Anyone who has dared venture outside their apartment door is immediately greeted by the diverse sights and smells that a cultural hub like Beijing has to offer. One particularly poignant sight is the 8am rush on the Beijing subway. On the streets above, pedestrians constantly bump into each other, cars are gridlocked, and motorcycles whistle through the traffic at high speeds. The solution to the road issue is located 20 metres below, a vast network of trains, with commuters swarming onto the narrow carriages. However, the commotion up top is almost certainly paralleled by the pandemonium below. Yet whilst the road users have a disregard for naive pedestrians, the well-regimented underground system filters everyone through a security system and down to the subway below within 3 minutes. As long as you have your trusty Beijing subway card in hand, you can expect a pleasant trip…to the carriage at least.

Riding the crowded Beijing subways

At the platform, you must decide to board either left or right, whilst the conductor berates you for not getting into the queue quick enough. Once the train arrives, a sea of jet-black hair jammed tightly together opens up through the train doors. You attempt to squeeze onto the carriage without your cheek being pushed up against the window, something that still eludes this commuter. Once aboard you are given a cross-section of modern Chinese society. From the high-powered businessman to the tea lady, both of whom are commuting to the World Trade Centre, everyone rides the air-conditioned Beijing subway. Even for a novice traveller such as myself, the train offers a colour board to signal the station you are at and tells you in real time where you are going. In China, failure is not an option.

If you’re lucky enough to chance upon the correct exit, the all too familiar haze of the Beijing environment greets you as you emerge from the rabbit warren below. Pollution aside, the journey, whilst not entirely comfortable, has been timely and efficient. Provided you are able to drag your laptop bag from under the feet of other commuters on the Beijing subway, you may even find yourself 15 minutes early for work.

To anyone who has ventured to the London Underground, or any other form of public transportation in the United Kingdom, you may have become accustomed to the sporadic timing of the different modes of transport. A disgruntled Brit in the UK becomes an uncomfortable Brit in China. As the Chinese proverb goes Chángjiāng hòulàng tuī qiánlàng (长江后浪推前浪) – meaning the next generation exceeds the last one. The Beijing subway is a metaphor for the economy: competitive, busy, efficient, and perhaps, most importantly, always improving.