The subway is a fascinating place. A concentrated microcosm of Beijing. The amount of information your senses experience on a single subway journey across Beijing can send you into overload if you’re new to the city. It’s not surprising when everything seems so quiet when you go back to your home country.
Down the escalator a recorded female voice on a loop reminds us “Please stand firm and hold zee hand rail”. Beijing is really foreigner friendly and every effort has been made to accommodate, though I wish they’d iron out their basic pronunciation problems.
On Line 8 before lunch you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting a seat and today I’m in luck. Someone starts to get up and I’m in there like a hawk. Nearby sits a middle aged woman in a bright embroidered turquoise jacket, black slacks and high heels with a couple of walnuts held in her left hand which she continually grinds together. She leans back with her eyes closed deep in relaxation, oblivious of the surrounding din. It’s Sunday and there are families with their kids filling the train filled with high energy, all in full holiday mode bound for the Bird’s Nest and Olympic Park a few stops down. A group of seven or eight estate agents board at the next stop also in fine spirits having escaped the confines of the office no doubt. You can’t miss an estate agent; formal black pressed trousers and white shirt with a distinctive yellow ID card hanging round the neck.
There are video screens down the length of the train showing us the same footage of Xi Jinping and the victory parade at Tiananmen Square we’ve been seeing from a month ago. People cheer and wave flags as an assortment of lethal looking hardware including drones and ballistic missiles go by. As the leader inspects the troops in a black open top car, he appears to be strangely bored by the whole thing and I wonder what he’s thinking about. Maybe he’s worried that he left the front door open or what he’s going to cook for Peng Li Yuan (China’s First Lady) when he gets in. Even though it’s old news people are still happy for it to be on. Everyone I asked after the parade said unequivocally that they were proud to be Chinese and that their leader was doing a great job which is hmmmm, more than can be said about ours back on home soil right?
Time to transfer to Line 10. This is the longer of the two journeys as I make my way to work at the Guomao office in the Central Business District. Line 10 is a different ride altogether and as the train arrives you can see at a glance there is standing room only. For some unfathomable reason people try and board the train at the same time as passengers are leaving. It’s a behavioural pattern you see traces of all over the place, not just in the subway. Getting on a crowded lift or the inability to queue up are equally as perplexing.
As a commuter you don’t stand if you have to. It’s a long way to Guomao so you pick the most likely person to leave their seat. Anyone in a suit is probably going to the CBD whereas someone with a suitcase or trolley bag could well be going to take the Airport Express a few stops down.
Squeezing in between two people, I clutch the greasy hand rail worrying how many thousands of hands have already been in contact with it, yeech! The girl next to me is wearing a blue mask, a common site on the subway. There are so many people and in such close contact that it’s easy to pick up some airborne one week nightmare. Another girl flicks her mane of hair across the back of my neck as she reaches up to tie it back. You really get conscious of being in such close proximity to others and at times you can feel people’s bodies squeezing against you.
It’s a strange phenomenon these days. Nearly everyone is holding their mobile phone and it scares me where the future is taking us. Am I the only one who likes to think around here? Nearly half the passengers are glued to a new app’ called Xiao Xiao Kan, a Tetris-like game where you need to match up three icons to form a line and get points. I shake my head as I realise I’ve been peering over a girls shoulder along with another passenger in some semi-hypnotic daze watching her play. She gets three brown bears which pop and are replaced by three red hearts and so on. The game rewards her with words of encouragement to drive her on in a never ending loop of mindlessness ‘FANTASTIC’, ‘GREAT’ and ‘AWESOME!’
At last, the person who I’ve been willing to leave stands up and I smugly grab their seat. My intuition paid off today alright. Opposite a guy in blue jeans wears a purple t-shirt that strangely says ‘keep calm and be mysterious’. A Mum, Dad and their daughter all have matching pink t-shirts which say ‘I love my family’ inside a red love heart. There are only two seats so the husband insists his wife takes his place which she reluctantly does. The daughter then springs up out of her seat and ushers Dad to sit then jumps onto his lap. It’s all smiles and she looks adoringly up at Mum while stoking her hair.
The video screen on this line treats us to another WW2 movie. On a bridge out in the countryside, an evil looking Japanese female officer has a sword fight with a dirty poor innocent Chinese peasant girl. Clearly she is on her last legs whereas the officer who is clearly an expert with her samurai sword is immaculately dressed. Where the girl got her sword from? Maybe from her dead brother. Though he was a master with the blade he was still beaten by the Japanese woman, stabbed in the back and now after years of searching it’s time for some payback. Somehow the poor girl prevails and it looks like it’s definitely lights out in Tokyo. From the depths of war, the film is suddenly interrupted by Shaun the Sheep, something that is hugely popular in China. Using a mattress to retrieve their kite from a tree, five sheep bounce up and down as high as possible before collapsing on top of each other.
There is also a surreal health and safety animation depicting what to do when there is a fire. A screaming businessman flails around in flames while the fireman calmly tells us what we should do with a smile on his face. Next a female subway official with a giant head tells us about the emergency exits. At the same time a number of blackened figures run around screaming in all directions unable to find their way out.
At the next stop a group of twenty-plus soldiers in Arctic dress have gone to the wrong platform and run madly across to this side all leaping on board as the doors are closing. Their CO is clearly pissed off with them barking orders as they charge for the train. As the door closes he looks embarrassed more than anything, especially as there are some stragglers left behind as we pull out.
Approaching Guomao, the train is now packed to the rafters with white collar professionals though as I start to mentally prepare myself for the imminent stampede, the distinct sound of Buddhist chanting to music can be heard. Somehow a tiny guy on a motorised cart with no legs goes down the aisle making his way through a forest of suits and high heels. The music comes from a small CD player and speaker over his back and he pushes a box with a bundle of small notes in front. I can only begin to imagine how crap an existence it must be doing that all day. People say they don’t give money to beggars as it kicks back to some racketeer. Either way, it’s the beggar’s existence and he’ll be in trouble if he doesn’t make enough money. It’s his job no matter how grim so I always give ‘em a kuai.