A Taxi Ride in Beijing
Beijing TaxiBeijing Taxi A ride in a Beijing taxi is not unlike a taxi ride in any other big city, with old and grungy being the best adjectives for the interiors. And Beijing taxi drivers are not unlike taxi drivers in other big cities. Yes, the drivers are cranky and gruff. Yes, the drivers will bypass ride hailing passengers just because they feel like it. Yes, they’ll refuse you if you’re headed somewhere they don’t want to go. Yes, they’re hard to get at rush hour or when it rains. Yes, they profile potential riders: Westerners tip even though it’s not required, but Chinese people can articulate where they want to go. But OMG, the language obstacles and cultural gruffness add an extra spice to any Beijing cab ride.
If you’re lucky enough to have a cab stop to pick you up, the smell of cigarettes hits you as soon as you open the door. I don’t mean a faint whiff, but rather the knock-you-back-on-your-heels stale smell of many a cigarette smoked over many years, likely with the windows rolled up. On occasion, the driver is smoking and gets annoyed when you beg off because the smell’s too overwhelming. Once you’re in a smoke-free cab, now it’s time to tell him where you’re going.
When I first arrived, I got into the cab and announced the English name of my destination. That seemed reasonable since the name was in huge letters Beijing Taxi BookBeijing Taxi Book across the front of the building. The driver began yelling, and kept yelling, “bu zhidao” meaning he didn’t know/understand where I wanted to go. In the 5 or 10 seconds since I’d gotten in, we’d gone about 30 feet and he refused to go any farther. Anywhere else in the world, I’d have protested or tried to offer directions. Without being able to communicate my destination or explain that I knew where it was, I found myself curbside. From that ride on, I knew I’d better learn to say my destination or have it written--in Chinese. (As an admission of how difficult it is for foreigners to use cabs, the embassy includes a Beijing Taxi Book in its welcome pack.) Sample Page in Taxi BookSample Page in Taxi Book
On another occasion, the front desk staff told the driver the address for the Western grocery store where I wanted to go, he drove me about 3 blocks to the nearest Chinese grocery store, pointed towards it, and shooed me out of the cab. I was angry he’d cheated me and frustrated by being treated this way, but without the verbal ability to insist, and knowing some drivers' propensity to yell, what could I do but pay and get out?
Assault on All Your Senses and Sensibilities
As if smoking weren’t enough, often the driver is having a loud conversation on WeChat (Chinese messaging app) or listening to 1950’s style talk radio, and then there is an official recording on loop “Thank you for taking the Beijing taxi,” which you’re likely to hear 15-20 times before you reach your destination. When the air is bad the driver is likely to have a tubercular cough and repeatedly open the window to spit unceremoniously. (Forgive me while I put on my mask and practice holding my breath until I reach my destination.) And, for the full gross out, he may decide to perform an ear cleaning with a long pinky fingernail or an ear curette, the contents of which he'll flick carelessly. Yuck!!!
Once, Joe and I were in a cab and the driver knew generally where we were going but not how to get from the main boulevard to the one-way side street. We called to have the person at our destination give the driver directions. The exchange quickly became heated. The driver’s exasperation Cab Driver HarangueCab Driver Gets Directions mounted as he tried to follow the directions. The video captured a fraction of a protracted, loud and dramatic conversation. We didn’t dare laugh until we were safely at our destination.
Your Comfort Is NOT His Concern
I understand that the drivers spend hours on end in their cars and are probably impervious to extreme temperatures. Windows are open winter and summer, good air or god-awful air, Beijing cabbies are the not Uber drivers seeking to ensure your comfort in exchange for a good rating. So unless you want to be cold in the winter or hot in the summer you have to speak up. Your requests to have the windows up, and the air conditioning or heat turned on are not always welcome, and often met with a huff of disapproval. These reactions often make me laugh because they are so unfiltered. I am sure to them, these Western requests for comfort (no matter how short the ride) seem excessive.
As I wrote this I had to smile about my early cab experiences. I didn't know the city and depended on the driver's honesty to take me directly to my destination. I was rarely disappointed. Now my knowledge of the city and my Mandarin skills are a match for anything a cabbie throws my way.
The best thing about cab rides in Beijing: they are super cheap. In the States a cab ride lasting an hour or for more than 25 miles, is likely to rack up at least $50 on the meter. I’ve been in Beijing cabs for extended periods or distances, looked at the meter and been pleasantly surprised to see it reads less than 60 or 70 yuan ($10). So you’ll endure smoking, coughing, cursing, and spitting in exchange for cheap transit. Just bring a mask and learn how to ask for temperature adjustments in Mandarin. And don't forget to tip the driver.
Keywords: using taxis as a visitor to beijing
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