A Brief Guide to Living in Tianjin as a Foreign Exchange Student

In the document below you’ll find a simple guide to liv...
 The alternative is to walk a few blocks away from the main stretch of Machang Rd., such as to Youyi
  Rd. or Hebei Rd., ...
 Best Dongbei food: a nice chain for Dongbei food in Tianjin is Dongbei Yi Jia Ren (东北一家人), the
  closest of which is als...
home, without the wacky Sinicized flavors. Another option is Pizza Hill, located near the back gate of
      TFSU. Not qui...
 Liberation Rd. (解放北路) is sometimes called “Bank Street,” and is home to dozens of banks located in
  old European and Ja...
Emperor Qianlong and boasts one of the biggest Buddhas in all of China. If the trip to and from Ji’Xian
        seems burd...
 Scarlet (乱世佳人) on Weijin Rd. (卫津路) is both good and bad. Some nights are very foreigner-
  friendly, other nights it’s r...
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A Brief Guide To Living In Tianjin As A Foreign Exchange Student


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The title is pretty descriptive. A quick and dirty 4,000-word guide to what a study abroad student might need to know and see when coming to study in Tianjin.

The main focus here is Tianjin Foreign Studies University but what I've written holds true for other foreign universities as well. This document is up to date as of writing time -- late May 2009.

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A Brief Guide To Living In Tianjin As A Foreign Exchange Student

  1. 1. A Brief Guide to Living in Tianjin as a Foreign Exchange Student In the document below you’ll find a simple guide to living in Tianjin. This is not intended as a replacement for comprehensive guides such as Lonely Planet or even the materials given to you as a student studying abroad at Tianjin Foreign Studies University (TFSU) but rather as a collection of advice from a long-term expat in Tianjin. Though I’m trying to be comprehensive, I won’t discuss legal aspects of student residency or police matters as these are best handled through the university rather than on an individual basis. Matthew J. Stinson May 22, 2009 Overview of Districts and Counties  Hexi District: home to TFSU, European historical areas, dining, and some shopping. About half of the city’s bars are here.  Heping District: political and commercial center of Tianjin, with plenty of shopping and some theaters but not so many of the city’s good restaurants. Also, some historical areas.  Nankai District: home to the city’s universities; has a large foreign student population; good restaurants; the rest of the city’s bars are here.  Hebei District: has several historic areas, including churches and temples and the Italian concession; Beining Park is here, but has lost land to development.  Hedong and Dongli Districts: nothing of real interest, but the main train station is at the Hedong-Hebei- Heping border and the light rail station which takes you to Tanggu is here, while the airport is in Dongli.  Hongqiao: very undeveloped, but has a few interesting areas. See below.  Xiqing District: one of the development areas is here, but mostly interesting for the Shi Family Mansion.  Tanggu District: home to Tianjin’s port, great seafood, and some shopping. The real draw here is TEDA, the Tianjin Economic Development Area, which has some of the nicest factories and heaviest investment of all found in Tianjin.  Hanggu and Dagang Districts: more coastal areas, they resemble small towns, and don’t offer a lot of interesting sights, but they do have pretty cheap seafood, plus Dagang has an oil field and Hanggu has vineyards.  Ji’Xian: the most important county area in Tianjin. The area is older than Tianjin city itself and has many historical locations.  The rest of Tianjin: not very interesting, especially not for a student who will only stay here a short time. Use your time in Beijing or other places. Transportation  Foreign Studies University has a taxi team located in front of the university. Unfortunately, driver quality is a mixed bag, and they will often refuse to work when you ask them to take you anywhere. Moreover, be aware that even in the case of a taxi driver who will take you somewhere, Machang Rd., where the university’s main gate is located, has notoriously bad traffic during early mornings and late afternoons.
  2. 2.  The alternative is to walk a few blocks away from the main stretch of Machang Rd., such as to Youyi Rd. or Hebei Rd., and hail a taxi. Once you get your bearings, getting a taxi at these locations is better than relying on the taxi team.  Watch out for taxis that loiter around in public areas. The drivers will try to cheat you by demanding flat fees or claiming to not know the road; it’s better to catch a taxi driver driving by. This is true outside of Tianjin too.  Bus routes are numerous in the area, though several of them are down the street rather than directly in front of the university. Google Maps has been updated recently with most of the current bus routes in Tianjin and will help you more than relying on the streetside bus route map, which is (a) all in Chinese and (b) confusing.  Tianjin has one subway line which you can take to go through the CBD; the nearest station is in Xiaobailou (小白楼), which is a 20-25 minute walk down Machang Rd.  Tianjin’s main train station is a reasonable taxi ride distance from your university (13-15 RMB, about 20 minutes) and offers fast trains to Beijing for 58 RMB one-way and a 30 minute ride to the capitol.  The Binhai Light Rail train to Tanggu and TEDA is a little far away from TJFSU; it’ll cost about 20 RMB to get to the nearest station, Zhongshanmen (中山门轻轨站), by taxi.  Tianjin’s airport, should you choose to go there, is not very close to the university. You should negotiate a fee with a taxi driver or private taxi (a so-called 黑车) and pay 40-50 RMB for a ride there. If you go early morning or late evening, it takes only 25 minutes. WiFi connectivity  If you want to use your laptop, there are two Starbucks close to you plus four more in the immediate downtown area. The closer ones are in Tianjin International Building (国际大厦) and in Xiaobailou (小 白楼). Another option is The Spot Coffee, which is located about 4km away from TFSU next to the TV Station. The Spot’s website is here: http://visitthespotcafe.blogbus.com/ Food (English menu available unless noted)  Best homestyle Chinese food near to TFSU: Sha Guo Li (砂锅李), located on Jiu Jiang Rd. (九江路), about 25 minutes away from the university on foot. Offers common Chinese dishes, but the big draw is sweet pork (李家大排), which will satisfy any meat eater among you.  Best dumplings: Tianjin Hundred Dumpling Garden (天津百饺园) has several locations in the city, but the closest to you is probably on Ping Shan Rd. (平山道). It offers simply the best dumplings to be found in Tianjin or Beijing.  Best baozi: baozi, or steamed stuffed buns, are a Tianjin specialty, and everywhere you will hear about Goubuli brand (狗不理). It’s worth trying Goubuli at least once, but avoid the fast food and head to the large restaurants (大酒店). The best locations near to TFSU are at Heping Rd. and behind the Water Park (水上公园). Stay away from the Nanshi Snack St. branch.  Best Sichuan food: Fei Teng Yu Xiang (沸腾鱼乡) offers consistently good Sichuan food, and the most convenient location for you will be at Ping Shan Rd. (平山道). Another good choice is Ba Yu Ren Jia (巴渝人家), located on Yichang Rd. (宜昌路) close to the Medical University. The bottom floor of this restaurant is traditional hot pot (火锅) while the top is a large Sichuan restaurant.
  3. 3.  Best Dongbei food: a nice chain for Dongbei food in Tianjin is Dongbei Yi Jia Ren (东北一家人), the closest of which is also on Ping Shan Rd. (平山道). Don’t expect great service, but the food is pretty great, especially the leaf-seasoned chicken wings. Another choice might be the Qing Royal Restaurant on the 7th floor of Robbinz Department Store (乐宾百货) in downtown, but that restaurant offers more novelty than good food.  Best Cantonese food: the South Dagu Rd. (大沽南路) area offers a lot of great Hong Kong restaurants, but an interesting choice might be the Cantonese restaurant on top of Centre Plaza (信达大厦), the tower connected to Hisense Plaza (海信广场). It’s quiet, the food is good, and you can enjoy a nice view of the city after eating.  Best Chinese barbecue: traditional Chinese barbecue is the kebab or chuanr (串), and many street vendors sell it at all hours of the day. However, the best sit-down barbecue restaurant is probably Jin Men Yi Chuanr (津门一串) on Qixiangtai Rd. (气象台路). You pick the kinds of kebabs you want and they will grill them for you then bring them to your table. Note: an English menu isn’t always available here.  Best Korean barbecue: Korean barbecue is extremely popular in Tianjin, and you can find restaurants everywhere. The best of them is probably Han Na Shan (汉拿山) at Shanggu Business St. (上谷商业街) near the TV tower. The reasoning? It gives you the most free stuff and has consistently high quality. Another option is the Korean barbecues in the Hong Kan area (红勘), and if you meet any Korean exchange students, they’ll usually take you there.  Best Japanese barbecue: Tianjin has a lot of Benihana-style steakhouses without the silly chef tricks. The best of them is Tairyo (大鱼), which has two locations: Shanggu Business St. (上谷商业街) and Youyi Rd. (友谊路). The latter is closer to you. No matter which you choose, they all offer about the same deal: 150RMB for all you can eat and drink. It’s worth it for a special occasion.  Best Japanese ramen: several places in town offer Japanese noodles and fried dishes but the best is arguably the Ajisen chain. There are two locations: in downtown in the How Why Shopping Mall (号外) and in Xiaobailou (小白楼) in the Land Share underground mall.  Best Thai restaurant: Tianjin’s Thai restaurant offerings are pretty slim, but one standout is YYs, which is located behind Tianjin International Building (国际大厦) on Aomen Rd. (澳门道). It’s a little hard to find, since it’s tucked into a corner, but you can immediately recognize the restaurant because of the piles of beer bottles left outside. The wait staff is very foreigner-friendly and prices run about 80 RMB per person for a couple drinks and good food.  Best Western food: if you decide to break down and have Western food, there’s a few options. There’s a TGIFriday’s in TEDA Club Hotel(泰达会馆)on Fukang Rd. (复康路) across from Nankai University. In Shanggu (上谷商业街) you can find a French restaurant, C’est La Vie, and a sports bar, Hank’s. There are way too many KFCs and McDonald’s to count in the city, and a new Subway restaurant is opening in Xiaobailou (小白楼). You might be recommended to try Kiessling’s in Xiaobailou, but except for history, the place has little to offer. Tanggu has a few Irish pubs but they’re not really worth the trip out to the coast.  Best seafood: instead of offering specific recommendations I will say the best bets for seafood are in the Binhai New Area. Tanggu is easiest to get to, but Hanggu and Dagang are cheaper. All of them are pretty similar in quality, which is to say not bad.  Best pizza: Pizza Hut is very common in China, but a better choice is Papa John’s, which is located in the food court basement of La Vita (津汇广场). The pizzas taste exactly the same as they do back
  4. 4. home, without the wacky Sinicized flavors. Another option is Pizza Hill, located near the back gate of TFSU. Not quite as good as Papa John’s, but my Italian friends could tolerate it, which is saying something.  Best bakery: you have a couple choices here, but the most convenient will probably be Paris Baguette (巴黎贝甜). There are two locations near you: in the basement of Hisense Plaza (海信广场) and the basement of Robbinz Department Store (乐宾百货). Another option is Mighty Deli on Huan Hu Zhong Dao (环湖中道) – not to be confused with 环湖中路 – in Heping District, which is about a 15 minute ride from your school and offers baked products plus an international supermarket. You may also try Holiland bakeries or Maky bakery but these places are only good for cake. If you want good bread there you’re out of luck. Shopping  For general clothes and shoes shopping, the best bet is Binjiang Rd. (滨江道). Prices are generally lower than in the States with the exception of shoes which are more expensive thanks to a hefty Chinese VAT tax.  In addition to brand labels, Tianjin offers a great chance to get some clothing tailored. This is true of any Chinese city in fact. You can get a great suit for around $120, some nice trousers for $7, and traditional Chinese dresses (旗袍) for around $100.  If you want to buy designer fakes, Tianjin is not a good city for it. Go to Beijing’s Silk Market (秀水) or Pearl Market (红桥市场) instead.  For electronics or electronics components shopping, a good choice might be the Anshanxi Rd. (鞍山西 道) area near Tianjin University. However, don’t expect to find any big name brands for cheaper than what you could find in the States. Some people have the misconception that they can come here and buy Sony or Panasonic cheap because it’s made in China. Nope nope nope. However, some Chinese brands are reasonably priced, especially in terms of USB memory sticks and the like.  If you want to buy Chinese souvenirs like art, toys, kites, and so on, the place to go is Ancient Culture St. (古文化街) or the nearby Drum Tower (鼓楼). For Chinese books, go to Tianjin Bookstore (图书大 厦), which is very close to the university.  For daily goods, you’ll find the Century Mart supermarket at the back gate of your campus. There are other supermarkets such as Vanguard and Carrefour on the subway route plus a couple Wal-Marts in the city in case you want to buy American. You will notice that all of these places are sorely lacking in foreign goods so you might want to check out the aforementioned Mighty Deli or go to the international supermarkets in the basement of ISETAN (伊势丹) on Nanjing Rd. (南京路) or Hisense Plaza (海信广 场). If you want to buy something like deodorant, vitamins, or beauty supplies, then Watson’s Drugstore, located all over the city, is the best bet. Sightseeing  The Five Big Streets (五大道) area might be your first stop, since your campus is located in the middle of it. It’s an interesting area dominated by British, French, and German architecture.  The Italian Culture Street (意式风情街) is located next to Tianjin Station and offers a similar feel to the Five Big Streets, albeit with an Italian flavor. As far as I know, there are no good Italian restaurants here!
  5. 5.  Liberation Rd. (解放北路) is sometimes called “Bank Street,” and is home to dozens of banks located in old European and Japanese-built buildings. If you’re into architecture you can find a lot of nice scenery here, and the whole area was recently renovated into a low-traffic street. At the end of the street it connects to the Tianjin Station area via Liberation Bridge (解放桥), which was built by the company that made the Eiffel Tower.  The Astor Hotel is located next to the city government zone in Heping District and is a historic site – a late 19th-century Western hotel. It’s been pretty well-preserved inside and out and is worth a visit. Both Sun Yat-sen and President Herbert Hoover stayed there.  Tianjin TV and Radio Tower (天塔) is located at the border of Nankai and Heping Districts and is the tallest building in Tianjin. A rotating observation deck gives you a good view of the city but you have to pay about 50 RMB to go up top.  The Tianjin Eye is a giant ferris wheel located in Hebei District along the Hai River. It’s supposedly operating now, though I’m not sure of the cost. It’s more interesting to see at night.  Tianjin and Nankai Universities are located next to each other in Nankai District. They’re the most important universities in Tianjin, and Nankai University is politically important also, since Zhou Enlai went to the high school located inside the university campus.  Tianjin Museum is located at the junction of Youyi Rd. (友谊路) and Le Yuan Rd. (乐园路) in Hexi District. It’s free to enter and has pretty nice exhibits about Tianjin history. The other museums in Tianjin are not so good, however.  Xikai Church is located right at Bijiang Dao and is a gothic-style French Catholic cathedral which is open for services regularly. It’s very interesting to photograph and seems quite incongruous compared to the Chinese neighborhood behind it and the modern shopping malls in front of it.  The Notre Dame des Victoires (望海楼) is a church with a long and bloody history. Site of the Tianjin massacres in the 19th century, and an imposing presence across from Ancient Culture Street in Hebei District. Another site of interest near to this church is the Lion Bridge (狮子林桥), which is decorated by stone and metal Chinese lions of various sizes and characters.  Gu Lou (鼓楼), Tianjin’s Drum Tower, is home to a few museums, churches, and temple areas in addition to the tourist trap shopping mentioned above.  Dabeiyuan (大悲院) is a small temple complex in Hebei District. It might be worth a visit if you can’t get out to the Tianjin countryside or Beijing.  Tianhou Temple is a temple complex located in Ancient Culture Street. It’s not too big but might be worth checking out if you want to see the whole area.  The Great Mosque (清真大寺) is about the only reason you’ll find to visit Hongqiao District. It’s an interesting example of Chinese Muslim architecture, blending together both traditional Chinese and Arab styles. However, it’s sort of hidden so you’ll need to ask around once you get to the general area.  The Shi Family Mansion (石家大院) will probably be on your school’s itinerary. If not, you should find a way to go. It’s a classical 19th century Chinese mansion that was once home to one of China’s biggest families and has been used as a set in several movies. It’s a bit far from TFSU so the best way to get there might be to take the subway to the West Train Station then get a taxi from there to the mansion.  The Liao Dynasty-era Temple of Solitary Joy (独乐寺) in Ji’Xian is the best temple in all of Tianjin, but getting there is a pain. You’ll need to take a bus for about 3 hours to the countryside and you’ll need to do the same to come back. But really it’s worth it – the temple has a strong historical connection to
  6. 6. Emperor Qianlong and boasts one of the biggest Buddhas in all of China. If the trip to and from Ji’Xian seems burdensome, you might want to consider a Ji’Xian weekend to see the other sights there.  The White Pagoda (白塔) is another Liao-era historical site located a kilometer or two away from the Temple of Solitary Joy. It’s not nearly as impressive, but worth a quick visit.  Panshan (盘山) is a mountain and temple area in Ji’Xian that many people enjoy visiting, though it doesn’t compare well with mountains in the south of China if you can go there instead.  The Huangyaguan Great Wall (黄崖关) is Tianjin’s stretch of the Great Wall. Getting there involves a lot of travel, since you’re basically going to the edge of Beijing – and without a 30-minute fast train! Still, it’s a nice place to visit because it isn’t nearly as crowded as the Great Wall in Beijing, which you will probably go to anyway since all schools do. Parks and Recreation  The Water Park (水上公园) is a big beautiful park in Nankai but unfortunately it’s closed for remodeling until October.  The Hai River riverside can be thought of as one giant park. Remodeled with aesthetic queues from the Shanghai Bund, it offers interesting views at sunrise and sunset and a casual walking experience. It stretches on for miles, so you could really spend most of a day there.  Galaxy Square (银河广场) is located in front of Tianjin Museum and offers nice rollerblading facilities plus nighttime light shows. It’s pretty close to your university in case you’d like to go someplace to chill out or rollerblade.  Taifeng Park (泰丰公园) is the nicest park in all of Tianjin. The problem is, it’s in Tanggu/TEDA. It’s big enough to play sports, have a nice barbecue, and do just about anything you want. It’s also located near to the Tianjin Tropical Garden (热带植物园), which is small but a change of pace from the rest of the city, which suffers from a lack of green.  Waitan Park (外滩公园), also in Tanggu, is an interesting riverside park to photograph and visit, though it’s arguably better-looking at night. If you choose to visit Tanggu for a day or two, a good plan is to go to Taifeng in the daytime and Waitan at night. Nightlife  Alibaba’s Pub (阿里巴巴) in Nankai District, located on a side street connecting to Tong’An Rd. (同安道), is hard to find but it’s the most important spot for new foreigners in the city. It’s the place where many people begin their evenings out and is a very different atmosphere from what you’ll see in most Chinese clubs in the city. Beer is cheap there, the food is okay, but the bathrooms are … regrettable.  Jim’s Café in Heping District behind the Heping Courthouse (和平法院) is similar to Alibaba’s but more quiet. It’s another good start-the-evening chillout spot.  KTV’s, or Chinese karaoke bars, are numerous in the city, but the best are Pearl of the Orient (东方之 珠) on Guizhou Rd. (贵州路) and Haoledi (好乐迪) on Ping Shan Rd. (平山道). If you actually want to go or are forced to go to KTV, these two places have at least a few English songs you should know.  The Chinese bars in the South Dagu Road (大沽南路) area are all pretty cookie-cutter: crowded noisy electronic overkill and not very foreigner-friendly. They include Sugar, Babi, and Le Nest. Make sure you go in a group both for safety and to avoid being really bored.
  7. 7.  Scarlet (乱世佳人) on Weijin Rd. (卫津路) is both good and bad. Some nights are very foreigner- friendly, other nights it’s really bad to be a foreigner there. You’ll find that the music is about 3-5 years out of date depending on when you go.  Nic Club (泥 Club) on Munan Rd. (慕南道) is a very popular club which features guest DJs and band performances throughout the year. Even better – it’s walkable from TJFSU.  Sitong Bar (昔唐音乐酒吧) in the basement of Somerset Olympic Plaza (奥林匹克大厦) is the most foreigner-friendly club in all of Tianjin and is also very close to TJFSU. It features a live Filipino band and foreigner drink specials and is generally regarded as safe – unlike Scarlet, the only fights you’ll see are usually between foreigners.