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Eyes on the Heavenly Ford

With a mix of European and Chinese culture, unique sights and rich history, Tianjin ticks all the boxes for a brief but brilliant getaway

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

One could call it Beijing’s lesser-known twin sister, but Tianjin has plenty to offer in its own right. A day trip to the 15-million-strong city can certainly create some cherished memories, even though it lacks the famous monuments of other cities.  

On an overcast and slightly smoggy day, and after tackling the manic and monstrous Beijing South Railway Station, my friends and I took the short 35-minute journey to Tianjin, approximately 120 kilometers southeast of central Beijing on a 350-kilometer-an-hour bullet train. On the way there, I wondered about the history of this city they call ‘‘the place where the emperor crossed the river.’’  

A Bit of History
The third-largest of China’s four municipalities, Tianjin’s name translates as ‘‘Heavenly Ford’’ – given to the city after Emperor Yongle, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), forded the Hai River. Prior to 1404, it was known as Zhiqu, meaning ‘‘Straight Port,’’ to represent the city’s functionality as a core trading center and the canal to transport goods to landlocked Beijing.  

Bolstering its maritime orientation, Tianjin during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was declared a treaty port. Marking the end of the first phase of the Opium War, the Treaty of Tianjin was signed in 1858 by the Qing, Russian, French and British empires as well as the US to permit foreign trade in China.    

Nowadays, Tianjin serves as a dual-core city, with its main urban area surrounding the Hai River in the center and Binhai, a new economic zone, home to industrial innovation and a stunning new library. 

Distinctive Cityscape
Our first taste of Tianjin was a walk along the banks of the Hai River, where hardworking local fish sellers had set up makeshift markets and were haggling with customers. We headed toward what looked like the point of departure of a boat cruise.  

The cruise along one of China’s key waterways offers a chance to glimpse Tianjin’s old and new elements that form a distinctive-looking cityscape: the juxtaposition of remaining Western-style buildings built by foreign concessionaires, ancient Chinese architecture and modern high-rise skyscrapers is symbolic of the city’s rich history as well as the now-vibrant metropolis. 
We hopped off the cruise at Ancient Cultural Street, opened in 1986. At the street’s center is the Temple of the Queen of Heaven, also known as Tianhou Palace. Originally built in 1326, this “Mazu” temple honors the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, a Fujianese girl who was regarded as the guardian of seafarers in the coastal regions of eastern China. Lined with China’s archetypical blue-bricked buildings, the street is also the home to the street’s oldest structure, the Ming-era Yuhuang Pavilion.  

With every building embellished with bright red lanterns, golden dragons, classic handwritten scripts and stunning blue, green and white patterned roof borders quintessential of ancient architectural styles, this place offers a bit of everything. Here, you can enjoy a history museum, delicious local food and gift shops galore – with a fantastic opportunity to bag yourself some typical Chinese curios like jade items and potteries as well as traditional Chinese folk handicraft.  
Our next stop was the cruise terminal that would lead us to a taste of Italia away from Europe on Tianjin’s popular Italian Style Street – the city’s most well-known former concession. 

It’s nice to have a boat trip in the evening on the Hai River, from where visitors can view the city’s modern landmark, the Tianjin Eye, a 120-meter-tall Ferris wheel

Established in 1902 as the Italian Concession and renovated in 2005 to become a tourist hotspot, the street located in Marco Polo Square is a prime example of how Western and Eastern cultures merge in Asia. Although you pay European prices, it is fun indulging in delicious pizza and pasta in a little Italy inside China.  

After lunch, we headed for the Porcelain House museum of antiques and pottery. Every inch of its structure, from the balcony railings right to its front gate, is adorned with colorful, floral chinaware from every dynasty, so it’s no surprise that this 1920s French-style real-life doll house welcomes swarms of tourists. Feeling lost among a sea of locals and overwhelmed by the aesthetics of this Alice in Wonderland-esque building, our foreign faces soon attracted the attention of a group of smartly-dressed security guards. But we were not in trouble, and the officers were not the type of officers I was used to seeing every day – they were women.  

Their job is to protect the house, and they take immense pride in that. They even asked us to participate in a promotional video for the tourist attraction’s microblog account, and before we knew it, we – a Brit, an American, a Mexican and a Swedish-Canadian – were being taught by four friendly officers the latest dance moves to the latest music. And that was before the Porcelain House’s owner joined in!  

After our dancing lesson, the owner’s son gave us a personal tour to explore the collection of cultural relics inside the house, including precious furniture from the Qing and Ming Dynasties.  
Something we really wanted to tick off our list was the brand new Tianjin Binhai Library, nicknamed “The Eye,” (Tianjin’s second “Eye” attraction) which opened in October 2017. Despite being a 45-minute drive away from central Tianjin, we nevertheless persisted, hoping it would live up to the hype.  

Marketed with great fanfare as “China’s futuristic, breathtaking library,” “the coolest library on the planet” and “a booklovers haven where one can climb an all-white book mountain,” the library unfortunately did not live up to expectations. The world’s most “Instagrammable” library, well, turned out to be just that.  

The architecture is impressive, and from the outside, does resemble an eye due to its oval-shaped window and central sphere feature, but there was something important missing: books.  
After the long drive and another hour trying to pinpoint the cultural center, we arrived to pictures of books lying across the bookshelves instead. So it goes without saying that the “library” is one for architecture-lovers rather than book-lovers.  

After taking another long cab ride back to the city, Tianjin had turned into a wonderland of lights, and the riverside 120-meter-high Tianjin Eye Ferris wheel was now looking kaleidoscopic, reflecting purples, blues and yellows off the Hai River. The sun had set on an eventful and unforgettable day out in the city next door.