After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in gray, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
Battling through the rush-hour-melee at Beijing Railway Station, S and I doggedly made our way towards Waiting Room Number 2, an air-conditioned hall the size of a small European country. Inside, we settled down in one of the endless rows of metal benches, gazing up at a giant information board, an incomprehensible parade of fluorescent Chinese characters. Which was our train? Was it leaving on time? Should we present ourselves to someone?
They were calling departures every five minutes or so, the signal it seemed for a furious rush towards the exit gate. This was rough on the lone, dopey-looking security guard in oversized trousers. He had no chance of checking all the tickets, the human wall literally smashing through him. Watching the bodies pour forward, I scanned a pair of clone-like businessmen barking into their phones and an extensive family overloaded with shopping bags and suitcases. Just across from us sat a group of rubber-skinned labourers, half a dozen massive wooden crates set before them on metal trolleys. Docile and expressionless, wherever it was they were headed, they didn’t seem very excited about it.
Consulting the guard, we learned that it was our turn next and within a few minutes found ourselves bobbing through the stuffy tunnel towards our platform, invisible hands pushing into my back as we were carried along by the tide. Clambering aboard our train, S was able to find our seats with ease. Located in a modern, temperature-controlled carriage, our chairs were comfortable and we had ample table space. A Chinese school group surrounded us and I soon got chatting to the teacher, a stout boy with birds-nest hair who looked a bit like a teen himself. And while his English was minimal, he still managed to explain that they were all on their way home to Chengdu, a grueling thirty-eight hour journey!!! Luckily our own ride was an uncomplicated two hours and the time went by in the click of a finger. There was no farewell for teacher-boy when we pulled into Tianjin, he was already asleep; backpack clutched towards his chest like a pillow, a folded newspaper pressed up against his cheek.
I had a less than enthusiastic feeling about Tianjin City Youth Hostel the moment it came into view, an isolated eyesore of a building dumped onto the side of a highway like an afterthought. “Welcome you,” said the man behind reception in a tone that couldn’t have been less welcoming. Glancing around while S checked us in, the place looked neglected, with rickety chairs and dirty stained floorboards in the common room. There were cracks in the walls, a sad looking kitchen and an overflowing rubbish bin. I’d seen worse in India, much worse, but this was still impressively crappy in its own way. Heading up the stairs to our room, a peeling sign on one of the archways informed us that this was ‘‘the first hostel in Tianjin since 1974”. Unfortunately, it felt like it was still 1974.
While the room itself actually turned out ok, we didn’t want to waste any more time in the hostel. Back down at reception I asked Jackie Charm how far the nearest restaurant was and he answered with a surly “far”. But with a little coaxing we succeeded in prising more info out of him and off we went back out into 2009.
When we found the recommended restaurant some twenty minutes later, it was an understated hole-in-the-wall type joint with plastic orange tables and a mountain of green beer boxes stacked up against the far wall. The place was largely empty; just three old men perched beneath a huge portrait of Chairman Mao, the only decorative touch to the entire restaurant. One of the men was the owner, a middle-aged gentleman in a white vest who looked astonished when we walked in. Rising slowly with a cocked eyebrow, a sideway glance to his smirking friends, he shuffled over and presumably asked us what we wanted. With no physical menu and limited linguistic skills on both sides, we nevertheless managed to order with the help of our Chinese pocket book. Disappearing into the kitchen while his friends silently stared at us as they smoked, the boss man returned a short time later with two piping hot bowls of tomato, egg and rice, a delicious stir-fried concoction rich in ginger, soy sauce and black pepper. Known as fānqié chǎo dàn, among other names, it was amazing and we destroyed it in a matter of minutes.
It was another kilometre before we arrived in downtown Tianjin, a compact commercial district built around The Hai River. Walking along the spotless promenade, there were hazy views across the skyline, a modest collection of sculpted skyscrapers hanging sullenly in the smoggy afternoon air. It was here that we came across a holidaying Chinese family. They were so excited to meet us the mother insisted I pose with them for a photograph, S capturing the moment with their beast of a camera. “London very cool!” exclaimed the father, thumbs aloft, his wife and daughter giggling in unison, “Welcome to China!”
Cutting into the old town, we worked our way through a series of European flavoured neighbourhoods, a handsome albeit jumbled juxtaposition of Gothic and Renaissance buildings alongside traditional Qing structures. With a limited amount of actual sights on offer, we contented ourselves with a day of aimless wandering, stopping into shops and settling for a spell of people watching in a quiet square. Delving into my guidebook, I learned that the city dated back to 1404, becoming a major treaty port in the early 1860s. The perennial ugly duckling to big brother Beijing, Tianjin spent years in a state of depression and was heavily affected by The Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, the second deadliest quake in modern history. But recently Tianjin had bounced back; thanks in part to the government’s multi-million-regeneration program. Having hosted some football matches for the Olympics the previous summer, the city was still enjoying the rewards and we could see this in the numerous construction zones peppered around the city. The book also claimed that up to twelve million people lived here and I couldn’t help but wonder where they all were. In fact, the place had a really laid-back vibe, a far cry from what we’d seen of Beijing during our short stay.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at Guwenhua Jie (Ancient Culture Street), with its craft shops, sculpture stalls and upmarket lantern boutiques. There was a sizeable temple too and the buildings were all Qing replicas, with blue-bricked facades and ornate, painted windows. We’d been enjoying our stroll very much, taking in the aromas of a large teahouse and watching bicycles clatter past us in both directions. And then there was a young man striding towards us, clearing his throat noisily as he came. Before we knew what was happening he had violently deposited a large pool of green phlegm on the pavement, just inches from S’s feet. It had happened in an instant and now he was already far away, no looking back. “Did that just happen!?” asked S, stepping around the pool of offending filth. “Yes” I replied, my growing appetite temporarily derailed, “yes it did”.
The following morning we awoke early to the sound of roaring traffic beyond our paper-thin walls. Good old Tianjin City Youth Hostel! With no suitable breakfast options around, we headed straight to the train station for what we knew would be an unpleasant task. It was Noodles who’d advised us to always book our tickets in advance, explaining that leaving it until the last minute was a dangerous tactic. And so we’d resolved to always sort out the next leg of our journey as soon as we arrived somewhere. But in all the excitement of our Tianjin arrival it had slipped our minds and now all we could do was hope for the best.
It was total bedlam in the ticket office; scores of people rushing around and not a word of English to help us on our quest. With absolutely no idea of which line to join, we simply picked the shortest and crossed our fingers. I could tell the guy behind the counter didn’t want to deal with us the moment we laid eyes on him. Handing him a prepared note with all the details of our trip, he skimmed over it, shook his head defiantly and flicked the paper back at me. “Méiyǒu!” he shrieked, folding his arms. “Um… Jinan?!” I repeated hopelessly, while S backed me up with a supportive “Míngtiān” (tomorrow). But ticket man was not playing ball. “Méiyǒu!” he repeated, again and again, his lips achieving a whole new level of pursed with each utterance. It was only later that S discovered the meaning, a firm and direct “don’t have”. We didn’t know what to do; the man had a weariness about him that suggested he’d dealt with the likes of us a thousand times before and was finally at breaking point.
We were about to give up when, quite suddenly; a guardian angel appeared to save the day. Forcing her way through the line behind us, she appeared in the form of a tall, graceful-moving Chinese woman. “Hello, can I help you?” she asked softly, white dress, beaded necklace, plaited hair. We filled her in on what we needed and she wasted no time in relaying it to Captain Inflexible, the two of them yipping away like excitable puppies. And then it was over, two tickets rattling out of the printer, the lady personally handing them to me with a placid smile. It was exactly what we’d originally asked for, a train to Jinan, second class, leaving the following morning. Where had it all gone wrong?
“Thank you!!!” we cooed in unison, moving away from the queue and realising that there were about thirty people staring at us. “It’s my pleasure!” she purred and floated back off to her place in the line.
With the clock ticking down on our brief Tianjin adventure, we spent our second and final day much as we had the first. There was an hour lazing around Zhonxing Park, where a collection of old ladies performed elaborate stretching exercises while gossiping mothers kept half an eye on their children as they frolicked around a large fountain. On our way to lunch, there was a ferocious argument between two taxi drivers, both of whom had exited their vehicles to hurl insults directly into each other’s faces. It was quite the show, their shenanigans bringing the late afternoon traffic to a standstill and also attracting the attention of pedestrians, who stood gawking at proceedings like guppy fish at feeding time.
We took lunch at the Lonely Planet recommended Goubli restaurant, a renowned Tianjin eatery. Leafing through their extensive menu, S was horrified by such tantalising dishes as Preserved Duck Tongue, Stirred Jellyfish Head and Chinese Caterpillar Fungus. There was also a dark green vegetable plate listed as Rape. In any case we were only interested in one thing, a round of the house speciality, Baozi. The steamed buns that arrived a short time later were served individually in beautifully presented wooden containers, some filled with pork, others with beef, all of them doused in spices and a dark, dense gravy.
In the evening there were more culinary delights on Shipin Jie, an indoor food arcade where we ordered a spicy Kung Pao Chicken followed by a Tianjin delicacy known as Mahua, a sweet, deep-fried dough twist that was perhaps more interesting than it was tasty. Our waitress was a right character. “HELLO!” she screamed manically, arriving to take our order. Then there was a militant “OOOK!!!” as she marched off to fetch our drinks. We’d just started work on the chicken when she stomped back over, squatted down between us and bellowed an ear shattering “GIVE ME MONEY!!!” right into my disbelieving face. Never before or since has the bill been requested in such a way. Scrambling for my wallet, I paid her and made a silent prayer that she wouldn’t come back.
Walking back to the hostel that night; S and I reflected on how we’d had such a great time in a city where there wasn’t actually that much to do. Not that we needed to be entertained by grand attractions or historical sights. Rather, I found myself on an organic high that came from simply being in China. Everything was new, from the sights, sounds and smells to the intriguing cuisine and the fascinating, confusing people. For the first time in my life I felt like an actual alien, an altogether different species from those whose land I walked in. I was curious and excited as to what came next… on our second train journey… in the city of Jinan… and beyond…