‘I bit my tongue to avoid a fight on Beijing’s subway’

BEIJING – There I was, minding my own business on a subway train and counting the stops to my destination on a supposedly ordinary journey.

But things turned interesting when a gruff-looking man in his 40s boarded the train and stood right next to me.

A raw smell immediately emanated from two bags of fresh fish that he had dumped next to my feet, spreading throughout the train cabin.

As if it wasn’t enough to make it an unusual train ride, the man kept pushing and jabbing his elbow into my side. After a while, it got too much, and I gave him a push with my back.

The next thing I knew, he delivered a big shove against me in retaliation. When I turned around and stared at him, he issued this challenge: “Do you want to fight?”

Being new to China and on my way to the Great Hall of the People to cover the visit of then-United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I bit my tongue to avoid a fight on Beijing’s subway last September.

Also, I was worried he would use one of his fish to slap me!

But many other commuters are not as restrained. According to news reports, fist fights between passengers are becoming more frequent as stressed-out workers board increasingly packed trains.

Such incidents make train commuting a more challenging, interesting, if not bizarre experience in China than in Singapore.

For starters, anyone who complains of crowded trains in Singapore only has to take one during rush-hour in Beijing to know what crowded really means.

I had a life-changing experience during Christmas Eve last year when I took the train at 7pm – super-peak rush hour – at the Jianguomen stop on the notoriously packed Line 1 route.

My friends and I were standing on a barely two-metre wide train platform when hordes of passengers from the departing train tried to make their way out behind us.

As they moved, they pushed the commuters standing behind us, who in turn, pushed us further forward to the platform’s edge.

At one point, I thought I was going to fall off the platform and on to the tracks – if not for my friends holding on to my jacket.

Another nightmarish scenario occurred when the train arrived and the doors opened.

I felt a gigantic force propelling me forward into the train while commuters alighting tried their darndest to get out.

Talk about being sandwiched!

It didn’t get better when I entered the packed cabin and had to stand almost like a contortionist.

One hand clutching dearly to the metal bar above the head, another holding a shopping bag with a Christmas gift was stuck behind someone’s back.

It didn’t help too that every passenger was decked out in thick winter wear, with many smelling like they hadn’t showered in days (which is apparently the practice here during winters).

Needless to say, these two incidents have left me more appreciative of the MRT in Singapore and also taught me some lessons on taking the subway in Beijing.

First, plan. Trains get really packed from around 6-7pm, so one has to either travel earlier or later.

Second, pick the right spots. Commuters need to know the right stretch of the platform to stand and the right cabins to board to avoid being stuck in a really crowded situation.

Third, pick one’s battles. Stand firm to prevent others from cutting queues and to ensure one can board and alight safely, while avoiding fights.

Fourth, hope for the best. There’s nothing one can do if a passenger decides to treat the train as his toilet and defecate or urinate in the cabin, like some have been doing reportedly.

If all else fails, take a cab.