“Casualty” for a Day: Riding the Beijing Subway

By Francesca Campione

While in Beijing in June I was determined to venture into a subway system that was alien to everything I knew. Growing up in a quiet middle class neighborhood of Queens in New York City, I relied on the charmingly outdated R train to take me seven stops away to school five days a week. I remember pressing my face up against the scratched glass windows and watching the graffiti covered tunnels fly past me. Over my lifetime of Metrocard swipes, the subway hasn’t drastically changed its gritty tiled floors or the scent of the same homeless person who has been there for as long as I could remember.

As I entered the Beijing subway at 10 on a weekday morning, my eyes grew wide. Before me stood a security attendant and a bag check reminiscent of airport security in America. Even more bewildering was the patience of the passengers going through this security checkpoint. New Yorkers would roll their eyes at the mere thought of a security check slowing their morning race to the office.

But what I experienced next was a pleasant surprise: the pristine condition of the grey tiled steps that led down to the train platforms. Better yet, no foul odor of month-old urine struck me in the face. The air smelled of disinfectant and the perfumes of people dressed for work. The train was spotlessly clean, too. There was no litter leftover from breakfasts eaten on the go.

What a difference from my R train back in New York. There, you’ll see on the tracks scaly long tailed rats and pools of murky black water. On the train itself, I’ve also found strange liquids pooled in seats. It’s not uncommon for food wrappers and discarded newspapers to litter the floor of the train.

The Beijing trains were very timely and efficient. What shocked me even more was when a local rider told me that this was normal. I cringed at the memory of how many times I was late due to “unforeseen train traffic” and wondered what Beijing was doing differently to ensure such convenience.

I was also shocked at how packed the Beijing trains were – even compared to crowded New York. At the same time, though, I was comforted by the familiar sight of the rich diversity of people riding the Beijing trains. Squeezed were in stern-faced professionals, grandparents with wide-eyed children staring at cooing passengers and fashion crazed girls discretely eyeing one another’s latest outfits. I found comfort in the familiar sight of passengers clinging to the poles while listening to their iPods as the train sped smoothly through the tunnels from one stop to the next.

The Chinese nicknamed this station I entered “casualty” because it’s so crowded at rush hour. At 10 the trains were still packed tight. Those who survive this rush hour ride earn the moniker of “warriors” when they exit at the next stop. Both of these terms are alarmingly accurate. Even as an experienced subway rider and someone who can weave through swarms of people, it felt easy to get swallowed up into the crush of passengers.

On a wall map, subway lines radiated in every direction. The system looked impossible to navigate. But a local assured me that, over time, the subway was easy to figure out and navigate.

I hoped he was right.

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