How to See the Real China: Ride Beijing's Subway

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Underground trips reveal a world in which locals learn to queue, not elbow, and Westerners sometimes sit next to peasants

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I figure that during the recent three years that my husband and I lived in China, I took about 1,000 rides on the subways of Shanghai and Beijing. That adds up to roughly 500 hours, 2000 RMB (about $300 by today's exchange rate), and an incalculable social experience. I also memorized the Beijing station arrival announcement, which is said in Mandarin and then repeated in English at every single stop, offering a useful, if tedious, language lesson.

Xia che de chengke, qing tiqian zuo hao zhunbei. "Departing passengers, please get ready for your arrival." Or more literally: Off car passengers please beforehand do something well prepare.*

A migrant worker had slung his giant plastic grain sack (probably holding most of his worldly possessions) over his shoulder, thrusting the sack smack into my husband's stomach.

The subway system in Beijing ramped up quickly after a slow start: Two lines opened in 1971, two more at the start of the 21st century, four more just about in time for the 2008 Olympics, and another six since then. The expanded system had no discernable effect on the congested roads, which are clogged with nearly 5 million cars, a number that will grow at a (controlled) rate of 20,000 per month in 2011. But it opened new worlds to me. My husband and I were so excited when the new number 10 line opened right outside our apartment building that we rushed to the station to be among the very first people in all of Beijing to try it. (Such was our local recreation!)

The #10 line changed our lives. Suddenly, we could cross Beijing not only east to west on the old #1 line, which conveniently passes the stretch of western hotels (where we often had meetings), Tiananmen (where we often took visitors), the local shopping streets, the financial district, museums, the opera house, and other grand landmarks.

On the new #10, we could now zoom north from the Central Business District to the stadiums, past the expat dining and shopping streets, the diplomatic sections, the change to the airport, and swing around west all the way to the university district. With that trajectory, the #10 line boasts a fairly upscale ridership—lots of students, always a few westerners, middle-class workers with briefcases.

Back in Beijing for another long stay this past winter, I returned from my first outing on the #10 line, marveling to my husband how passengers' behavior had improved during our eight-month absence. This was important news: For about a year before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing tried to train its residents to put on a good show for international visitors by queuing in lines instead of pushing and shoving and forming a crushing wedge of humanity toward whatever spot was the common destination. The eleventh day of every month was declared stand-in-line day, when residents would dutifully practice. Now, it seemed to me, it had finally paid off.

Riders on the #10 line stood in two orderly queues along a painted stripe that marked the outside edge of the doors. As the train approached, no one budged. And furthermore, instead of the usual rush to board at the instant the doors opened, everyone stood like potted plants waiting for passengers to exit before boarding themselves.

Several days later, my husband and I were riding the #2 line, one of Beijing's oldest, which follows an inner loop of the city, a relic of an earlier era of a smaller Beijing. The #2 line also skirts past a messy, busy terminal of the long-distance buses, and is an access point for the Beijing train station, making it a favorite for migrant workers, who seem to be in perpetual transit.

RTXU2QJ_sized.jpg To get home, we had to make the change to the #1 line at what I always dreaded as the worst station in Beijing, Jianguomen. I hate that station, because it's old, awkward, and always swarming with unruly crowds. This would be a real test of stand-in-line behavior.

We had just missed a train and were first in line for the next. During the three-minute wait, the line behind us grew into a throng. When the train arrived, we were swept into the car by sheer crowd momentum. My husband, by a head the tallest person on the train, was lucky, I thought, as he could peer out above the sea of black hair. But not so lucky, I realized, in another way. A migrant worker had slung his giant plastic grain sack (probably holding most of his worldly possessions) over his shoulder, thrusting the sack smack into my husband's stomach, doubling him over into an awkward, unwieldy C shape around the grain sack. I doubted he could maintain this posture to the next station.

After a moment, another migrant laborer, eyeball-to-eyeball with me, took stock of the situation, and motioned to his buddy to drop the bag. Fang di, "put it down", he said. The worker gently eased the sack off his shoulder to the floor, revealing a worn spot of fabric on his coat, rubbed entirely threadbare by the heavy sack—a telltale sign of how many miles this man had traveled, sack-over-shoulder.

We were gone in two more stops. But that image is always there, a reminder to me that the Beijing subway offers more than reliable and quick ride. It offers moments in real China. I have had 1,000 of them.

* Update, May 5:

As some readers have noted, here is indeed another example of how hard Chinese can be. In the first version of this post, I presented the Chinese announcement as Xia che de chengke, qing ditie zou hao zhunbei. I heard "ditie zou," which sounds very close to the actual "tiqian zuo." Hearing what I did, I made a reasonable guess to translate it literally as "subway go."

Hey, have you tried to listen to public announcements in Chinese on noisy trains?

Images (top to bottom): lylevincent/flickr, Grace Liang/Reuters

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Deborah Fallows is a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of Dreaming in Chinese.

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