Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Fast Track to Tianjin's Roots

By High-speed Train to Tianjin, China

Originally Published in the Jakarta Globe, 18/03/10

The sleek white train slips smoothly out from under the arched roofs of Beijing’s South Train Station. Speed, time and the outside air temperature are registered on a digital display at the front of the carriage – within seconds we are doing 60kmph, then 70, and upwards, past 100. Outside it is just 3C, but the carriage is warm as we streak through the outer suburbs of the Chinese capital past smokestacks and factories. Wintery sunlight slants in from the right and soon we are passing farmsteads, electricity pylons, flat brown fields and ponds scaled with ice. Six minutes into the journey and we are already out of the city and doing 325kmph. I am riding what is reportedly the fastest conventional twin-track train in the world between Beijing and the neighboring city of Tianjin.

 China, covering half a continent, is a land of long rail journeys, and the trains that make these transcontinental trips are exceptionally well-run. But none of the long-haulers have the wow-factor of the speed-machines that make the short run from Beijing to Tianjin. Until recently the 114 kilometer trip took an hour and a half, but in August 2008 a new line was opened and the journey time was slashed by two-thirds. The trains that shuttle back and forth every half-hour have an average top speed of 330kmph – though the record is an eye-watering 394.3kmph.
 I have barely settled into my seat when the smooth transition from suburbs to fields repeats in reverse: smokestacks, factories, then a river and a forest of glass skyscrapers. Exactly 29 minutes after slipping out of Beijing we slide to a halt in the echoing cavern of Tianjin Station...


 But is there actually anything at the end of the line to make this turbo-charged trip from Beijing worthwhile? On this chilly winter’s day I step out of the cozy cocoon of the carriage, pull on my hat and gloves, and set out to see what Tianjin has to offer.
 Lying near the mouth of the Hai River, Tianjin has always been the key maritime gateway to Beijing. Britain’s first official mission to the Manchu court arrived through Tianjin in 1793, and by the end of the 19th Century various foreign powers had been granted trading concessions in the city.

 Shivering in the sharp sunlight I dodge the taxis that crowd the station forecourt, skip over a steel bridge across the Hai River, and seek out what remains of the concession era architecture. The streets are neat and orderly, and here and there a bank, church or hotel in unmistakably European style looms over the pavement – all balconies and colonnades. But as so often in 21st Century China it can be hard to sift the authentic from the fake. What I think is a hundred-year-old French townhouse reveals itself as a cunning concrete construction, the frontispiece of a new housing development.

 There is more of the new as I double back north to the riverside. Here enormous glass towers rocket into a pale sky. Tianjin might be overshadowed by Beijing, but it is still China’s sixth largest city, close to the forefront of recent economic growth. I hurry along the walkway beside the wind-ruffled river, passing old men in flat caps, fishing in the icy water.
 Crossing the neoclassical Bei’an Bridge – with golden Venuses on the parapets – I continue until I reach the Monastery of Deep Compassion, a 17th Century temple where enormous Buddhas stand in smoky halls. The forecourt is busy with old women, lighting incense sticks and bowing before the images, but it’s too cold to linger so I follow the river back to the south.
 The original walled garrison city of Tianjin stood on the west bank of the Hai River, guarding one of the most important junctions for waterborne traffic in China. To the east trading junks charted the coastal waters and plotted courses to more distant lands – Japan, Vietnam, and even Indonesia. Meanwhile the river gave access to the Grand Canal, the inland waterway that linked Beijing to the southern Yangzi Delta.
 Traces of this centuries-old city still stand. One road in from the riverside is Guwenhua Jie – “Ancient Culture Street”. Once again it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fake, but the pedestrian street is a mass of red lanterns, dragon-chased roofs and kitsch Chinese trinkets. Through a narrow arched gateway between the souvenir stalls is the Temple of the Goddess of Seafarers. I’ve visited temples dedicated to this same deity in Indonesia, and curiosity draws me inside. Much is familiar, though in wintery Tianjin there is no soft tropical heat; here the incense smoke coils into cold, dry air.
 At the end of Ancient Culture Street I take a break from the chill for delicate cups of green tea and a plate of steamed meat dumplings – baozi, a Tianjin specialty – then pull my gloves back on and head for the heart of the old city. The Drum Tower, a double-tiered pavilion atop a cube of gray stone, is the last remnant of the old fortifications. The walls of old Tianjin were destroyed, not by bulldozing modern developers, but by vengeful European soldiers. In 1900 a peasant uprising, known as the Boxer Rebellion, saw attacks on foreigners across northern China. When the crumbling Manchu dynasty offered its support to the rebellion a multinational European army attacked in response. The victorious Europeans leveled the old walls when they captured Tianjin.


 Heading south from the Drum Tower – pausing in a covered arcade to buy manhua, another Tianjin specialty, a twist of sweet, crispy fried dough – I return to shining streets and towering office-blocks. It will be dark before long; temperatures will plummet far below freezing, and it will be time for a 330kmph ride back to Beijing.
 Tianjin is far more manageable in size than the capital. In a chilly afternoon I have made my way through its sights – and with that 29-minute train ride it has been easier to reach than many outlying suburbs of Beijing itself. And there are plenty of traces of the old here to make the trip worthwhile – though as so often in China the boundary between restoration and recreation, between heritage and theme park, is hard to pinpoint.
 But as the sky pales in the west, I stumble into a completely different quarter of Tianjin. Taking a side road in the direction of the river I find myself amongst bare, black-branched trees. The road becomes a dirt track, plied by old men on bicycles. This, it seems, is the plot for some new development; the narrow alleyways are only just being cleared.
 Out on the wasteland I see men in heavy coats and peaked caps. Their bicycles are propped against nearby trees and each man holds a small yellow-beaked bird. As the sun sets behind the skyscrapers, the men fling the birds skywards. They rocket up and up vertically in the cold air, and then, at a whistled command, turn summersault and plummet in a long sweeping dive to their master’s hand and a pinch of grain. It is a simple, timeless sport, and watching them as dusk falls I realize that for all the high-speed trains and skyscrapers the old China is always there to be found, not in “Ancient Culture Streets” or over-restored temples, but in places like this...

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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