How big is Beijing? Let me count the ways.
It’s land area is equivalent to 156 Parises, 20 New York Cities, 10 Londons, and is bigger than the entire state of Connecticut. Countries that are smaller than Beijing include Qatar, Jamaica, and Lebanon. It has 20 million people—which is more than the population of New York (the state, not the city). Once my friend texted me that he will be late for dinner because it’s pouring outside. I looked up the sky, and it was sunny.
I didn’t grow up in Beijing. But like many of my friends from second-tier cities in northern China, I have been converted to a half-Beijinger—I have to go to Beijing each time I go home since there are no direct flights to my city (those from the south have become half-Shanghaiers). I’ve spent summers here; I know the subway map; I can go to places without looking up directions.
To be honest, the only reason I go to Beijing is that I have to. Some cities are big but feel small. Beijing is big and feels even bigger. It’s big in a way that makes you feel tiny and powerless. Its bigness is suffocatingly mind-blowing. It is, above all, unpleasant.
Because Beijing is so big, you accept inconvenience as a fact of life. I usually budget 30 minutes for a trip of three miles. If your map says it takes half an hour to get somewhere, give it an hour. This applies even if you’re taking the subway. It may take you 15 minutes just to enter the station and get into the line to get on the train. Sometimes there’s a line to enter the train station.
You can never appreciate how populous China is until you try to change from Beijing subway’s line 10 to line 1 at 8:30am on a weekday. You use your feet for shuffling, not walking. You’re swept up in a stream of human flow so enormous it will make you feel as insignificant as an ant in an army of ants. Try doing this when you’re feeling depressed, self-conscious or unloved. You will realize that you are just one of the three thousand people trying to get to work, and that nobody gives a damn about you or your problems. They just want to get on the goddamn train (you would be lucky if you manage to squeeze in the third train that passes by).
A friend working in Beijing told me he prefers getting stuck in traffic in a car to getting squished on the subway, because “at least you have dignity.” Beijing is perhaps one of the few places in the world where you have to choose between dignity and efficiency. Another friend told me she avoids buying expensive clothes because she cannot wear them on crowded subway trains for fear of being harassed.
When you get off the subway in Beijing, it’s very important to know which exit to take for your destination. Going through the wrong exit can cost you 15 minutes of extra walking and send you to head-scratching frustration.
I’m pretty sure that if anyone loves the city, it’s for reasons other than livability. Whoever designed Beijing did not seem to have human inhabitability in mind. The width of one road in Beijing can be the equivalent of two or three blocks in a normal Western city. And many of them are perfectly un-crossible. I once accidentally got on a bus on the wrong side of the road. After I got off the bus one stop later, I just could not find a way for the life of me to cross the road, so I got a DiDi to my destination (naturally I was stuck in traffic for half an hour).
Because Beijing is so big, you must allow commuting to take over huge chunks of your day. It can take up to 5 minutes to cross a road, up to 25 minutes to walk from one side of World Trade Center to the other, and up to 30 minutes to drive two miles. When I have meetings in Beijing I sometimes spend up to 6 hours each day just on shuttling among various parts of the city. That’s half of my productive hours. For many Beijingers, one-hour commute to work is normal; below an hour is very lucky (over half of Beijingers live outside the Fifth Ring Road). A friend told me that she once had to go from Baidu’s headquarter to JD.com’s in one day—and it took her four hours (The new high-speed train can take you from Beijing to Shanghai in the same amount of time). If your boyfriend travels from one side of Beijing to the other just to have a meal with you, you know he’s a keeper.
Once I went out to Sanlitun and tried to get a cab home at 1:30 a.m. There was a traffic jam.
Because Beijing is so big, you are compelled to invent methods to edge up your productivity. It’s hard to be productive while commuting in Beijing. Your time is sucked away while you’re anxiously looking at the clock on your phone, texting your friend apologies, trying to read random articles on WeChat without being able to focus.
Perhaps one reason that the podcast app XimalayaFM has become so popular is that when you are stuck in traffic, listening to podcast might be the only way to stay productive. You know that you will have nausea if you read on a cab that is frequently jerking to a stop in heavy traffic. You know that the frequent subway interchanges prevents you from prolonged attention. You know that you don’t even have elbow room to hold up your phone or e-reader on the crowded subway. So you listen to podcasts (and make sure to put the earphones in before getting on the train).
Because Beijing is so big, you accept and forgive your own and other people’s lateness. I consider myself a very punctual person—except when I’m in Beijing. Punctuality in Beijing is a matter of luck, not will. Once I arranged a dinner with eight friends in Beijing for 6:30, and no one showed up until 7. Normally I would be upset, but this is Beijing. When you’re late in Beijing, you don’t even need to explain yourself. There’s a “we are all in this together” kind of camaraderie, and the blame is on Beijing, not on you.
My heart goes out to everyone who is reading this while stuck in a Beijing traffic jam.