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“Welcome to take Beijing Taxi” pt. 1 Posted by on Apr 25, 2010 in Culture, travel

Until private automobiles in major Chinese metropolises all but choke traffic to standstill, the use of taxi cabs (出租车 chū zū chē)will be a mainstay of how you get around cities. Notice how I say “until” here, because traffic congestion in cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing has grown into a major fiasco. That being said, major Chinese cities are a massive sprawl of concrete, steel and pavement, which makes traversing them in alternate forms of transportation (bikes, the subway and buses) often frustrating or inconvenient when pressed for time. Even amidst rush-hour traffic, that would put LA, Boston and NYC all to shame, cabbing is just so easy.

It’s very easy on your wallet, a fact I’m constantly reminded of when I take a cab in the US. While I admit that Chinese taxi cabs are more often occupied by wealthier citizens, or by visiting 老外 either unfamiliar with their surroundings or fans of nightlife, one fact remains: taxis are cheap (便宜 pián yi). Let’s consider an example of just how cheap:

In Beijing, the starting fee (收费 shōu fèi) of a taxi cab is ten yuan (十块 shí kuài), which is as expensive as taxi cabs will get (in Shanghai as well) *Note here that after 11 pm, the fare goes up to 11 kuài, and distance and idle times will also increase slightly*. To put that in perspective, that’s about $1.50. You’d think that sounds pricey for China (after all the starting fare in NYC is around $2.50) but keep in mind that gas costs are much less (due to governmental control), there is less of a premium placed on “time is money” in China, and lastly, Chinese cities cover a huge area (you could fit all five boroughs of NYC in just one quadrant of Beijing municipal county). Further, that $1.50 is also mitigated by the fact that simply as a fixed rate, it will get you 3 km, before the fare starts working.

Better yet, taxis in China are much more equitable in charging you for your distance and time. Chinese cities are huge in terms of area, and traffic is terrible, so naturally no one would use cabs unless it was actually worth the wait. Standard rates in cabs include a 1.4-2.0 yuan per km (about 25 cents). However, the nice thing about these taxi cabs is the charge per time spent idling. The cost of this is 2 块 per ten minutes. So even if you’re stuck in rush hour going from one side of the city to another, you won’t pay more than 8-12 块 sitting in stop and go traffic. I suggest making conversation with your driver (司机 sī jī) while you wait. Maybe even bring along a beverage or two.

Yet, if you ride in a 出租车 be prepared for somewhat of an adventure every now and then. This can range from the cabbie getting lost to well getting in an accident (thousands upon thousands happen every year-believe me). So be prepared to deal with an inexperienced driver, a diversion of traffic, and unfortunately, on that very slight occasion, a “坏人” (bad person) or “person of lesser character” that is trying to cheat you or play off your unfamiliarity. Here are some tips I’d suggest to avoid any cab related complications.

First, know how to say clearly where you are going, and always repeat it. Beijing taxi drivers (along with Shanghai ones) are notorious for having a 北京话 or speak Shanghainese (local dialects that sound far from standard mandarin), and well, lets face it, a 老外 just off the plane? Work those tones! I would also recommend having the location written down in Chinese, although sometimes you will find cabbies “看不到“,or cannot “see”. I’ve even had a couple of cabbies that were unable to read characters in my phone…(they were typed into my phone using a text messaging service called “关系” that I’ll touch upon next post).

Second, either carry around a pocket map (地图 dì tú) of the city or be willing to demand one from your cabbie (opening up the cabbie’s glove box is always a solid move). Like I said, some cabbies are completely new to the job, and are not from the city you’re in. China is constantly changing due to construction and public works projects, so the street, building or landmarks used to navigate may have been demolished or changed into something completely new. With a map you can point out which ring roads to go off of and will, at the very least, tell whether or not the cabbie is intentionally getting lost. Then, there are those situations in which you become the “co-pilot” helping your cabbie 朋友 to navigate, while you work on your direction skills.

Third, when in doubt, be assertive and aggressive. Trust me, you’ll find that if you aren’t, they will be. If you know a quicker route, or one that bypasses traffic, let the cabbie know, and insist you are right. If something doesn’t look right, or if you feel you’re going in circles, don’t hesitate to say something. The longer you wait, the easier it will be for a cabbie to confuse you or come up with a lie about streets being closed or traffic being bad and the harder for you it will be to tell if he/she just doesn’t know where the hell they are. Unlike in cities like NYC, if you call a cabbie’s bluff, you will get a free or discounted fare (not a tire iron).

Lastly, never accept a “fixed rate fare” unless you are taking a black taxi (one that is not licensed). This is the most blatant form of trickery (骗术 piàn shù) I find in Beijing and occurs especially when transport to the airport is involved. Let’s face it, after a 16-20 plus hour flight into Beijing International Airport (北京飞机场), you’re exhausted, jet-lagged, hungry and needing a shower. The last you thing you want to do is haggle and argue with a guy that reeks of cigarettes, is yelling because of your apparent 老外ness, and is working with other cabbies to convince you that a ride to your hotel costs 100-150 块, fixed. Let me put that in Chinese real terms: 150 kuai is about, oh I don’t know, ten delicious meals or about 60-70 beers, a months worth of phone time, a night out, etc…That’s highway robbery (八达岭高速 baby), literally!

Can I get a 北京欢迎你? Sorry, after spending the Olympics in a city that just couldn’t get enough of that song, I just can’t get it out of my head! But I digress…

Most travelers will just eat that cost, and chalk it up to fatigue, but I say 有錢能使鬼推磨 (yǒu qián néng shǐ guǐ tuī mò), losely translated as “If you have money you can make the devil push your grind stone”. No matter where in Beijing you live, 100-150 快 will always be over the top. Tell them you want them to use the meter ”用时钟“ (yongshí zhōng) or “use clock” and point to it. They will ask for an additional 10 kuai for the toll road, but that’s it, only shell out that plus what you see printed out. You’ll soon find that you saved yourself anywhere from 50-70 块。 Grind on!

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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.


  1. Peter Simon:

    Hi, Steve, this is massive work, very interesting and informative at the same time. Just let’s cut out that ‘until’ at the beginning: it’s really noticeable. You must have meant ‘as long as’, meaning even now and until this situation stops (before it stops to exist), which will never happen. Notice the comma before my ‘which’. It is possible because of the meaning. However, although you used ‘that’ well all through, the first one is a restrictive relative pronoun and can never be preceded by a comma: ‘rush-hour traffic that would …’ Sorry for remarking on these problems, I’m not a nerd, but I think correct English is also important – some Chinese may read what you’ve written. But, as I’ve said, thank you for this great article.

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