Wednesday, August 14, 2013

24 Hours and 500 Years in Tianjin

With its high rise buildings, temples, pushy cabbies, dilapidated side streets piled high with garbage, and its billion plus nationals who, at the very least, share similar physical characteristics, China after not too long begins to feel homogenous. A foreign can start to feel trapped in this puzzling host-country, until she finds Tianjin.

One look at its architecture and you think you've found a haven from the normal hustle and bustle. Dig a little deeper and you almost forget you're in China (until you come downwind of a public toilet). By the 15th century, Tianjin and its powerful Grand Canal, the Hai River, had become a walled garrison and a prominent port and land city for Beijing. In fact, it's name literally means "a port for the Emperor." By the mid-1800s, the municipality had become a virtual melting pot, with Japanese, Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Italians, French, and Belgians, in addition to the local inhabitants calling it home. Each nationality lived in its own fully-functioning village sector within the municipality. Each had its own school, jail, hospital, and barracks.

In 1870, rumors began circulating in the Chinese sector that the French Sisters of Charity, a Christian orphanage run by French nuns, was kidnapping and mutilating Chinese children. These rumors happened to spread in a heightened era of xenophobia, and the Chinese retaliated, breaking into the French-occupied area and killing, among others, 10 nuns. As one might imagine, this caused substantial uproar amongst those of the Catholic persuasion, already convinced the Chinese were heathen mongrels in desperate need of converting. Apologies and recompense were demanded by both Paris and Rome and subsequently 16 Chinese people were tried and executed.

Surprisingly, the execution didn't make the Chinese any more obliging to the foreigners living on their shores. Nearly three decades later in 1898, the I-ho Ch'uan ("The Righteous and Harmonious Fists"), dubbed "The Boxers" by the western press, began contriving a plot to rid China of the Ching Dynasty whom they considered a threat to Chinese culture. Backed by the Empress Dowager, their mission changed to ridding China of foreigners, and, one year later, the Boxers were massacring missionaries throughout China. On June 18, 1900, the Empress Dowager sent the order that all foreigners should be killed, with the Boxers carried out with ruthless abandon. Due to slow travelling, aid and amnesty didn't arrive until August 14 of that same year.

Now, Tianjin is a hodge-podge city with European-infuenced ginger bread-esque buildings dwarfed by modern Chinese high-rises of varying shapes and designs, and existing mere blocks from ancient Chinese dwellings. The city is bisected by the Hai River, a green, lethargic snake where run-off from the street appears as wisps of smoke, and in which old men in sagging under clothes like to paddle.

Tianjin is an enormous municipality, unseeable in only 24 hours, but 24 hours is enough time to explore what seems to be two continents.

Beginning at the railway station, it's a short walk to Italian Style Town, just up the river. Here the cobblestone streets make walking uncomfortable, but the smells of bread and beer make you forget the uneven pathway. Here, the majority of waiters speak English and are happy to let you look through glossy menus at rich-looking pasta dishes, accompanying bottles of wine, and of course, frothy, cocoa-brown coffee, more foreign here than anything else. In IST you will pay a little more for dinner, but your waiter will not stand at your table waiting for you to order, nor will she ask you to pay up front. She will bring you a fork and a knife and a glass of ice cold water, and ask you how your meal is halfway through.

Walking up the river from IST is tremendous. The "Australian-Style Pedestrian Street" boasts white-washed mansions on one side and unique bridges on the other. Walk halfway up to Ancient Culture Street, a trip down someone's memory lane, if not my own. Here Buddhist religious music chants in your soul and incense tickles your nose. A man plays a wooden flute and a woman blows hot air into an ocarina. Vendors hawking everything from kites to rubbery children's toys urge you "Hello?" in an inflection that suggests that want you to open your wallet. Couples share glassy, sugary treats woven into the shape of animals and the specialist Tibetan shops dare to put out charity boxes for the disregarded country. Here you can buy beautiful incense burners and rose-flavored incense for under 15Y, and fly your prayer flags freely in the unabundant breeze.

Walking away from the gates of Ancient Culture Street, you walk towards a small park with stone sculptures and lush, green grass. And you find yourself in view of Tianjin's infamous Eye, modeled after London's of the same name. The Eye lifts you slowly nearly 400 feet above the city, where you can revel in the lights and the neon bridges. Street vendors carts line up in an orderly fashion unheard of in China from this distance and, in the glass of the many high rise buildings, you can see your reflection. A half an hour in the air gives the city some clarity and you land, prepared to traverse the river back to your hotel.

Tomorrow you will go back to Italian style town and drink in its coffee and western amenities before you board the train back to China.

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