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!

Christmas in China

My first Christmas away from home was successful! Because the semester ends on January 5th, we are in the middle of finals right now, which meant that going home for the holidays just wasn’t in the cards. The demands of work and school have made the past several weeks seem to fly right by, and before I knew it, Christmas was right around the corner. As to be expected, Christmas is not a holiday traditionally celebrated in China. However, more and more young people in China observe Christmas (either religiously or just with holiday spirit) so there were decorations, parties, and festivities to be had for my first holiday away from home!

Christmas trees sprouted in the most unusual places – in store shop windows, shopping squares, and curiously in the entryway of my lecture hall. In the week before Christmas, Wudaokou (the main shopping district near BLCU) was decorated with some of the fanciest lights I’ve ever seen! If nothing else, the Chinese are very enthusiastic about Christmas lights. They are everywhere, and they brighten even the darkest, coldest nights in Beijing.

So, swapping Christmas ham for dumplings, a family celebration for one with a bunch of my Chinese friends, and opening Christmas presents for sending Christmas cards and e-mails, my holiday was both untraditional and unconventional, but I had a fantastic time and it was an experience that I will certainly never forget.

圣诞快乐!(Merry Christmas!)

Hit that Tone

As anyone who has studied Chinese will tell you, the tones will give any newcomer to the language trouble after trouble after trouble. With five different tones (a high, rising, low, falling, and neutral tone), even just hearing the difference between words that are phonetically identically but have a different inflection (and thus are entirely different words) can be incredibly difficult. I was again reminded of the confusion tones can cause just recently.

On Saturday I was watching the lunar eclipse (月食 yuè shí) with a Chinese friend and to pass the time while we waited for the impending red moon, he started telling me the legend of 吴刚 (Wu Gang). It is said in legend that吴刚angered the gods in an attempt to gain immortality and as a result, he was banished to the moon. He was condemned to spend eternity cutting down a tree, which – as soon as he cut it down, would grow instantly anew.

My understanding of the legend was totally fine until discussing吴刚’s punishment. Instead of hearing kǎn shù (“chopping down a tree”), I distractedly took his words as kàn shū (“reading a book”) and laughingly replied that an eternity of reading book after book after book on the moon couldn’t be all that bad.

Rest assured that such a minor slip isn’t the only one I’ve made. They happen every day, and luckily most Chinese people are very understanding and usually laugh it off with me.

Some of my better slips:

Rabbit (兔子: tùzi) –> Bald Head (秃子: tūzi)

Steamed Bun (包子: bāozi) –>  Leopard (豹子: bàozi)

Taxi Driver (司机: sījī) –> Dead Chicken (死鸡: sǐjī)

You can probably guess all of the contexts that I tried to use these words in…. Needless to say, “What a cute rabbit!” didn’t come off as affectionate when I said “What a cute bald head!” My two-year-old host sister BURST out laughing one morning when I meant to tell her, “These steamed buns are so delicious!” and I actually told her that I had a thing for eating leopard. She went straight to her mother in a fit of giggles to tell her that Americans liked to eat wild animals. And my taxi driver just rolled his eyes with a chuckle when I handed him my cab fare and thanked him by calling him a dead chicken.

Needless to say – if life in China wasn’t exciting enough, the language provides that last little piece of everyday adventure. Quite often, you never know what you’re going to get – perhaps most especially if you’re the one asking for it.


Beijing Language and Culture University has been around since the early 1960s, when it emerged as the first university to specialize in teaching Chinese to foreigners. Since then, the university has grown and undergone many significant changes – it now offers a multitude of languages to Chinese students and foreigners alike and offers a variety of postgraduate degrees as well. As to be expected, BLCU is involved in a variety of research in regards to the acquisition of language, specifically with regards to Chinese as a second language, and it is this effort that has allowed many of my classmates and I the chance to take the HSK for free.

The 汉语水平考试 (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is the internationally recognized standardized test with regards to Chinese. With the release of a “New HSK” there are two commonly recognized formats of the test (predictably the “new” and the “old” HSK). In exchange for answering a simple questionnaire for basic statistical research, we get to take the HSK for free!

With the end of the semester approaching, I already have several Chinese tests on the horizon. So, why not throw in one more? My brain is overloaded with characters already (courtesy of our impending oral and written finals for class), so shoving a couple more in there definitely won’t hurt. The test is on a Sunday morning – I’m steeling myself for several long days of study before Sunday hits!

A White Winter

The weather’s change from a brisk fall into winter has been one of sharp descent – the temperature has fallen swiftly and curtly, and left everyone bundled up with scarves, hats, and mittens. Where the streets were littered with fruit vendors in the summer and into the fall, they have changed with the weather and are now selling baked yams. It’s a pleasant, if not foreign experience, to purchase a roasted yam during a long walk in the cold or during the daily commute to work and school. Steaming and warm, it is definitely is a welcome reprieve from the cold.

The cold weather has given way to small bursts of snowstorms. Indeed, I have woken to a white Beijing on more than one occasion. However, the arid nature of Beijing dries the snow up before it has a chance to cause too much trouble or become too slushy. It’s fantastic – all the beauty of snow without all the trouble it can cause!

As I’ve discovered with the drop in temperature, it’s not the snow that is to be feared – it’s the wind. Beijing is known for its sandstorms, and during the winter, the wind whips up the cold air and if you don’t have a fierce jacket prepared to fight it off, it is absolutely chilling. Without extreme temperatures back home, I thought I would be able to weather the winter with just a thick jacket or two – after my first week with the wind and the cold, however, I’m already prepared to spend my weekend procuring a number of scarves, mittens, and hats to make the winter more weather-able.

Capital Museum

There was a big group of us going for an afternoon at the Capital Museum. While I’ve been to many of the famous sites throughout Beijing, I had yet to go to the Capital Museum – which I found a curious oversight on my part, seeing as how Chinese history is over 5000 years old and there is a wealth of both interesting and beautiful artifacts to explore.

A professor and two graduate students of philosophy joined us for our excursion. All three were fun to talk to, and we had a good time looking around the various exhibits and using a combination of Chinese and English to explore our thoughts about them.

Particularly beautiful were the featured works of calligraphy and Chinese painting. I had a really interesting discussion with one of the graduate students about the nature of Chinese painting and calligraphy. He described that it was often much deeper than Western art. Where realism is often a tool of Western artists to convey a meaning or idea, he described that Chinese paintings are mostly intended as an expression of “feeling” and “interpretation” much more than realism. Regardless, the art was beautiful, and it was enlightening to hear other opinions and thoughts on the work we encountered.

Excursion to the Llama Temple

Our visit to the Llama Temple fell on a brisk, bright day. Beijing has a habit of short-lived rainstorms, and while the rain brings about complaints along with a wild rush of street vendors trying to sell an umbrella to the unfortunate commuter, I love it when I wake up to a rainy day. Not only does it make me feel more at home (Seattle’s often harsh characterization as a city built beneath constant cloud cover and drizzle (drizzle in Chinese: 毛毛雨,  pronounced máo máo yǔ) is a well-deserved one), but rainstorms send the smog running in Beijing. The days following rain showers are always bright, clear, and beautiful. So, bright and beautiful, albeit bitter, bitter cold – we embarked on the subway to the Llama Temple.

It was a very small group of us touring the Lllama Temple, which I found fantastic because it allowed each of us more time to work on our Chinese and ask as many questions as we could. Zoe brought along a list of common phrases in Buddhism and their English translations – not only profound and wise suggestions for a peaceful, enlightened life, most of them were lyrically beautiful as well.

The cold hadn’t scared away any visitors. The temple was awash with the potent smell of incense – it was calming to stroll throughout the many courtyards with incense burning all around as people prayed. We were also quite lucky with our timing; a group of new monks was practicing chanting in one of the halls, and so we crowded in with other guests to listen to the harmony of their voices rising and falling as one.

The spiritual and historical nature of the Llama Temple was one that I found enchanting. It was an absolutely beautiful site to visit, and I plan to return before I leave Beijing.

Here are some of the phrases we learned:


zhīzú cháng lè

Happy is he who is content.



zhùrén weílè

take pleasure in helping people


有缘千里来相会 无缘对面不相识

yǒu yuán qiān lǐ lái xiāng huì wúyuán duìmiàn bù xiāng shi

Fate brings us together even we are thousand miles apart; but if we are not destined to meet, though we are face to face, we may not be acquainted with each other.




Countryside Exploring

This past weekend I ventured out on another fabulous hike with the Beijing Hikers Club. We hiked a loop through the Spring Valley, starting and ending at a small village called Sancha, where our gracious guide treated the lot of us to a delicious meal after our 12 kilometers trough the rolling valley.

The scenery was a sharp contrast to the beauty of my last hike – there was none of the lush, green trees along the hills and mountainside. Rather, the landscape was painted in varying shades of matted brown and muted green at best. Even so, however, the beauty of the hike was not one to be forgotten. The day was crisp and clear – cold by all standards, but it was a fantastic reprieve from the city air in Beijing. The valley was filled with rows upon rows of what was a vaguely lavender-smelling flower, and while late autumn had dried them all up, they still tossed around their smell in the afternoon air, making the valley even more fragrant.

An outdoor enthusiast back home, I love the chance to get out of the city. Beijing is full of culture and excitement so that there is never a boring moment, but I miss the chance to get outside. The countryside of China is beautiful, and so it’s an excuse to get out and do some exploring!


Excursion to the Summer Palace

Beijing has no shortage of destinations for the tourist to explore. With so much culture and history, the city is littered with historic sites – from temples to gardens to palaces. One of my favorites is The Summer Palace (颐和园), a magnificent garden originally built for the one of the Qing dynasty’s ruling emperors. With a lake, rolling hills, and awe-inspiring architecture, it truly is a sight to see and should not be missed for anyone spending any amount of time in Beijing.

Lotus Educational Foundation led the afternoon outing to The Summer Palace, which was fantastic because Zoe and Linda (employees here at LEF) had been there several times before and were able to give us an unparalleled tour of the garden grounds. Although the weather was overcast and cloudy, the sites did not disappoint. I enjoyed trying to read as many characters as I could (helped along gently by Zoe and Linda whenever I would falter) and the short hike up Longevity Hill for a sweeping look over the entire garden was absolutely spectacular.

The various buildings, shrines, and artwork throughout the garden are really marvelous. The lake was speckled with paddle-boats and canoes for the more adventurous and even had some people reclining, sipping tea on the fancier tour boats. I especially enjoyed the giant marble boat (no longer up and running) that somehow used to maneuver its way across the water.

Trains, Travels, and Touring

In the United States, trains are hardly a viable means of transportation. They tend to be expensive and slow, scattered sparingly throughout the country (and especially the West coast), a sharp contrast to trains here in China. With the National Holiday and a week free from work and school, I accompanied one of my classmates south to 扬州 (Yángzhōu) to spend the week visiting with her family. We hopped on a train late Monday night and in the soft comfort of our soft sleeper reservations, we slept as our train sped for ten hours across the countryside. We woke up to a bright Tuesday morning in Yángzhōu, and after a casual cup of coffee as our train pulled into the station, we spend the next several days loafing throughout the city.

Yángzhōu was beautiful, set alongside rivers and lakes that strolled casually through the city. While large compared to the average city back home, Yángzhōu was without the sprawling, endless metropolitan feeling of Beijing. The people to the south were very friendly, but foreigners were thin on the grounds, so the casual point and exclamation of “外国人!” (foreigner!) was not uncommon. Also, the people speak a different dialect of Chinese, which meant that there were times where I had absolutely no idea what was going on (opposed to my usual feeling of being only 75% in the dark).

Again, because of the holiday, everywhere we went for a glimpse of the sights was teaming with people. Generally, though, having spent the last several weeks familiarizing myself with masses and crowds in boarding the subway every morning during rush hour, I wasn’t much bothered. We toured around Yángzhōu, hopped a bus over to Nánjīng to see those sights, and then on our last day of holiday, we went about two hours outside the city to Zhōu zhuāng, which has been called the “Venice of China.” It was absolutely gorgeous, a little town with canals sweeping all throughout the town, boats casually meandering by, and seafood everywhere you looked.

We hopped back on the train home and arrived back in Beijing bright and early on Saturday morning, just in time to get to class. When you have seven days of rest in China, apparently it is customary that you have seven days of work to follow. Albeit, while school on a Saturday and Sunday are oddly foreign, it was worth the exciting holiday a hundred times over!