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A Night of Travel in Beijing

Beijing subway, leaving land of scorpions on sticks, 10:15 pm, Friday night.

Written in a state of mild and sweaty delirium. Please exclude the self-indulgence. Possibly there will be actual Olympics posts today. Possibly not.

I left the land of pop-a-shot basketball and fried scorpions and sheep penis on sticks around 9:30. Got past the security and into the subway system around 10. If I had a car, and no one lived in Beijing, I could have been at my desk by 10:20 or so.

Instead, I missed a train because every cubic inch of space inside was filled with flesh, left the subway system to try to take a cab, watched dozens of people in front of me fail to get a cab, watched the traffic on the main drag not move, went back into the subway system, passed through two more separate security checkpoints, was wanded once, made three transfers involving four lines--one of which required me to walk about a half-mile outside--and got to my desk around 11:35. And the entire time I had the rank smell of fried boiled? silkworms in my nostrils.

Here are a few things you might want to know about traveling through the Beijing subway system late at night during the Olympics:

Waiting to get through subway security line, 10 pm.

1) The trains never stop running. You never listen to a muffled voice telling you "this train will resume moving in a moment." You never wait for long for the next train. The air conditioning never conks out. The card readers never fail. And there are no homeless people asking you for money. It's quite disorienting.

2) There are flat screen TVs in every car. I might have already noted this, but I don't care. I'll note it again. There are flat screen TVs in every car.

3) The young Chinese couples hug and grope each other pretty much continuously. No kissing. No making out. But lots of prolonged, starry-eyed, hands-through-the-hair bodily contact. This can get awkward in packed cars.

4) Inside the stations are the same garbage bins that you see everywhere in this city: one for "recyclables," one for "other waste," side by side, both filled with plain old trash. The act of creating the "recycling" bins has done far more harm to the environment than the lack of bins would do, because there ain't one person in this town recycling.

5) The campaign against public spitting still has a few folks left to convert. Including, it must be said, dry-mouthed foreign bloggers.

6) The metro cards are amazing. You can put them in right side up or upside down or frontwards or backwards and they still work.

And a few more observations from a day in which I accomplished nothing while sweating through my clothing and failing to eat:

1) There are like 16 million people in this city. So why do I keep running into people I know, miles and miles from any Olympic venues? (Answer: because all foreigners go to the same three spots, apparently.) Within a span of four hours, I randomly encountered two of the Dutch rowing fans who shotgunned beers for me, the three Australians who promised to sell me an inflatable kangaroo, American bronze medalist in judo Ronda Rousey (48 hours of veganism and counting!) and Comcast SportsyNet employee Leslie Reader, who I didn't even know was in Beijing. She has a blog.

2) Things like that make the town seem small. Things like sitting in a cab in the middle of an eight-lane street, listening to Rhapsody in Blue on the stereo and just not moving at all make the town seem big. The cabbie finally kicked me out a block from my destination, gave himself a 50 percent tip by failing to give me correct change, and refused to give me a receipt.

3) The sky was blue today. Bright blue. Clean air. Glorious, fresh blue air.

4) About every other toddler on the streets has short pants with a slit down the back, allowing full crack exposure. It's a phenomenon.

5) The smell of cooked silk worms just doesn't leave you. Get out of my life, silkworm smell, get out.

6) I guess sports were played, somewhere.

The final train I took tonight. I was literally the only passenger. It's a dedicated Olympic line.

By Dan Steinberg  |  August 15, 2008; 12:48 PM ET
Categories:  Olympics  
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Next: Getting Meta With Scorpions on Sticks


This was awesome.. That last shot on the subway reminds me of the movie Vanilla sky.

Posted by: Ian | August 15, 2008 1:13 PM | Report abuse

excellent post! That's the China I want to hear about.

Posted by: johnr | August 15, 2008 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I really appreciate your posts and have enjoyed your blog quite a bit. Keep up the good work! And please don't bring home the open air onesies for Baby Bog. That isn't something we need over here!

Posted by: pgp | August 15, 2008 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Love this, really conveys the feel of the weariness and wonder that comes with these experiences. Thanks!

Posted by: soonermama | August 15, 2008 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Kim may, or may not have worn the same toddler fashions when he was little. I'm just saying, as far as family stories go, he did.

Posted by: Maggie | August 15, 2008 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Sounds a lot like the Red Line after a Nats game.

Posted by: Bill Fitzgerald | August 15, 2008 9:05 PM | Report abuse

OMG..can you imagine the stink in that subway car??? These people smell like garlic and whatever other weird crap they ingest. But can you imagine standing in that car with 50 chinese people. I would gag!

Posted by: Blue | August 16, 2008 1:09 AM | Report abuse

I understand that you must be tired and everything, but your observations are mostly inaccurate: Trains do stop running usually sometime before midnight (though maybe it's different during Olympics); I've been in plenty of trains that are too cold with the air con; there used to be a legless person singing through a creepy amplifier in his backpack dragging himself across the ground on nearly every train, but they've all disappeared since about May; LOTS of people recycle in the city, they've just all been shooed away for the Games (and the reason you see no cans in the recycle bins is because collectors come by to pick them up routinely -- easy cash)... and other things. Otherwise. Good post.

Posted by: Luke | August 16, 2008 7:42 AM | Report abuse

Hey Luke, obviously you seem to be speaking from experience here, whereas I'm speaking from 90 minutes one night in the middle of the Olympics, which I think would be pretty clear to anyone reading this.

But even if these things are all special to the Olympics, the fact is I've never had to wait for a train, I've never seen one recyclable product in a recyclable bin anywhere in this city, and I've never seen anyone bumming for money. It all feels a bit unreal, and obviously to a certain extent it is, but I'm trying to write about what it's like to be at the Olympics.

As for "the trains never stop running," I didn't mean they run through the night. I meant, unlike in D.C., you're never stranded inside a train stuck between two stations for 10 minutes for reasons unknown.

And the air in D.C. trains sometimes conks out in the middle of the summer. I'd rather be cold.

Posted by: Dan Steinberg | August 16, 2008 8:52 AM | Report abuse

I've been living in Chengdu, where the citizenry likewise toss their drink bottles without regard to which bin is marked "recyclables". What Luke is referring to is the scavengers who dig through the bins for bottles & cans, who have presumably been kicked out as part of an Olympic beautification project.

I haven't been on Beijing's subway but Shanghai's is also quite nice.

Posted by: William | August 16, 2008 9:36 AM | Report abuse

That crack down the pants of the toddlers is for a quick and easy poo poo and doo doo and wee wee on any spot they choose, whether at a mall entrance or at a bus stop. If you have lived any period of time in China, then you'd know, the crack is for convenience, not as a fashion statement. :-)

Posted by: Swoop | August 17, 2008 7:27 PM | Report abuse

If you ever talk to expatriates in China, then many of the women will tell you how jealous they are of the Chinese women who seem not to sweat or sweat less. They don't smell much. There is a saying in China that women smell sweet and men are salty.

But the real smell you will experience are from the lower classes who re-wear their clothes for many days because hanging clothes to dry takes a long time and sometimes they don't dry when it rains or the air is wet. Also, Chinese tend to shower less often than Americans, and often at night.

But the younger generation is dabbling in perfumes and colognes, and of course that is offset by the amount of milk, cheese and other fatty stuffs Americans have eaten for ages. Life in China. Many can visit. Few can survive and live here for long.

And just think, China has really tried to clean up Beijing so foreigners get a better image of China during the Olympics. Think how it is to live normally elsewhere. You have it easy Mr. Steinberg! :-)

Posted by: Swoop | August 17, 2008 7:35 PM | Report abuse

Luke is right - China recycles -- everything. The great irony is that they don't even need to have the separate bins labeled for recycling, because "entrepreneurs" will fish the cans and bottles out of both bins. This has been happening in all cities in China for the 10 years I've been in and out of the country.

Posted by: Scoopster | August 17, 2008 9:58 PM | Report abuse

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