A Beginner’s Guide to the Beijing Subways

There are over 12 million people living within the urban areas of Beijing, and if you extend that to include suburban Beijing as well, the numbers will jump to over 20 million. There are a number of different ways to calculate and rate cities in terms of their populations, but no matter how you calculate it, Beijing usually finds a way into the top ten. According to Wikipedia, in rating the most populous cities using the concept of city proper, Beijing ranks number 3 in the world, following Shanghai at number 1 and Istanbul at number 2.

Just to reiterate, there are a LOT of people in Beijing. Always. No matter where you are – no matter what you are doing – no matter the time of day, there are people around simply because they are everywhere.

One of the best ways to experience just how crowded it is in Beijing is to take a ride on the subways during rush hour. If you hop on the subways during non-rush hour, by most standards the subways will still be crowded. However, if you have the unfortunate chance to take the subways during rush hour (下上班:”when people are going to or getting off work”), you will…well…you will definitely have an experience in store.

I really can’t describe how crowded the subways can get. In the states, they would never allow a carriage to move filled with that many people. It just wouldn’t happen. But in Beijing, while the subway is expansive and expanding all the time, it still cannot meet the demands of the city’s people. Slowly it seems that the idea of “queuing up” seems to be catching on, but it is still a loosely held courtesy, and as soon as things get hairy, the lines fall into mobs of people pushing feverishly to board the subways. At every subway door, there is usually a trained subway worker there to help the process of guests getting off and guests getting on move more smoothly. Sometimes, however – when there are just too many people – they spend their time pushing people into the subway carriage and then trying to get the automatic doors to close so the subway can continue on its way.

It’s an exciting, and often terrifying, way to travel around the city.

For the subway newcomer, here are some key points of advice I have put together to make your first ride in a crowded subway car a little more bearable during rush hour:

1)     GET TO A HAND RAIL: Often times the subway carriage will be so crowded that, like sardines in a sardine jar, you might think that being tightly pinned between your fellow subway riders is enough to keep you standing. Good and well-intended logic, but an inherently flawed assessment. The subways are prone to sharp jerks and stops, phenomenona which tightly packed crowds of people seem more vulnerable to – indeed, without the ability to move your feet for balance, the crowds sway and sometimes during the worst cases, people will fall over to be knocked into the walls or bars of the carriage. BUT – problem easy solved! Make any and all efforts to GRAB A HANDRAIL!

2)     THE BOX-OUT TECHNIQUE: Once you have managed to board the subway, you might think that the difficulty is over – NOPE! At every stop there will be a jostle of people getting off and a jostle of even more people trying to squeeze their way on. This is a technique that has taken me months to master, but I call it the BOX-OUT TECHNIQUE. When you are being squished ever closer and tighter to your fellow subway riders, the trick is to claim your territory – stick out your elbows, bend your knees to make yourself a little wider, and broaden your shoulders. In essence, BOX OUT the territory just around you. That way, when the subway finally gets moving again and there are no more people trying desperately to squeeze aboard, you will not be left SUPER SUPER SUPER squished, only mildly discomforted by the 20-or-so people squeezed against you.

Note: During especially crowded rush hours, this technique is less effective. When it’s really bad, just put your hands in your pockets and casually stick out your elbows. This is just to monopolize the room you need for basic functions, i.e. breathing!

3)     PLAN YOUR GETAWAY: Some subway stops are more popular than others! If you are getting off at one of the less popular ones, plan on preparing to get off long before you actually arrive. If you don’t, you WILL miss your stop. Ask the people around you if they are getting off at the next stop ( 下车吗?xià chē ma?), and slowly begin the arduous process of making your way towards the door.

4)     WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO: Just follow the crowd. You will not be considered rude, out of line, or inconsiderate for acting as the rest of the thousands of subway-goers do. This includes waiting in line. As said before, queuing is a relatively new phenomenon, so if the queue dissolves, be prepared to fight with the mob to get on board and don’t worry about it!

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