I will admit right off the bat that Tianjin was not the most exciting place I went on my trip to China. But it’s a major city just a short high-speed train ride from Beijing, so how could I resist spending a day there? Tianjin (formerly known as Tientsin) is not particularly well known, possibly because it’s overshadowed by adjoining Beijing. You may have heard of it in August 2015, 3 months before my trip, when large explosions in the port area killed 173 people. (This was nowhere near the parts of Tianjin I visited.) Nonetheless, it’s an important city to China. It is one of 4 Chinese cities that are not part of any province, similar to how Washington, D.C., or Berlin are not part of any state. Like Washington, these 4 cities are controlled by the national government. The 4 cities are Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Chongqing (historically part of Sichuan). These 4 cities plus Guangzhou are designated as China’s 5 national central cities, critical to China’s modernization and urbanization.
Jiefang Beilu and Zhongxin Park
Tianjin is considered the Shanghai of the North. For starters, Tianjin is the largest port of North China. (It is critically important as it is the port for Beijing.) Just as the port of Shanghai was opened to foreigners as a result of the First Opium War, Tianjin’s port was opened up as one of the prices China had to pay for losing the Second Opium War. As in Shanghai, Western powers rushed in and set up shop in Tianjin. Just like Shanghai, Tianjin has a row of early 20th century Western-style buildings reflecting the enormous presence and influence of Westerners up until the WWII. Tianjin’s classical Western strip is Jiefang Beilu (Jiefang Road North). Unfortunately, it isn’t dramatically situated on a riverfront, like the Bund is in Shanghai.
After Zhongxin Park, I took a long walk through central Tianjin to get to the old Chinese part of town. (As in Shanghai, Chinese citizens were restricted to a part of town apart from where the Westerners set up their concessions.) The walk was much longer than I expected. And I still felt a lot of back pain if I twisted the wrong way, accidentally kicked the curb, or bent over to tie my shoes if my shoes became untied (which happened constantly). And the weather was still frigid. It was a LOOOONG walk. I swore I would never schedule long walks again on my trips. We’ll see how that turns out.
Tianjin Ancient Culture Street
The culture may be ancient, but the street isn’t. Tianjin Ancient Culture Street is a tourist attraction built in the ’80s.
The Tianjin Old City is the heart of Chinese heritage in Tianjin.
Nearing the end of a long day, I crossed over to the north side of the Hai River to see a few sights and grab dinner in the Hebei (literally, “north of the river”) district.
Temple of Great Compassion
The Temple of Great Compassion is a very large Buddhist temple complex originating in 1669.
It was time for another long walk. I had to get from the Temple of Great Compassion to the most exciting (and unlikely) attraction of the day. I tried not to get lost by walking parallel to the Hai River.
Italian Style Town
While Tianjin was the Shanghai of the North, Tianjin had something even Shanghai didn’t have: Italians! Along with the principal Western powers and Japan, Italy decided to set up shop in Tianjin. They built Italian villas to make themselves feel at home. The area of the former Italian concession is now a Europe-themed tourist area named Italian Style Town. (The Chinese don’t get very imaginative when naming tourist spots. See: Ancient Culture Street.)
By the end of the day, I had come full circle. I began and ended the day in areas with Western architectural styles resulting from Western domination of Tianjin prior to WWII. After dinner in Italian Style Town (read all about it in the Food Diary!), I headed back to the train station, which was located very close to Italian Style Town. So I really had come full circle for the day. A long, cold, frequently pain-filled circle. While waiting for the train back to Beijing in the typically cavernous station, I dropped my train ticket. I struggled trying to bend down to pick it up thanks to my back injury. A middle-aged woman approached me, wagging her finger at me. She was not going to let me continue to struggle. She bent down to pick up the ticket and then handed it to me. Those Chinese, they’re pretty great!
Until reliving the whole day just now, I had forgotten what a full day it really was. You can believe that I passed out on the train as soon as it left the station. I was quite startled when we pulled into Beijing. I was certain that we were making an unexpected stop somewhere along they way. It just seemed like the trip was too fast. But we really were in Beijing. That’s how things go when you’re utterly exhausted.
[Factual information is primarily gathered from Wikipedia, so you know it must be true.]