Life Underground

Is there light at the end of the tunnel? – by Alec Ash


One of Dahai's simple pleasures is a cold bottle of Yanjing beer, or two, and a Zhongnanhai brand cigarette, after a long day's work underground. Born Yu Hai in 1985, his nickname means "Big Ocean", and he would drink an ocean of cold Yanjing beer if the restaurant opposite his work site only stocked it. Over the course of the last six years, he possibly has.

Dahai is building a tunnel. When it is completed at the end of this year, all going well, it will connect Beijing West Train Station to Beijing Train Station, 9 km away, and an express underground train line will run between the two. Construction began in 2005, and Dahai joined in 2008, right after graduating. Because he has a university degree, his job is as a supervisor, directing the hard labour. Because he has an unimpressive university degree, and no other skills to speak of, this was the only work he could find.

Every day at 7am (or close enough) Dahai arrives at the large pit near the east end of the tunnel. The name of his work unit, the China Railway xxth Construction Group, is emblazoned on the steel curtains that cordon off the site. Inside the entrance a full length mirror, with a checklist next to it of the kit you should be wearing to go further. Hard hats on, a staircase jigzags down, eight stories  to the bottom, where the tunnel stretches out beyond eye's edge in either direction – wide, straight and domed, like it was built for some monstrous snake god. The way is lit by fairy lights, retreating into the distance through the heavy air.

At various points on the way down, a litany of triangular yellow-and-black hazard signs recite the different ways you can be injured, each with a helpful illustration. Man falling down pit, rock falling on man, steel girder falling on man, tool hitting man, man being electrocuted, man being consumed by flames underground, earth collapsing under man's feet.

Migrant workers have done the grunt work, knocking through earth and stone, then setting the tunnel's concrete and steel frame. Soon they'll lay the rails. In the early days of hard tunneling there were up to fifty on Dahai's team, and most of them wore face masks to protect against the dust. Now there are between ten and twenty on a given day, and few bother any more. Each is paid a minimum of 4000 yuan (£400) a month, and Dahai gets 100,000 (£10,000) a year. Work ends at 6pm, and the night team takes over at 8pm, working through to 6am. There are no weekends. Every day is a work day, unless you request holiday time.

It's a lonely life. Sometimes Dahai talks to himself, down there.

"You're looking really smart today," Dahai would tell himself.

"Yes, you are looking smart today," Dahai would reply.

Dahai was born in a small town in Hubei province to the south, but when he was one his father, who was in the army, got a posting in Beijing, and the whole family moved. He grew up in a military compound, one of the many children whose early life was the cordoned off, self-sufficient existence designed for soldiers and their families. He got a disastrously bad score on the university entrance exam, and went to study accounting science and technology in a third rate college in Wuhan. Those were the happy days, when could slack off, playing Coldplay and Greenday covers with his band, without a thought to the future.

Now he barely has the time to strum on his guitar at home. After this project, there will be the next, and what money comes in goes out on living costs. Dahai will be 30 by the end of the year, and he doesn't see any chance of getting a job he likes more, one in "the world above" as he calls it. "The way I am now is what I most hated six years ago," he says. He calls himself a diaosi, a loser, with no prospects and no hope. "It's the tall buildings and offices around me that turned me into a loser ... while I work underneath the city."

Below, the tunnel peals with the banging of hammers and the slow rumbling of a bulldozer clearing rubble. It doesn't lead out, only on.


Last year, for a change of scenery before he went completely nuts, Dahai transferred to a mountain village in Western Shanxi province, to work on an aqueduct. It was the remote countryside, with more ducks and geese in the settlement than people, no postcode, no electricity, no road leading to it, only a dirt path. One day, in a blessing of rare mobile signal, he got a text from an old university friend introducing him to a girl, along with her number.

Dahai had had girlfriends before – not a few of them, he's a good looking guy – but no luck finding a life partner. A fortune teller once told him he would find love in 2013, and that she would be from China's Northeast. Well, this was 2013 and the girl was from Harbin, the cold capital of the most northeasterly province. He rang her, and they talked, and the next day he rang her again.

On June 22nd of that year she came to visit. Liu Xiao was 27 years old, from a simple background, and they shared the same sense of humour. They went to Pingyao together, a preserved ancient city nearby, and explored the old courtyard homes and temples there for two days. She stayed with him in the mountains for a couple of weeks, then in July they drove to Harbin, so she could show him where she was from. On July 26th they went to Beijing and, against the wishes of Dahai's parents as she wasn't a Beijing resident, they registered to be married.

Their early life together wasn't easy. In Shanxi, Liu Xiao got sick from the unheated nights, so Dahai transferred back to his old work unit in the tunnel. They couldn't live with his parents, so they rented a five square meter apartment with no windows. Liu Xiao's dream was to open a clothing shop which also serves coffee. But that was impractical, and she struggled to find work. Companies were unwilling to hire a newly married woman of her age, assuming she would be taking maternity leave soon.

Things got better. Dahai started earning more, and they bought a flat in the far east of town, with the help of Dahai's parents and at discount as it was built by his work unit. There's money to eat out if they want to, and food for the soul too – Dahai's guitar, Liu Xiao's coffee shop dream. Maybe they'll have that child her boss is worrying about.

And that is their life. Not ordinary, as there's no such thing, but nothing special and the kind of existence that most people wake up to in China, as elsewhere. The daily unrelenting grind, the small problems, the simple pleasures. The feeling that there is 20 metres of concrete above you, seperating you from the life that you would like to live.

On the subway home, shooting underneath the city at 60 kilometres an hour, Dahai still shakes the earth and dust from his clothes. It takes one hour to get to Caofang station, the furthest east on line 6, then a short drive home. He'll have dinner, watch some TV, pick at his guitar and go to bed, up early the next morning to do the whole thing over again.

Only this tunnel has someone he loves waiting at the end of it, to listen to him play.

Alec Ash is a writer and journalist in Beijing, and editor of the Anthill

The number of Dahai's work unit is redacted at his request