Saturday, November 10, 2012

Day Six [Bullet Train, Ancient Culture Street, 神话金莎] @ Tianjin (天津) & Beijing (北京) - My Tour with Hong Thai Travel [康泰旅行社]

The inconvenient location of the five-star hot spring hotel means we would have to endure Beijing's infamous traffic jams in order to reach Beijing South Railway Station; the second largest in Asia.

Unlike previous days, the sky for day six was absolutely the clearest (and the bluest) and this made the journey visually more pleasing, especially for poor humans like myself who find it hard to fall asleep in the car, bus and train. 

At that time, Japan and China were having territorial disputes over the Spratlys Islands and such public display of nationalist sentiment [basically, the notice was saying "Japan, Get Lost! The Spratlys Islands Belong to China!] was expected. 

Seeing the many lines of railway tracks, we already knew this must be Beijing South Railway Station [北京南站]. What i didn't know was that it operates almost like an international airport! 

和谐号 [Harmony] - the designated name for all high speed trains in China and this particular one shall bring us to Tianjin; one of four cities that is under the direct control of the central government. 

A one-way ticket for economy class cost 55 RMB (around S$11) and the journey to Tianjin (which is 120 kilometers away) will take us merely 30 instead of the usual 70 minutes .

The uninspiring carriage of the bullet train which looked exactly like any modern train, with the exception of MRT and LRT trains. Could i also add that the toilets were exceptionally clean?

Travelling at neck breaking speeds that at one point exceeded 300 kilometers per hour, this is the first time my parents and i sat in a bullet train! 

Refreshing but within ten minutes into the journey, i whipped out my iPhone to play some games to kill the boredom. 

Tianjin - historically, this city is well known for being the home of foreign concessions in the late Qing dynasty and Kuomintang period. Therefore, you can find many buildings boasting European style and architecture from those eras. 

Our first visit in the city was to the Porcelain House [officially known as China House Museum]. I have blogged separately on this tourist attraction; please click here.

Lunch! As Tianjin is near to the ocean, you can find loads of economically priced seafood in the restaurants. When it comes to food, even the seafood has to make way for Gou Bu Li Bao Zi (狗不理包子); a bun that i have heard even back in Singapore. 

Contrary to popular belief, the name of the bun actually refers to this particular man whose nickname is Gou Zi (which means dog - a common nickname even in Singapore) and who has managed to roll out buns that were so delicious; he attracted long queues at his stall. 

However, he got so busy in making the meat buns that he did not have time for customers; hence 狗不理 was simply a reference to the owner who has ignored his customers. 

Right after lunch, we were brought to the Ancient Culture Street (古文化街); a major sightseeing attraction in Tianjin. 

Yuhuangge [玉皇阁] - a small Taoist temple originally built in 1368 to honour the Jade Emperor. The whole culture street was said to be 580-meter long and this temple was one of the starting points for visitors.

I wasn't prepared to see this scenario of half opened shops! Rest assured that the above was only the "sub urban" section; the main action remained to be seen in a few moments.

Before reaching the culture street, we had to pass through this traditional residential courtyard known as Tong Qing Li (通庆里) that was constructed in 1913. 

We were even given a few minutes to explore one of the houses, which has been converted into a commercial building selling curios and food to visitors. 

The courtyard was originally owned by a bank and bars of gold were hidden in the underground chamber right underneath this metal cover! 

Continuing our way to the cultural street.

Here we are! You are not the only one if you feel that the whole place looks a bit too proper, too organised, too fake; a nagging feeling that it was catered purely for the tourists! 

Wikipedia wasn't too informative in this instance although it was mentioned that the street was opened in 1986 and has "lots of copies of Qing Dynasty buildings". Copies in this case, would be assumed as replicates and not the originals.

Nevertheless, the street featured loads of shops selling items of significant Chinese cultural value. At the very least, i did not see any international fast food restaurants, fashion boutiques etc. 

Chinese calligraphy pens (that were bigger than my head) and other treasures of the study room could be found in this shop. According to our local guide, some of the shops had been in operation for ages (i am not sure if this means at its original location or otherwise).

A shop offering nothing but feather dusters for sale! Don't play play okay; their dusters were for the exclusive use of the imperial palace in the past and their most expensive one has a price tag of over 10,000 RMB! For more interesting information, click here

Art performers in the street. Nothing fascinating as such street performers are common in Singapore as well. The major difference is that weather is way more challenging in Singapore. Well, i shall take back my words as winter in Tianjin can be a lot more torturous at minus 10 degrees celcius! 

Inverted signboard with the words "無寶斋" which translates to "No Treasure Room". Can you guess the reason for the inverted words? It has to do with burglars! 

The main square was lavishly decorated for a major event for the 700-year old Mazu Temple. Pity i did not have sufficient time to explore the temple. 

I was just too busy taking photographs!
And being asked to pose for pictures as well! 

Next stop - Tianjin Food Street (天津食品街). This was not included in the itinerary but my mom and i always appreciate visits to localized food stalls so that we could buy some for our families, friends and colleagues back home! 

Given our apprehension when it comes to hygiene and quality, we would buy only if the place is recommended by the local tour guide, which was the exact scenario in Tianjin.

BUT, we were pulled to enter this shop (out of the many in the building) to make our purchases. This was akin to factory shopping! Read my frustration here.

When i asked how much time we had to explore around the food street after exiting the shop, the guide had the cheek to say we were leaving! 

Our itinerary mentioned a "relax stroll at [European Style Street]".What we eventually did was a "hasty drive along [European Style Street]". In the tour bus.

The excuse? We had to take the bullet train back to Beijing. At that moment, i thought frequencies could be limited between Tianjin and Beijing like one every few hours. I have just realised from the internet that the train frequency for Beijing-Tianjin for year 2012 is every 10-15 minutes! 

I am considerate; maybe the tickets for the other timings were sold out for the day of our travel. On an unrelated note, i was wondering why there were people cleaning the bullet trains; I didn't know the train would get so dirty! 

Back to Beijing where we were treated to a complimentary acrobatic show [神话金莎 aka Myth of the Golden Sand].  And to add salt to the wounds, we had more than half an hour to kill before the show began; time that could have been spent in Tianjin food street. 

It was the usual stuff yet i prefer this over the confusing, bilingual kungfu panda performance we watched at Shichahai in day 3

In terms of skill, they were frankly way below par. These ladies had a hard time balancing and were shaking right in front of us. The spectators were so worried that they might hurt themselves! 

The finale was this group of motorcyclists attempting a suicide feat by riding inside the metal globe! Not just one but all of them! It was heart-thumping exciting although i had caught a similar one before in Genting Highlands. 

Our dinner - a meat based chicken-themed feast! 

The Place Shopping Mall (世贸天阶) - part of our optional tours; this shopping centre was a boring place that failed to inject any refreshing excitement (except for that huge LED roof) for a well seasoned Singaporean who has no lack of shopping centres in Singapore.

The night ended after this.


The day would have concluded peacefully for this post if i did not make an effort to check out Solana Shopping Centre on the web. Our guide told us right after we boarded the coach at The Place Shopping Mall that he was aware he owed us a visit to Solana Shopping Centre as part of our package.

He was very nice by offering us the options (going or not going) as he could see we were all tired. He added that Solana was just a place with a few shops selling jade and jewelry products. Given the two agent commissioned shopping tours we had to endure for jade and pearl, all of us voted not to go of course. 

Now, i am appending the surprising piece of information of this Solana Shopping Centre i found on the web.

"Solana Lifestyle Shopping Park is like a small town coming from the European by air. 

It is a perfect blend between commercial civilization and the natural landscape and is full of innovation and surprises. As a water shortage city of Beijing, SOLANA has a superior hydrophilic environment on its three sides, the south and east are teeming with the water from Chaoyang Park, and the north from Landmark Lake. 

If not in person, you are hard to believe that there is such a beautiful environment in the city center! Solana houses more than 1,000 international brands, with dozens of retail shops, restaurants as well as a lively bar and clubs."

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