Splendid Isolation

The Beijing subway is not one of the most pleasant places on the planet.  Every day, millions of people – professionals, farmers, beggars, students – swarm into tiny carriages, pushing and shoving and fighting for a coveted seat.  Those left standing are compressed, body to body, with their fellow riders, breathing each others often horrendous breath and trying to keep tabs on their pockets  and bags lest a thief take advantage of the crowd.  Passengers, either anticipating an arduous day at work or worn out from one, are tightly wound. Fights break out with a surprising regularity.  It’s a smelly, uncomfortable, pulsating mass of humanity.

And it’s one of my favorite places to read.

When I moved to Beijing at the beginning of the year, I was worried about my daily commute.  It’s 40 minutes, each way, of city street and subway – a far cry from my previous commute of a ten-minute walk along a beautifully landscaped lake.   I hate crowds and I hate places where crowds tend to congregate, the subway qualifying for both of these categories.

However, I’ve managed to find a bit of a peaceful bubble amid the surrounding chaos, a bubble that guarantees me a solid hour of quality reading every single day despite a job which sucks up more and more of my free time.

How do I manage this?  With good music and bit of mild rule breaking.  In between subway carriages, there’s a narrow platform wide enough for exactly one person.  Due to the design of the subway cars, a person standing on this platform has about a foot of personal space in any direction.  That might not seem like a lot, but on the Beijing subway, it’s an absolute luxury.  With a bit of jostling and shoving, nine times out of ten, I can stake this as my territory for the half-hour ride.

In such a crowded subway car, why isn’t this prime real estate already taken? I can’t figure that one out.  There is a sign warning people from standing there. However, rules are routinely flouted as warnings against spitting and pushing indicate.  I suppose that there’s probably a good reason for the sign – perhaps in an accident, the person standing there would be the first to get crushed.  However, as it’s in between cars, that person would also avoid the mad stampede for the exits which would be just as dangerous.

Whatever the reasons, I’m grateful for this tiny space where, with Jimmy Buffett or the Beatles drowning out the ambient din, I can enjoy a few moments of isolation among the jostling multitude and lose myself in reading.

Does anyone else have any experiences, good or bad, reading on public transport?



  1. The Shenzhen subway system is nowhere near as crowded, in part because many lines have still to open so for a lot of people it’s not particularly practical at the moment – but I love to read on it. I squeeze myself into the corner by the doors that only open once on my commute, turn the iPod up full blast and stick my kindle in front of my face until I have to get off – it’s superb.

    1. Exact same situation as me – except mine’s a Sony Reader. How do you like living in Shenzhen? I considered moving down there – even visited once or twice – but settled on Beijing.

  2. This makes my recent commute seem positively chauffeur driven luxury. I very rarely have to share a seat or whole table so my daily ride is guaranteed read time. So am feeling extremely grateful for my countries late ,ailing, costly transport system.

  3. This is such a fantastic post. Unfortunately I can’t read while anything is moving, so rather than throw up, I have to wait til I get home. 🙂 How do you like your ereader? I don’t think I could ever walk away from real books.

    1. Reading on the subway is the only way I don’t go crazy on the way to work and back. I love my Sony Reader. It took me a long time to get away from paper books, but having the e-reader has changed my life. It’s so easy and convenient to carry around, I find I read a lot more now than I ever have.

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