Qin Lu left her home in Xi'an for Beijing in search of a better life. Battling through rush-hour traffic with 11 million other commuters every day, hers is an oft-heard story of work and no play in this mammoth city where outsiders spend their waking hours worrying over transport, housing and their Beijing hukou (permanent resident permit).
As bus No.30 pulls into Pingleyuan Bus Station, a horde of commuters rush forward, hoping to be one of the first to get into the bus. Not for a seat, but for a place to stand.
Unfortunately for Qin, she can't even get on. Missing the bus spells the possibility of turning up late to work and therefore losing out on her bonus. When bus No.829 presented itself, she rushed on; an alternative route but she just might make it to work on time.
Wiping the sweat from her brow, she quipped, "Someone told me that New York is paradise, and hell. I think that describes Beijing."
Beijing's public transport system is struggling to satisfy the needs of the city's 11 million commuters. There are a mere 25,000 buses that ply 800 routes, and 114 kilometers of subway lines.
Qin's commute to work takes an hour and a half on average. She takes a bus to the subway station where she takes the Metro Line 1, only to then transfer to lines 2 and 13. A one-way trip costs her 5.4 yuan (US$0.71).
By the time she reaches her office, she is exhausted.
"I don't put on make-up, not even light make-up. I don't want to show a 'colorful' face to my colleagues," Qin said during an interview with China Youth Daily.
Although taking a taxi would make things a little more comfortable, it's hardly an option for Qin. A one-way cab ride would cost 70 yuan (US$9.3).
In addition to the cost, some three million cars already crowd Beijing's roads. According to the Beijing Traffic Management Bureau, traffic jams in the downtown areas start early in the morning and don't thin out until late in the evening. During the usual rush hours and on the main roads, vehicles move at no more than 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) an hour.
Home is like a motel
Qin spends three hours a day on the road.
"I leave for work early in the morning and come back late at night. I've even lost my passion for a love affair," Qin complained. "If I'm not at work, I'm on my way there," she added wryly.
"My friends and I try to organize parties and outings, but we're constantly canceling because everybody's so busy."
The thing she most looks forward to at the weekend is getting some decent sleep. If motivated to do anything else, she tidies her room, reads or goes window-shopping.
"Home is just a place to sleep. Cooking, meeting friends and family do not belong here," Qin said.
This might be why Beijing's suburbs such as Huilongguan, Tongtianyuan, Wangjing and Tongzhou are known by residents as "Sleeping Cities" because most of them only ever spend their nights there.
Qin bought her apartment in April and pays 3,000 yuan (US$396) a month in mortgage, which is nearly half of her salary.
"I spend almost all of my income every month," Qin said, trying to force a smile. "The situation was different when I was in Xi'an. I even had to think about how to spend my money!
"But in Beijing, I can't, I don't know what I'd do if I fell ill and not get paid for even one month."
A city of opportunity
Despite the pressures of life and the lack of any real private space, Beijing is still a land of opportunity for the millions who come here from other parts of China. According to the Statistics Communiqué of National Economy and Social Development of Beijing in 2006, Beijing registered 3.83 million non-Beijingers, an increase of 261,000 compared with 2005, and accounting for 24.3 percent of the total permanent resident population of Beijing.
Five years ago, Qin arrived in Beijing with one bag, important papers and certificates and her dream. For her, "Beijing is a city of the future." She left Xi'an because she couldn't see herself living a humdrum existence, as simple as that humdrum might be.
Like many others, Qin believes that Beijing is a civilized city bursting with culture and options. As long as one is talented, there is always a job somewhere waiting for him.
"I curse this city everyday for the inconveniences, but I never think of leaving."
The elusive hukou is still a barrier
When she first arrived in Beijing, Qin had dreams of buying a big house and a car. Issues like retirement or even her hukou weren't on her To-Do list.
In June, she was to go on a business trip to Hong Kong. When booking her passage there, she was told that she had to go back to Xi'an to apply for a travel permit. The process delayed her trip by two days.
Qin said that she is not too concerned about whether she is entitled to the same welfare benefits as Beijingers.
"Objectively speaking, the city is changing and become more open," Qin said. "For example, before 2005, migrants who bought cars in Beijing could not obtain a locally registered license plate. But now you can register for a local plate with your ID card and Temporary Residence Permit (TRP). "
In 2005 Beijing abolished the Regulation on the Management of Migrant People Working in Beijing, which had been in force for 10 years and which regulated the floating population (migrants without Beijing hukou) in the city. The TRP system was retained. The system requires migrants who are over 16 and who plan to stay in Beijing for more than a month or to work here to apply for one. Those who fail to do can be fined 50 yuan (US$6.61).
"It is a symbolic and landmark decision that means the coming of an era of civil rights," Zhang Yin said, who is the vice director of Legislative Affairs Office under the Standing Committee of Beijing Municipal People's Congress.
Meng Xiaoshe, an IT reporter who has bought a house in Beijing, feels no sense of belonging. "I don't have a Beijing hukou, or permanent residence permit, so I have to apply for a TRP to live in my own house "temporarily". I think that's totally ridiculous."
Liu Shuhui, a friend of Qin's, came to Beijing in 1998 and refused to apply for a TRP, "I'm not living in this city temporarily. I pay tax and I'm a builder of this city. I'm a Beijinger and someday, they will admit it."
Certain names have been changed to respect interviewees' privacy.
(China.org.cn by Zhang Yunxing, July 16, 2007)