"New Beijing"=Unlivable Beijing? Part 1 (Or Trying to Defend the Undefendable)

I consider myself a "老北京人" and my love for and pride in this city has been on display since my very first blog post. The slogan in 2001 when Beijing was bidding for the Olympics was "New Beijing, Great Olympics" and while its unclear how the latter will turn out, its obvious there has been "success" in achieving the former, whether that's a good thing has yet to be determined.

I've been in the "New Beijing" for about a month and my shock and dislike of many aspects of the city I call home is jarring. I've been meaning to blog about it, but after trying to combine it together in one post, I've quickly realized its best as a number of separate posts, though they will be interconnected.

To me, Beijing has always been the little city inside the 2nd Ring Road, or at the very most, inside the 3rd Ring Road. Thus, if there was someplace that I didn't choose to bike to or due to inclimate weather, the subway was always an excellent option for getting around. The movements toward a "New Beijing" that occurred during the first Olympic bid and also as preparation for the 50th Anniversary of China in 1999 were very welcome, an expanding of line 1 that was convenient for shoppers (Wangfujing, Yonganli) as well as tourists (Tiananmen East & West) and office workers (GuoMao). There was basically no place the loop line and line 1 couldn't take you (or at least a subway ride and a 10 minute bus/cab ride). The subway showed its age and could really use a good scrubbing, made all the more obvious riding the loop line after line 1 opened up, but it was convenient and never too crowded.

Over the past few years, as more and more people come to the city, the subway has gotten more crowded, but it always rationally so, during the morning/evening rush it could get pretty packed, but rarely (and only at the very height of rush hour) uncomfortably so.

However, the Beijing government has decided to reduce the prices of subway tickets to RMB2 and for your 2 kuai, you can now go ANYWHERE the subway will take you (instead of the previously scaled pricing). They've also ingeniously (sarcasm detector is going off the charts) decided to experiment with the proper number of cars needed at certain times of day. Well, the laobaixing have voted with their feet and now, no matter what time of day it is, if you're on the subway, expect a crowd. Whether its 7 pm on a Tuesday, 10 am on a Thursday, or 3 pm on a Sunday, don't expect to find a seat.

If its around 8 am or 6 pm, haha, you're in for an experience. First, just because a train is arriving doesn't mean you will get on, due to the lines it may be 2 or 3 trains later before you actually get on. Further, walking isn't necessary, just stand still and let the surge of the masses push you forward (as they surely will) and go from standing outside the train to finding yourself pushed into the middle of the car, squeezed tightly up against four people and with barely enough space to breath.

That said, if you wait until 9 (if your job gives you that sort of flexibility), the experience is much more humane. The subway is clean, with line 1 being cleaner overall than the older line 2 (the "loop line") stations, though the line 2 stations are often more interesting. The "notorious" nature of the subway and the smell talked about by this blogger is not something I've experienced. Granted, in the summer when you're squished that tightly against your fellow human and its already freaking hot outside, it can be a bit unpleasant and at the same time, you may be squeezed up against some peasant, but the subway cars and stations are pretty clean, especially compared to most major city subways around the world. Some of the older cars seem to have strange electrical problems at times, creating the surreal experience of riding (albeit briefly) in a dark subway car while an ultramodern, electronic led ad is showing just outside the subway window.

The Beijing subway is cheap, clean, and fast (and it even beat out Shanghai's subway, to my surprise). It's the best way to avoid the insane traffic on the streets and exceedingly easy for tourists to use as everything is well marked in Chinese and English, even which exits to use (something that was lacking in Shenzhen and I think Shanghai as well). As the city has expanded, so has the subway, and expansion is only going to continue in the run up to the Olympics. The great, old (very retro feel) paper tickets are now a thing of the past, but most Beijingers (me included) are happy about that, as most people use the modern transportation card that can be used on the subway and buses of Beijing. While I've avoided the crazy masses of the subway lately and once again returned to taking the bus (and in many cases been able to avoid the crowds), for my money, the subway is still the best way to get around the city.


Peking Man said...

Must we wait until 2008 for that crazy situation at Xizhimen station exit to finally get squared away? I thought taking the subway to that northwest corner and then making a bus transfer might be easy, but it's been a mess for over 5 years.

Micah said...

I hope you were being facetious with the "beat out Shanghai's subway" comment (I think you were). We've got three lines opening up in a couple weeks, not to mention a couple of extensions to existing lines; plus our stored-value cards work in the metro, on buses *and* in taxis (plus give you a discount on metro-bus transfers, and more discount after you've spent RMB 70 each month). And all of our interchanges are reasonable walks or are being redone; when I was in Beijing a few weeks ago I changed from the loop line to Line 13 at Xizhimen and the walk took almost 10 minutes! It was like a labyrinth.