My Subterranean Fantasy- Line 1

We were strangers to one another. Well, apart from…the subway. Our paths crossed fortuitously many times, and on this steamy August morning we found ourselves Pingguoyuan-bound on Line 1. The carriages were heaving and the air was hot and merciless.

“So…do you take line 1 often?” She asked, moving closer to me as if to say –for the second largest transit network in the world, this feels awfully intimate-.

“No, not at all. I generally try to avoid it by taking the newly built line 6 that runs parallel slightly to the north. It has excellent connections to lines 4 and 10. Though I do occasionally enjoy a mid-afternoon ride, if only to appreciate the Soviet vibe that echoes through these magnificent stations.” I had revealed too much of myself for a first encounter. We had not even exchanged names and already I had more or less confided in this stranger my pathological, sensual and deeply erotic love of underground transport.

“Fascinating. I would love to hear more, but it’s time for me to…get off,” she turned away to face the kitsch schematic diagram of the 2015 Metropolitan Subway projected expansion. I feared that by divulging too much I had crossed a boundary, until she lifted her eyes and gently spoke those words I love to hear, “By the way, I hate line 1 too, I only use it to get to lines 2 and 5.”

“I’ve been waiting to hear you say that.” We both lowered our gaze to the floor, “Will I see you on the circular line tomorrow?”

“Not if I see you first.” She said as the doors opened onto a buzzing platform.

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The frozen river and the lotus blooms (a.k.a. I’ve safely arrived in Beijing)

I have a lot of glamorous clothes, I socialise exclusively with glamorous friends, I listen to glamorous music and watch glamorous TV shows.

As a result when I disembark an aircraft I view myself through the delusionary lens of a man sadly affected by misrepresentation of self- I imagine myself strutting through Beijing Capital Airport at 5am like Beyonce arriving in New York, surrounded by fans hungry for a touch or glance, the envy of every human in eyeshot.

The reality of arrival in Beijing is a different matter. I sleep and vomit from Schiphol all the way to Inner Mongolia, briefly stirring when offered a gin and tonic, which invariably floors me until a rough crash onto the ground awakes me and I stumble to my feet and join the mass of disoriented flyers each racing against one another to arrive first to nobody-knows-where for nobody-knows-what-purpose (People on aeroplanes SUCK.)

Basically I look, smell and feel like a stray cat and whilst my eyes, hands and brain continue to work against me I struggle from desk to machine to carousel until finally I can leave the city-sized airport for the deserved and nothing short of sacred first cigarette of my new life. It’s a Vogue Menthol; I decided it’s time to get classy about my disgusting habit.

It’s hot as fuck, at least 35°C and lightly raining (for now, the full on storms are coming, I know it), and I face my standard nervousness in getting into an airport taxi. I’m here with three suitcases, each weighing 26 kilograms, and Mr. Taxi does NOT look happy. “It’s dirty, it can’t go on the back seat!” “It’s not dirty I promise, I got it two days ago in the Debenhams sale!” (WHY DID I SAY THAT) Anyway, I arrived in Chaoyang at 7am feeling and looking like faeces. Even Weiduomei’s not open yet. FFS, I just want a doughnut.

My hotel is comfortable, in a convenient part of town, and the receptionist insists that I look like a Korean cartoon character (I’ve heard this for three years from various Chinese acquaintances, I would love to see this cartoon if you’ve any idea what it is), but check-in is not until noon.

ShitWell you can’t have it all. Time for a walk…and of course an indulgent foray into the Beijing subway system (you will hear more very soon about my passionate obsession for this glorious subterranean transit network). I’m going to Jishuitan, a part of town I know very well having spent two months there in the winter 2012-13. I fancy some steamed pork buns and a walk alongside the frozen river. Well, probably not frozen anymore *wipes copious sweat from brow and neck*.

In fact, the frozen river is the entire point of this blog post, so I’m sorry to have bored you until now. I found this frozen river incredibly beautiful- in the dead of night I enjoyed walking across its surface as the ring-road buzzed with 24/7 gridlock just metres away and the bright lights of Xizhimen’s shopping mall were visible beyond the trees. But it was hard and cold, and beneath thick layers of ice I could see branches that had fallen from their bodies and begun to rot in the unmoving water. It was beautiful because it made me sad. It reminded me of the River Cam and that place that made me so angry and miserable- my home in England. Winter in Beijing had been planned as a lovely sojourn from the monotony and gluttony of Cambridge life but instead I found myself drawn to this river that in so many ways was no different from Cambridge’s main waterway.

In the philosophy of dào (道), often conceived in English as Taoism, water is assigned a value unique among the world’s elements. It is flexible, can change shape to follow any channel, fill any receptacle and bypass any obstacle. The water in this river was not frozen indefinitely, but as part of a regular cycle that once a year forces it to remain stationary and denies it movement. Sometimes the situation turns your water to ice and you’re stuck in an unenviable position, unable to nourish yourself, your flowers and trees, and more crucially unable to navigate from the shit you’ve landed in. But I do believe that like the river, my waters have thawed, and the flow has brought me away from Cambridge to a place that’s better.

In case you were wondering- this is the frozen river now, its waters now invisible beneath a carpet of wild lotus flowers and a shelter of weeping willows- I’ll let you metaphorise this one yourselves. Glamour= reacquired.

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