Tianjin greeted us with a deep smog that obscured our vision much worse even than Beijing had before it. We hopped in a cab and Scott attempted to communicate the the driver the location a hostel we had found on the internet. There had, however, been only a roman alphabet version of the name and the street, lacking any indication of the tones, so this took some time, as the two them tried on different tones and worked out the particulars. At one point, our fine driver even stopped the cab at a red light and just got out of the car, wandering over to question nearby drivers. The man was stellar. He joked with us, and looked something like the standard cross between Hunter S Thompson and Ghengis Khan, with a little Chuck Norris thrown in for flavor. Finally he had us on the right street and we peered through the smog until we’d spotted the place. One doesn’t tip in China. But this fellow was so great, we tipped him.
The hostel was clean and nice. The owners spoke good English, and they offered to arrange for a cab to the port for the next morning. They also rented bicycles. Really shitty bicycles. They took us out the back door and we peered at the sorry hunks of rusting metal.
Tianjin is the city of rust.
The humid smog corrodes the exposed metal in the city so rapidly that it seems nothing gleams. And the sides of the buildings are streaked with a dried blood color, as rain dissolves rusted exterior components. Speaking of exterior components, if anyone can correctly identify this one, and state its purpose, we will gladly send you 10 free AsiaWheeling stickers.
We agreed and mounted the cycles. At this point, we had not eaten in quite some time and the effects of nutritional deprivation were beginning to induce a Malerone-esque crazy hour. So we hustled towards a restaurant district. As we rode, it became clear that one of the bikes was doing much better than the other. Thankfully, both were devoid of the Agra problem. But the pink one was pedaling a little funny, and its chain grated sickeningly against the chain guard.
We locked the beasts outside a mall which proudly proclaimed the genuineness of it’s materials and began to look for a place to eat. This was our first encounter with the actual people of Tianjin. I think I can safely say that they are (on average) the least friendly, most unwilling to communicate, and most quick to judge peoples that we have yet had the pleasure of dealing with. In general, if we stop to ask directions of, or investigate performing a transaction with someone, we were scowled at and treated in much the same way one might treat a fellow walking with muddy boots on his brand new carpet. In many cases when we asked a question, regardless of the question itself, we were simply given the price of the most nearby item.
After almost eating in a number of places, then bailing at the last moment, frustrated by our treatment or by the filth, we retired to a reasonably clean and somewhat crowded noodle joint. Scott was at this point quite deteriorated from fielding Chinese abuse on running on essentially no blood sugar. It was only after about a liter and a half of Coca-Cola, and a savage bowl of noodles that either of us were ready to re-enter the fray.
But re-enter we did, and proceeded to wheel the heck out of Tianjin. It is, most certainly, a wheeling city. In fact, we were told that Tianjin is the number one producer of bicycles in all of China. Certainly there were tons on the road. Strangely, though, the more motorized traffic was much less accommodating to the cyclist than that of Beijing. Also Tianjin is, like all of china, building tons of buildings, but it still lacks that feeling of progress and wealth that we had found even in Kashgar. The city of rust was filled with Scowling people, dying bicycles and crooked cops hanging on every street corner. The pure density of police in the city suggested that they were dealing with a substantial crime problem as well. Please, dear reader, don’t get me wrong, we had a great time in Tainjin. And we met some people who were very friendly. I try merely to convey the atmosphere of the place.
It began to get dark and, with the loss of light, the smog closed in. We started our way back to the hostel, which was by this point no short ride away. It was then that the pink bike bit the dust. The entire innards of the central part of the pedals became eviscerated and black oily pieces of rust dangled and crunched. It was unridable, and bled a foul smelling rusty goo. I sat on the (now quite thankfully) very low seat and scooted the bike along with my feet. I did this for about 400 meters before we found a bicycle repair guy, siting on the corner, with his wife, amidst his tools and a number of old coke bottles full of lubricants and greases.
I pulled up and the wife began to investigate my bike. She muttered disapprovingly, in much the way a headmaster might address a naughty child, and began to go to town. Soon both of them were working on the ancient beast. The entire drive train of the bicycle was disassembled and a new components installed.
The wife pulled a chopstick from a nearby pile, dipped in in the coke bottle full of axel grease and used the gooey tool to replace all the ball bearings, throwing the old ones down onto the pavement, and letting them roll into the sewer.
The husband hammered relentlessly on the frame and the pedals, sending chips of rust flying. In no more than 35 minutes, they had repaired the bike, and were washing their oil covered hands in borax.
It was time to settle up, and despite much protest from us, the two insisted on charging only one US dollar for the entire frantic overhaul. Astounding. We asked the wife to write a letter/receipt to the owners of the hostel, scolding them for their poor bicycles. She was all to happy to do this. And back at the hostel, we were, of course, reimbursed for the repair.
On recommendation from the fellow at the front desk, we went to a Tianjin cultural experience restaurant for dinner. There was a poorly amplified woman singing quite gratingly, and we ordered a feast. It was our last dinner in china, and we decided to try the booze that all the old Chinese men drink, called Bijou. It’s made from sorghum and tasted like… boozy sorghum goo. It was a fine meal, and we reminisced about China, toasted those many fine souls who helped us across that great country, and swore we would come back soon. We strolled for some time through the muggy smog of the Tianjin night and then took a cab back to the hostel, already beginning to get excited about the overnight ferry, and our days in Korea.