Rivertown: The Bridges of Tianjin

Rivertown: The Bridges of Tianjin
By Paul Bacon , eChinacities.com

In various articles and travel programs, you may hear the label 'The City of Bridges'. Pittsburgh and Florence are just two cities that have been granted this moniker. However, with thirteen bridges spanning the Haihe and its tributaries, Tianjin also has a strong, if unexpected, claim to the title. Over the past couple of years, the 'Pearl of the Bohai' has enjoyed a dramatic facelift on its riverfront area. Previously, the Haihe and the surrounding areas were dirty, uncared-for and generally best avoided. Now, though, it is beginning to attract increasing amounts of tourists to its newly pristine banks. One of the best ways to enjoy the whole river scene is from a selection of the bridges that span it. Below, we have listed the four we believe are the best to visit – for your added convenience we have worked from north to south.

Stone Lion Forest Bridge 狮子林桥 Shizilin Qiao


Stone Lion Forest Bridge 狮子林桥, Tianjin (Photo: sohu.com.cn)

From a distance, this bridge looks far from impressive. It appears to be little more than a bland grey stone number. Most tourists – not that Tianjin attracts too many – use the bridge to flit between two other landmarks, Ancient Culture Street on the west bank and Wanghailou Church. However, on closer inspection, this 97 metre bridge actually has plenty of hidden charms.

Shizilin was originally built in 1973, although it is designed to look much older and far more traditional. The key facet of this old-time appearance is the 1181 carved lions that adorn it – that number is the one published by the local government, we certainly didn't count them! These range in size with some as small as your fist and others, such as those on the main plinths, almost the size of real lions. The bridge was renovated in 2004 with many of the lions' heads restored to their original glory and the stonework given something of a facelift. Considering the unique theme and its location close to other major attractions Shizilin is certainly worth the trip.

Jintang Bridge 金汤桥 Jintang Qidao


Jintang Bridge 金汤桥

Located at the gates of Ancient Culture Street, this is the elder statesmen of Tianjin's many bridges - it was originally built in 1906. For those of an engineering disposition, it is something of a collector’s item as it is the only bridge in China with three bay rolling equipment. For those of us less mechanically inclined, this has something to do with the way it opens to allow ships to pass. Sadly, for engineering enthusiasts, actually seeing the bridge in action is pretty unlikely. According to locals, it still can open, but rarely ever does.

The engineering marvels notwithstanding, Jintang is worth a visit as it certainly has a quaint old-time feel. There are also, at either end, displays of antique Chinese military equipment, including two tanks, some guns and a couple of quirky statues. Additionally, in the evening, the bridge is lit up by a spectacular light-show using stereoscopic lights and is the focal point for a dramatic fountain display. These are quite spectacular, but their futuristic lighting and style feel slightly at odds with the bridge’s colonial feel.

Bei’an Bridge 北安桥 Bei’an Qiao


Bei’an Bridge 北安桥 (Photo: news.enorth.com.cn)

This is the best known and one of the most used bridges in the city. At first glance, it would be easy to assume that it were left over from the colonial era, particularly as it is situated just metres from the old Italian Concession. But Bei'an is actually one of Tianjin's younger bridges. It was only constructed in the 1970s, and is a replica of Pont Alexandre III in Paris. For those unfamiliar with Parisian or Tianjinese architecture, this means the bridge is made up of elegant white masonry, adorned with large brass statues. These are very elegant, and look great when illuminated at night. However, they have a decidedly plastic feel and lack the authenticity of the Gallic original. 

The reproduction architecture notwithstanding, the biggest reason to visit Bei'an is for the views it provides. Looking up river, the panorama is dominated by the giant Eye of Tianjin ferris wheel. In the daytime, this is impressive enough just in terms of sheer scale - it is well over 100m high. But, in the evening, the Eye is lit up in hundreds of shades of bright, flashing neon, making for an impressive view. In the evening, it is also possible to get a great view of the lights and fountains at the Jintang Bridge. The scenery downriver is also impressive, but is still something of a work in progress. It takes in a new riverside development that is transforming the Tianjin skyline – the Tianjin Financial Center, when completed, will be one of the 20 tallest buildings in the world. Naturally, this dominates the view, but it is also surrounded by three or four other modern developments that are fast turning the Haihe into the new Huangpu.

Jiefang Bridge 解放桥


Jiefang Bridge 解放桥, Tianjin (Photo: nipic.com)

If you were to take a boat trip on the Haihe river, you would likely hear the guide tell you that this bridge, which runs from Tianjin Station to the old British Concession area, was designed by Gustave Eiffel – he of tower fame – and, as such, is cherished as the most 'historic' bridge in Tianjin. This, though, is a claim that few historians can actually verify. Nevertheless, it is still an interesting structure, and, having been built in 1927, it is the oldest bridge in Tianjin that is still open to road traffic..

The bridge itself is a less than inspiring structure. It has a steel frame held together with rivets, which opens to allow river traffic to pass beneath. This traffic is generally not that heavy. In fact, for almost 25 years the bridge did not open at all because of rusting girders and broken machinery. However, after extensive reconstruction work, it opened again in 2008 amid much fanfare. Because of its central location Jiefang Bridge is a great spot to snap pictures of the river itself and the fringes of the British Concession.

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