts and flip flops was crazy) so I embraced the European theme by having madeleines by the river by heading to the nearby train station.

Tianjin doesn’t have any particular landmarks and I think I spent the right amount of time there but it’s a charming little city which was littered with reminders of home, so I was pleased with my decision to fly into there rather than straight to Beijing. Plus I got the opportunity to experience my first ever bullet train.

Now my next stop’s Beijing!

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