Honestly, I was so scared to use the Beijing subway system for so many reasons. First reason, I have never used a subway before and wasn’t comfortable using one. Secondly, I was worried about the language barrier and being trapped somewhere far from home. Now that I have used the subway system in Beijing, I realized that there was nothing to be scared of and is perfect for those that want to save money and time whilst traveling all over Beijing!
Ever since we have moved to our new place, we have begun using the subway more and more. For the reasons listed above, I was really nervous to use the subway. Now I can honestly say, it has been one of our best decisions since moving to China to begin using this mode of transportation. We used to spend THOUSANDS of rmb a month on transportation via Didi and now we only spend several hundred. Seriously, a Didi trip across the city would cost 100 rmb one way and now it costs roughly 30 rmb (for all three of us) BOTH ways. The subway is the best and now it is the only way I travel before 11 pm. Sure, sometimes we have to walk a block or two but it is totally worth it for the money we are saving. However, one insider tip is to use the Didi app to navigate your surroundings, not just to order a car!! My husband taught me that if you put the address of wherever you are trying to go into the Didi app, you can scroll in and find the subway station nearest to your destination. Then it is just a matter of buying your ticket and going! Keep in mind, most of the subway stations only have the big map at the ticket kiosk or on the platform itself which can be confusing if you are already on the subway. Take a picture and use it whenever you forget which line/exit you need to head to!
Whenever you use the subway, you will have to go through a security check. They will let you bring backpacks, purses, and even suitcases on the subway but it has to go through the security check. They will scan you, your luggage, and sometimes your water bottle. I have never been stopped by security and I have seen people bring groceries and pre-packaged food, so you are allowed to bring quite a bit on the subway. However, I know you will not be allowed to bring any open drinks or food on the subway except water, so no Starbucks sorry! Once you are through security, you need to buy your ticket. You purchase them out of a machine that is in both Chinese and English! Hallelujah! Tickets cost anywhere from 3-6 rmb in my experience. The ONLY time I have seen it more expensive is when you are taking the express route straight to PEK airport which is amazing at 25 rmb ($3.58). You can also get to all major train stations and it is the same ticket price which can still save you a ton of money. The machine is extremely easy to use and then it gives you a plastic pass that you scan before and after your ride. It will collect the pass through a slot and let you leave at your last station. You can get a permanent pass with a deposit of 20 rmb at a booth near security and let you reload it either through the machine or in-person. We have purchased a reloadable ticket for each member of our family and we love it. (Keep in mind, when using cash to buy tickets you can only use 5 & 10 rmb notes. Recharging cards allows notes from 10-100 rmb. 1 rmb coins are only permitted sometimes). Locals usually use their phones to scan their way in and out of the subway, but I haven’t figured that out yet and my kid can’t do it that way anyhow.
I have ridden on the subway dozens of times and are amazed at how clean it is. If I see a food wrapper or receipt sitting on the floor, there is someone cleaning it up within minutes. I am never worried about safety because there is always a bao an (guard) on every ride. Now that I have been traveling on the subway regularly, I can’t believe that I wasted money on a Didi every time I needed transportation. Because the city is so big and so crowded, a private car can take 1-1.5 hours to get across town during rush hour at 10x the expense. A subway takes time, but it always takes the same amount of time, no matter what time a day. However, I have seen some CROWDED subways. We are talking sardine-style crowded where people are pushing to get on or off. Those with claustrophobia may have some issues with rush hour. However, this is still very easy to get used to and I have no problem venturing out during these crowded times. When the subway begins, I find that it is so much easier to take the ‘surfer stance’. This is where you have your legs spread apart and fluctuating your weight when the subway jolts forward. Even people that use the subway everyday will lose their balance while using phones or talking, so the surfer stance helps you from falling face first. More times than not, you will need to take more than one subway to get to your destination. CHINA MAKES IT SO EASY! Sure, I don’t have any other subways to compare to, but I have found that it so easy to navigate. Each subway line has a different number and color, making it easy to distinguish on maps. When you get off, there are arrows on the ground and ceiling to direct you to the proper destination. This helps SO much when you have never been at that station before. Also, check the maps above the subway entrances/exits because most subways go both ways. This can let you know if you need to get this subway or the other before you jump on!
I am still surprised that the subways go both above and underground, depending which line you are on. I was even more amazed that some subways take you directly beneath airports, train stations, and even some of the bigger/newer malls! If I had known that when I had started my Beijing adventure, I don’t know if I would have wasted so much time with Didi’s. However, the subway does close around 11 pm. So if you are partying out late, a Didi may be your only way home…so thank you Didi!
Once you make it to your station, there is usually a blue light over the door that will open onto the platform, sometimes it is the right side but most times it is the left. When you get off, just be aware that it is not uncommon to get pushed in China. It is part of the culture, try not to get upset because they will not understand why you are angry at an everyday part of their life. If you see a seat open up on a subway, hesitating will lose you that seat quickly. It has happened to me dozens of times, even if you are close to that seat there will be someone that bolts out of nowhere to sit down before you. Grandma can move pretty darn fast when there is a subway seat involved. In other words, hesitating is for losers lol. If you have kids, teach them to hold on to you because sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of little ones on a crowded subway. Most important, whatever you do, DO NOT try to jump on the subway once the doors are making their loud BEEPs right before closing. I have seen so many people try and it scares the crap out of me. Thank god for the giant glass doors outside of the subway or I would be scared of people being caught between the doors. They didn’t use to have those security doors, but after an unfortunate accident that I won’t get into, they are common on almost all subway platforms.
Once you have reached your station, you will need to figure out which exit to go through. From my experience, it seems that all subway stations have at least 3-7 subway exits that are marked with letters. If you are not sure which exit to use, then pull out your Didi app! As I mentioned earlier in this post, you can put the address in Chinese or English on Didi and zoom in to that location to find which exit to take. This makes it much easier to exit because trying to go through a different exit after leaving the station can be extremely difficult and time consuming. If you have a temporary pass, you must feed it into the slot to exit, otherwise you scan the permanent pass and it will let you out. Follow the signs for your exit out and you will quickly find your way! Keep in mind, the stations that have numerous lines going through it will always be busy, so make sure to take your time so you are not just following the normal line of traffic. If you are handicapped, most subway stations have escalators going up/down but certainly not all. If you use a translator app and talk to a subway attendant, they can direct you to the elevators that are not always viewable from the platform.
If you plan on visiting or living in Beijing and want a few suggestions on places to travel via Subway, allow me to give you some suggestions!
- Wukesong exit B: This exit takes you straight to one of the most amazing malls I have ever been to in China! With an ice skating rink (during winter), western food, arcades, and shopping, this is definitely a great start to exploring Beijing at any age!
- Xiyuan exit C1: If you have been in China a long time and are missing the comforts of the Western world, this subway exit will lead you directly into heaven. This exit is a bit up north will lead you to Starry Street. An area directly above the subway with all of those familiar Western delights such as McDonalds, Subway, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, etc. You can also find a French bakery and imported alcohol shop. Perfect if you have a loved one that is missing home. Only one exit away from the Summer Palace too, so you could make a whole day of it!
- Beixinqiao exit C: This exit will lead you into one of the best brunch places called Grandma’s Kitchen. My husband is really a breakfast person and we had trouble finding places that served Western breakfasts items like French toast, pancakes, hash browns, etc. Grandma’s Kitchen is directly outside of this exit and opens at 10 am. I absolutely love their Country Fried Steak skillet. Once you are done, you can circle behind the subway station and find a bunch of examples of old architecture that are amazing! UPDATE: The place is still there but has been bought by another owner. No longer serve brunch foods, but make a great chocolate milkshake. Plus, there is a lot of great Chinese food places BEHIND the exit, so follow the street and go around.
- Zhongguancun exit D: This one involves a little walk, but is worth it nonetheless. Shibao street is one of the most amazing local food malls I have ever been to. My son and I found it on accident and loved that they offered so many Chinese food options in one area. Everything from hand-pulled noodles to beef organ soup was found here. With the low prices, it is a great way to see local life and eat local food in one area! Plug into Didi or Apple maps and find your way there!
- For finding subway exits and tips to major tourist sites like the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace, check out my other blog posts!