Today we learned why we never, ever take cruise line excursions. Or at least, reinforced that opinion.
Originally our cruise itinerary included two days in Tianjin which is the closest port city to Beijing. We had a lovely independent tour booked that would take us around to see the highlights of Beijing and since we would be docked overnight, had plenty of time to see them. We received a notification from NCL that our itinerary was being changed because we were scheduled to go to South Korea; apparently it is against their regulations for a ship to visit that country after visiting China. So, Seoul was out but Beijing was still in. Next, we heard that our time in Beijing was being shortened to just one day, and a relatively short day at that. Our tour company informed us that there was no way that a tour of Beijing could be fit into the new time frame. So, what to do? It seemed a waste to go to China and not set foot on land. Given that there were no private tours available for the port of Tianjin, we opted to take an NCL tour. There is literally nothing near the port itself so doing it on our own didn’t seem possible, either. And, we learned from our first two ports of call that there is very little English spoken or written so getting around on your own would be difficult as well.
An announcement had been made that our port clearance could take up to two hours so the short time in port would be even shorter. The tour we selected was advertised as being about a 30-40 minute drive from the port, which didn’t seem too bad; it would leave the port at 1 pm and we would be returned at 6 pm. As is usual for a cruise-line tour, we were directed to meet a half-hour ahead of time in the theater. We were given a sticker which would be our bus number. There were 8 buses for this excursion! We had to wait beyond our half-hour because there were some late comers. IMHO, they should be left behind if they can’t show up on time. Or, at least load the buses with those that did show up when they were supposed to since the buses were assigned sequentially.
It was a really long walk through the port building to clear immigration and find the bus. I felt really bad for the many mobility-challenged people that had signed up for the tour. Also, there was only one immigration person scanning our passport copies so if there was an issue, the entire line got held up until it was resolved. We finally got to the bus, only to have to wait until everyone made their way through the long immigration line.
Our tour guide was named Jack. On the positive side, he had a microphone and his English was understandable. On the negative? He had a monotonous voice and repeated himself. It was like there was an echo! I don’t know if this company trains the guides to do this in case someone missed what he said the first time but it was really annoying. The first bit of bad news he had to impart? It would be an hour and a half bus ride in to Tianjin! Even worse? It actually took two hours each way, so of our 5 hour tour, 4 hours was spent on the bus. And, we would only be taken to two sites: Confucius Temple and Ancient Culture Street. The tour was titled, “Highlights of Tianjin”; I guess these are the only two!
One thing you should know about visiting China is that it is incredibly smoggy here. If you have any breathing difficulties at all you should not go. Tianjin was much worse than the other two ports, most likely because it is closest to Beijing which is known for its horrible pollution. By the end of the day my eyes were burning. I have noticed that at all of the Chinese ports that I get fatigued extremely easily; I attribute that to the poor air quality. I am hoping to get my energy back when we get to Japan.
Another thing about China is that the cities are enormous and completely lack charm. Many of the interesting buildings were “liberated” during the people’s revolution; what is left are many tall buildings. The ones in Tianjin were not at all interesting architecturally so the long drive each way felt even longer because it was really dull. We drove through the port area for a good half-hour; it is all on reclaimed land.
Jack fed us facts about China all the way in. In order to reduce the number of cars on the road, you are not allowed to drive one day per week (based on the last digit of your license plate). If your plate ends in 0 or 5, you can’t drive on a Monday, 1 or 6, Tuesday, and so on. License plates are given out by a lottery system. If you want to buy a car, you sign up on-line. Once a month, a lottery is held. Chances of winning are less than 1%. Jack said that he tried for 2 years but never won. Your license plate stays with you for life and cannot be given to anyone else. You get to choose the last digit of your license plate. Those that end in 8 are the most popular because it is a lucky number. So, less traffic on Thursdays because no one can drive that has a plate ending in 3 or 8 on that day of the week.
He talked about how Chinese people greet each other. Rather than, “How are you?”, the Chinese ask, “Have you eaten?”. I guess food is pretty important here! He also mentioned that you never ask a Chinese person their age; instead, you ask them their zodiac sign. From that you can deduce their age because the zodiac signs repeat every 12 years. The current year is the year of the dog, so a person would be 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, or some other multiple of 12. People choose to have their children in what are perceived to be “good” zodiac years: dragon, tiger and horse. Not so good are snake, rat and pig.
Women in China can retire at age 55; men at 60. You have to work a minimum of 15 years in order to qualify for the old age pension. You contribute 5% of your salary and your company matches that. If you don’t work enough years, you only get back what you put into the system.
Most Chinese travel in their 30’s and 40’s. Retired people stay home and play Mahjongg! And of course, care for their grandchildren. Jack reiterated what other tour guides told us – most city people either choose to have no children or one child. Grandchildren are treasured because there are so few of them.
There is a progressive tax system in China. If you earn below 1000 Yuan/month, you are not taxed. Tax brackets run from 10% to 40% based on income and are a flat tax. You don’t ever have to file taxes; they are withheld at the correct amount from your pay.
At a certain point I dozed off. . .when I woke we had reached the city. It was an ugly city. Cars were parked on the sidewalk. There is a ferris wheel along the river called the Eye of Tianjin (very original name, right?). The driver parked the bus and we were herded around the corner to Confucius Temple. We were the only people there because it is closed Mondays; they only opened it for the NCL tours.
The temple is not vey well kept; lots of peeling paint. There are tall thresholds at each doorway. The purpose of these is to keep out evil spirits. They also did a pretty good job of keeping out the mobility-impaired. I guess the evil spirits are unable to bend their knees to cross the thresholds so are quite effective. The high-rise apartments behind the temple are the most sought-after in Tianjin because they have the best feng shui. Parents come to this temple to pray for good scores for their kids rather than to worship Confucius. If you live with a view of the temple, it is thought that your kids will be extra-smart, I guess.
We spent about a half-hour at the temple, which was plenty. The second and final stop was only about 5 minutes away by bus. We were let out at the end of Ancient Culture Street and were given an hour to wander. It seemed very touristy although Jack tried to convince us that locals shop there. I very much doubt it; the goods sold there were obviously skewed to the touristy side. We managed to tour without parting with any of our hard-earned cash.
If you’ve done the math, we were a half an hour behind schedule. We boarded the bus at 4:30 and Jack told us it would be 1.5 hours back to port. Of course, it took 2 hours to get from the port to Tianjin so it took 2 hours to get from Tianjin back to the port. We made it back at 6:30 which was all-aboard time. Other tours must have made it back even later because the ship didn’t leave until 2 hours later than scheduled.
My advice to anyone planning a trip here? Skip this port! If you can’t skip the port, skip the tour. It would’ve been better just to stay on the ship. FYI, there was a shuttle offered for $15 that would drive you to a shopping mall and drop you off. Unless you have a strong urge to shop at a Chinese mall, I would probably skip that option as well. I am really happy to be moving on to Japan tomorrow!