China In Transit

Getting lost at the Shanghai subway jungle

October 6, 2017
Shanghai Subway Railway System, Shanghai Metro

To realize the value of ONE MINUTE, ask a person who just missed a train.

When people mention that line, I wonder whether they were referring to me. Because when I went out to renew my passport at the Philippine Consulate General in Shanghai years ago, I missed my train by exactly a minute.

I was supposed to take the 7:55 AM train but due to the heavy traffic caused by the rain showers and the simultaneous repairs of the main roads, I arrived at the train station only to realize the boarding gates were already closed and the terminal clock was already displaying 7:56 AM.

To catch the next train, I ran to the ticketing station and bought another ticket leaving at 8:30 AM. It was for a fast train and the ticket cost is 15 Chinese Yuans (RMB). Fast trains usually transports people from Kunshan to Shanghai trains station in 18 just minutes. For my experience, the fastest speed the train had attained while I’m aboard was 251kph.

Fast Train, Kunshan-Shanghai Railway System

CRH Train D451, Kunshan to Shanghai

The boarding gates opened at 8:20 AM and the arrived at the Shanghai railway station at around 8:45.

I went outside, tried hailing taxis amidst the slight rain but to no avail. The two taxi cabs I was able to stop refused to take me to my destination. At 9:20 I realized there was no way I could arrive at Shanghai Centre on time so I decided to take the Shanghai Subway instead.

Remembering the directions I got from the Consulate Office the previous day, I went to the ticketing booths to buy my subway ticket for Line 1 bound for the People’s Square station. The queues at the ticket booths were too long so I had to buy my ticket from the automated ticketing machines in the area.

Since I didn’t know how to use the ticketing machines, I stepped back to watch how the people operate them. After observing a few persons, I tried my luck in acquiring a ticket only to realize the menus and instructions on the touch screen panel were in Chinese. Fortunately, I know the characters for Ren Min (Chinese for People).

人民广场, Rén Mín Guǎng Chǎng. That’s People’s Square in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin Chinese. There were no other stations starting with those two characters (人民, Rén Mín) so I bought one ticket for 3RMB.

Entrance Gates, Shanghai Subway Railway System

Entrance Gates, Shanghai Subway Railway System

At the entrance gates, I started panicking because I could not see a ticket slot on the gates. My instinct told me to just watch out for the next passenger to pass by and mimic whatever will be his/her actions. To my rescue, a man scanned his ticket on a rounded panel above the entrance gate. I do as he did and I was able to get through the gates.

But my problem didn’t end there. I still needed to find the right platform going to People Square. There were train tracks on my left and right sides showing exactly the same end to end stations. I asked the security guard standing nearby.

“Ren Min Square?” I asked while particularly lowering my voice on the word “square” so the people around won’t identify me as a foreigner. In China, announcing your being a foreigner is a surefire way to attract curious stares and murmurs from crowd. The guard directed to the right track and I boarded on the first train that arrived.

I got off the train at the People’s Square station.

People's Square Station, Shanghai Subway Railway System

People’s Square Station

Upon exit, however, I was scanning my card on the same circular panel on the exit gates, I could not go past the rotating bars. I went to the service area and reported my problem. Alas! The assisting personnel was not speaking English.

Thanks to my camera phone, I was able to take a photo of a subway map for Line 1 earlier inside the train. I showed to the man my starting and ending locations and he seemed to understand what my problem was. He checked the amount on my card and told me I still had the right amount. He suggested that I try again. Which I did and still couldn’t.

Perhaps annoyed, the man went out of his pod and accompanied me to the exit gates. I was laughing at myself upon learning that the ticket was supposed to be inserted on the card slots at the exit gates.

I realized I still had enough time so I spent a few more minutes to examine the automated ticketing machines before buying another ticket for Subway Line 2 bound for Jing’An Temple. I learned then that the touch screen panel will turn from Chinese to English when you press a button on the upper right of the panel. However, I observed that the other buttons will not function while in English mode so you just had to remember the location of the stations and switch back to Chinese mode to proceed.

Jing'An Temple Station, Shanghai Subway Railway System

Jing’An Temple Station

It was still raining when I got out from the Jing’An temple so I hailed a taxi and showed him the taxi card image on my phone. He took me to the Shanghai Centre in more or less five minutes.

The whole Subway Chronicle revolved in less than thirty minutes including the train travels itself and my ignorant encounters. I realized that the lady from the Philippine Consulate Office personnel was right in telling me to take the subways instead of the other transports available. It was so easy and you don’t have to burden yourself with the traffic on the roads.

    • Taking the subway trains in Shanghai is very convenient even for foreigners as long as you know which stations you would take on and off. The subways lines are color-coded so you could not get lost easily. Red is for Subway Line 1, Green for Subway Line 2, etc.
    • You scan your card tickets on the circular panel when on the subway entrances and insert on the card slot on exits.
    • The displays on the automated ticketing machines are available in English and Chinese, and are changeable by pressing the button on the upper left.
    • There are at least 4 exits in every subway stations – North, East, South and West Exits. In People’s Park station, I saw at least 6 subway exits.
    • To know if the train you’re about to take is going on the right direction, check the line map above the platform. The colored line (red for subway line 1, green for line 2, etc.) connecting the station points the path the train will be traversing. The grey line is the path of the stations the train had already passed. Your current location is indicated by a star.
    • And this is the most important. You actually don’t have to buy separated tickets or go out of the gates as I did if you’re taking different subway lines. If you’re currently on Line 1 and need to transfer to Line 2, you just have to add credits to your card on ticket exchange booths.

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  • Neha T

    whoa ,, glad you finally made it ! it was interesting sequence of events , well described. getting lost like this is one of the fears I have . Got a little panicky reading this post . Reminded me of getting almost lost in my first visit to Rome .

  • Silver Surfer

    That is one fast train.

  • FarsicknessTraveler

    Thank you for sharing your story ! I feel like no trip is complete without getting lost at least once lol

  • Lexi Mary

    Fantastic guide for subways, I will have to save this one for my future reference for a travel to shanghai.

  • Helene Choo

    Was just in Shanghai in June. I speak Chinese and even for me it was a struggle. My friend’s ticket wouldn’t go through and there wasn’t anyone to talk to. Plus, rush hour traffic is just mental!! Got really squished. But had a good time anyway:D

  • Alex BetterTogether

    Great tips – I usually prefer to use public transport when I travel, living in London I know that in most cities it’s the cheapest and most efficient way to get around a city quickly!

  • Heraa Farooq (Scarlet)

    Wow this looks like quiet and adventure you did there. It’s really hard to survive in a place where nobody is familiar with your language.

  • Digital Travel Guru

    Great read and also some really good tips for navigating the public transport system there, I like to also use the local transport options when I visit places. Thanks of all the info, bookmarked this post.

  • We have just moved to china and I find all metro systems here manic! They are super efficient and clear but no matter how quiet or busy it is, I always seem to get pushed out the way or walked on!

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