If you really want to see if you can survive China, then your first test should be traversing the subway through peak hour traffic. With around 10 million people traversing the subway every day, it’s certainly not for faint-hearted. The sea of people stream along and subway officials eagerly push people into each carriage like they are stuffing clothes into a suitcase that’s just about to burst. (That really does happen. Officials stand outside each carriage and literally push people in, either to make sure the door closes or to make space for two more feet). With no personal space and someone’s elbow in your right hip, it can be a pretty daunting, not to mention suffocating experience. Not entirely impossible though.
Here are a few tips to help you along if you do find yourself at the subway station somewhere between 7 – 9 am and 6 – 8 pm.
Have your subway card ready as you approach the pay gate. Don’t forget to stand behind the yellow line as you swipe your card. This will ensure the gate opens periodically and you can keep moving.
Many locals use the pay gates for disabled people, even though they themselves are not disabled. These gates are usually bigger and easier to move through so if there is no disabled or elderly person around, you can use these too.
During peak hour, uses the stairs instead of the escalators. Apart from the fact that a packed-to-capacity escalator scares the hell out of me, you can almost always be certain that the stairs are slightly less packed which means you will have (just a little) more space as you walk down.
As you walk down the stairs, look around for signs that will guide you for your next move. The walls above are usually painted with signs for end stations to guide you to the right or left. While on the stairs, you are much higher up which means the signs will be more visible than having to rush through hundreds of people as you find the information boards.
One of things that really irks me in China, is that some (not all) people don’t follow the queue. It’s common to have an elderly couple (or even a young lady with kids) try to cut past you because they feel they have the right too. While I often let the elderly couples break the rules, I rarely tolerate anyone else. Everyone has to wait their turn to get on the subway. Don’t make a scene but be aware of it. If you see it about to happen, try and move your body out slightly so they can’t cut past you.
During peak hour, it’s common for the carriages to full more than maximum capacity. If you see or feel like there is no space when attempting to get on, then step back behind the yellow line and wait for the next subway. At this point, you may see two, three or even four locals cut past you and push their way in. Let them.
Have an idea of where your next destination will be before you get on the subway. If you have at least three stops before you need to get off, then once inside, make your way further in towards the back of the carriage. If the next stop is your destination, then stand as near to the door as possible.
There is no such thing as personal space in China so don’t be alarmed if someone’s elbow is knocking into your side, or if the tip of someone’s phone is in your face. Just turn your head the other way and avoid eye contact.
Since everyone is standing pretty close to each other, be wary of your pockets and bags when in the subway. You won’t be able to tell the difference between someone rubbing against you or someone trying to sneak their hand into your pocket.
When your stop is approaching, squeeze yourself towards the door as best you can. Not only will more people try to push their way in at the next stop, but there will also be a flurry or people trying to get off in the limited time available.
You can also try saying: Xià chē ma? which means Are you getting off?
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Do you have any tips for surviving the Chinese subway system during peak hours? I’d love to hear them!