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I Spent an Entire Day On the Beijing Subway

If Beijing's subway feeds the city's beating heart, then Line 2 is its circulatory system. Its looped route traces the path once taken by the ancient city walls, but Mao's disdain for history saw the structure make way for subterranean tunnels and the...

Dongzhimen Station at morning peak.

If Beijing's subway feeds the city's beating heart, then Line 2 is its circulatory system. Its looped route traces the path once taken by the ancient city walls, but Mao's disdain for history saw the structure make way for subterranean tunnels and the heaving ring road directly above. A staggering 1.5 million people use the line every day, each one a tiny blood cell that helps keep the great capital alive.


My self-imposed mission is to spend an entire day on Line 2, circling central Beijing from first train to last. Part social observation and part endurance test, there is no better way to sample the cross sections of a city than to watch them change around you from the discomfort of a single subway seat. This is a people-watcher's paradise.

Andingmen Station at dawn.

4:51 AM – There's a palpable smog in the air as I descend into the depths of the subway. A kind voice on the PA reminds me to "stand firm and hold the handrail," which is helpful. It's reassuring to know that the state cares about my well-being.

5:05 AM – The doors to the first train open. "Welcome to Subway Line Teeooo" declares the automated announcer in a Chinese/American/robot accent that, over the course of the next 24 hours, will come to be my disembodied nemesis.

I take my seat in a clinically-lit car pasted with ads. Video screens above each bank of seats promote insect killer, a dating website, and some kind of cooking oil. Even the windows exist to remind people of their need to consume. As we speed between stations, lines of LCD displays inside the tunnel play yet more ads through the glass.

Early risers on the first train.

5:26 AM – Beijingers are remarkably early risers. At this hour they can normally be found doing their morning exercises, something of a national sport here. But a good few are also riding the subway. There are at least ten on my car, though it retains a deserted air until we reach the imaginatively-named Beijing Railway Station.


Here, hordes of passengers bleed in, their clothes and sun-beaten skin suggesting they are not from the capital. The terminus is a hub for trains that serve the provinces, ferrying in the countless migrants that flood to Beijing in search of work. There are already no seats available.

5:49 AM – I complete my first loop in the scheduled 44 minutes and have my first major revelation. The doors on the left side are the only ones that ever open, meaning that the other half are completely redundant. They could have used the space for more seats. Or perhaps some padded chaise lounges.

Going to work.

6:50 AM – The car begins to fill with a commuter crowd sporting all of the hallmarks of consumer capitalism, their eyes glued to smartphones and tablets. But this is no replica of a Western scene. The Chinese word for suit (xi fu) literally translates as "west clothes" and I do not see any. Instead, most men wear polo shirts and the women are in flowing dresses or pleated skirts.

Rush hour has definitively begun, though it proves something of a misnomer. It lasts for almost three.

8:20 AM – This is far from the pandemonium I had expected. While there is a certain chaos in the custom of entering the car before allowing others to exit, the system efficiently absorbs the crush. No "pushers" are hired to cram people on (as happens in Tokyo), no one is left waiting on platforms (as happens in London), and trains never stop in the tunnels (as happens in almost every other major city). The Beijing subway is a perfectly-oiled machine.


Loops on Line 2.

9:47 AM – Things have cleared a little and a team of three men fan out through the train, deftly slotting fliers into handles hanging from the roof. The pamphlets advertise new apartments in a high-rise complex on the city's outskirts.

Home ownership is, along with marriage, the achievement by which a successful life is judged. A few 30-somethings examine the tower blocks longingly but most people are using them to fan themselves.

A few minutes later, a uniformed official comes through and collects all the leaflets still on display. The ongoing battle between flyerers and subway staff will unfold repeatedly throughout the day, just one of the loop's endless cycles.

A hot day in the capital.

10:40 AM – Having nodded off for six stops I awake to a car filled with children perched on knees, curiously examining my features. I pull silly faces when their parents aren't looking. The kids don't appear particularly amused, but it helps me pass the time.

There are also a lot more old people. A man in his 40s willingly relinquishes his place for an elderly woman and I am overcome with dread. Respect for the old means that I may soon have to surrender my seat, a seemingly small gesture that could condemn me to hours of standing. I shamelessly lower my gaze to avoid any eye contact.

12:02 PM – The video advertisements are interrupted by the latest government-endorsed news bulletin. A combination of being both short-sighted and completely unable to read Chinese means that I can't quite make out the subtitles. It looks as if there's some traffic somewhere, something happened with an aircraft carrier, and a group of men held a meeting in a nondescript room.


Just another day in China.

Lining up for the crush.

3:30 PM – There is an inexplicable surge in passengers that will not subside for the rest the day. There will be no discernible late rush hour, just an ongoing afternoon-cum-evening bustle.

People are considerably more sociable than in other city subways. Beijingers are loud by nature and the car fills with a warm and gregarious atmosphere. The chatter begins to form an indistinguishable hum of the "arghr" noise that seems to pervade every third syllable of the Beijing dialect. It is punctuated by endless utterances of nei ge, a Chinese filler word akin to "ummm" that sounds identical to one of English's most offensive terms. I close my eyes and feel like I'm in a carriage full of racist pirates.

"Welcome to Subway Line Teeooo!"

3:45 PM – The inevitable has happened. The need to urinate will destroy my hopes of watching the city from the single seat that I have now occupied for ten hours and 40 minutes.

It is not unknown for Beijing's parents to let their desperate children relieve themselves in the car via the buttoned flap sewn into the back of every toddler's trousers. But I suspect my fellow passengers would not be so understanding for an adult da bizi (a term for foreigners that literally translates as "big nose").

I get off at a station to take a piss and board the next train to recreate the original conditions of my observations. There are no available seats but I am secretly grateful for the opportunity to stand. The benches are made of hard, shiny plastic, their design utterly void of ergonomic considerations for vertebrates.


A smooth ride on the Beijing Subway.

5:21 PM – The distant sound of clicking signals the imminent arrival of a beggar. An old man is hitting two sticks together and trudging the length of the train, tin pot outstretched. Surprisingly, he appears relatively able-bodied. Given that there has been an hourly stream of blind, limbless, and child-bearing poor since the early morning, it seems unlikely that he can compete in the sympathy stakes. Not that I have seen a single yuan donated. He is met by averted gazes and indifference.

There is a common rumor in Beijing that the city's disabled and disfigured are exploited by organized criminals and forced into begging rackets. But maybe we're just looking for an excuse not to help.

Chaoyangmen Station in the early evening.

6:00 PM – Above ground, the Air Quality Index (AQI) score, a measure of harmful pollutants, hits a lung-laboring 477, which is classified as "hazardous" on the Index. But Beijingers seem impervious to the danger and often claim that their bodies are acclimatized to the air. There is not a face mask in sight on Line 2.

But then we are probably in the safest place in the city right now. I would feel relatively smug if it weren't for the fact that my journey is being fuelled by a brand of mineral water dogged by a recent scandal about its arsenic content. It is sometimes hard to escape the feeling that all of life's necessities are out to hurt us.


Arriving at Dongsi Shitiao Station once again.

8:57 PM – I pass through Dongsi Shitiao for the 23rd time and decide, for fairly juvenile reasons, that it is my favorite station. Boredom takes hold and I spend the next four stops calculating how many times the words "dong" and "shit" appear on the subway map. There are ten mentions of the former and an honorable two for the latter. Less than two hours to go.

10:36 PM – The final circuit commences. The last train is one of the busiest, yet there are no drunk people, no partygoers and no one stumbling home from a late-night karaoke session. The absence of raucous revellers may be the result of the city's cheap taxis but nonetheless, it's an incredibly civilized affair.

"Galvin Klein" (left)

10:59 PM – The nighttime crush yields a late contender in the award for the strangest item of clothing on Line 2. A woman is wearing a soccer shirt with an Italian flag on one side, the word "Germany" on the other, and a French cockerel on the sleeve. I have also witnessed the usual array of counterfeit items, including a pair of "Hugo Boos" shoes and a top by the popular designer "Galvin Klein."

11:20 PM – My train terminates and I am unceremoniously ejected by a tired-looking guard. In one sense I have travelled almost 375 miles, and in another, nowhere at all. By the very same distance I could have made it to Mongolia, but I would not have seen anywhere near as many of the idiosyncrasies and curiosities that make up this infinitely complex country.


Oscar Holland is a freelance journalist living and working in Beijing.

Photographs by Lukas von Rantzau.

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