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Subterranean Blues

Carole and her camera are pushed, forced, jostled and manhandled on the Beijing subway at rush-hour

11·29·2012

Subterranean Blues

Carole and her camera are pushed, forced, jostled and manhandled on the Beijing subway at rush-hour

11·29·2012

Beijing is sprawling and enormous. At home in Switzerland I can cross the entire country in a mere four hours; our biggest town would be considered a quaint neighborhood in one of China’s megacities.

As one of the world’s biggest cities, Beijing has a population of almost 20 million people. Its subway system is more than 400 km long and is due to be extended even further over the next couple of years. On a peak day more than 8.5 million people scramble their way through this transport network.

Before coming here I had heard horror stories of overcrowding, people employed expressly to man the platforms and force commuters into carriages while bemused tourists find themselves trapped (or suffocated) on jam-packed trains. And, after traveling to and from work here for almost a month, I can confirm that these things are all indeed true. And it’s actually even worse than I could have imagined. The other day I was minding my own business on a train when an angry mob pushed me completely out of the carriage in order to get off themselves. Luckily I somehow managed to hold on to my bag and camera and get back onto the train before the doors closed.

Despite the daily hassles and frustrations of traveling on the subway, I still enjoy it! After a 30-minute walk I usually arrive at Shangdi, a station on line 13, at around 8 o’clock in the morning. Rush-hour is in full swing. People from all directions flock to the station where they are herded together like cattle and funneled through a maze of fences. It can take up to 10 minutes just to get in to the station. Some young men and girls even climb over the fence to gain a couple of  precious extra minutes in the morning. I take the official route and am immediately absorbed into the crowd. From now on all I can do is just go with the flow. The torrent of people carries me through the maze of fences and around every corner, finally spitting me out inside the station. What sounds smooth and easy comes along with a lot of pushing from the back and the sides. Occasionally, some youngsters try to grab me in places that I would consider private property. A sharp jab in the ribs from my eager elbows usually helps the situation however.

After an X-ray security check of my bag, followed by forcing my way through the ticket gate I finally reach the platform where I queue up for the subway. Men and women dressed in yellow uniforms and caps bark at the passengers in Chinese to remind them to stand behind the yellow lines. Trains arrive every couple of minutes but because they are already packed with passengers when they arrive at Shangdi I usually have to let at least one, but sometimes four, pass until I make it to the front of the queue. As soon as the next train arrives the crowd behind me pushes me forward making sure that I get on no matter if people are already hanging out of the door. The yellow uniformed people then make sure we’re all packed in cosily by forcing us in with all their might.

Once inside, I feel empathy for all the sardines I have seen packed into their little cans. Even though I’m too far away to hold on to a handle there is no danger of falling over because we are all solidly packed in. Leaning against the shoulder of a young fellow in front of me I could even risk taking a short nap. Meanwhile, people around me are occupied with their mobile phones- playing games, texting or watching movies.

Getting off the train can be as hard as getting on to it. Imagine yourself standing squeezed in a corner and having to reach the door on the opposite side of the carriage. There is never space to let me through- so it’s best to start moving before the train stops. A final act of force and determination is required when the doors open and the people waiting outside start swarming in. Using my arms and body weight I push forward without care for any of my fellow travelers, it’s every man for himself here. And then, after what feels like going through a spin-cycle in a washing machine, I suddenly find myself on the platform again.

You might wonder what could possibly be so much fun about a ride in a crowded subway. Well, it’s the feeling of being just one of the hundreds and thousands of people moving across this city everyday; a never ending flow of people making their way through the underground, never stopping, like a huge pounding heart. Surprisingly, this is where I feel alive and free. Often, as a way of entertaining myself, I try to find the shortest way possible to connect between the different subway lines. I can’t help but grin to myself when I succeed, winning one over the locals.

If you have the chance, get out there and throw yourself into it. I’m sure you will have a unique experience. For those not sure yet if they want to give it a try have a look at some of my pictures in and around the subway at different times of the day and you might be persuaded.

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