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21st June 2016 – Tianjin – 天津

It‘s fast approaching two weeks since I arrived in China yet this is the first time I‘ve
decided to write anything. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I flew into Beijing
which, as well as being relatively common and therefore a not quite so interesting start
to the journey, is a place I now have a few friends from my previous year in China, so
the majority of my time was spent seeing them and readjusting to the way of doing
things over here (not to mention my need to get back up to speed with my Chinese
language skills). Secondly, I wasn‘t sure if I would really do anything worth writing
about. Given that I already have reasonable experience of life in this country, I wondered
if I might end up simply settling into a place and taking residence for summer,
which wouldn‘t exactly give much to write about. However that would be rather a
huge waste of an opportunity, and so it is that I have decided to stay mobile and see
where the next three months take me.

While in Beijing, a few people asked me if I had any particular route planned out for
the potential trip ahead of me. My response was that I had no real plan because plans
can only go wrong. With this in mind, it seems rather fitting that I‘m now in Tianjin
thanks to a plan going wrong. I originally intended to head towards a place called
Dandong in the northeast of the country, right on the border with North Korea, however
my own ignorance and complacency led to me missing my train yesterday. Even
though I was there well in time for boarding, I sat around in the wrong waiting area
and left it too late before thinking to check if I was definitely in the right spot or not.
Such a naive mistake this early on should be cause for concern, thought it‘s certainly
better than my last trip, in India, where my friend Ben and I were quickly swindled out
of more money than any seasoned traveller would gladly own up to. After missing my
train I was in a foul mood and, after loitering outside the station for a few minutes,
resolved to not stay any longer than necessary in Beijing and used my phone to search
for whatever reasonable journey I could find out of the city. A few minutes of queuing
later and I had bought myself a ticket to Tianjin , a huge city and seaport about 65
miles away to the east.

I arrived here last night at about 20:30. My stop was Tianjin West station, a seemingly
new building made primarily for the rapidly developing bullet train network across
China. My train was a longer, standard train—the type with various classes of seating
and sleeper coaches—destined for Hangzhou many hours away. It wasn‘t a bullet
train. Perhaps Tianjin West station is also for trains that don‘t need, or want, to go into
the heart of the city. The building itself seems needlessly huge—a colossal floor space
and extremely high roof makes it into a goliath of a structure. I suppose it may come
in handy during spring festival, the biggest event in China and also the biggest human
migration on earth, as people leave cities to join family members in their hometowns.
Chinese cities are full of people from elsewhere in the country.

Upon leaving the station I had some idea of where I wanted to go—information in
China is easily accessible if you have a mobile phone with internet access—however
time was against me as my phone‘s battery was soon to run flat, after which I would
have no map service to help me navigate the area. Another issue is that the hotel
prices I find on my phone are almost always different if walking directly in off the
street. As a non-Chinese person I don‘t haven an ID to let me easily book anything
online, so the hunt for places to stay is still very much a ‘feet on the ground’ sort of
affair, and I can never really be sure of what price to expect . This was further cemented
in by a few taxi drivers who, while trying to accost me for business seconds after
getting off the train, all quite insistently told me I‘d never be able to find a sub-one hundred RMB (The exchange was always roughly 10RMB to £1) hotel in Tianjin. However I was having none of it and left them as they were.

Being in the western part of Tianjin, the area outside the station was very much open
with a sort of ‘middle-of-nowhere‘ suburban feel, the majority of which consisted of
wide open spaces around the station, lonely uncongested roads and dimly lit buildings
with the odd eatery dishing out food to whoever was still out and hungry at that time. I
walked a kilometre or so, aiming for the one hotel I‘d found on my map, and was slowly
beginning to drip with sweat even at this relatively late time of the evening. I found
the place but, much to my disappointment, the taxi drivers‘ wisdom proved correct.
The cheapest room was 140RMB and, even worse, the place was fully booked. To further
ruin things, my phone battery was long dead so I was relatively stumped, but not
for long.

Tianjin West station is connected to the city by an underground metro line—clearly
new and, in comparison to a metro like the London Underground, has of a sort of
‘airport shuttle‘ quality with modern, well-lit carriages which include air conditioning
and multiple television screens showing various snippets of news and information—
this metro train was a huge relief as I loathed the idea of returning to those taxi drivers,
who were still loitering around the main train station exit. I went to a buy a ticket and
asked the seller if he knew which part of the city had cheap places to stay. He had no
idea, so I decided to head to Tianjin central station which, due to its location, would
surely help to keep my options open. Upon arrival I saw that Tianjin station is, much to
my surprise, just as big as the west station. I expected it to be smaller because, being
the central station (it‘s known simply as ‘Tianjin station’ – no north, south, east or west
addition to the title), it would presumably be older and smaller, from the days when
train travel was still relatively new. But I presumed wrong.

Given the size of the station, what happened next was a real stroke of luck. There were
about ten exits to choose from, all leading to completely different areas. I picked the
main north exit but, due to the size and seeming incompleteness of the interior, ended
up going somewhere else until the signs had changed and were pointing me to some
other smaller side exit. It was a real annoyance until I realised the street I‘d ended up
on was full of little hostel sorts of places, specifically for people needing a cheap rest
near the station, and people like me who would rather spend as little as possible on
places to stay. One concern while travelling here is that many places don‘t allow non-
Chinese people to stay (a licensing rule) however this wasn‘t an issue. I was allowed to
stay at the fist place I tried, in a room that was only 50RMB and—all the more fantastic—
it may have set a new record for the smallest room I‘ve ever stayed in (the previous
record was a room in Bangkok).

The person running the place at the time of my arrival was a friendly old man, slimbuilt
and always loitering around the front of the entrance, sitting and smoking
serenely on a little chair, presumably to catch people like myself, or maybe he just
liked sitting outside. He told me the usual price of my room is 60RMB but, because
I‘m a foreigner, he gave it to me for 50. This makes no sense as normally foreigners
are given a higher price, but I of course had no reason to complain about anything so
said nothing.

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The street I stayed on.

dscf6326Tiny room. The bathroom was separate and shared among all guests.

In the morning I decided to search nearby for a slightly better place to stay. In particular
I wanted a room with its own bathroom so I could get on with hand-washing my
clothes which by this point were almost all in a poor and sweaty state. The search took
little time—only 50 metres or so down the road was a suitable place. Returning to
check out of my original room, the friendly old man had been replaced by an even older
couple, who I suspect are the owners, who seemed closed and indifferent to anyone
else. The old man of the two woke with a start from his perch on the sofa when I entered,
and the woman said nothing other than to remind me that I needed to be gone by
twelve. A short while later I had checked into my new and marginally bigger room
(with bathroom) which I am at now.

To pass the day I decided to walk towards what I hoped to be the city centre. This involved
passing the front of Tianjin station, which I have now seen is just as giant as
Tianjin west station. A few steps out of the huge open space in front of the station I
spotted a small outdoor eatery selling dumplings, where I sat and bought a few then got
talking to an old man who decided to ask me where I was from. He then asked the usual
questions about why I‘m here, how long I‘m staying, and how long I studied Chinese
for (most people seem surprised when I tell them I only spent about 9 months or
so learning it, which is something of an ego boost but it doesn‘t exactly make me any
better at understanding half the things they say). A younger man next to him mumbled
something which led onto the topic of currency, and how the UK uses pounds, not
euros. I happened to have a few British coins in my bag so I took them out to show
him, and explained how much each was worth in RMB. A woman from the shop next
door joined the conversation and asked how much she could buy my coins for. I was put a little on the spot so just gave the money to her, all £1.20 of it. She was so happy
about this that she went into the shop and brought out a bottle of water and packet of
cigarettes to say thanks, and then the woman running the food stall, at which I had
eaten the dumplings, said I could have the meal for free. At the end of it all I think I
may have come away better off than they did!

A short walk from there, along some fairly generic roads and past a few new-looking
tower block residences, took me to the river, which was developed much like any other
urban waterway in China, with solid and well-laid walkways along both sides for
people to walk, rest, cycle, ride their electric bikes or idly fish. The water however
appeared fairly dirty and smelled like sewers or worse in places, so the fishing is surely
never that fruitful. Ever more surprising was that at one part there were twenty or
thirty old men all swimming in it! It was as if they had gone to play, like children,
with some loitering at the edge, others making feeble attempts at diving in and others
swimming around aimlessly. Amazing that none of them get sick from this. The water
really did seem awful. I will however admit that they had made something of a correct
choice since by now the day was unbearably hot and humid—I was dripping with
sweat once again. A quick dip may have rather helped to remedy this.

About a kilometre down the river, and after crossing a bridge that coupled as a huge
ferris wheel, I found a nearby Buddhist temple area which I decided to enter for the
price of 5RMB. It was much like any other in the world, with several separate buildings
and sections for prayer, meditation and incense burning all with the usual ornate
designs and colours. It‘s said that if you‘ve seen one temple you‘ve seen them all and
so, as I happen to have seen a temple before, this one felt like all the others. Definitely
not boring but not a new experience, and I always feel a bit cheated when paying to
see these sorts of places—similar to the stately homes in England, people pay to view
the place just so the lucky inhabitants can continue to afford the upkeep. In my opinion
if a building is really a national treasure its maintenance should be included in
public taxation. But that‘s politics so I‘ll leave it at that!

Walking back to my room I passed a park which I stopped at for a while. Within the
park there was a sort of shelter, shaped a bit like an old bandstand, but totally oriental
in design, with a crowd of old men (always old men, it seems) playing some kind of
game. Well, a few were playing while many others watched. From where I was sat I
couldn‘t see exactly but at a guess I‘d say it involved cards, and possibly small bets.
This is common in these kinds of places—people playing small games for money
while a little crowd gathers to spectate, smoke and chat together.

Passing Tianjin station on my return I saw the old man I had talked to earlier, at the
place I traded my money for the water, cigarettes and dumplings. He must have been
there all day, sitting on that same chair watching the world go by. A nice enough life,
it seems.

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Old folk swimming

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Generic temple photo

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Tianjin

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Park life.

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Where the £1.20 trade happened

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