Riding the recently completed Line 10 seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, I’ve seen many colorful things on the subway – vendors selling steaming hot ears of corn just outside the station, migrant workers carrying plastic bags full of their worldly possessions, visitors to Beijing from rural areas who stare at westerners the way we might stare at the Great Wall. And the outfits: Many Chinese women dress with the philosophy that more is better. More sequins, more lace, more fur, more platform shoes, more animal prints, more colors – and bonus points if you can achieve that in one brilliant ensemble.
But I chose a 95-degree day in Beijing. People walk even more slowly inside the subway stations, which connect to each other in a vast spider web of a grid, channeling people who seem to be in no rush to get anywhere. There’s also a rank smell, making it clear not a lot of people showered this morning. Or yesterday morning or the day before that. Meanwhile, the PM 2.5 reading, the measure of air pollution, soars above 226, making my eyes sting.
Despite these impediments, I set out to explore the world’s longest subway loop, all 57.1 kilometers and 45 stops. It’s a line that was started before Beijing’s 2008 Olympics, but just completed a few weeks ago, running in a rectangular loop around the city to parallel Beijing’s Third Ring Road. City planners hope that more subway lines will take the pressure off the city’s notoriously bad traffic, but on this hot summer day, the cars sit in a long, polluted jam. It can take hours by car to get across this city of more than 20 million people.
1:25 p.m. I decide to ride the loop counterclockwise, which might not be good feng shui, but which gets me on the train the fastest. I get on at Shaoyaoji station, which intersects with Line 13. A woman in mustard-yellow pants and shoes designed to resemble pandas opens a McDonald’s box. She starts to eat something in a green wrap.
1:40 p.m. A big crowd gets on at Anzhenmen station. I remember what my daughter told me about riding the subway. She and her friends decided that there should be a code. If you’re standing in front of a sitting person, that person should signal with her fingers – one, two, six – how many stops before she gets off. Otherwise, you might be hovering over the wrong potential seat. Plus, if you're seated, you get to check out the footwear.
1:45 p.m. The relentless cheery station voice announces each stop in both Chinese and English. “The next station is Jiandemen. Please get ready for your arrival.” In Beijing, that means hovering near the door. Inexperienced riders have sometimes been forced to miss a stop because the car is so crowded you can’t make it to the door. That’s why the conventional wisdom is that it’s better to create a bottleneck by the door to ensure an easier exit.
1:50 p.m. The McDonald’s eating lady makes her way slowly and carefully through her wrap, making it last for the next 8 stops.
1:55 p.m. I see my first other foreigner on Line 10, a red-headed girl wearing a Cornell sweatshirt.
2 p.m. Everyone on the train seems to be under the age of 40. The teenagers fiddle with their smartphones, while older people doze. No one reads a book, magazine, or newspaper. Those who aren’t on their phones or sleeping chat loudly with their friends or stare dully at the scuffed floor.
2:05 p.m. A female worker in a solid blue suit walks through the car carrying a bag for trash.
2:10 p.m. At Huoqiying station, an enormous poster advertising pizza shows black olives the side of my head. The McDonald’s lady has dozed off.
2:15 p.m. A young couple sits across from me, the man wearing a tee shirt that says “Brave and Justice – Black Power.” They’re Chinese, of course.
2:20 p.m. The roar of the subway car underground does not stop passengers from shouting into their cell phones.
2:25 p.m. Almost everyone exits the car at Gongzhufen station, one of the connecting stations to Line 1, which goes through the center of Beijing past Tiananmen.
2:30 p.m. A beggar woman comes through the car, announcing her presence with blaring music, and pushing a cart that holds some sort of deformed child or person, who seems to be asleep or drugged. It’s impossible to ignore her, so I hand her a one-yuan note, and she nods as she passes.
2:35 p.m. Three friends are talking, and one woman decides she wants to see what’s on her friend’s phone. She shoves herself between a stranger standing by the door and her friend, and the stranger just moves toward the opposite door with a neutral look on her face. Being body-checked on the subway is not a big deal.
2:40 p.m. Almost all of the newer stations, constructed in the last year, look the same: white tiles, bland signs. A bright green sign advertises the Beijing Garden Expo.
2:45 p.m. I had prided myself on snagging one of the seats, but after an hour, the hard gray seat starts to get uncomfortable. But I hold steady. I know that the minute I stand, my spot will be taken.
2:50 p.m. More beggars arrive, also playing music. This time it’s a woman leading a man who is walking with a stick. At first the man seems to be blind, but then I realized he was staring at each passenger in turn. His eye contact is either a good fake or he can really see me. I decide not to part with my one yuan.
2:55 p.m. At Guomao station, in the heart of the central business district, the car gets crowded again. A man stands directly in front of me and rubs his stomach. I decide it’s not disturbing enough to give up my seat. Two young women stand with their arms wrapped around each other.
3:05 p.m. The circle is complete. My legs are stiff from sitting so long. I follow signs for Line 13, which connects me back to Dongzhimen station, where I treat myself to a 3-RMB ice cream cone at McDonald’s. As I prepare to pay, I shove my elbow into the man who is breathing down my neck, waiting for his turn.