Tianjin to Qingdao 30.10.16

Up early for the first tube of the day to the end of the line, Tianjin West Train Station. There are only four of us getting on so I’m surprised to see the tube full of sleepy people. We eventually rise above ground and through the window can see early morning mist or pollution. Through all the normal checks and after waiting in the main room we’re called through to the platform where I’m surprised and pleased to see queues forming at carriage numbers on the floor. We join queue eight and the sleek, modern train slowly pulls in. I’m taken back to the bullet trains in Japan which looked like this and the travellers politely queued like this. Three carriage attendants welcome us aboard and oh joy, no one is in our seats! Incredible!

Soon we peak at 299 kph and gazing out of the window we marvel at the amount of development underway. We have seen a lot of apartment blocks being built.

A young girl sits next to us and says hello. We chat in English for a while then an older guy comes over and asks “you’re travellers right? You want to know something?” The girl swaps seats with him and he explains that he used to be a translator. We chat and the conversation candidly opens up to include brexit, democracy, media influence, China’s increasing development and the BBC world service before we focus on the serious issue of food. He tells us without a hint of boasting that he is a good cook and he is pleased that we are enjoying Chinese food. We have found Chinese people honestly forthright without being rude and we both enjoy chatting to this intelligent guy.

We arrive at Qingdao and using maps.me navigate to our hostel in 10 minutes. The rooms are based around a central courtyard where goldfish swim in stone bowls and intricately carved chairs invite you to sit. We climb the wooden walkway and cross the terrace to our room and dump the bags.

20 metres from our front door is firewood court, a narrow alleyway of street food vendors. Techno music reverberates down my eardrums, people shout at us, meat skewers spit on charcoal which crackles and smokes. There are sea urchins, oysters, starfish, steamed buns, live fish in tanks, bowls of live molluscs and prawns and although I am very hungry I find the experience overwhelming and don’t know what to choose.

We decide to head down the high street to the seafront. Its a sunny Sunday afternoon and there’s a lot of people out enjoying themselves. The high street has seaside shops that would look familiar to British seaside tourists, selling shells, buckets and spades, model boats and souvenirs. We have to go through a subway to get to the seafront and we find a large underground food market. After a walk around we both agree on a dumpling stall where we get smiles and a plate of steaming fresh dumplings which we think were spinach, mollusc and garlic. On the steps out is a stall selling octopus balls with sauce and bonito flakes that we used to enjoy in Japan, so we order and gobble down a portion.

There is a pier stretching into the bay so we wander to the end and back, like everyone else, without really understanding why.

We stop at another stall where I have chilli squid on a stick and Al has a giant prawn and the friendly lady asks us both where we’re from.

We wander further down the shore until things of interest run out and as its only 2pm we get out the guide book wondering what to do. Hmmm, Sunday afternoon, no work tomorrow, in Qingdao which used to be spelt Tsingtao.

Where do I recognise the word Tsingtao from? 

Of course! Chinese restaurant beer. Well fancy that, there’s a brewery here. After a 30 min walk through a residential area we are paying our entrance fee.

(For those of a pedantic disposition, please note that Qingdao the city and Tsingtao the beer are both pronounced ching dao)

Those who know us well will probably correctly assume we have done a brewery tour before. Not in China though! The brewery was founded by the Germans at the end of the 19th century and expanded by the Japanese when they controlled the area in the 1930s. It was the first state run company to be listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange when China began to open and if you believe the hyperbole in the museum you probably would prefer this beer to any other type of inferior tasteless lager.

We get two free not quite full halves. 

There is a GameZone at the end of the tour which the Chinese groups are loving and we exit into a large beer hall which looks a scene of devastation with empty glasses and plates all over unsettled tables and nut shells covering the floor. By the time we emerge from the shop with a stout, white beer and strong ale, the efficient staff have cleared up and we sit down for our beer research.

The research goes well but we don’t discover anything to trouble Bathams or Titanic Brewery. I buy a half litre of IPA to complete the research which Brewdog would be proud of (if they haven’t made it). An extended family group sit next to us and we ‘Nihao!’ We watch in amazement as the family watch their youngest member, a boy of about 9, greedily gulp down half a lager. An elderly guy tries to get him to say Nihao to us but he is only interested in his beer. A lady asks where we’re from and we chat in English for a while. She gives me half a lager and goes to great lengths to explain that someone didnt want it so it is untouched. I gratefully accept and don’t bother to mention that I don’t care. They say goodbye and leave. The boy falls over. We both respectfully don’t split our sides.

Its dark now so we put our faith in maps.me and wander past the neon delights of beer street, through vegetable night markets, underneath flyovers and finally down a long street where every doorway was either a food seller or a tiny restaurant. The scenes were fascinating, floodlit laughing women peeled veg, old men sat on tiny stools drinking beer from plastic bags, huge chunks of meat hung on giant hooks bathed in red light with their sinister owner staring at us through clouds of tobacco smoke. It was life on an Asian street and endlessly fascinating.

Later we go out in search of a snack and begin where we started the day on firewood court but the techno has stopped and the food looks as tired as its sellers so we walk on. Our three rules for choosing a restaurant in China are:- 

  1. pictures of meals, so we can point
  2. It looks clean
  3. Gut instinct (massively underrated )

We are not having much luck finding anywhere, which is one of the laws of travelling. When you are tired and hungry you cannot find a restaurant you like but when you have just eaten you see several nice looking spots.

We are hungry after the beer earlier and last chance saloon doesn’t quite satisfy rule 2 but it’s last chance saloon so we go in. A smiley girl appears and we point at pictures of dumplings and the beer fridge. After a while steaming black dumplings containing sweet pork and prawns appear. They are good. Then tofu and spinach dumplings appear which are also good. As we are the only customers, the girl fetches a bowl and makes more tofu and spinach dumplings, carefully folding and sealing the small parcels with practiced care. We are happy with our choice and head home satisfied with one last beer from the shop. After all, no work tomorrow.

Tianjin 29.10.16

Fresh roasted coffee again this morning with a toasted egg and salad butty. We spent all morning planning where to go after shanghai and ensuring we weren’t missing any great sights in the south east of China. Route planned, we walked in the sunshine to a historic area where families and friends were enjoying their Saturday at a redeveloped stadium which houses restaurants and shops. 

We wander back to the main shopping  area and after failed attempts to find sushi we settle once again on Xialongbao for lunch with two sides of green. It was of course, fabulous.

Next is Carrefour for colgate jasmine tea toothpaste, (Other brands and flavours are available, such as charcoal) and the final leg of our huge walking tour is the riverside at night. 

We had contemplated a river cruise but opted for the healthier, cheaper tour and were glad we did. Although Tianjin has many amazing skyscrapers alongside it’s developed riverside, they are not all lit up at night.

28.10.2016 Tianjin

We awoke at 6.30am to the very Chinese sound of our neighbour clearing his throat. Went back to sleep. 

We have a leisurely morning sitting in our hostel cafe, listening to Robbie Williams new album (we think, then confirmed by my mates via what’s app!) and having the best coffee ever. The beans are roasted, ground and filtered to order. The care and attention to detail is amazing and worth it for the smoothness of the flavour. The beans were Costa Rican, for all you coffee buffs out there.

We finally left the cafe at 12 noon, hungry and needing to see something of Tianjin. Off we walk down a nearby street which contains a lot of European architecture. This is a port town so was opened up to European trade in the early 20th century and so there is their influence in the architecture. It is beautiful to see, especially as the sun is warm and the sky is clear blue. Many of the buildings look quite new so it is a puzzle to see the historical protection sign on them, seems it is ok to rebuild a building as long as it is in the same style.

We walk through the central park and see a now familiar sight of blokes playing games (cards, mahjong or dominos) sometimes for money, sometimes just for something to do.

On our way to a shopping arcade we pass Snack Street and decide this should fill our bellies. The smells are fabulous, there are many things battered on sticks, noodle dishes, and more. We stick to a noodle soup with a rich meaty stock, coriander, chill and green which is delicious and I have a deep fried squid on a stick which was bigger than my head. A finishing topping of cumin and chilli is really tasty. Guy also had peanut saucy noodles which are scrummy. 

We walked down river taking in the landscape and locals at play. We saw some bridesmaids having their official photos being taken, some men playing keepy uppy with an oversized shuttle cock, men emerging from the river having had a swim, others fishing, praying to trees and concrete statues. 

I need the loo so dive into what looked like a shopping centre, it was an exhibition of modern products with people queuing to enter and buy stuff we had seen in a supermarket. It had a loo, phew. 

We ate at our hostel as we had seen a delivery chap walking in with a lovely side of beef that morning and noticed the special was stewed beef, it was in a pie served with rice, delicious (although a plate of chips would have been very welcome!). We Skype’d family and had a quiet night in. 


27.10.2016 Beijing to Tianjin

On the move again, I had purposely booked late trains so we didn’t need to get up early however a 9.50am train still required a 7am start due to queuing for security checks, queuing to get into the train station, and queuing for more security checks. We haven’t done enough queuing in China yet. 

All went smoothly until we tried to find the entrance to the train station. We ended up in the ticket office, arrivals area then eventually the departure hall. It really shouldn’t be this difficult!!!

Breakfast required.  After yesterday’s dumpling success we decided to do it again. However we had chosen a Korean restaurant where the dumplings are massive and doughy so not quite the same. Nice but not what we were expecting! 

There is an absence of tea on sale in any of the cheap eateries, they have fizzy, sugary soft drinks but no tea which I am finding odd. 

We waited in the common waiting room as we were travelling hard seat class (only 1.5 hour journey so no comfort required.) Soft seat and other classes have their own waiting rooms 

Our waiting area was heaving and it was still an hour to go. You need to be at the station in plenty of time as the train doors are closed 5 mins before leaving and you are expected to be in the waiting room at least 15mins before departure. Not like home eh? When you are rushing through Birmingham New Street at 11pm for the last train to Coventry and skid through the doors with a couple of seconds all because you needed that last snack (ahem, bottle of wine) from M&S????!!!

Our seats were 49 and 50. They were not together. Guy interrupted a group of blokes who were sharing a bottle of Baiju (it was 9.15am when we boarded) and didn’t seem that chuffed about his intrusion. I had a random collection of people but the closest person to me was a young lad with a steaming nose and violent sneezes. Probably just as well Guy wasn’t with me, he can nurse me though whatever illness this guy was spraying around the carriage. 

Again I am surprised by the friendliness of the locals, everyone smiling and Ni Hao’ing, it is lovely, the background Chinese pop music is less appealing. 

Train arrived on time into a shiny new station. We walk about a mile to the subway platform and get to our hostel with only one wrong turn. 

The first thing we notice about the hostel is the massive drinks selection, especially whisky, behind the very fancy bar. I double check the booking and we are in a backpackers. Guy is looking hopefully at the Octomore. I remind him of our budget. It doesn’t stretch to Islay single malts. 

We decide to take a walk around our new town and set off, it is grey and overcast but we pass some lovely looking colonial architecture which is a really nice change. We headed towards the river front however ended up walking along a 6 lane road so change tactics and revert back into town in search of sustenance. 

We found it in the form of Guilian noodles, our new favourite food. The rice noodles are served in a really meaty stock, with various accompaniments, Guy has slow braised beef in star anise with coriander and spring onions, the woman in charge asks if he wants a (black) egg with it, when he agrees she whoops like she has won the lottery. Guy looks scared.  I have the minced beef, coriander and sweetcorn version without egg. 

After all that the egg was just hard boiled. No unusual after effects felt. The soups are delicious. 

We go for a wander about, it starts raining, this is when we need a cup of tea, but we still can’t find one. 

Tianjin seems to be one massive construction site. My Aunt was here in 2013 and said it was the same then. It doesn’t look even halfway finished so if you are thinking of visiting I would leave it about 10 years then it will be shiny and new with no closed roads or construction traffic. In between the building works it looks new. Even the Ancient Culture Street tourist part looks suspiciously new and clean. It is set up for Chinese tourists to buy lots of stuff. No fridge magnets or postcards for us western tourists! 

The rain is getting worse, so we dive in a Carrefour to see about a memory card. I spend ages looking at hair products (my hair is going feral) and Guy ends up with a shop assistant guiding him to a different shop where they sell memory cards, you wouldn’t get that from a French Carrefour assistant!!!!

We get a tube home as it is only 2 yuan each and raining hard now. 

Afternoon cake is still required though so we stop at a bakery conveniently located near our hostel and select cakes, I try and ask for tea, no luck. Guy orders a purple yam latte but they have run out of hot water so he will never know what a purple yam latte tastes like. Cakes are really good though! 

We stock up on water and food at a local supermarket and have a quiet night in catching up on diaries blogging.