Monday, 21 July 2014

Tianjin on Our Own

April 24, 2014 - at Sea
M/V Celebrity Millennium
10:00am Position: 38deg 15' North     121deg 40' East
Day 1 of 2 Cruising the East China Sea enroute to Shanghai; speed 16kts on a heading of 114deg
A sunny but cool 12C with winds from the South at 15kts.

We took a day to catch our breath after our exhilarating trip out to Lao Long Tou (Old Dragon's Head) along the Great Wall, (see previous post), but on day 3 of the stay in port we took Celebrity's "Tianjin on Your Own" excursion into the third largest city in China (but it might be the fourth largest or even fifth - it all depends on who and what is being counted).  I can say for certain that Tianjin is one of four cities in China (joining Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing) directly administered by the central government.

Even at 7:30 in the morning, the 90 minute bus ride in from the port revealed a city in a frenzy of demolition, building and roadworks. If you are in the business of cranes, concrete or heavy equipment, then this is the place for you. Closer into the city things were a little more established. The bus dropped us off at the library of the impressive Tianjin Cultural Centre complex. Rows of bicycles, many enhanced with motors and festooned with other bits and bobs that would never pass safety rules here, lined the sidewalk.

As lovely as this building was, (including western toilets!) it was a long way from the central attractions that we were interested in seeing. After a bit of a hike we found the metro station and with the welcome aid of English ticket machines and stations announcements, managed to find and then get off at the right station. Still, it was a further hike to the old part of the city - my FitBit tracker blew through the 20,000 step mark before we were back on board the ship.

First stop was the Dabei Buddhist Monastery (Monastery of Deep Compassion), a grand complex of temples and shrines, some dating from the late Qing dynasty (1669). Much of this Zen structure had to be rebuilt after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution compounded by a massive earthquake in 1976. On this day the monastery was very busy with tourists and worshippers. I loved the little buddha statues stationed throughout this site.

Outside the monastery a vast market square featured stalls offering anything Buddhist or nearly Buddhist - prayer mats, mala beads, birds, charms, statues, God money ("joss"), incense and towers of firecrackers - all within the view of the Tianjin Eye (ferris wheel).

On to Ancient Culture Street, a wholesale reproduction of a traditional Chinese neighbourhood stuffed with vendors selling anything Chinese from calligraphy to chopsticks, redware to papercuts, jade to candy floss and more, from the cheap knockoff to the richly authentic. The challenge is to know the difference, and we don't. The only things we bought were an almond cookie and a sesame snack, but the stroll-through was colourful and well worth the time.

Beyond Ancient Culture Street, the Confucius Temple brought us welcome quiet and solitude with its goldfish ponds, archways and altars. Even though this Ming Dynasty temple sits surrounded by retail and apartment towers, it exudes a luxurious serenity. A great place to just sit in silence.

From the peace of the Confucius Temple we made our way into the old town along a pedestrian market street not unlike Ancient Culture Street. For the record, scooters are equal to pedestrians here. Most interesting were the bronze sculptures along the way. The Drum Tower anchors the end of the street.

Tianjin was originally a walled city but all that remains to mark the old town is the restored Drum Tower. Drum Towers and their sisters, Bell Towers were the timepieces of the ancients. A morning bell and a dusk drum enclosed the work day from the Han Dynasty (206BC) onward. Eventually the bell and the drum were housed in the highest and largest buildings of the city and not side by side but one in front of the other. It's interesting what one finds in the shadow of a Drum Tower...

But now time was catching up to us. We had to be back at the Tianjin Library by 3pm and it was now 2:10 and not a metro station to be seen. The GPS indicated the nearest one could be reached in ten to fifteen minutes but at the other end a twenty minute hike to the library awaited our tired feet. The timing was just a little too tight for us, so we opted to hail a cab which, according to the guide on the bus in the morning, was very easy. It wasn't. Though there were umpteen blue and white taxis, it took a frustrating ten minutes of arm waving to get one to stop for us. And then the driver had no idea where the Tianjin Cultural Centre and Library was. Thank God for GPS on a smartphone! We were able to show the cabbie exactly where we had to be AND we were able to check the route he took all the way there. We pulled up at precisely 2:56pm and with an air of nonchalance took our seats on the bus. We were not the last people to make it back.

©2014 April Hoeller

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