Tips for backpackers: getting around in Tianjin

Updated: 16 Jul 2012
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As soon as you arrive at Binhai Airport, it is readily apparent that taxis are abundant and cheap in Tianjin. Whilst you promise yourself that you will buy a bicycle and join in with the locals at rush hour, and hop on the occasional bus, the taxi very much becomes the mainstay of transport for most expats. Taxis are generally very easy to use (as long as you have the address on hand) and convenient (the sea of taxis only seems to be at a low tide in the peak of rush hour). Moreover, at only 8 RMB for the first three kilometres, a mere 1.7RMB for each additional kilometre or five minutes in traffic, and a miniscule 1 RMB fuel surcharge, why bother with other forms of transport?
 
Why choose public transport?
 
I quickly fell into this trap when I first came to Tianjin, especially as it was not a luxury I had been able to afford back in England. For most short distance journeys within the city centre, the fare rarely even reached 15RMB, so was more than affordable. However looking back on that time, I wish that I had taken the trouble to familiarise myself with proper public transport for a huge amount of reasons. For one thing, I would have saved a huge amount of money; buses especially are very cheap, most lines costing only 2 RMB! I would have had much more of a 'local' experience, after all I came to China to be, well, in China!

Public transport also forces you to pay more attention to your surroundings as you need to know where to disembark, thereby enabling you to get to know the city better; in a taxi, you tend to just switch off until the driver tells you 到了(dào le), "we've arrived". Public transport is not nearly as much hassle as many expats may think it to be. Lastly, public transport in China, as a socialist country, is a well-oiled, slick machine. There are buses and trains at multiple times during an hour, taking you to a vast range of places and they rarely arrive later than usual.

With so many options to choose from, to get you to a variety of places, here are the best forms of public transport in Tianjin, with a few need-to-know essentials.

1) Buses
For now, still the most important form of public transport in Tianjin, with hundreds of buses going to thousands of locations every day. In my experience, it is rare to need to change buses, as lines seem to go in every direction from where you are. Moreover prices are cheap, varying from 2 RMB to 4 RMB for most routes, with an added 1 RMB for special air-conditioned buses (essential in summer!), which are identifiable by a '空' symbol next to the bus number. However many expats put off using the bus as it tends to be not so foreigner-friendly; most bus stops only have information in Chinese.

The first method that many like to try is purely to hop on a local bus and see where it goes, great for new arrivals in Tianjin to see much of the city and highly recommended. However, for the more pressed for time, you can find out where your local bus routes go to on the internet, courtesy of tianjin.8684.cn. Whilst again this is in Chinese, Google Translate or a similar service seems to make it usable at least, or even if not, just click on the third tab of the search bar on the homepage (公交线路), then type in the bus number and hit enter. Towards the bottom of the resulting page there is a convenient map which plots all of the stops that bus makes.
 
2) Tianjin Metro
For venturing from the north-west to the south-east, the metro is by far the easiest method of public transport in Tianjin. Though at the moment there is only one line in service, two others are well under construction, and several more are planned. The current line does however link most of the major hotspots in Tianjin, such as 滨江道 (Bīnjiāng Dào), 小白楼 (Xiǎobái Lóu) and 海光寺 (Hǎiguāngsì). Just look for the metro symbol (a red circle with a sort of white 'T' in the middle), or ask for the nearest metro station (地铁站dìtiězhàn). You can easily buy a 'city card' (城市卡 chéngshìkǎ) from a ticket booth inside each station to enjoy a small discount for each journey, as well as the convenience of not having to buy a single each time. These also work on buses, and the light rail to areas outside of Tianjin's centre.
 
3) Over-ground Train
For further afield, the main railway is very easy to use, as long as it isn't one of China's public holidays. Tickets are easily bought at the main station, or from travel agents around the city (look out for signs that say 车票 (chēpiào), 'train tickets'. One of the most identifiable places to buy tickets is the chain of 津工超市 brand supermarkets; many branches have a small ticket office that will save you a trip to the station. Of course, it is by far the quickest method to get to Beijing, with the high speed train taking only half an hour. For a list of train times and destinations, click here.
 
4) Long-Distance Coaches
As an alternative to the train, and surprisingly quicker than the train to many cities, long-distance coaches are exceedingly underrated, and not just by the expat community. There are several long-distance coach stations in Tianjin, in many different districts, which can be located by searching for 天津客运站 in any search engine. The main one is 天环客运站 (Tiīnjīn Kèyùnzhàn), also referred to as the 长途汽车站 (Chángtú Qìchēzhàn), at the intersection of 鞍山西道 (ānshān Xīdào) and 红旗路 (Hóngqí Lù). The coaches that leave from there seem to go to more or less any large city in China, no matter how long the routes take. The point worth mentioning is that when arriving at coach stations in China, be sure not to get ripped off by the unscrupulous taxi drivers waiting to greet passengers.
 
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