I first came to China in 2002. At that time many of the other people who came to China used China as a jumping off point to see other countries in Asia. I had a different idea. I wanted to explore China first. China is such a large country that it seemed like it was not only the most financially prudent choice, but just a good choice for understanding the country that I was living in. Thus, in my first three years in China I visited many parts of the country: Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang (a far western autonomous region inhabited largely by a Muslim people group called the Uighurs), Harbin and more. In those three years I did a pretty good job of seeing a lot of China. In the subsequent years I revisited a number or places and saw many additional places. However, there was one place I had never been that was a bit surprising; Tianjin. Tianjin is a large city very close to Beijing. Matter of fact from the Beijing South Railway station one can get to Beijing is a little over half an hour (the high speed rail didn’t exist back in the day, but as you most likely know, I spent a year and half recently living in Beijing). Thus, I decided to spend a few days in Tianjin last week.
First, let me state that I didn’t miss anything by not going to Tianjin. I must say I found Tianjin rather disappointing a boring. I also found its transportation system a bit frustrating. They have a city card which you can refill and use on buses and the subway. I tend to like these kinds of cards because it is very difficult to have exact change for the bus. Some buses in China have conductors who can make change but these are getting rarer and rarer. Most of the time it is necessary to put exact change into the box beside the driver. Thus, I decided to get a Tianjin city card. Well, that was easier said than done. The ticket seller at the railway station metro station didn’t sell city cards, but I found them at the metro station near my hotel. Later, when I tried to refill it, the station I was at couldn’t add money to my card. If you go to Tianjin I would say don’t bother with the card (in Beijing you can now not only buy the card at any station, but you can also buy it online as an app on your phone).
After a couple of days being disappointed with the sights in Tianjin I decided to go out to the Bianhai Aircraft Carrier. A few years ago I visited the USS Midway in San Diego and had an awesome time. The reviews online said that the Bianhai Aircraft Carrier was a former Soviet aircraft carrier and was definitely worth a visit. They also have a destroyer and a submarine, but fellow travelers had posted that they absolutely would not allow people without a Chinese ID card to visit the destroyer or submarine (when I bought my ticket the rules list was posted in English and it said the same thing).
Thus, I set out to go to this aircraft carrier. I took the subway to another part of Tianjin and then took a long distance bus. When I got to the bus stop I was confused. There were several Chinese people who got off the bus with me and they were clearly confused as well. We saw an area near the bus stop that sort of looked like it was once an amusement park, but it was really run down an clearly closed. At this point I thought the nearly 2.5 hour trip I had taken had all been for naught. There was a Chinese man who instructed us to go into this vacant lot, but I could tell the others were equally confused. Then several drivers appeared as if from nowhere (actually I thinking they had been resting in the shade) and told us that the park was 4.5 km away and they would take us there for 20 yuan. Now 20 yuan is only about three US dollars, but it is definitely too much for a 4.5 km trip (not to mention the approximately 50 miles I had traveled to get to this point had only cost me 13 yuan). However, the other people agreed and the four of them set out together leaving me behind. I heard them say (in Chinese) that the foreigner didn’t understand. I told them I understood, but there were already four people (the max allowed, excluding the driver) and I felt 20 yuan was too much for one person. I then stood there rather undecided about what to do. I checked with my phone and saw that 4.5 km was 2.8 miles. I thought about walking it, but not only was I wearing flip flops, but it was also really hot out. I started walking and thought better of it and thus I was standing around rather undecided. Another driver told me there was a show starting at noon (it was 11:40) and that the park had a lot of fun things to do. Thus, I decided to pay the 20 yuan to get there.
When I arrived I found two things 1) There was very little English in the park (and a lot of Russian) and 2) there weren’t very many people there. Matter of fact it turns out that there was much more than just an aircraft carrier. There were multiple shows, dancing and a “little Russia” street. Probably the most surprising discovery was that so many of the people working there were white (and I presume Russia, but it’s dangerous to make assumptions). I saw a signboard outside the park which said there was show called Aircraft Storm at 12, another show at 2 pm and and third show at 3 pm. Inside the park though I couldn’t find the show. All I found was music playing through loud speakers and a lot of empty areas (it was a weekday before school let out though). Finally, I decided to give up and just go visit the aircraft carrier.
As I was approaching the aircraft carrier I saw this tall white woman whom I had seen dancing staring at me. At first I thought she was going to approach me, then I thought she wasn’t, then she in fact did approach me. She said one word that I didn’t understand (I’m guessing it was a Russian word) and then she said, “English?” I nodded. She then asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes. I speak English.” She then proceeded to ask me where I was from and tell me that the park usually only got Chinese visitors. She told me there was show over there (pointing beside the aircraft carrier) that had already started at noon, but maybe I could watch from outside the stadium. Then she realized the gates were still open and said since there weren’t many visitors that it looked like I could get in. She informed me that the show involved knives and was really interesting. At 2 pm she told me she and the others would be dancing on board the ship and at 3 there would be a car show.
I went into the show beside the ship and found the most interesting show I’ve ever seen. The storyline was pretty simple there were bad guys trying to take over this ship and they had taken the admiral hostage (this had already happened by the time I arrived). Good guys were trying to take back the ship. They were performing on the water between the ship and the stage. They had built some stages out in the water and attached to the arena. They also drove every kind of water craft imaginable: jet skis, hover boats, speed boats, etc. The show involved cool explosions, mock fighting (well timed to the sound track), repelling down the side of the ship, fake gun shots and more. It was really awesome and I wish they had had another showing so I could have seen it again, this time from the beginning (I missed about the first 10 minutes).
After the show I toured the aircraft carrier. It was a bit strange. First, it definitely wasn’t as well kept up as the USS Midway. Second, it seemed that they had what must have been fake pieces on board. There was a helicopter that said US Army on the side, but I can’t imagine the Chinese had procured a real US Army helicopter. They also had what looked reminiscent of a F118 Nighthawk (beside the supposedly American helicopter), but it didn’t look real at all. Additionally, I couldn’t find anything that could have been much of a flight-line. One of the issues the USS Midway had had was changing technology had dictated the need for longer and longer flight-lines. The USS Midway added onto the deck to accommodate this need, but eventually that wasn’t enough and she was retired. This ship had a steeply angled bow and just didn’t look like it had enough space to have had much of a flight-line. Then again, since the signs were all written only in Chinese (except for the headings), I’m sure there was a lot of information I missed.
I finished my self-guided tour of the ship in perfect timing to get a front-row seat to the dance performance. It was not at all what I expected. There were signs advertising it as a cultural experience. I don’t know what kind of culture they were trying to go for; much of the performance made me thing of Vegas (although I’ve never been to Los Vegas and am basing that statement on what I’ve seen on T.V.). However, in between some of the very Vegas-esque performances were performances by two clowns (a male and a female). The show was very interesting, but it was an odd juxtaposition.
The dancing ended in perfect timing to go to the car show which ended up being my favorite part of the day. The car show was a stunt show and they had all kinds of cool stunt driving plus other special effects including a motorcycle that appeared to flip over (they green-screened a plastic piece used to rotate the car), more shooting and explosions. They also split a car in half and had two cars drive on two wheels each. It was really cool. The guy playing the stunt director was either an American or a really good actor because he had a perfect American accent and the show was done in an interesting blend of English and Chinese.
After the performance, like everything else in the park they had an opportunity for you to pay to to get your picture taken. It appeared they were using the caucasians like animals in a zoo to attract attention and get people to pay for pictures. This was further demonstrated by the last event I attended there: the float parade. Everyone in the parade was Caucasian and they appeared to be the same people I had seen at the different shows throughout the day. The dancers appeared to be happy performing in the parade, but everyone else looked pretty sour. The parade reminded me of a sad, depressing version of a Disneyland (or world) parade.
After the parade it was time to head back to Tianjin. I looked up on my Didi (the Chinese version of Uber) how much it would cost to take a Didi back to Tianjin and saw an estimate of 120 yuan. The estimates are notoriously low so I figured it would be more like 130 (or possibly even more), but decided that that was still a better approach to returning rather than trying to take the bus (which ended service at 6 pm. It was about 4 at this time). I got out to the parking lot and tried to request a Didi. Meanwhile, the drivers are offering to drive me back to the bus. I told them I didn’t want to go to the bus, but wanted to go all the way back to the city. I also told them I was calling a Didi. Well, they told me no Didi would come there and sure enough no one answered my request. By this point, they had all taken other passengers and departed. I looked at my map and it showed me a bus that I could either take to the bus I had taken out there or to a subway station. According to my map it was only 0.8 miles away. I decided I could walk that. Unfortunately, there was construction going on and the walk was much longer (and the real roads didn’t match my map). I finally made it out to the main road and was walking to the bus stop when a really taxi honked at me and stopped beside me. I got in and asked him to take me to the subway station. He asked me if I was going back to the city and I said yes. He asked where and I told him. He said he’d drive me. I told him it would be too expensive. He told me to name my price so I intentionally picked a price I knew was too low: 100 yuan. He of course said that was too low and offered to take me for 150 yuan. I told him that was too high and then he said he’d take me to my hotel for 130 yuan. Based on my Didi inquiry, I decided that was a fair price and accepted.
The man drove like a mad man and kept trying to pick up additional fares at bus stops (if he had succeeded I decided I would only give him 100 yuan and argue with him about it if necessary). As we were driving he got several calls from his daughter. Something was clearly wrong and he kept telling her to go to her mother, but for some reason she couldn’t. Then when were back in Tianjin proper, but not yet at my hotel he suddenly stopped the car! He stopped in a tunnel and told me to get out and take another taxi! I was furious. I’ve heard of things like that happening in China, but never with the driver stopping in a tunnel. I refused to get out. He told me he’d give me cut the bill down to 110 to take another taxi, but I didn’t know how much further it was. I continued to refuse to get out. I also refused to give him 110 yuan. At this point he was mad! He said he’d find me another taxi and he got out and told me to get out. This time I did get out. He flagged down a driver who for some reason refused to take me. He then flagged down another taxi. He gave the man 20 yuan and the man agreed to drive me to my hotel. I then gave him 110 yuan and he yelled at me to give him another 20 because he’d already given the guy 20 yuan. I gave him the money and got into the new taxi. This driver turned on the meter and found my hotel on his cellphone (he didn’t know how to get there). When we got there the meter was at a little over 11 yuan, but he made no motions to give me any change. I decided, “whatever” and told him simply the other driver had already paid him. He concurred and I got out. It was a strange end to a strange day, but I not only got back safely, but it still only cost me 130 yuan (about $20.30) which was reasonable and was a lot faster and more comfortable than taking the bus.
Me at the park entrance
Aircraft Storm show
The dancers and the clowns
The park was odd and had random things like this statue of that famous V-E (or was it V-J) day kiss.
The float parade (their name, not mine)