For the majority of those coming to China (or even living there), driving in China is not an option. The best bet transportation wise is probably a bicycle, but for a tourist with a brief schedule its not realistic and even for those living there it takes a certain degree of daring. Though, if you are "daring" enough, it can pay off. Not only is it great exercise and will really help you get to know the city and its streets, but it can also save you a ton of time. Think I'm wrong? Well, sit in a cab or on a bus in the late afternoon on any given day on Xidan or Xinjiekou or any other of Beijing's narrower and heavily trafficked streets while I ride by laughing at all you suckers!
Anyways, no matter the situation, a taxi will be a very common means of transportation, however one will need to be careful. The days of waiting patiently for a 1.2 cab while others passed by are now a distant memory as all Beijing taxis are 2 yuan cabs. What that means is that when you first get in the cab and the taxi starts the meter, it is automatically 10 yuan, then after the first 3 km it will be 2 yuan per km. For those that can't speak Chinese, have the hotel or a friend write down your destination on a business card for your hotel, that way you have the hotel's contact information and have something to show a driver when you want to go back.
While it is unusual to have a dishonest driver, there are some precautions that need to be considered. I would advise that you always go by the meter, never let the driver talk you into going off meter. Also, if you feel the driver is doing something wrong, make sure you get a receipt and write down his driver number, which should be promently displayed on the front dash. Most often they will try to rip you off by taking the "long way" to your destination, sometimes this means going a bit out of the way and adding a few yuan to your ride, or it could mean insane detours and added fees. The other possible way is for the driver to have a meter that goes up faster than it should or who wants you to pay extra fees. Then there are extreme situations like one foreigner in Shanghai underwent. If the driver asks you to pay extra fees, ask for a receipt to see those fees. If you have a mobile phone, and feel you are in a bad situation, call your (or any large) hotel and ask them how much the cab fare should be.
Like being ripped off by a cabbie, the problems of foul smelling cabs is a common problem the world over. The only unique thing about it in China (at least if you're coming from the US) is the fact that many drivers will smoke in their cab and may get standoffish if you ask them to put out their cigarette. So much for the customer comes first. Imagethief had a list of areas where he personally thought drivers needed to improve most and 2 of the 4 things on that list were:
- An increasingly high rate of total unfamiliarity with Beijing's major landmarks. I've had to explain Wangfujing. If London's taxi drivers have "the knowledge", then many of Beijing's taxi drivers only have "the fog".
- For those who do know the landmarks, a total lack of creativity on how to approach them during peak traffic periods. You'd think that the only roads in Beijing were the ring roads, Chang'an Jie, Dongzhimen, Gongti, and the airport expressway.
Despite all these problems and the feeling that so many drivers are just big louts or thugs, they have a heart of gold. Once you crack their tough exterior, they can be extremely friendly and interesting, the kind of person you'd like to have a drink with. For foreigners, its a great way to practice Chinese and hear a real Beijing accent. Maybe most of these drivers went the way of the 1.2 yuan cabs and the new "professionalism" that the taxi companies are striving for, but there are still a few out there.
ps: if you made it this far, I appreciate it, and if you're looking for the mp3 post, sorry, it will be up tomorrow...