It’s been 35 degrees plus, with 89% humidity in Beijing recently. So hot that those of us from chilly, damp climes are wilting. Normally I like to walk around Beijing – there’s always so much to see, and it’s quite easy to find your way, with street names that so clearly tell you where you are like “so and so North street”; “such and such outside street” (ie outside the old city walls); “such and such gate” (ie by an ancient gate on the old city walls).
But in this weather I dive immediately into the subway – an underground mirror world that’s air conditioned and quiet, and takes me effortlessly to my destination. And is endlessly fascinating.
The Beijing subway system is heading to be the most extensive in the world, as well as the busiest and, being so much newer than those of New York or Paris, for example, it has many of the advantages of recent construction and new trains. Not just air conditioning, but also regularly-placed stations; wifi access throughout; wide passageways and escalators; safe platforms and all signs and announcements on the trains in English as well as Chinese. It’s also entirely logical and as a result easy to navigate, with lines named 1 to 15, each with its separate colour and transfer stations clearly indicated.
One of the things I so enjoy about the Metro is that, as you speed around the city underground, you are constantly reminded of how old a city Beijing is; how dynasty has succeeded dynasty here and how history is there if you know how to look. On Line 2 the names of some stations, and the shape of the line itself, are a reminder of the fact that until the 20th century, Beijing was ringed by massive city walls pierced by giant gates. And that these gates and the walls themselves were torn down to make way for the Metro and for the 2nd ring road – a triumph of progress that seems closer to an act of tragic vandalism to a tourist today, but that is a window into what was important to people in China at that time. (You can see what gates and walls once looked like at the Ming City wall park, one of those fascinating corners of Beijing that many visitors miss https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/beijing/ming-city-wall.htm).
Those station names are one echo of the past; at other stations the design and decoration make that link. At Beitucheng, on Line 8, the swirling blue and white design recalls the city built here by Kublai Khan in the 13th century. His Yuan dynasty became famous for its blue and white porcelain, created with cobalt blue imported from Iran, and then exported all over Asia and the Middle East. Yongle, founder of the Ming dynasty, built his city on top of Kublai Khan’s, destroying much of the latter in the process, including his palace, but near Beitucheng station you can visit the rammed earth city walls of Yuan Dadu, an even bigger city than Ming era Beijing.
At Dongsi, on Line 5, bas reliefs show life in Old Beijing. Street traders, a procession, two strolling friends all pass under one of the 8 colourful ceremonial archways built by Emperor Yongle, but which were removed in 1954. (For other interesting Beijing metro stations, have a look here)
A friend – whose grandfather was part of the original Metro construction team – told me that when Lines 1 and 2 were opened in the late 60s, the subway was such a novelty that Beijing families would buy tickets, not to go anywhere, but just to experience subway travel. And in a way that’s what I do today. Speeding through the tunnels, in the cool of the train, watching moving video adverts on the tunnel walls – something I’ve never seen elsewhere; trying to improve my Chinese by listening to the announcements carefully before they are repeated in English; glued to the cartoons, mini-dramas and information videos on the on-train TV screens and spotting the links between this subterranean world and the history of the city, I’m mainly enjoying the fact that the subway is a great place to people watch. In fact, it’s the best place I know for watching a certain kind of Beijing person – the up and coming generation. Educated, tech-savvy, fashionable, these under 30s are the dominant group among your fellow travellers on the Metro. I love to observe their fashions – idiosyncratic, cool and sharp, but often with a touch of sentimental whimsy. I enjoy their interactions – there’s always lots of chatter and laughter on the Beijing metro – and their body language. I’m fascinated by what people are watching on their phones – and that goes for almost everyone. Above all, what I love is that you rarely see that miserable commuter look – so common in Paris or London – where everyone is trying to pretend they’d rather be anywhere else but here…Most people seem to be having as much fun as I am…