Saturday, September 22, 2012

Move over Dante!

I think everyone in the West must know that one-liner: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”. It’s been used and misused so many times that it long ago became a part of every schoolboy’s arsenal of graffiti slogans to daub over the school changing room doors.
 
Not everyone, of course, knows it comes from the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy – viz ‘Inferno’ – a medieval journey through the nine circles of Hell.
 
Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” was written above the gate of Hell, and ‘Dante’s Inferno’ is a lurid vision of the afterlife complete with severed heads, cruel and unusual punishments and devils in frozen lakes.
 
Until recently, I – in my ignorance – was totally unaware that Dante’s version of events has a mirrored equivalent in Chinese culture – the 76 departments of the Taoist Pantheon, of which more in a while…
 
Taosim emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (or "way", "path" or "principle") which denotes something that is both the source and the driving force behind everything that exists.
 
Beijing’s Dongyue Temple (北京东岳庙) in the Chaowai area, is dedicated to the God of Mount Tai, the easternmost and holiest of the five sacred mountains of Taoism. Founded during the Yuan Dynasty, it’s the largest temple of the Zhengyi school of Taoism in northern China.
 
Roll over, Dante – your Inferno has nothing on this…
 
 
Dongyue is just a stone’s throw from Chaoyangmen on Subway Line 2, conveniently across the road from Walmart. It was founded in 1319 by Zhang Liusun (the Temple, that is… not Walmart), a descendant of the founder of the sect, Zhang Daoling. During the Qing Dynasty, the temple was rebuilt twice - in 1698 during the reign of Emperor Kangxi and again in 1761 during the reign of Emperor Gaozong. The temple also underwent expansion during the Qing Dynasty.
 
It was the first full-scale temple of the Orthodox Oneness, one of the two main sects of Taoism, in north China. The Dongyue Temple consists of three parts – the main, east and west courtyards. It has 376 rooms and halls and the Great Dongyue King, the God of Mount Tai, is enshrined here.
 
 
Taoism has had a profound influence on Chinese culture over the centuries, and Taoism also had a profound influence on other Asian societies. Throughout Chinese history, Taoism was several times nominated as the state religion, though after the 17th century its popularity declined. Like all other religious activity, Taoism was suppressed during the Cultural Revolution, but today it is one of five religions recognized in the PRC.
 
In Taoism, I learn from Wikipedia, the universe is seen as being in a constant process of re-creating itself, as everything that exists is a mere aspect of qi, which is in a perpetual transformation between its condensed and diluted state. These two different states are embodiments of the abstract entities of yin and yang, two complimentary extremes that constantly play against and with each other and can not exist without the other.
 
Matter ebbs and flows, expands and contracts; and this cycle of existence spontaneously moves through each of the Five Phases: Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth. All things are thus classified according to yin/yang and the Five Phases. Within everything there is also qi, the animating breath that is the source of life. It is believed that a deeper understanding of the universe can be achieved by understanding oneself.
 
Tao is not an entity or a divine being, but the number of Taoist deities is staggering. The pantheon differs according to sect and region, and its ranks are fluid. No divine being exists forever, and all who interact with humans are subject to human time. Some change over time, and all of them change status with time. Some are elevated, others forgotten.
 
(I hope you are keeping up with all this!)
 
So, back to Dongyue Temple, where there are three main halls: Yude Hall, Daizongbao Hall, and Yuhaung Hall. Everywhere you go, there are statues of imperial guards of the Pantheon. Here are three of them from the Eastern Peak…
 
 
The main courtyard of the temple has an elevated walkway, about 80 metres long. I am here a couple of weeks before the Mid Autumn Festival and already decorations are being hung up in readiness for the holiday celebrations which will include a number of folk dance groups as well as Peking Opera and other entertainments.
 
 
To the right of this walkway, and down a set of steps on one side, there is a courtyard filled with rows of stone tablets. About 140 of these tablets dating from the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties, as well as from the Republican Era of China, are thought to have once stood in this temple, although only 90 tablets remain today.
 
 
Official accounts say that the temple was damaged during the 20th century, but as to how or why, that is never mentioned. Could it have been over-zealous Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution? I don’t know, but it apparently served as a school, government offices, and housing for hundreds of people until 1996, after which it was then restored in 2002 at a total cost of 5.8 million yuan. Here’s a photo that I found in one of the halls, but even the Chinese text beside it gave no indication of how the temple had fallen into this sorry state of disrepair.
 
 
Oh, I forgot to mention that the temple also holds its very own museum – the grandly sounding Beijing Folk Customs Museum. This is where the Spring and Autumn Festival Temple Fairs are held, showcasing folk custom performances.
 
What could the Folk Customs Museum be featuring? I can’t wait to find out…
 
Oh, OK, I could have waited to find out. “Harmonious and Auspicious”, reads the posters at the entrance to the permanent exhibition. “The Exhibition of Boxes”.
 
Come again?
 
Yes, you heard it right first time. To add to Beijing’s collection of many and wonderful museums, here is one devoted to boxes. Perhaps if they had called it the box museum, it would‘t have had such an inviting ring to its name.
 
Room after room after room are filled with boxes in glass cabinets…
 
 
Some are filled with internal dividers…
 
 
…while some have nicely decorated lids…
 
 
I try to contain my excitement as yet another room full of boxes opens up before me. How could it be that none of the online reports of this temple go overboard on this museum? I am beginning to feel almost sorry for the box museum curator; because the fact is I’m the only visitor here.
 
But the sad truth is that this isn’t what visitors to the temple come for. No sirree! They have come to discover the Taoist Pantheon. Presided over by the God of Mount Tai, the Taoist Pantheon, all 76 departments of it, preserves peace and order and doles out justice, upholding a system in which good behaviour gets rewarded and bad behaviour leads to some rather unpleasant consequences…
 
Now, don’t be surprised if these 76 Departments, lined up in small cubicles around the sides of the middle courtyard, remind you of something straight out of Harry Potter. (Could J K Rowling have actually visited Beijing, I ask myself?) As you wander from room to room, reading the signs of what each department does, you begin to realise what a complicated afterlife there is in store for you. Dante could only manage nine circles of hell? Puh! How pathetic!
 
For instance, here’s the Department for Examining False Accusation, whose function is to "put on trial – and duly heavily punish – those who have wilfully made false accusations, fabricating case histories in an attempt to frame innocent people".
 
 
Practically the whole of this underworld realm seems to revel in dishing out punishment for failure to lead a life according to the Taoist doctrine.
 
For instance there’s a Department for Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death (yes, that’s its official title). “Those who commit evil deeds will fall a victim of their own evil deeds as a death punishment ranging from death caused by starvation, clubbing, revengeful murder, killing in battle, or death caused by fierce animals or snakes, burning fire or food poisoning, or an outbreak of madness, falling into an abyss, tricks of an evil person or ghosts, incurable diseases and suicide.” Hang on – I only counted 13 there. Still, you get the idea…
 
 
There’s an Abortion Department which emphasises that "women need to exercise self respect, self control and self care and ward off the occurrence of indecent acts".
 
And as if to complement it, there’s also a Department of Opposing Obscene Acts, which features a lose woman (this one reminds me of one of the hookers in Liangmaqiao district) and a D.O.M. sneaking a peek when he thinks no one is looking! “An old saying goes that of all the crimes, lewdness is the worst crime. This department means to advise people to give up filthy lust and desire,” I read. So I guess lust and desire is OK, just so long as it isn’t filthy.
 
 
Naturally, you wouldn’t be surprised to find a Department for Demons and Monsters with all kinds of weirdos making up its ranks. Its job is to “control and supervise them and forbids them to wander and bewilder people”. Hey scary! (Hmmm – doesn’t that remind you of… oh no, maybe not, I think he has already given up smoking.)
 
 
And can anyone really be so scared of a four ft high midget with only one leg?
 
 
There’s also a Headquarters for Controlling Punishment" – presumably in case some of the other departments get carried away with meting out their own punishments. I wonder what crime justifies having your tongue stretched out – or has this fellow just been munching away on too many balls of bubblegum?
 
 
Mind you, having your hands chopped off, or your entrails splurging out can’t be much fun either, I would think.
 
 
I wonder, actually, how anyone would have come up with some of the departments there are though. I mean… a Department for Suppressing Schemes? A Department of Instant Rewards and Retribution? A Flying Birds Department? Oh come on!
 
How’s about a Door God Department? Or an Escorting Department (hey, I thought filthy lust and desire were banned. Or maybe it’s not that kind of escort they are talking about.)
 
How about a Department for Three-Month Long Meditation. Well, I would have thought if you are on your way to spend eternity in some god-awful place, a three month meditation might not be such a bad thing. You know – delay the inevitable and all that!
 
There’s even a Department of Signing Documents, which has the “function of making a final life or death indictment for any subject in accordance with his merits or misconduct. This is the supreme trial court to reflect man’s pursuit of legal justice.” Or to put it another way, its function is to sign and approve documents or verdicts passed by different departments prior to their execution.
 
 
I guess if nothing else, they don’t have much of an unemployment problem in the Taoist underworld.
But it’s time to move on. Back in the courtyard with all the stone tablets, I come across a special mythical animal called a Te – something I have never come across before. It has the head of a horse, the body of a donkey, the tail of a mule and the split hoofs of a bull.
 
The Te used to be the mount of a god called Wen Chang and they say that if you touch the animal you will be cured of all kinds of diseases. Looks like an awful lot of diseased people have been touching it over the years. Ewwww!
 
 
It’s time to take my leave of this amazing place, lest I overdose on fun. I step out through the main gate of the Dongyue Miao and see – right on the other side of the busy thoroughfare – the old paifang (or memorial archway) with its three gates and covered in green and yellow glazed tiles, that has become divorced from its other half by the intervention of Chaoyangmenwai Dajie.
 
 
I head off towards the subway, determined to be a force for good, never to letch in a lewd fashion, and to shun red bubblegum for ever more.

Monday, September 17, 2012

"Give Peace a Chance" - Anti Japanese War Museum

It seems that, here in Beijing at least, the news is filled almost every day with the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands. China has sent six surveillance ships to the group of uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, which could contain valuable gas reserves, and the state-run media have issued a torrent of condemnation against Tokyo. Last weekend saw big anti-Japanese protests in Xian, Changsha, Nanjing and Qingdao and Japanese media have reported attacks on Japanese restaurants and other businesses.
 
Dislike of the Japanese is strongly engrained in the Chinese psyche. Despite their deepening economic ties, China still holds bitter memories of Japan's military aggression in the 1930s and 1940s, and relations between Asia's two biggest economies took a further dive in 2010 after Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain whose boat collided with Japanese coastguard vessels near the islands.
 
We’ve also recently had the 75th anniversary of the “July 7th Incident”, when Japanese troops crossed the Marco Polo Bridge on 07/07/1937, and which marked the beginning of the eight-year “War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression”. Time, therefore, for your favourite blogger to make a trip to the west of the capital to find out all about it.
 
The Lugou Qiao (卢沟桥) is located 15 km southwest of Beijing’s city centre in Fengtai. It bridges the Yongding River—a major tributary of the Hai River. The Marco Polo Bridge – to use its other name - is well-known because it was highly praised by the Venetian traveller during his visit to China in the 13th century … “Over this river there is a very fine stone bridge, so fine indeed, that it has very few equals in the world." (from The Travels of Marco Polo)
 
 
Construction of the original bridge started in 1189, and was completed in 1192. But following damage from floods, it was reconstructed under the Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi in 1698.
 
Following the communist takeover in 1949, the bridge was covered in asphalt and carried motor traffic... but only till 1971 when a new bridge was completed and traffic was eventually moved to it.
 
Lugou Qiao is 266.5 metres long and 9.3m wide, and built of solid granite, with a large central arch flanked by ten smaller ones. Each of the ten piers is protected by triangular iron pillars that have been installed to prevent damage by flood and ice. Hundreds of stone lions from different eras line both sides of the bridge.
 
 
The most intriguing feature of some of these beasts is that there are more lions hiding on the head, back or under the belly or on the paws of each of the big lions.
 
 
Each one is unique - the posture of each lion varies, as do their ages. Most date from the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, but some are from the earlier Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and there are one or two dating from as long ago as the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). They will make a splendid addition to my web site on stone lions!
 
 
You actually have to pay 25 yuan to get onto the bridge these days; but I don’t begrudge that. Keeping 900-year-old bridges in good condition doesn’t come cheap.
 
To make sure that the (mainly Chinese) tourists feel they are getting their money’s worth, there are plenty of interesting relics and other stuff positioned at either end of the bridge – such as friezes, statues and military guns…
 
 
that have people climbing all over them (this shot takes over 10 minutes of waiting for people to get off!) – so they’re obviously much appreciated.
 
I have to say, I rather like this splendid camel, even if he does have two humps!
 
 
But apart from appealing to the kid in each of us, there are also a whole load of ornamental columns and marble steles. One stele, installed on top of a stone tortoise, records the reconstruction of the bridge by Emperor Kangxi in 1698. Another stele bears calligraphy by Emperor Qianlong, the grandson of Kangxi. It reads "Morning moon over Lugou" (盧溝曉月Lugou Xiaoyue).
 
 
There’s also a stone tablet with an inscription of a poem: Inspection of Yongding River by Emperor Kangxi, which he wrote in November 1701.
 
 
But enough of just the pretty stuff. I am also here to learn more about what those beastly Japanese got up to all those decades ago. And the first thing I come across is the Sculpture Garden of China’s Anti-Japanese War, which was built from 1995 to 2000, to mark the 55th anniversary of the end of the War.
 
It’s located right by Wanping City – of which more in a moment.
 
 
The sculpture group consists of an area in which 38 cylindrical bronze sculptures stand – each weighing some six tons. There are four themes: the Japanese Invasion, Rising to save the country, Anti Japanese storms and fires; Justice is bound to triumph. These sculptures are made of huge pieces of granite and bronze castings from wrecked tanks, machine guns and cannons of the Jap troops.
 
The blurb says that traditional artistic methods were used to make the sculptures, “which embody the unyielding spirit and dauntless heroism of the Chinese nation,” while the moving sculpture group will ensure “the situation thoughts will throng your mind and all sorts of feelings well up in your mind.”
 
 
Placed at discreet intervals around the garden are slogans telling all that justice is bound to triumph and invaders are doomed to failure.
 
 
It’s all stirring stuff…
 
 
although some tend to lose a little in their translation.
 
 
As well as the sculpture garden, there is also a drum shaped stone blocks memorial park – basically a park within park, which was officially opened in 2003. Here, we are told, you can “appreciate the art of lithoglyph calligraphy, experience and remember the history in pursuit of peace in this park. Exactly stones record humiliation rather than harbor bitter resentment; hundred drums strike a warning chord.”
 
 
These drum stone blocks extend as far as the 640 metre-long Wanping City wall, where you can still see the shot marks made by gun fire and cannon.
 
 
Wanping City, also known as Wanping Castle (宛平城) is a Ming Dynasty fortress, or "walled city" which was erected in 1638–1640, with the purpose of defending Beijing against Li Zicheng and the peasant uprising. It lies adjacent to the Lugou Qiao, and has two gates, the Ever Prosperous Gate (永昌门, Yongchangmen), to the east, and the western Favourably Govern Gate (顺治门, Shunzhimen). From west to east, it measures 640 metres, and from south to north 320 metres, making it half-square shaped.
 
 
Slap bang in the middle of the fort is Wanping Square with a bronze sculpture of an Awakening Lion symbolizing “the prosperity and mightiness of the country and dauntlessness of the people”. The locals love it so much that they even hang up their washing to dry around it!
 

Although the fort is to all intents and purposes a normal residential district of outer Beijing, a large portion of the space inside the fortress' walls is given over to The Museum of the War of the Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (中国人民抗日战争纪念馆) (is this the museum with the longest name … in the world???). It was opened on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War on 7th July 1987.
 
On each side of the central axis of the square lie seven pieces of lawn, representing the incident of July 7th while a 14-metre high flag pole on the white marble base stands in the north of the square just in front of the museum representing the 14-year war of the Chinese nation against Japanese aggression.
 
 
It’s free to get into this museum – but you still have to queue up and show your ID to the girl at the ticket office to be given an entrance ticket. Unless, like me you – yet again – forget your ID, in which case a sweet smile and a little-boy-lost-look does wonders!
 
Inside the grounds are two T34 soviet made tanks that were the main battle tanks of the former soviet army in World War II and which saw service in Korea. They weigh 32 tons, carry 5 people, and have a top speed of 55km/hr. Their 85mm guns had a maximum shooting range of nearly 14km.
 
 
No doubt impressive, though the female security guard is obviously more taken with her fan magazine than the hardware of war.
 
And so into the museum proper. As you enter, you are met with a large-scale facade which “reflects the Chinese army and people to build up an indestructible steel great wall with their flesh and blood”.
 
 
Inside there are more than 20,000 cultural relics, and the entire display is divided into several thematic areas: "the Prelude of the War", "Strategic Defence", "Confrontation”, "the Chinese War Zone After the Breakout of the Pacific War", and "Final Victory in the Anti-Japanese War".
 
Weapons, there are aplenty…
 
 
and you won’t go very far before you discover the role that the Communist Party’s top leaders – including, of course, Mao himself – played in this war…
 
 
The majority of the displays have copious explanations in English and there are plenty of maps and sketches explaining how everything worked and who was where, when.
 
 
To be honest, you could start off feeling you are in any war museum in the world – it all seems a little distant from reality. But then you turn a corner and you suddenly find yourself faced with the stark reality of what really happened in those distant days. Pictures of people killed by chemical weapons; bacteriological warfare experiments; piles of murdered children’s bodies; “comfort women” used by the Japanese soldiers. Suddenly you no longer question the very deep animosity the Chinese have against their Japanese neighbours.
 
 
The museum curators are obviously proud of what they describe as “a huge oil painting with objects and models. With the computer-controlled audio, light and electricity technologies, the oil painting can show the effect of rolling dark cloud, smoke of gunpowder and flames of war, giving the audience the real experience of the war in Lugou Bridge. It adopts a large curtain with the visual field in the width of 1800, in the forms of the lamp light, sound, film and slide show to reappear the actual situation of the Chinese army and people tough beat back of the Japanese aggressors in Lu Gou Bridge.”
 
 
Pride of place also goes to a large depiction of the final Japanese surrender…
 
 
But there’s more!
 
 
One mustn’t forget that Korea was similarly invaded by the Japs; and just to underline the perfidy of those naughty Nips, there’s a temporary exhibition of the War of the Korean People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.
 
 
In February, 2005 - the 60th anniversary of the victory of the Sino-Japanese War - the central government of China arranged a series of memorial activities, for which President Hu Jintao proposed for its guiding doctrine, that "Chinese people should cherish peace, work to create a bright future, while keeping history in mind."
 
 
With slogans urging that the Chinese and Japanese people should be friends forever, with an abrogation of former enmities and a dedication to amity, many might have hoped that the two former enemies could now peacefully resolve their dispute over a few tiny islands in the East China Sea.
 
But after this past week, I seriously have to ask myself if people ever learn anything from the history books.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Return to Tianjin

It’s been over a year since I last visited Tianjin (天津), the port city half an hour’s train ride from Beijing. I had previously been there on a works outing and we had been shown around in style by the local tourism authority. Much to my delight I recently received another invitation from one of the ladies who had looked after us – Wenya – who has been following the ramblings of your favourite blogger over the last few months. She wondered if I would like another day out in this beautiful city.
 
So Saturday at the crack of dawn sees me heaving myself out of bed and getting ready for the off. To get to Tianjin from Beijing I need to get to Beijing South Railway Station. To get to Beijing South Railway Station I have to travel down Subway Line 5, change onto Subway line2 and then change onto Subway line 4. It’s an hour’s journey, but I get there in plenty of time, having paid the standard RMB2 (20p) for the whole journey.
 
The current Beijing South Railway Station (北京南站) opened on August 1, 2008. It is truly gigantic - the second largest in Asia, after Shanghai Hongqiao .
 
 
Trains to Tianjin are frequent, leaving during rush hours practically every 10 or 15 minutes. The whole operation is dead impressive, resembling an airport in its efficiency. In fact I’m sure the planners must have taken a good hard look at the runnings of an airport and imported the best bits.

 
With so many trains running every hour, nothing is left to chance, and everything runs to split second accuracy. In typical air-terminal style, arriving passengers are kept separate from departing passengers by the simple expedient of having them on separate floors: arrivals downstairs, departures upstairs.

 
You can’t get onto the platform at all until about 15-20 minutes prior to departure, and that’s only once you have been through the gamut of X-ray machines and body searches. Then you walk through the terminal to your gate and queue up in orderly lines before you swipe your ticket through the platform barriers, show your ID card (to show it really is your ticket – tickets are only valid for the person who bought them) and shove your way down to the sleek white express trains below.

 
I never cease to be impressed by China Railways. Yes, they have had a number of safety problems over the past year or two, but the Europeans could really learn a thing or two from the way the system is run here.

 
Not only are the trains comfortable and affordable (the journey to Tianjin costs a mere RMB55 – or just over £5), but they are ultra clean and packed to capacity as a result. As we board the train, an army of cleaning staff is already washing down the outsides of the carriages – which they do after every journey! Oh, British Rail do you have a lot to learn!

 
They even have stewardesses patrolling the train – smart blue outfits for first class; slightly less smart red ones for turnip class.

 
We set off, quickly reaching speeds of 290km/hr (slower than last year, following the high speed rail crash incident in Zhejiang province last July in which at least 35 people died) and arrive in Tianjin 34 minutes later.
 
Tianjin is the largest coastal city in northern China and the sixth-largest city nationally – but you never feel overcrowded the way you do in Beijing. Compared with Beijing, Tianjin on a Sunday is almost empty. Certainly Wenya is wandering across roads without a care in the world in a way that would almost certainly land her in hospital in the capital.
 
The city really is splendid. It’s all a huge conglomeration of ageing nineteenth and early twentieth-century European architecture, juxtaposed with the concrete and glass monoliths of wealthy contemporary China. Much of the colonial architecture has been placed under protection, especially in the French, Russian and Italian concessionary areas around the central train station, and south of the Hai River.

 
Facing the Bohai Sea, the name Tianjin means 'the place where the emperor crossed the river', and as the one time imperial port, it serves as Beijing's vital gateway to the sea.
 
One of the bridges crossing the Hai River is known as Liberation Bridge. And immediately opposite in the middle of a roundabout stands one of the unmistakeable landmarks of the city - The Century Clock. It’s almost 40 metres high, weighs 170-tons and is embellished with relief carvings of the 12 symbols of the Chinese zodiac in bronze. The S-style rocker symbolizes the substituting of Yin and Yang, apparently.
 
Well, I guess it’s one of those things you either love or hate. Personally I think it is whacky and zany enough to be quite attractive in a funny kind of way.

 
True to form, Wenya ambles her way from the middle of this huge roundabout across some eight lanes of traffic, almost defying any car to even think of mowing her down. I follow a little more sheepishly and we finally jump into a cab which takes us 2 kms to the Dabei Monastery – otherwise known as the Great Compassion Temple.
 
The monastery was first built in the Ming Dynasty, but has been heavily rebuilt and renovated since. It covers over 10,000 square metres and houses the Tianjin Buddhist Institute.

 
Entry is 5 Yuan, but not only does that get you in, you also get given three sticks of incense to add to the general smoky melée.
 
A signpost near the entrance informs us that the ancient Compassionate Temple is renowned for “worshipping the merciful Goddess of Mercy”; and that “after the vicissitudes of centuries, only the west yard of small scale remains” – errr, yes! In 1979, renovation work started on the halls, which had been ruined during the Cultural Revolution; and in 1982 the temple took on the status of a protected historic site.

 
On either side of the entrance way stand bell and drum towers and the whole complex appears much less formal than some of the temple complexes I’ve seen in Beijing.

 
In front of the Grand Hall stands a – well, I’m not quite sure what you would call it! It’s like a very tall tower into which visitors are attempting to throw coins through the little entrances at each storey. Presumably the higher up they can throw their coins, the more good luck it brings them. Who knows - but it is charming whatever it is.

 
We leave the temple and wander out to get a bottle of cold tea. In the street, outside a police station, is – what appears to me, anyway – a clever street sign admonishing people not to drink and drive, lest they get injured. There is a whole series of these signs positioned across the city. Obviously the marketing gurus have had a field day attempting to make a boring but necessary campaign for road safety come alive.

 
We wander on across one of the 12 bridges traversing the Hai River. Through the mist we can just make out the outline of the Tianjin Eye - a 120-metre tall giant Ferris wheel built above the Yongle Bridge (formerly the Chihai Bridge). It has 64 exterior transparent capsules, and a complete revolution takes 40 minutes. It is the only such wheel to have been constructed over a bridge; and on a clear day they say you can see 40 km from the top.

 
But time waits for no man, and perhaps more importantly, it is now many hours since your favourite blogger’s tummy was pampered with a bit of nourishment. Wenya tells me that Tianjin is famous for a number of snack items, including deep fried Goubuli (狗不理包子) - a traditional brand of baozi (steamed bun with filling).
 
She leads me to a restaurant, outside which snakes a long queue of people waiting to be served through an open window. We dutifully stand in line. There is a plethora of choices available, including bean paste (her favourite), pineapple (my favourite), strawberry (everybody’s favourite) and various others too numerous to mention.

 
I get handed a large bun-shaped object inside a plastic bag and sink in my teeth. It’s lovely, but so thick with oil that I wonder what on earth it will do to my cholesterol levels. But I throw caution to the winds and munch it down before then wondering how on earth I’m going to get rid of all that oil that has covered my hands in the process.

 
We wander further on down the street where a makeshift stall is selling off kittens and puppies - balls of fluff locked up in tiny cages. Eager kids are anxiously explaining to their parents why they need to take on the responsibility of looking after one of these sad balls of fluff, while some of the parents are doing their best to ignore the pathetic squeaks and mewls and lead their kids on to more worthwhile pursuits.

 
We stop for a coke and then decide to chance our hand at the Tianjin metro. The original network started in 1984 when it was the second metro to be built in China with a total track length of 7.4 kilometres. To reduce construction costs, the transport authority decided to use an abandoned canal bed to form part of the system, which meant that the underground section was only 2–3 metres beneath the city streets, and was the world's shallowest metro.

 
Seventeen years later the service was suspended for reconstruction, only reopening to the public in June 2006. And within a further three years, the entire network had grown to 50 stations and 4 lines.

 
This year in July, after a lengthy construction delay and a structural accident, Line 2 finally opened to the public, as two separate sections.
 
The entire system has now been kitted out with 114 new passenger cars that are very similar to some that are found on Beijing’s subway system.
 
In 2009, the Tianjin transport authority announced plans for 8 subway lines (including the current Line 1) with lines 2, 3, 5 and 6, currently under construction, due to be fully opened next year.

 
Unlike Beijing’s subway system, which has a flat fare of RMB2 for any distance, Tianjin’s metro has a sliding scale of fares; but it still averages between 1.5 and 2 kwai per journey. Instead of getting a ticket to ride, you get instead a plastic disk which you have to wave at the turnstile to get though.
 
The metro system itself, though, is desperately underused and the passageways linking the surface to the platform areas are virtually deserted. But that’s a wonderful feeling after the desperately overcrowded conditions on BJ’s equivalent MTR system.
 
Anyway, it’s piggy time once again… and Wenya takes me to a fast food outfit which specialises in fried tofu. It’s a little like a miniaturised version of a British fish-n-chips shop…

 
Once the tofu has been extracted from the oil, a liberal smothering of various sauces is poured over it and we are given two wooden spikes to go away and eat them with. Delicious! But what was I saying earlier on about cholesterol?

 
Now it’s time to take in a bit of culture. We head on over to Chifeng Dao (赤峰道), where we pass the former residence of Zhang XueLiang - the effective ruler of Manchuria and much of northern China after the assassination of his father by the Japanese in 1928. As an instigator of the Xi'an Incident, he spent over fifty years under house arrest and is regarded today as a patriotic hero.

 
It’s a nice house, but it is not what we have come to see.
 
No, no. For that we have to walk a few more metres down the street … to the China House Museum. Now, whether your reaction on seeing this building is Wow! Art! or OMG what a travesty!, there’s no mistaking the uniqueness of this building.

 
The blurb will tell you that China House “is a priceless building decorated with about 4,000 pieces of ancient porcelain, 400 pieces of jade stone carving, 20 tons of crystal and agate and a million pieces of ancient Chinese ceramic chips”… or another blurb which tells you “700 million pieces of ancient Chinese porcelain, 15,000 ancient porcelain bowls, dishes, and vases; 300 ancient porcelain-cat pillows; 300 stone lions; 300 marble sculptures; more than 20 tons of natural crystal…”. I guess I’m not too fussed either way.
 
My first reaction is that it wouldn’t look out of place beside some of the Gaudi buildings of Barcelona.
 
But unlike Gaudi’s works, this is – in my very humble opinion – absolutely GHASTLY and has been put together in the worst possible taste. The front wall - called the ‘peace wall’ - consists of 635 vases and a whole load of ceramic pussycats.

 
China House museum is a private house which belongs to the Tianjin Yueweixian Cultural Industry and Investment group. Originally a 100-year-old French style villa, the residence is a five-storied building with a total area of 3,000 square metres.
 
On the roof of the house is embedded a 768-metre-long dragon relief made from over ten thousand pieces of porcelain. Inside the house there are many famous paintings made up of ceramic pieces, including the world famous painting, Mona Lisa. OMG, I hear myself crying yet again…

 
We decide to forego the pleasure of actually going in to this “museum” and instead wander off into the sunset in search of more food, before eventually it’s time for me to think about heading for home.
The station area is absolutely crowded out – much more security than usual, I am informed. Apparently Tianjin is gearing itself up for the annual Meeting of the New Champions of World Economic Forum (also called Summer Davos) which starts in two days here with the Premier and his entourage descending on the city. But I manage to get a ticket for a train in an hour which gives me enough time to catch a photo or two along the river where the French quarter is alive with lights. Did I mention that Tianjin is stunning at night?

 
I finally get into BJ in time to just catch the last subway trains to get me home, where I arrive an hour later.
 
It’s been a great day out. I really like Tianjin!