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Tubular Ayi

Hey Ayi, What¹s the deal with all the digging at the east end of Chang An Street? People tell me it¹s subway construction, but then they tell me that every time I ask about a new hole in the road. Please give me the lowdown on the Beijing underground! Sign Me,
Subterranean Homesick Blues

Dear Subterranean,
It just so happens that your Ayi is somewhat of an expert on the Beijing subway. I was lucky enough to work in the women¹s underground rail-laying corps in the 1960s, helping to build the subterranean iron road or dixia tielu, usually shortened to ditie. Ah yes, what a party we had in Tiananmen the summer of Œ69 when it finally openedŠ

The first line of the subway was built underneath the Second Ring Road, which as you know follows the ancient city wall dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). This circle line is 39.7 km long. The trains run on 1.435 meter gauge tracks, powered by 750 volts of juice.

There are now 31 stations for those layabouts who can¹t be bothered to spend a couple of hours a day on a bicycle. They include the loop line and the newer east-west line that extends out to the far western suburb of Pingguoyuan (Apple Orchard). This line is heavily utilized by commuters from the urban sprawl of Beijing¹s western district. You should be grateful you¹re even permitted on the east-west line, because foreigners weren¹t allowed near it until 1980 because of the military installations concentrated in the area. Even today, the subway is still an integral link in Beijing¹s anti-imperialist defense and evacuation plan, and it is an open secret that there are subway lines under the city utilized only by the armed forces.

During rush hour, the ditie is sardine-tight with eager proletariat commuting between homes and work units all over the capital. During non-peak hours, riding the subway can actually be a pleasant experience, especially for those people doing it for non-transportation reasons: pickpockets, undercover cops and‹in the winter‹homeless tramps who can scratch together the ¥2 fare that allows passengers to stay in the subway system for an unlimited time, as long as they don¹t ever exit.

You may think that the trains are crowded, but compared to the ren shan ren hai (oceans and mountains of people) conditions on the ground, they are a good bet. At least they get you where you are going quickly and allow avoidance of being mown down by a truck. It takes just under one hour for a subway train to go around the Second Ring Road during rush hour. You just try doing that above ground by cab. One caveat however: when on the train during crush hours, mind your pockets, because that¹s when some of the more unsavory elements of modern China are at work. These snake-spirits would think nothing of liberating a laowai¹s wallet. Would you believe that one of these scamps even tried to pick the pocket of your old Ayi? My early days of vocal training with the Beijing Opera women¹s auxiliary came in handy, though, and a few shouts of ³xiaotou² (thief) from my lungs sent the counterrevolutionary scoundrel scurrying like the running dog he was.

The other inconvenience associated with the subway is the construction of new lines and the extension of the existing two. Engineers and migrant workers are already hard at work on the project, which means‹you guessed it!‹more holes in a road near you. When finally completed, the new subway system is intended to have 12 lines. The next line to be built will go from Beiyuan (north of Asian Games Village) to a terminus at Songjiazhuang south of the city.

These tube dreams may be realized long after I have departed to meet the Jade Emperor in the Sky, but Beijing city planners are promising that the extension of the existing east-west line will be complete before the 50th anniversary of Communist rule on October 1 this year. Xidan will be connected all the way to Bawangfen, a residential and light industrial area a few kilometers east of China World Trade Center. The Bawangfen station will be a few minute¹s walk away from Beijing¹s Red Star Erguotou factory, so the station opening party promises to be a blast.

Looking at the naked cement pillars and unfilled holes along Chang An Road, it¹s hard to believe the October deadline is realistic. But whether complete or not, nobody can deny the positive impact the subway has had on the lives of ordinary Beijingers. Although the subway is thought of as transport for the proletarian masses, the new suburban line extensions will encourage the bourgeoisie to commute by train too. When people get gloriously rich, they move away from the center of the city. In Beijing, many of these types are moving east, so the extended subway may become fashionable once again.

Back in the 1970s, a train ticket only cost one mao (or 10 fen). This price rose in slow increments throughout the booming 80s and early 90s, until a dose of free market thinking (inspired perhaps by the UK¹s famous Iron Ayi) caused the fare to leap from ¥0.50 to ¥2 in January 1998. This money is hopefully being used to fund the continued expansion of the subway network.

Learning some of the major stops on the loop line might help you out. Getting off at Qianmen station is a good place to start, as it is right next to Tian¹anmen Square. This station sits directly under the gate once used exclusively by the emperor and his entourage when they left the imperial palace. At the northeast corner of the loop line, Xizhimen station is close to the Beijing Zoo, home of Ting Ting and Ling Ling, Beijing¹s notoriously randy panda couple.

East from Xizhimen on the loop line, Yonghegong station is a minute¹s walk from both the Lama Temple and Beijing¹s main Confucian temple. Jianguomen station is close to many embassies, Ritan Park and of course the ironically-named Friendship Store. If you¹re feeling adventurous, the cross-town line runs from Xidan to Pingguoyuan. Important stops for tourists are Muxidi near the White Cloud Taoist Temple, the Military Museum station and the Shijingshan Amusement Park.

Don¹t miss your stop!

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