A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Friday, July 29, 2011

A Transport of Delight

“Show a bit of lace!”, the advertisement cajoled, urging female listeners to buy a particular brand of knickers. No, this wasn’t a new ad on China’s CCTV; nor even a spot on London’s Capital Radio. It certainly wasn’t aired on any of the stations broadcasting in the Arabian Gulf!

Instead, my mind was taken back nearly 50 years to the heady days of Mary Quant’s mini skirt revolution, with stylish fashionistas in London’s Carnaby Street leading the world in all things trendy; and to this particular advertisement aired on the now defunct English language service of Radio Luxembourg.

The reasoning was flawless. With mini skirts now all the rage, coupled with London’s penchant for double decker buses, the chic young things of the time could well have had a problem going up the stairs on the buses wearing their mini skirts. But were they to wear these trendy knickers, then their problems would be solved!

I remember at the time thinking how useful they would have been for Alice in her Wonderland racing after the White Rabbit and falling down…down…down into his bunny hole. What if Mr Wabbit had looked up over his shoulder and actually caught a glimpse of her bottom! Heavens above! Could she have used a pair of those frilly knickers!

I have been reminded of this advertisement quite recently, having arrived in the Chinese capital during the summer heat wave so typical of Beijing. The vast majority of young girls here wear either ultra short skirts or culottes, designed to look like skirts, and show off their legs to great effect.

And that is all very well, but like London’s double decker buses, Beijing’s metro system can cause the female sorority something of a problem. The underground railway is a superb complex of engineering, with many of the stations deep below ground level. This means that there are very many stairs (going down) and very steep escalators (going up) with the result that females tend to adopt a classic pose, as they ride the escalators, of placing the back of their hand against their bottom to ensure that they aren’t caught in a Marilyn Monroe moment as a gust of wind from the depths of the metro reveals too much in the way of eye candy for the appreciative males - although guys being guys the world over, this doesn’t stop them from craning their necks to see what little there is to see!

Beijing’s metro is a wonderful place for people watching. And I have to say I’m quite a fan of the subway system here. There are 14 lines in all, 336 km of tracks and 172 stations. By 2015 the city predicts daily ridership (is that a word???) will increase to over 8 million journeys a day when the city will have 19 subway lines and 561 km in track length. This will make Beijing's subway system one of the largest in the world.

For just 2RMB – around 19 pence or 25¢ - you can travel from one end of Beijing to the other from around 5am to nearly midnight. It doesn’t matter how far you travel – be it just one stop or the entire length of the line … and then some, it will still cost you just 2 RMB. Of course, you will be damned lucky to ever get a seat unless you start off at the end of the line.

The above photo was taken at 11 in the morning. A relatively empty carriage as you can see. I mean you even have room to breathe without having someone’s left armpit shoved up your nostril (although being a western expat does have its advantages in this regard). The photo below was taken at 4 in the afternoon.

Probably the best time to travel, therefore is around 5.30am or after 10 at night.

But apart from the crowds, it is simplicity itself to find your way around. Notices are written both in Chinese and Pinyin.

(Try saying that in a hurry when you have had a couple over the limit!)
And on board there are adequate displays of where on the line you are and what the next station is likely to be.

On the platforms there are TV sets to make sure you don’t get bored during the 4-5 minutes you might have to wait between trains (the Chinese love their TVs and you will find them everywhere – in lifts, in lobby areas, in shopping centres, in the streets, in stations… it seems no one can live without a feed of some entertainment channel or other, all interspersed with infomercials at every turn).

Well, these TVs obviously work as the well mannered Chinese patiently queue up in front of the doors waiting for their train while being fed with live feeds from some sporting event, or a rock concert, or whatever.

Of course, life wouldn’t be fun without the occasional googly thrown at you when you are least expecting it. My local Carrefour store is 200m from a station called Jiandemen – three stops along line 10 from my home station of Huixinxijie Nankou. Carrefour is on the north east corner of the cross roads, so thought I, it might seem a bit obvious to make an exit from Exit B – north east.

So as everyone traipsed off the train and headed for exit C or A (no-one seemed interested in exit D for some reason) guess who spent a good five minutes wandering from one end of the platform to the other searching for Exit B!

I counted four signs to Exit B, but whenever I approached where I thought it should be, there was another notice pointing in the opposite direction. Eventually I gave up the unequal struggle and headed for Exit C with the latest exodus of passengers, only to discover once upstairs that there was in fact no exit B in existence.

I wonder if the guys monitoring the closed circuit TV cameras (of which China must have more than anywhere else in the world put together) have a good laugh seeing the puzzled expats searching for a non existent exit? Well, as long as I made someone happy that day, then who am I to complain!

I said that you could go anywhere on the subway system for 2 yuan, but in fact this isn’t quite true. There is one line only on which the fare is 25 and this is the Airport Express which has four stations on it – Terminal 1&2 / Terminal 3 / Sanyuanqiao (with a convenient interchange for line10) and the end of the line at Dongzhimen.

It’s all very well if you want to go into town from the airport or indeed if you want to go from T3 to T2. But should you want to use the Express to go from T2 to T3, then you are obliged to take the 20 minute ride into town first from T2 and then go out again (another 20 minutes) to T3.

And a word to the wise – if you like to travel facing forward on a train, rather than sitting with your back to the engine, so to speak, you should be aware that the train travels push-me-pull-you style; so if you are facing forward from town to T3, you will be facing backwards from T3 to T2 and then forwards again from T2 into town again… which explains the mad game of musical chairs as you pull into one of the stations.

If you think that the metro is a good deal, then wait till you try the buses! A standard journey to anywhere will cost a mere 1… but wait a minute – it gets better. Avail yourself of a Beijing Public Transport Holdings, Ltd. smart card issued from the Beijing Municipal Administration and Communication Card Company, but obtainable from most subway stations (similar to London’s Oyster Card, Hong Kong’s Octopus or Dubai’s Nol Card) and a bus journey costs not 1 but 4 Jiao (that’s 0.4). And being proud of my Scottish heritage, not to mention my adopted home of Yorkshire (where they say the men have short arms and long pockets) you might wonder why I ever even bother with the metro when the buses are so cheap.

But one look at a bus stop might well explain that conundrum, though that I know is a poor excuse. I mean there’s a perfectly good web site containing bus maps, and even a service where you type in your start and end points and it tells you which bus(es) to take. What could be easier? Or rather, what could be easier if you can type in Chinese? There is no Pinyin equivalent, unfortunately.

So I have now made a start of religiously typing into my Blackberry the bus numbers on the stops whenever I get to a new place that I feel I might want to visit again. Eventually, my incredible brain has worked out, I will be able to join up connecting bus numbers and thereby save myself a fortune.

Not that you’re ever likely to overspend on transport here. Take the taxis, for instance. In the old days (up to three or four years ago) there were three types of taxi charging 1.2, 1.6 or 2 per kilometre depending on whether the car was a Xiali, a Citroen or a Volkswagen. Nowadays, all the taxis are either Volkswagen Jetta or Hyundai Elektra and they all charge the same 2 rate.

Whatever taxi company they operate with, you can tell them at a glance by their bright yellow stripe, regardless of whether the main body colour is blue, red, orange, green, brown or whatever.

A typical 15 minute journey is going to set you back around 10 although since the latest oil price hike, drivers will normally add on an extra yuan once the meter goes above 10. Most of the taxis are well showing their age, but they are plentiful and quite convenient, though not one driver in the whole of Beijing speaks a single word of English (I believe this is a prerequisite written into their contract to allow them to drive at all) and the only way to communicate is to have your destination written down in Chinese and wave this piece of paper under your driver’s nose.

One enterprising publishing house has even brought out a wire-bound flip-book with over 400 destinations written in both languages together with some “useful Chinese phrases” (I wonder if they include ‘I say my good man, would you be everso kind and turn on your air conditioning?’ or ‘Perhaps you could desist from spitting out the window every time you reach a traffic light?’)

Rather beguilingly, the advertisement for the book, which appears in virtually every expat magazine, features a Beijing cab approaching a red sand dune across which two Bedouin on camels are plodding with ‘Does your driver know the way’ splashed across the blue sky. Takes me straight back to the days when I would regularly drive across the Empty Quarter from Riyadh to Dubai.

If the Beijing taxis are too staid for your ingrained sense of adventure, then maybe a bike cab would be more to your way of thinking? They operate only in their own little locality, and apparently you have to negotiate a reasonable fare before you start the journey which is the main reason I haven’t (so far) plucked up the nerve to try one out. But give me time. They look a whole load of fun.

Of course, at the opposite end of the scale for longer distances are the many train lines that operate out of Beijing. The capital has three main railway stations: Beijing Railway Station, Beijing West Railway Station and Beijing South Railway Station. These latter two are among the biggest railway stations in the world as I can testify from my journey a couple of weeks back to Tianjin. Truly Beijing South was a place you could easily get lost in. On my return in the evening I didn’t recognise any landmarks within the station itself from when I had passed through that morning.

There are other stations in Beijing too, of course. For instance how about Beijing East or even Beijing North? (I am convinced that somewhere in China there is a naming committee that deliberated long and hard to come up with such names.)

It was from Beijing South that I took the bullet train to Tanjin. It was a sleak, ultra clean, ultra comfortable and ultra fast train that was simply a joy to travel on.

Unfortunately since the roll out of the high speed connection from Beijing to Shanghai earlier this month, the high speed railway has suffered one misfortune after another. A high speed train heading for Shanghai halted for over two hours in Jinan only 10 days after the line’s debut. Another five malfunctions occurred in the next four days raising doubts about the safety of the trains.

But on July 23rd a fatal collision occurred after a train was struck by lightning when crossing a bridge at Wenzhou, Zhejiang, and was then rear ended by a second train resulting in the death of at least 39 people with 192 injured. Four of the carriages of the first train even plunged off the bridge. Not surprisingly the issue has been front page news for a week now and has put the entire future of the high speed rail network in doubt.

Three top railway officials were promptly sacked as it was revealed that the trains have no automatic braking system, meaning that the driver himself has to apply the brakes in the event of an emergency. And later in the week it was revealed that signals that should automatically have turned red failed to respond to the presence of the stopped train up ahead.

Passengers have been cancelling their prepaid tickets in droves and the regional airlines have been having a field day as their share prices have shot up in contrast to railway companies that have seen their market valuations plummet.

Beijing municipality has ordered a strengthening of safety procedures on the city's subway network in the wake of the fatal crash and stressed the four requirements for safe subway operation: carriages should not be overloaded, platforms not overcrowded, passages not over-congested, and escalators not operating at full capacity.

Statistics published last Friday by Beijing Subway showed more than 6.2 million journeys were made on July 15th, creating a new record, adding that the metro’s passenger capacity had reached its limit.

So it will be interesting to see what, if anything changes when riding the metro network around Beijing in the near future.

But one thing, I think I can safely predict with near certainty is that as long as the hot weather lasts, Beijing’s male population will continue to enjoy the numerous examples of eye candy riding the city subway’s escalators!

** Addendum 01/08/11: I am indebted to my friend Mei Ling for pointing out what I had signally failed to see when following sign B: 暂 means "Yet"; 未 = Not; 开通 = Open. Oh, Silly Me!!!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Window on the World

One of the great things that my so-far short spell of living in China has thrown up is the whole new perspective on the world that I am getting. Truly when seen from an Asian point of view things look so different from the way one might see them in Europe or even the Middle East.

My window on the world, of course, is the plethora of TV stations that are broadcast in and around Beijing. My apartment block does not have satellite TV (indeed as I look out of my apartment windows I am hard pressed to see any satellite dishes pointing at the heavens). Instead we have 15 China Central TV channels (they actually broadcast a whole load more than that), 9 from Beijing TV, two from CETV, and channels from Tianjin, Yunnan, Guangxi, Chongqing, Sichuan, Liaonang, Hubei and Hebei, not to mention the kids channel Kaku.

This week CCTV News – the English language service broadcast from Beijing – gave fulsome coverage of the Murdochs’ grilling by British MPs in London. And excellent coverage it was too, despite the spelling mistakes on screen and the struggle some of the announcers had with pronouncing names that I had never previously imagined could have given anyone any problems.

But I had to laugh when the line from London went down unexpectedly and the focus switched back to the Beijing studio where the anchorwoman Felicity Tan was busy munching away at what appeared to be a large piece of chewy gobstopper. My heart went out to her as she tried – and significantly failed – to surreptitiously slide it to the side of her mouth while attempting to recover her composure and fill air time.

As a former broadcaster myself, I could well sympathise, albeit that she had broken one of the cardinal rules of broadcasting: be prepared for the worst, since Murphy’s Law will guarantee that if something can possibly go wrong, it undoubtedly will!

But more excitement was to come when a member of the public assaulted poor Rupert M with what appeared to be shaving cream. (Murdoch’s Chinese wife Wendi Deng became an overnight sensation in Beijing as she lashed out at the would be attacker.) How the Chinese technicians at CCTV must have revelled in this visual treat. Within minutes they had formed a 12 second video loop of the assault which they played over and over again as a background to opinion interviews aired after the grilling. I counted the outtake being replayed at least 25 times non stop before getting loop fatigue and moving on to see what other channels had to offer.

Over on CCTV3 (中央综艺) which is described as an Arts Channel, they had a game show called Happy Dictionary…

… which, despite it all being in Chinese (naturally), was gripping to watch. Here in the studio was a collection of identical twins and identical triplets all competing to see who were the most similar, not just in looks, but in thought and deeds too.

Two brothers were asked to dance in time to some syncopated music – a totally unedifying spectacle, but amazing in that when both their scores were assessed a large 八十 (80) appeared on screen, not once, but twice to indicate both had scored identically.

A triad of female triplets were given question and answer sessions using the Who Wants to be a Millionaire format, to see how similar their answers were to one another. Two more brothers were asked to draw from shouted instructions on opposite sides of a large white board and their scribblings compared. And a pair of girls with mahogany coloured hair were encouraged to sing together, before being asked some personal questions.

It was at this point that it struck me quite forcibly how thick these two girls were. I mean, until the moment they actually opened their mouths they acted the part of perfect screen candy for the producers. But oh my…. Once they started to talk, their voices gave the game away, while their gormless expressions just added to the desire one had to slap them round their chops and tell them to get a life FGS!

Yes, here was a couple talking an incomprehensible language (to me at any rate); yet so much meaning could be deduced simply by reading their body language and listening to their gormless voices. In the audience their mother was in tears – though whether this was a result of being overcome with pride or embarrassment it was hard to tell.

The big news this week in China was without doubt the retirement of 7’ 6” (2.29m) basketball superstar Yao Ming, who played for the Houston Rockets over eight seasons, but had missed 250 regular-season games over the past six years due to injury.

Of course the TV stations gave wall to wall coverage for most of the week. BTV 体育 (BTV’s sports channel) in particular went overboard in reflecting on every aspect of his life …

but for me the headline of the week came from China Daily which splashed END OF THE MING DYNASTY across its front page and CIAO YAO inside.

The other big news was the 60th anniversary of the “peaceful liberation of Tibet by the China People’s Liberation Army” – a well rehearsed phrase which was used over and over again as the TV stations showed endless history programmes, travelogues and documentaries about Tibet.

Just days before, Beijing had complained bitterly about President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and there was plenty of studio debate on the pros and cons of this diplomatic snub. In the event, the coverage given to the anniversary celebrations themselves was somewhat unremarkable and consisted of a number of speeches in front of Lhasa’s Potala Palace by Vice President Xi Jinping and others from the good and the great. But I have to say I learned a great deal about Tibet that I never knew before.

Back to my TV surfing, and next I happened upon 中央音乐 – CCTV 15 – the music channel. And much to my surprise they were airing a best-of-Bollywood programme.

Well, why ever not? I have so far only met one Indian in Beijing, and I have no idea how popular Bollywood is over here, but it certainly showed that China can be as diverse in its musical coverage as anything found in the west.

Following the Bollywood extravangaza, the next programme featured the massed choirs of the People’s Liberation Army. I have no idea how good they are as fighters, but boy, can they sing!

The military actually has its own TV channel in the form of CCTV7 中央军事 农业, which it shares with programmes about agriculture. If you time it right, you can even watch programmes explaining the finer points about the workings of nuclear warheads

But for me, one of the best channels has to be CCTV11 - 中央戏曲, the Opera Channel. Here you will find wall-to-wall coverage of Peking Opera with performances, documentaries and, I discovered, game shows and lessons in the finer details of producing the sound of a strangulated cat.

In a programme that had remarkable similarity to Nachle Ve on NDTV (New Delhi TV – which actually comes from Mumbai!) in which self styled Queen of Bollywood, Saroj Khan teaches young hopefuls to do simple dance routines, here was a Queen of Peking Opera leading a studio audience in trying their luck at caterwauling and discovering how difficult it actually is. There was even a cut away to a male opera ‘singer’ sitting in a primary school teaching the poor brats in the finer arts of opera (kittenerwauling???).

Yes, diversity is alive and well in Beijing and if you have enough channels on your TV, the world really is your oyster.

But forgive me if I stop at this juncture for one of my favourite programmes has just started on the goggle box. Anyone else like to try their hand at Peking Opera Karaoke?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Amazing Day Out in Tianjin

Being British, I learned long ago never to take the TV weather forecasts as gospel. Sure, they may give you a foretaste of what is to come in the next 24 hours, but really – you’d think I would know better by now. So why was I so concerned on hearing CCTV announce that Saturday would be riven with stormy rain clouds and thundery showers?

I wake up at the crack of dawn – well, maybe not quite the crack - to find clear skies and the sun struggling to push away the morning mists; which bodes well for the day ahead, since my new employer has laid on a day out for its expat staff in the coastal city of Tianjin.

I emerge from my apartment and step into the lift with an Indian girl who, it later transpires, is a very close friend of one of my best friends in Dubai. It really is a very small world!

Some 30 of us get into the bus from the Golden Dragon Bus Company and are whisked on our way to Beijing’s South Railway Station. One of the guys from HR stands up to address us and give instructions for the day. We will be travelling on the Beijing-Tianjin Inter-City Express Railway – one of the first sections of the newly finished Beijing Shanghai Express, the fastest of its kind in the world.

We are each given a ticket which, we are informed, gives us a reserved seat in a specific cabbage and that we should therefore make sure we get into the correct cabbage on boarding. Cabbage? A look of amusement settles on a number of faces before Mr HR suddenly corrects himself. Of course he meant to say carriage! Maybe his translation calculator has been difficult to read that morning. But we all start comparing notes as to which cabbage we will be sitting in.

Beijing South is a massive railway station that would put any station in London’s metropolis to shame. An advertisement above our platform entrance proudly advises China Telecom’s latest snappy slogan: Customer First - Service Foremost. But this is hardly noticed as we jostle to slide our tickets with their 3D-barcodes through the electronic barriers to allow us onto a gleaming white bullet train. Comfortable seats; massive leg room; ultra clean. Oh British Rail – could you learn a thing or two from the Chinese!

We take off, a minute early according to my watch, while piano music is played over the loudspeakers and a quick welcoming video is shown on the TV screens overhead. Thank goodness the music soon comes to an abrupt end as we accelerate up to around 330km/hr – proudly displayed on LED screens at each end of the carriages.

A smartly dressed stewardess wanders down the aisle selling souvenir keyrings and I simply can’t resist buying one featuring a little train which opens up to reveal a “nail cut, nail file, earpick and eyebrow clamp”. I discover subsequently that an eyebrow clamp is actually a pair of tweezers and an earpick is just that – a little metal rod with a mini-spoon at its end with which I am presumably meant to clear out my orifices should the need arise. I put it away for future use.

As we speed through the countryside of endless fields, the LED display advises us that outside it is 30 degrees and rising. Hardly a cloud in sight. Pure sunshine all the way. Within no time at all we are pulling in to an ultra clean city and come to rest in the station.

As we disembark, an army of cleaners immediately set to washing down the outside of the train lest a single fingerprint should sully the paintwork. The train gleams in reflected gratitude for the TLC it is receiving.

To greet us on the platform is a posse from Tianjin’s Municipal Information Office who hand out leaflets to “Welcome Foreign Experts…To experience New Achievements in Tianjin and to Promote the Image of the City”.

“Tianjin is full of vigor, openness and generousness” the leaflet reads, while setting out a tour for the day, which we are to discover will cram practically everything there is to see into our 11-hour visit. We are led up an escalator to a door which is clearly marked No Thoroughfare but we carry on regardless as our new minders make welcoming small talk while ferrying us to another fleet of buses.

I have recently come to Tianjin after working in Beijing, my newfound minder informs me.
Oh, say I, are you from Tianjin originally?
No, I am from Tianjin he replies.
I make yet another mental note to improve my pronunciation.

The tour guide on our bus is called Chiang and he welcomes us again to Tianjin, while laying out the itinerary for the day. 

Our first stop will be Tianjin City’s Planning Exhibition Centre where we will learn about the city. We are also advised that here would be an excellent place to try out the ‘facilities’ … and as if to emphasise the point, bottles of drinking water are then handed out.

We pull up outside the Exhibition Centre and are told to memorise the number plate of the bus before we leave in order to ensure we get on the same bus afterwards.

And then we traipse inside where a large map gracing the facing wall inscribed with “The International Port City Economic Center in Northern China Eco-City” shows the trade routes of which Tianjin can now boast. A clutch of cameramen and a TV camera follow our every movement to record this historic moment of the arrival of ’30 Foreign Experts’ for posterity.

We are shown a model of some buildings in the French Concession quarter; we are shown a 1:750 model of the entire city which must have taken an age to make. It spreads out below us and is truly a work of art.

But this is just the beginning. For now it lights up in various sections, demonstrating aspects of the city, the course of the river, the location of hotels and business centres and the docks and the station and the parks and the bridges…. It must have cost a fortune and its effect is truly amazing.

We are shown another model; and then another; and another; and another; and by the 12th it has to be said that model fatigue is starting to settle in.

But soon we are shown into a 180-degree cinema where a truly fantastic computer generated film shows how the city is being developed. We have to keep on reminding ourselves that much of what we are being shown doesn’t actually exist at this point. The strains of sweeping violins fight against the backing of a full orchestra while sound effects are thrown in to tremendous effect. Unfortunately, it is practically impossible to actually hear and comprehend the commentary that is desperately trying to make itself heard against this son et lumière, and my mind is swept back to my former days in the BBC where surely the sound managers would have wept had they heard the overall sound mix. But the message is clear. We leave the exhibition having learned that “Tianjin will emerge on the global stage with a brand new image”.

The Centre itself is located in the Italian Concession quarter (some of the European powers were allocated concession areas following the opium wars of the late 19th century) where a number of wedding photographers are making use of the sunshine to capture some blissful moments.

We wander around the Italian Concession area which contains 30 former residences of celebrities and in which over 60 buildings have been renovated. We are told that the Italian-style area has been pinpointed as the biggest cultural cooperation project between the Chinese and Italian governments. Scenic spots like Marco Polo Square, the former residences of Liang Chichao and Cao Yu and the Italian barracks are now open to the public.

But to be honest with the numerous French cafés, German beer gardens, and even Czech beer on offer, there is little to suggest much of a modern Italian presence, save for a spaghetti hall tucked away down a side street.

The French Concession area is easier to identify. You get there by crossing the Jie Fang Bridge which, it turns out, had been built by the same company that built the Eiffel Tower and had used practically the same construction methods.

Back in the Russian Concession area (wherein lies the station) is a huge Millennium clock which is fantastic and wonderful, or hideous in the extreme, depending on your point of view. I have to say I quite like it!

In temperatures now reaching the 40s, we are once again asked to pose for the photographers

before getting back on the buses for a half hour journey to our next stop. We pass a memorial in the British Concession area to victims of the 1976 earthquake;

a memorial to Chou En Lai; the old May 1st Watch Factory (it is said that ex-President George Bush owns a May 1st watch); and Tianjin’s Number One Hospital which, we are told, specialises in liver transplant. Someone on the bus wonders why they should transplant the river. Did they divert the river around the building they wonder? Flied Lice or Fried Rice? Liver or River? The Chinese accents still obviously leave some confused.

Soon, though, we arrive at our next stop: the newly opened Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club where we meet Derek Reid, Australia’s former National Polo Team Captain who has taken up an offer he simply couldn’t refuse and is helping build up this equestrian paradise from scratch.

There are two international standard polo fields, stabling for 150 horses, indoor training facilities and a riding school. These are the largest Polo facilities in China and it is hoped that Tianjin will one day become the host of a World Cup in China.

Slap bang next door to the Polo facilities is the Metropolitan Tianjin Goldin Hotel which boasts 167 rooms and 14 very stylish restaurants.

We are shown in to the Derby Café for a scrumptious buffet lunch featuring such delicacies as Peanut and Chicken’s Feet soup; seafood of every description; green molluscs, which are a new experience for me

‘Petittoes’ – which I learn later are pigs trotters (from the French Petits Toes, perhaps???); and ‘Yabbies with chilli’ – a type of crawfish which taste a little like lobster tail.

But time waits for no man and now we are shepherded into the hotel shop to have the finer points of Polo explained to us before being taken to see some of the horses in the beautifully equipped stables. Huge dragonflies hover about outside as we tramp around a paddock or two and learn more about this Polo heaven.

But now it’s once more into the bus and onto the Shi Grand Mansion.

The ancestral home of the Shi family in ShanDong Province, this early 19th century shipping magnate built this 10,000 sq m residential complex of 18 yards and 278 rooms. Pride of place goes to the home theatre – the largest folk theatre in China, we are told by yet another guide, though despite her use of a megaphone it is very difficult to hear a word she is saying.

Back on the bus and on to the Tong Qing neighbourhood and its Ancient Culture Street. After a fast mini tour of the area we are given 15 minutes in case we are tempted to buy any of the souvenirs here. I am intrigued to see that even Mr Bean has made it to this far flung outpost.

Now, with the memory of our lunch fading into the past, it is time for a top-up and we are taken to one of Tianjin’s most celebrated restaurants at the Go Believe Steamed Buns Hotel. Something in the name gives the game away and sure enough one of the main items on the menu is steamed dumplings. A steamed bun master chef gives us a demonstration in how to construct such a dumpling

not nearly as easy as it looks as one of the Tianjin interns who is sitting at our table discovers when she tries her hand in what looks like something straight out of the 1970s British TV game show Generation Game. I am very glad that I didn't accept the challenge as I am sure my efforts would have been even worse. The meal, though, is excellent, washed down with a local red wine and a glass of Snowflake beer.

Finally it’s time to head off for our last port of call – a cruise around Haihe Port.

Despite the hot night air, we head up onto the top deck to see Tianjin’s many scenic sights lit up against the night sky. The ferris wheel at night looks truly spectacular and on our return to the embarkation point there is a firework display – a truly memorable end to a memorable day.

The guys from Tianjin Municipality have really done us proud and we are all sorry to have to say goodbye. We are given gift bags with information about Tianjin (just in case we missed anything!) and a coloured clay Peking Opera Master Zhang figurine to hang on our walls.

On arrival at the station, there is a slight delay in which we say our goodbyes to our new friends

But soon we are making our way through the electronic barriers and onto the bullet train to settle down once again in the comfort of our spacious seats. We accelerate into the night while outside some ominous streaks of lightning fill the sky and by the time we reach Beijing the rains have set to in earnest. The rain soaked streets slow the traffic down and it seems forever before we get back to home base. And then it is a mad dash through the rain to the apartment block.

It’s been an amazing day out but thankfully CCTV’s weather predictions have only now finally come true.