Though some residents of Beijing know conversational English, especially in the areas frequented by tourists or Haidian District's university cluster, one should not count on finding a taxi driver or passer-by who knows English well. Neither should a foreigner with minimal experience with the Chinese language put undue faith in his or her ability to pronounce Chinese place names so that a local can understand clearly. Before embarking on a trip around the city, it is best to print out the names of places you want to visit in Chinese characters, or get your hotel front desk staff to write them out for you. When going to specific addresses writing nearby intersections or basic directions can be helpful as well. Show the text to the taxi driver, or just ask for help on the street. In general, you will have a better chance of getting help in English if you address younger people, as many schools in China have expanded their English education in the last few years.
Crossing the road in China is an art and may be difficult for pedestrians unused to Beijing's particular driving styles. Before crossing, assume that none of the road users will give way to you, even if a policeman is present. Zebra crossings are ignored. Chinese drivers lean on the horn heavily and frequently play games of chicken with pedestrians and other vehicles. Should you hear a loud horn when crossing the road, always look around as there is probably a car right behind you or heading straight for you. Should you find several cars and bicycles veering towards you from different directions, do not try to run to safety; instead, stand still. For drivers and cyclists a stationary obstacle is easier to avoid. Also note that traffic light crossings have zebra stripes painted on the road, but you should only cross when the walk light is green. As with pedestrian crossings in many countries, there is strength in numbers. When a mass of people crosses together cars are more likely to stop or slow down.
The Beijing Subway is a good way to quickly get around the city and is clearly marked in English for travelers. Long very limited, the network has expanded at a furious pace in recent years, with 9 lines now operational and another 9 to open by 2015. However, be warned that during rush hour trains can be extremely crowded. The subway system shuts down quite early (around 22:30), and opens again around 05:00.
The lines are as following:-
Line 1 runs east-west from Sihui East to Pingguoyuan crossing the political heart of the city along Chang'an street, passing the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square and Wangfujing.
Line 2 is a loop line following the old city walls. The first and last trains start/end at Xizhimen and the line serves Lama Temple and Beijing Railway Station.
Line 4 runs north-south and serves Beihai Park, Beijing University and Beijing South Station.
Line 5 runs north-south to the east of Line 4.
Line 6 runs west-east through the city center.
Line 8 is a short branch line running from Gulou Dajie (line 2) north, in particular, serving the Olympic Stadium.
Line 9 is a line serving Fengtai district (including Beijing West Railway Station).
Line 10 runs in an L-shape across Chaoyang District and is useful to reach the Olympic Stadium (with a transfer to Line 8 at Beitucheng), the embassy district and Sanlitun.
Line 13 is an elevated light-rail line serving suburban Haidian district. The line starts at Xizhimen and ends at Dongzhimen and forms a large arc. Serves Wudaokou.
Line 15, Batong, Yizuang, Changping, Daxing and Fangshan lines connect the outer suburbs to the city and are of little use for tourists.
Transfers between lines are permitted with the exception of the Airport Express, for which a separate ticket is required.
Subway station entrances are identified by a large blue stylized letter G wrapped around a smaller letter B. Single tickets cost ¥2 and are only valid on the same day from the station they were purchased. Single-journey ticket machines are very simple to use; just press the numbers along the left side of the screen to choose how many tickets you want to buy, insert cash into the machine and press the green button then collect the ticket and change. The machine does not accept ¥1 bills but if you pay with a ¥10 or ¥20 bill you will be given a handful of coins which you can use for future journeys. You must pass your ticket through the turnstiles upon entering AND exiting the station, so make sure you don't lose it.
If you plan on traveling a lot, pick up a Yīkātōng (一卡通 ) pre-paid card, which has a ¥20 refundable deposit. Swipe the card at the entrance turnstile and again upon exiting. The use of the pre-paid card does not reduce the subway fare although it does dramatically reduce bus fares, by 60%. The card's deposit can only be returned at a few stations, so passing it on to a friend may be easier than getting your deposit back. Stations that offer a refund clearly state "Yikatong refund" in the ticket booth; examples include Xizhimen and Haidianhuangzhuang (only near exits c/d).
If you are carrying luggage you must pass through the X-ray checks at the stations.
Try to avoid travelling in the rush hour as the stations and trains become very crowded - particularly try to avoid Line 1 & 2 as the old 1970s stations with their narrow passageways and open-edged platforms are not designed for the large numbers of passengers seen today.
Once known as a nation of bicycles, China today has an ever growing number of private car owners. It is estimated 1,200 more cars hit the streets in Beijing every day. As a result, nowadays you are guaranteed to see more bikes in the Netherlands than in Beijing. However, the infrastructure from its days as capital of the "Bicycle Kingdom" means exploring Beijing on a bike is excellent. The city is flat as a pancake and all major streets have bike lanes. Bicycling is often faster than traveling by car, taxi or bus because of the traffic congestion in the motorized traffic lanes.
Four-wheeled motorized traffic in Beijing usually observes traffic signals with the exception of making turns at red lights which is often done without slowing or deferring to pedestrians or bicyclists. Pedestrians, bicycles and all other vehicles (for example, motorized bicycles, mopeds and tricycles) generally do not observe traffic signals. Also, cars, trucks and buses do not defer to cyclists on the road so it is common for a vehicle to make a right turn from an inside lane across a bike lane with no concern for cyclists traveling in the bike lane. Sometimes a right-turning vehicle crossing a bike lane will sound its horn as a warning, but not always. Cyclists also need to be on the lookout for wrong-way traffic in the bike lanes, usually bicycles and tricycles but sometimes motor vehicles, too. Wrong-way traffic usually stays close to the curb so you move to the left to get by them, but not always. Bicycling Beijingers tend not to wear helmets, nor do they use lights at night. Few bikes even have rear reflectors. The moderate pace and sheer numbers of bicyclists in Beijing appears to make bike travel safer than it would be otherwise.
While you will see cyclists use many creative paths across wide, busy intersections in Beijing, the safest way for cyclists is to observe the traffic signals (there are often special signals for cyclists) and to make left turns in two steps as a pedestrian would. But if you spend any significant amount of time cycling in Beijing, you will probably start adopting more creative approaches. These can be learned by finding a local cyclist going your way and following him or her across the intersection.
Several professional bike rental companies, as well as major hotels and some hostels, rent bikes on an hourly basis. For those who need the security of a guide, a bike touring company like Baja Bikes Beijing or Bicycle Kingdom Rentals & Tours would be a great way to go.
If you are staying more than a few days a reasonable bike can be bought for ¥200. Ensure that you have a good lock included in the price. The cheapest bikes are not worth the additional savings as you will get what you pay for. The cheapest bikes will start to deteriorate as soon as you begin to ride, so spend a little more and get a bike in the ¥300-400 range. Bike rentals may have good bikes, but you pay a high price and run the risk of the bike being stolen.
Beijing's bus system is cheap, convenient and covers the entire city—perfect for locals but, alas, difficult to use if you do not understand Chinese or Mandarin. The bus staffs speak little English, and only a few bus lines in the city center broadcast stop names in English. Bus stop signs are also entirely in Chinese. But should you speak Mandarin, have a healthy sense of adventure, and a fair bit of patience, a bus can get you almost anywhere, and often somewhere that you never intended to go. It is a great way to see parts of the city that tourists normally do not visit.
Most bus fares are relatively cheap, around ¥1, and if you get a public transportation card from a metro station (a card that acts as a debit card for the metro and buses, officially calledYi ka tong) you can get a 60% discount on all fares.
Many shiny new buses arrived on the streets in preparation for the Olympics. Many buses now feature air-conditioning (heating in winter), TVs, a scrolling screen that displays stops in Chinese, and a broadcast system that announces stops. If you are having problems navigating the bus system, call the English-speaking operators at the Beijing Public Transportation Customer Helpline (96166).
Warning: Beijing buses can get very crowded so be prepared and keep an eye on your valuables. Indeed, the overhead speakers on more modern buses will announce a warning to this effect on the more crowded lines. Many pickpockets frequent buses and subways, so carry backpacks in the front, and try to put your valuables somewhere hard to access. Be aware of a scam offering bus rides to the Great Wall masquerading as the real bus service. Instead of directly driving to the Great Wall, you will instead be led to a series of tours to dilapidated theme parks, shops, museums, and other tourist traps before finally reaching the Great Wall near the end of the day.
Bus lines are numbered from 1-999. Buses under 300 serve the city center. Buses 300 and up run between the city center and more distant areas (such as beyond the Third Ring Road). Buses in the 800s connect Beijing with its "rural" districts (i.e., Changping, Yanqing, Shunyi, etc.).
Full maps of the system are available only in Chinese. The Beijing Public Transport Co. website has information in English, but both the Chinese version and English Versions have a very helpful routing service with an interactive map. You can input your starting point and your ending point and see all the bus routes that will get you from A to B, look up a bus route by number, or input a place name and see all the routes that go stop there. Alternative places to look for bus routes are Google maps, Baidu, Edushi (click the bus flash icon) or Mapbar.
Most buses with a line number under 200 run daily 05:00-23:00. Buses with a line number greater than 300 typically run 06:00-22:00 (with some exceptions like 302 runs till 23:00). All buses with a line number in the 200s are night buses. Many routes get very crowded during rush hours (06:30-09:00 and 17:00-21:00). On major holidays, there will be more frequent service on most city routes.
For passengers paying by cash: Lines 1-199 and 300-599 operate on a flat rate of ¥1 per journey. Lines 600-799 charge ¥1 for the first 12 km of each journey and ¥0.5 for each additional 5 km. Suburban Buses (800-999) start at ¥2 and charge according to the distance. The night buses (200-299) charge ¥2 per journey.
For passengers paying by the new pre-paid Smart Card: Lines 1-599 operate on a flat rate of ¥0.40 per journey. Lines 600-899 get 60% off the cash price. There are also 3-day, 7-day and 15-day passes available for travellers. There is no return ticket or day ticket.
Minibuses are very common in the countryside outside the urban areas. Privately operated, most trips cost less than ¥10 per short journey and only a little more for longer journeys.
Taxis are the preferred choice for getting around, as they are convenient and are relatively inexpensive. The downsides are Beijing's well known traffic jams, as well drivers cannot speak or read English and some taxi drivers can be recent arrivals who do not know the city too well. If you don't speak Mandarin then it's worth having the Chinese characters for the location ready in advance. Vehicles used as taxis include the Hyundai Sonata and Elantra, Volkswagen Santana and Jetta (the old model, designed in the 1980s), and Citroëns manufactured in China. These taxis are dark red, or yellow top with dark blue bottom, or painted with new colours (see picture).
Luxurious black executive cars (usually Audis) can also be found, usually waiting outside hotels and can be booked from private companies. They will cost multiple times the equivalent taxi fare to hire.
You might not be able to find any official taxis in the more remote areas of Beijing. However, in these places there will most likely be plenty of unofficial taxis. These might be difficult to recognise for travellers, but the drivers will address you if you look like you are searching for a taxi. Remember to negotiate the fare before you go. Local people usually pay a bit less for the unofficial taxis than for the official ones, but the asking price for foreign travellers will often be much higher.
Taxis charge a starting fee of ¥13, and an additional ¥2/km after the first 3 km. Taxi meters keep running when the speed is slower than 12km/h or when waiting for green lights; 5min of waiting time equals 1km running. Outside of rush hour, an average trip through the city costs around ¥20-25, and a cross-town journey about ¥50 (for example, from the city centre to the northern side of the Fourth Ring Road). Since Spring 2011, there is a ¥2 gas surcharge on all trips. Note that this surcharge is not displayed on the meter, so if the meter says ¥18 the price is ¥20.
If the taxi driver "forgets" to switch the taxi meter on, remind him by politely asking them to run the meter and gesturing at the meter box (请打表 qǐng dǎbiǎo), though most can understand "meter please", and all can understand a simple point at the meter. At the end, it is a good idea to ask for a receipt (发票 fā piào) also while gesturing to the meter and making a writing motion. Having a receipt is handy in case you want to make a complaint later or for business reimbursement purposes, and since the receipt has the cab number, you stand a greater chance of getting your possessions back if you forget anything in the taxi.
If you want a tour around Beijing and its vicinities, you can ask your hotel to hire a cab for one day or several days. It usually costs ¥400-600 per day, depending on where you go. You can also ask just about any driver to perform this service as most are more than willing to do so. If you have Chinese-speaking assistance, then bargain down the cost. No matter the cost, the taxi is yours for the day and will wait for you at various destinations.
Communicating with the drivers can be a problem, as most do not speak English. You can ask that your hotel write your destination on a card to give to the driver. Make sure to take the hotel's card (and a map) that lists the hotel's address in Chinese. This can be a 'get out of jail free' card if you get lost and need to get back via taxi. A regular city map with streets and sights in Chinese will also help.
As elsewhere in the world it is really hard to find a taxi when it rains. Most of them refuse to take passengers and, besides, many will try to rise their fares. Although it seems unreasonable (triple to five times the normal fare), sometimes it is better to take their offers than to wait for another cab.
All official taxis have license plates beginning with the letter "B", as in "京B". "Pirate cabs" may look like taxis but their license plates will start with letters other than B. It's nearly impossible to hail a pirate cab on the streets; they generally hang out around tourist sights like the Great Wall and the Summer Palace or around subway stops. Pirate cabs will charge you a higher fee for the journey, unless you are a good bargainer, know where you are going, and know what the right fare should be. Sometimes they drop foreign tourists in wrong places. In some extreme cases, the driver may even take them to the countryside and rob them. If you find you hired a fake taxi and are overcharged, don't argue if you are alone, pay the driver and remember the car's license plate number, then call police later.
To avoid being taken advantage of, it is a good idea to know the rough direction, cost, and distance of your destination. You can easily find this out from asking locals before calling a cab. Verify these values with the taxicab driver to show them that you are in the know, and are probably too much trouble to cheat. Keep track of the direction of travel with a compass and/or the sun. If the cab goes in the wrong direction for a long distance, verify the location with the taxi driver. For scamming drivers, that is usually enough for them to go back on the right track (without ever acknowledging that they were trying to cheat you). Honest drivers will explain why they are going that way. In addition, sometimes a cab driver might tell you an extravagant price to get somewhere and tell you the meter is broken.
There are several "makeshift taxis" running around Beijing including a seat fixed up to the back of an electric scooter. These guys will scam you big time if you don't negotiate a clear fare beforehand. Upon arriving your destination, for a 2 minute ride, the driver will demand ¥300 and will be very belligerent if you don't pay it.
Keep in mind that central Beijing can be off limits at certain times, forcing cabs to reroute. And some roads forbid left turns (with big road signs) either at certain hours or all the time, so the driver might make a detour.
Driving in Beijing can be quite complicated with seemingly perpetual traffic jams. Many hotels rent cars that come with drivers for up to ¥1,000 per day. Public transport or taxis will get you to most of the main tourist sites and therefore renting a car is not often required at all.
Short visa holders (less than 3 months) can get a provisional driver's license at Beijing Capital International Airport or the transportation police stations in the city within minutes. You need to provide your passport as well as your foreign driver's license and do a small examination to confirm you don't have a physical or visual disability that affects driving. With a provisional license you can legally drive cars in China. Ask any information desk at the airport for directions.
You can find the counters of many car rental companies in the arrival hall of Terminal 2 in Beijing Capital Airport, although their English is usually not very good.
Here is an incomplete list of car rental companies serving the Beijing Capital Airport:
The daily rate of smaller, economical cars is about ¥200-300. You need to deposit around ¥3000 (possible by using CUP/VISA/MasterCard credit card).
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