逆来顺受(nì lái shùn shòu)
– Take things as they come.
As I woke from my brief nap during the 30 minute train journey from Beijing to Tianjin, I was greeted with a view of a grey cityscape, tinged with yellow. This was not what I expected when we smugly planned a day trip to the relatively clean city of Tianjin in order to avoid the imminent collapse of our lungs after breathing in a week’s worth of intense Beijing smog. To my amazement, as I waited at the Wudaokou subway station on Sunday morning, the sun rose to reveal the start of a beautifully clear day, with a blue sky like we hadn’t seen in weeks. However, upon our arrival, we inhaled the familiar coal-like tasting polluted air, and realise that the smog had blown from Beijing into Tianjin. How painfully ironic.
Determined not to let the pollution get in the way of our day-trip, we marched (but not too quickly as to minimise inhalation of PM 2.5) towards the old banking district to view the protected colonial architecture. I particularly enjoyed the cobbled roads, which were a far cry away from the deadly Chengfu Road that we frequent in Beijing. However, I made sure to bear in mind that the creation of these beautiful cobbled streets and nineteenth-twentieth century colonial buildings were the result of the Treaty of Tianjin that almost brought China to its knees in 1856. It enabled the creation of beautiful German Bavarian villas and elegant French chateaux in the nine Treaty Ports, but also an opium addiction that consumed the nation.
Nowadays, Tianjin is known as an economic hub, with the highest per-capita GDP in China. The modern buildings in which the companies are housed are juxtaposed with the old European architecture of the many bridges that cross the river, and we admired this as we walked.
I genuinely thought that match-making had been confined to Chinese legend, until we stumbled upon a park teeming with elderly locals holding signs describing weight, height, age and details. I was very cynical of the elderly women holding up signs with “30 years old” on the front, and was very confused by what seemed to be speed dating in a park. An old man laughed at my blatantly confused expression and soon drew a crowd to look at the bemused waiguoren (Chinese word for foreigners – we get it a lot). It turned out that it was a “marriage-market” and they were actually advertising their sons and daughters, with all the gory details included on their unassuming pieces of paper. I massively regret not taking a photo, but just imagine a bustling, unorganised speed-date experience in a park on a hazy Sunday afternoon and you won’t be too far off.
We moved onto the appropriately named ‘China House’. I feel like pictures will describe this crazy place better than words, so see below for evidence. The house felt like it had been transplanted from Gaudi’s Barcelona, and sinicised by sticking porcelain vases and plates onto it with a yellow-green glue that looked like chewing gum that had been stuck between the fake crystals. The interior décor was dark wood, which I’ve realised is quite typically Chinese. It didn’t work in this case, but in truth, even the most fabulous interior design couldn’t redeem this monstrosity. I regrettably didn’t take pictures of the interior (failing at my tourist duties), but this is what it looked like from the outside:
We briefly visited ‘Ancient Street’ which was in fact quite modern, and then swung by the Bell Tower which was under renovation and covered by a fetching green tarpaulin. Despite these minor issues, it was good fun to while away a few hours looking at what the various stores and stalls had to offer. Milly and Venetia sampled Chinese desserts while I pined for a Snickers bar. They seem to be unavailable in Tianjin – I’m very disappointed that tripadvisor.com didn’t warn me of such shortcomings.
By this time the pollution had thankfully cleared, so we enjoyed our walk back along the river towards the Italian Concession. We witnessed daytime fireworks (we still don’t know why these were happening or why they were allowed to be set off from the pavements) before collapsing in a nice and reasonably-priced restaurant. I had to have the most Italian meal possible – a Caprese salad with real mozzarella, followed by mushroom risotto. We made our way back to the train, sad to be leaving the beautiful view of the river by night, but content from the luxury of Western food. Tianjin is certainly full of surprises, but the chocolate gelato has left no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back again soon.