Next Stop: Tianjin

A new high-speed bullet train brings Beijing visitors even closer to this ‘Shanghai of the North’


By: By Gary Bowerman

The Details

Getting There    
China Railways High-Speed offers frequent bullet trains throughout the day and evening to/from the Beijing South Railway Station. The approximate journey time is a mere 27 minutes.

Where to Stay
Renaissance Tianjin
105 Jianshe Lu.
Should your clients decide to stay overnight in Tianjin this is the current best option. (Several five-star hotels will open in Tianjin within the next three years.) The contemporary rooms are dressed in pastel tones and offer broadband Internet and cable television. A Club Deluxe upgrade also gives access to free evening cocktails with a view in the Club Lounge.

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Scroll down for more information on getting to Tianjin from Beijing and where to stay overnight

Tianjin (pronounced tee-an-jin) is not a name that is featured on most China tour itineraries, but that may soon change. Located 80 miles southeast of Beijing, China’s fourth-largest city was a co-host for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Now, as the golden glow of the games begins to fade, Tianjin is aiming to capitalize on its raised tourism profile, and it has every chance of a winning future.

Like Shanghai, Tianjin has a European flavor. // (c) Bill Benson
Like Shanghai, Tianjin has a European flavor.

For any client interested in China’s 20th-century history and architecture, Tianjin is an undiscovered gem. Nicknamed the "Shanghai of the North," it is, like its namesake, attractively laid out around a broad river, and its tree-shaded streets are flanked by a fine collection of early 20th-century European mansions and other buildings.

Tianjin also has a brand-new attraction to entice visitors. Opened just before the Olympics, China’s fastest intercity train connects Tianjin with Beijing in just 27 minutes. For visitors to Beijing with some spare time, the China Railways high-speed bullet train has converted Tianjin into an easily accessible daytrip option.

The journey is scintillating. As I sped across the flat plains separating the neighboring cities, I observed my co-passengers, an eclectic mix of local tourists, students and business commuters. Like me, they all seemed unable to believe the velocity at which we were traveling and — as the large speedometer displayed in every carriage recorded the top speed of about 205 miles per hour — a chorus of digital cameras clicked to capture the moment.

A few moments later, our train pulled into Tianjin station, and the slowly dissipating effects of g-force confirmed one thing: Rail travel in China never used to be like this. There’s little time to dwell on the benefits of high-tech trains, however, since Tianjin’s new rail station is in the heart of downtown. After emerging into the bright sunlight, your clients will see that the Hai River and city attractions are within walking distance. There’s no need to even hail a taxi.

My first impression of Tianjin was not molded by its famous heritage architecture nor its attractive river boardwalks and parks that were relandscaped before the Olympics. Catching my eye, instead, was a skyscraper under construction to the south; draped in a colorful, Olympic-themed wrapper, it featured two words in large letters: "Dynamic Tianjin." Less than 10 minutes after stepping off the train, what I had previously read was proven true — Tianjin is one of China’s most progressive commercial cities.

But tourists don’t visit for the cloud-busting new urban jungle — they come for the older architecture. Located on China’s northeast coast, Tianjin sits 35 miles upriver from Bohai Bay, an inlet of the Yellow Sea, at the confluence of two rivers and the Grand Canal. This strategic, waterborne geography sparked the city’s rapid late-19th-century development.

Tianjin first came to prominence as a shipping hub in the Yuan Dynasty. Four centuries later, its destiny changed forever. After the second Opium War in 1859, the Treaties of Tientsin (the old spelling of the city’s name) awarded France and Britain the right to establish extra-territorial concessions south of the Hai River. Between 1895 and 1902, six more foreign concessions were created — by Japan, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Belgium — raising Tianjin’s total to eight, more than any other Chinese treaty port, including Shanghai.

A surge of trade and investment from these overseas nations sparked a building boom that endowed Tianjin with some of the finest foreign architecture in China. Today, the best place to view this rich legacy is by crossing the Hai River and heading for Jiefang Bei Lu.

Originally named Victoria Avenue, this was the main thoroughfare of Tianjin’s British Concession, and it linked into Rue de France in the French Concession. It functioned as the financial center of northern China, and the grand banking headquarters, offices and municipal buildings were built in a mixture of European styles. Even to a casual observer, the striking Grecian and Roman columns, ornate stone porticos, and aged granite frontages are eerily reminiscent of Shanghai’s Bund.

By contrast, the former Italian Concession — located west of the rail station — is more residential and built more for comfort than visual impact. That said, its quiet streets are decorated with eye-catching, Tuscan-style villas, featuring elevated balconies, rounded turrets and colorful brickwork. It’s not a scene many visitors would expect in coastal China.

Another striking residential district is in the south. Here, the wide streets and gated villas of Wudadao (Five Avenues) district are steeped in the undisguised wealth of the British bankers and traders that lived here in the early 20th century.

Another European influence is also noticeable. Tianjin’s former French Concession is home to several fine churches, such as the Notre Dame des Victoires and the twin Romanesque green domes of the Xi Kai
Cathedral, built between 1913 and 1916 and modeled on the Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles.

After following the architecture trail, I headed to Tianjin’s famously laidback antiques street market on Shenyang Lu.

Though it gets pretty busy on weekends, weekdays are rather casual. Stallholders negotiate prices for their old Chinese musical instruments, clocks, radios, paintings and Mao-themed artifacts while sitting in deckchairs. Clients should always barter hard, but don’t expect the vendors to rise from their slumber — it’s just not that kind of market. After strolling and shopping, it’s time to eat. Tianjin is renowned across China for its steamed dumplings, and your client’s final stop before catching the train back to Beijing should be the Goubuli Dumpling Restaurant on Shandong Lu. This popular restaurant resembles an old Chinese palace and has been serving the city’s premier meat buns and millet cakes since 1848. As your clients wait in line for a table, they should expect to be surrounded by camera-waving locals. Don’t worry, this isn’t the paparazzi — they just happen to be standing outside the most famous facade in Tianjin.