Living in Guan, Hebei, and commuting 50km each way to Beijing to work, Li Jun walks fast and clocks her movements by the minute.
Li, originally from Jiangsu province, cannot afford to waste a moment.
“It is a three-hour trip door to door and six hours a day on the road. But it’s all right. At least I have my son and parents living with me,” Li said, standing in the narrow aisle of a packed long-haul bus to Beijing on a chilly autumn morning.
With property prices and living expenses soaring, many young people find it difficult to make ends meet in the capital, opting instead to live in neighbouring Hebei and commute to work.
The township of Yanjiao, east of Beijing, used to be one such affordable spot for flats but home prices there have been on the march following the Beijing municipal government’s plans to move to the nearby Tongzhou district.
Now Guan, to the capital’s south, is the bedroom community of choice for those priced out of the capital but who still have to work there.
Buses from Guan begin taking workers into Beijing from as early as 5am and shuttle buses operate regularly to Tiangongyuan, the last subway stop in southern Beijing. The demand is so great that buses are usually packed after just a couple of stops.
For Li, the commute means being able live in a home for about a tenth of the price of one in Beijing, even if comes at the cost of six hours a day on the road and less time with family and friends.
Her days start early. She gets up at 5am to make breakfast and lunch for her seven-year-old son, her elderly mother and paralysed father.
She heads to the bus stop at around 6.15am and, if she is lucky, can get on the first commuter bus that comes along.
That bus drops her in Yangqiaoxi in Beijing, where she embarks on a 15-minute walk to catch another bus to reach a point near Majiapu on the southern third ring road. All going well, she will arrive at her office before 9am.
The return home begins at 5.30pm and ends anywhere between 7.30pm and 8pm, depending on the traffic. She cooks a simple dinner for her family and the day is over at 10pm when she finally goes to bed.
“It would be perfect if I … had one hour more with my son at night,” Li said.
Elsewhere in Guan, Wang Feng, from Shandong province, bought a home for 7,000 yuan (HK$8,140) a square metre in 2014, when home prices in Beijing averaged around 40,000 yuan per square metre.
His parents take care of his three-year-old daughter at home when he travels to Beijing to work in sales.
“At least I can see my child every day. She doesn’t have to be a left-behind child,” Wang said.
Working elsewhere is not an option for Wang, who went to school in the capital and has most of his friends and social networks there.
But Zhao Ke, 32, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Daxing, on the capital’s southern outskirts next to Guan, is not prepared to go into the city centre for a job.
She said her husband worked in northern Beijing and the commute was so tiring that he only came home on weekends, staying in the company dormitory the rest of the time.
He is looking for a job in Daxing.
For some Guan residents the commute is just too tough and renting in the capital is on their radar.
Xu Xinxin, from Henan, works as an accountant on Changan Avenue in central Beijing’s Xidan commercial district, and she and her husband embraced the bigger flats and privacy of owning their own place in Guan.
When they rented in Beijing before they had to share a bathroom and kitchen with other couples, a constant source of inconvenience.
But when she moved to her own home in Guan, she found the long commute and lack of social life too much to bear.
“I have found a shared flat for 2,000 yuan [a month]. We’re moving back,” Xu said, as she was finally able to squeeze into a packed bus.