The Dog Wouldn't Eat Them

Written by Oct 12, 2006 06:10
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Tianjin by Night

Rita Li was about the loveliest traveler I'd ever met, and when I had the chance to spend the weekend with her on the road, I didn't hesitate for a moment. Her plan had been to travel from Dalian to Qingdao to climb Lao Shan, a famous mountain on Qingdao's coast – but we still had the job of returning to Dalian with the rest of the time remaining – not an easy thing to do. There is one very slow train that goes overnight from Qingdao all the way to Shenyang, and from there it's only a four hour bus ride to Dalian – but it was hardly a pleasant option. A far better way, I suggested, was to get off the train at Tianjin, about halfway along, and get tickets to Dalian from there. Rita had never been to Tianjin before and so was enthusiastic, although it was debatable as to whether we'd manage a good connection given our rush. We decided to push our luck and give it a try.

When we arrived at Tianjin sometime before dawn, however, it didn't seem like such a grand plan after all. It was relatively cold at the time, and we lay in our hard bunks half awake for the several minutes that the train stayed at the station, wondering whether just to hang on and stay asleep for as long as possible on the way to Shenyang. Suddenly, Rita leapt out of bed and gathered her bags – I jumped up too and we stepped off the train seconds before it pulled out. I asked Rita what had changed her mind as the train hurtled away from Tianjin station leaving us behind – she told me that she'd suddenly remembered that she's very much hoped to enjoy a special kind of dumpling that is only found in Tianjin – something she described as being so awful that dogs wouldn't eat them. I had no idea what she was talking about, but was starting to regret leaving my nice warm berth in the train for the sake of something a dog wouldn't eat.

It was still dark, and we plodded drowsily through the station hall to enquire about a convenient train to Dalian – only to find there were none available. It was suggested that we try a long distance bus connection, and so we walked out to the station courtyard to be told that the bus station servicing Dalian was quite a walk away – and so we set out from the station in the freezing night air, hoping to find our way.

It was half an hour before we'd found it, and we discovered to our annoyance that we'd wandered in a very long circle to a roundabout directly behind the train station – meaning we could have got there directly via the station's back door. There was a night service for Dalian departing that evening at seven o'clock – giving us the day in Tianjin and an arrival back in Dalian on Monday morning just before work started. It seemed ideal. Happy to have the travel problem sorted out, we set out to find Rita's odd dumplings.

The Wrong Dumplings

When Rita asked me where we might find the dumplings, I had to think very carefully back to the short time I'd lived in Tianjin a couple of years before. I hadn't heard of the dumplings she mentioned, but I did remember being invited out to a superb dumpling restaurant on Nanjing Road, not far from Tianjin's earthquake memorial, and so suggested that we might try to find them there. We hailed a taxi cab and asked the driver to drop us at the memorial from where I hoped to be able to find my way.

Tianjin was hit hard by the earthquake of 1976 that was centered on nearby Tangshan, which was utterly devastated by the catastrophe. Loss of life in Tianjin was also severe, and the fact is commemorated in Tianjin by a tall pyramid on its main thoroughfare which frames the statues of heroic soldiers and women and children who represent those who showed bravery or lost their lives in the disaster. Friends of mine had survived the earthquake as children – they told of their roofs falling on their heads, and of being floated in floodwaters by their parents in a wooden bath.

The dumpling restaurant I'd visited once before was farther than I remembered from the memorial, however, and I was embarrassed to be leading a very hungry Rita a long way with no result in sight. I was a mess after two days on the road, my hair a disobedient tangle: she looked magnificent, long, straight hair cascading down her back like lines of poetry. A fifteen minute walk later in the morning cold, I finally recognized the door, messy ribbons of transparent plastic hanging limply from the door frame. We entered, and after a moment's word with the waitress I had to shamefacedly admit to Rita that they didn't have the dumplings she was expected. She giggled wryly and we ordered a breakfast of very ordinary dumplings as she tried again to describe to me what she was looking for.

It turned out the the 'Dog Wouldn't Touch Them' dumplings were not actually dumplings at all but a particularly delicious and moist kind of steamed bun that is generally only found in Tianjin. We resolved to try again at lunchtime, and decided in the meantime to check out some other of Tianjin's attractions.

Tianjin On the Water

‘On the Water' (Shui Shang) park is a nice refuge from municipal Tianjin, which is a large enough city to seem busy and industrious even for casual visitors. It's made noteworthy by the appearance of Tianjin's landmark TV Tower right on its edge which presides over the green patches af parkland like a giant chesspiece. We'd anticipated a quiet (and, I'd hoped, romantic) stroll around the lakewaters, which pool charmingly throughout the park, but the day had heated up quickly and we found the temperature suddenly uncomfortably warm – merchants taking advantage of this had set up coke stalls at thirty metre intervals and plagued us to purchase a drink – we ducked into the park's dismal zoo and peered at sad looking animals before heading for a small fairground. It featured a tame looking log flume ride that soaked us as it crashed about the water, but did little else.

Once dried, we walked over to the TV Tower for an obligatory aerial view of the city, which cost a shameful RMB50 each. It's always worth the trip to the top, however – the view from the sky is always spectacular in any city, and Tianjin seemed to reveal itself somewhat immodestly as a sprawling imitation of nearby Beijing; though being smaller scale, it was something a little closer to what Beijing can no longer claim to be.

Ignored by the Dog

I swallowed my pride as Rita's guide and we got into a taxi and asked for directions to the steamed bun restaurant we were looking for, and before too long – much less time than my erroneous walk had taken – we were outside the Gou Bu Li Restauant in Tianjin's characteristic Zhonghua Road. Designed to resemble period Qing architecture, the storefront gate opened into a simple looking restaurant where we sat and ordered our meal.

The waitress calmed my fears about the taste of the steamed buns – the name doesn't mean that the buns smell bad enough to repel hungry canines, but hearken to the cuisine's creator, who was nicknamed 'little dog' in his youth. Generally a lively, talkative fellow, his recipe for steamed buns proved so popular that his shop, opened in 1858, was extremely successful. He was so devoted to his busy cooking schedule that he would no longer answer when spoken to, and so he was re-nicknamed 'inattentive dog'. His steamed buns thereafter came to be known as the 'dog ignores buns' – and are now a world-famous delicacy of Tianjin city.

Their popularity was sealed when the Empress Dowager Cixi proclaimed them more delicious than anything under the sky and that they would ensure her long life. I was looking forward to trying them, and when they did arrive, they certainly looked a little different from regular steamed buns, each one having 18 symmetrical folds at the top to resemble a chrysanthemum flower for good luck. The filling is seasoned with a superb concoction of flavours including garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, and a Chinese liquor not unlike sherry. Rita and I sat happily scoffing the buns and chatting for over an hour.

We spent the afternoon strolling Tianjin's old streets and pedestrian mall markets – but as the sun started to go down, we slowly and reluctantly made our way back to the rear of the train station where our sleeper bus would take us back to Dalian. I was rather stunned, when we got on board, to find that the bus was unusual in that every bunk slept two passengers – most of the people traveling with us were in same-sex pairs, saving husbands and wives – and I prepared myself for the eventuality that Rita might ask if we sleep in separate compartments with same-sex strangers. Contrary to my expectations, the gorgeous Rita removed her shoes, slipped under the blanket and pulled it aside for me to join her.

The bus set off for the Liaoning night: I lay awake, warm and cosy, Rita sleeping angelically at my side. I was free, hurtling along China's great highways, and in bed with Rita Li, for the last time.

 More Tianjin Travel Reviews
1. Three Streets MISHEN from NZ Mar 17, 2006 01:03
2. China's 3rd largest city - Tianjin INTIANJIN from CA Jun 30, 2004 10:06
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