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    Hidden Metropolis: My Year Riding the Shanghai Metro

    Unable to travel due to COVID-19, photojournalist Zhou Pinglang spent months exploring Shanghai’s lesser-known districts by rail — an experience that transformed his view of the Chinese megacity.

    Riding the metro out toward the remote corners of Shanghai offers a completely fresh perspective on the city. It often feels like two separate worlds have collided.

    Alongside the elevated concrete rail line, an airplane can be seen soaring past a cluster of colossal glass-fronted buildings. A few meters away, an elderly couple crouches in an empty field, digging vegetables out of the ground.

    On the steps outside Aiguo Road Station, an unending stream of commuters flows past an old man quietly reading a newspaper, flanked by his tranquil white dog.

    There’s a stark contrast between the dynamism of the subway train and the tranquil lives of the suburban residents it passes by. They appear not to belong together, yet they are connected in unseen ways.

    The metro has had a huge influence on Shanghai’s modern development. The city’s first subway line went into trial operation less than 30 years ago — in 1993. Today, the metro network has 19 lines and 459 stations, and handles over 10 million rides a day. As the network has expanded, it has transformed the city’s human geography.

    Shanghai is famous for its densely packed downtown area: the towering skyscrapers of Lujiazui and the bustling stores along Nanjing Road. But the municipality encompasses a massive area stretching over 80 kilometers across — from the shores of the Yangtze River Delta in the east, to Dianshan Lake in the west.

    By boosting people’s range of mobility, the metro has effectively enlarged the entire city. Each time a subway station opens, houses in the area sell out instantly. New commercial and residential complexes spring up around the stations, becoming secondary city centers in their own right.

    In their free time, Shanghainese take the subway to escape the bustling city center and enjoy the unfettered freedom of the countryside. At Shendu Highway Station, a group of young people who work in the city have gathered to relax in Pujiang Country Park.

    The group are all from the same county in central China’s Henan province, and they’ve gathered to celebrate one member’s birthday. As they part, one of the young women says, “I wish we could be like this forever.” The others say nothing in response.

    The woman appears to hope the friends can continue living together in the same city, but it’s easy to imagine that soon — perhaps in a year, or even a few months — a few of them will leave. They might return to their hometown to get married, or move to another city to find a better job.

    Every evening, you see taxis and motorbikes waiting outside suburban metro stations, the drivers relying on the human traffic brought by the subway to make a living. Outside other stations, however, there isn’t a trace of human life.

    The most vibrant stations are the ones where local law enforcement is lax. Young people riding motorbikes with non-Shanghai registration plates zoom by on side roads running parallel to the metro lines. Couples set up open-air barbecue stalls next to the stations, hoping to entice commuters arriving home.

    The metro system, with its regular rhythms, is like a giant blood circulation system. It transports the city’s cells everywhere, working steadily and unceasingly until it — and the city — finally go to sleep.

    Translator: Kenrick Davis; editors: Dominic Morgan and Ding Yining.