Like Běijīng, Shànghǎi and Chóngqìng, Tiānjīn belongs to no province – it’s a special municipality, with considerable autonomy. Its history as a foreign concession, large port and European architecture suggest muted echoes of Shànghǎi, but Tiānjīn is often overlooked by travellers charging to Běijīng.
Tiānjīn is proud of its impressive concession-era architecture, which lends the city a kind of shabby nobility. In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, the city spruced itself up and many notable buildings have plaques detailing their histories.
Not to be upstaged by big brother Běijīng, Tiānjīn has joined in the frenzied sport of demolition and road-widening, levelling huge swathes of the city. Its modest subway system has been modernised and extended; dramatic new bridges span the Hai River; and modern architecture pokes into the stark skies. But the city still exemplifies the disparities of modern China, with smart office complexes overlooking dilapidated courtyards from which spill chickens and geese.
This coincides with a drought that surpasses even Běijīng’s famed thirst; Tiānjīn’s per capita water supplies are reportedly worse than Saudi Arabia’s. As a result, dust invades every nook and cranny and shiny new buildings are rapidly coated in a sprinkling of dirt.
Tiānjīn remains a long way from cosmopolitanism: clutching throngs of taxi drivers mill around the train station exit and locals sit around, waiting for something to happen. Accommodation tends to be expensive, but you can travel down from Běijīng in half an hour so a day-trip could suffice.