Today, like many days, I took a taxi. My driver was special in ways that only one who has lived in China awhile can appreciate. He had a mole on his cheek, out of which sprouted several long hairs, which he sported with pride. Stay hairs are auspicious to Chinese men (I know, Ming will never let me pluck one of his). I think my driver had food stuck in his teeth while also suffering from a head cold. He alternated between making odd sucking noises and hacking out the window. It made me realize that in my list of Things I'll Miss about China, I had left something out. I forgot to mention my adoration for China's taxis and their drivers.
|Beijing taxis, photo via lc.cf8.com.cn|
When asked if taxis are safe in China, I answer “yes” without a second's hesitation. Of course, there are times to be weary of them, especially if you know nothing of the country or the language. There are certainly unscrupulous drivers out there, who hatch schemes in hopes of earning a few extra renminbi. In the event that you become a victim of such a plot, try not to panic. It may seem though your driver is taking you out into the middle of nowhere to leave you for dead, but he is, in all likelihood, just taking the scenic route home in an attempt to run-up the meter.
In ten years, I have probably taken hundreds of Chinese taxis, licensed and (occasionally) unlicensed, both alone and with others. The one time I got taken advantage of, I was with my husband. Once we called the driver out on his shenanigans, he quickly became apologetic and lowered the fare. Though at times on alert for being overcharged, I've never felt threatened by a driver. In fact, taking a taxi—if you can catch one—is usually a pleasant experience. The drivers are generally jovial and curious, the perfect traits for those who want to practice their Chinese. I've found that you can learn a lot from local cabbies, depending on how you'd like to expand your Chinese vocabulary. I've learned how to curse out every Zhou (Joe) from here to Shanghai simply by spending a few rides stuck in Beijing's rush hour traffic. My salute to you, Beijing cabbies, for teaching me words that would make even your weird, perverted uncle blush.
In additional to being a learning experience, taking a taxi is very economical, at least by western standards. In Chengde, a typical ride costs between 6-10 RMB (US$1-1.50). In the US, you'd probably have to tip a driver more than that. You don't have to tip Chinese drivers, though sometimes you may have to bribe them to pick you up. Would you expect anything less in the Middle Kingdom? In Chengde, there is an ample fleet of cabs, so passengers still hold the upper hand. The situation in Beijing, however, is problematic for potential passengers. Due to lack of taxis, tech-savvy Beijingers have turned to apps such as Didi Dache to help them grab a cab. Use your smart phone to alert all taxis on the network where you need a pick-up—sounds convenient right? No more standing on the side of the road desperately waving your hand at every approaching car, squinting to see if the vehicle is a taxi and if so, if the stupid “unoccupied” light is on. Sure, you can avoid that indignity. But there's there's a price to pay for that luxury. If you are in serious need of a ride, you better be willing to add cash (call it a tip, but it's really a bribe) to the fare. You can start by adding 10 RMB ($1.50) and try your luck. If it's rush hour, plan on adding 20 RMB or more. My friend told me that many Beijing taxi drivers have conspired to avoid 5-star hotels unless the passenger offers 50 RMB on top of the fare. Those sneaky little buggers. But even with a pick-up bribe, Beijing taxis are affordable compared to the US. On a recent journey, I spent 56 RMB on a 30 minute ride (36 RMB fare + 20 RMB bribe) during Beijing rush hour. That's less than US$10.
So yes, I will miss the built-in language tutor plus the convenience that comes with taking a cab in China. But as my husband reminded me, in the US I'll have my own car. I suppose that will be pretty nice, too.
What type of transportation do you typically use where you live? Do you rely on other types of transportation when on vacation or while abroad?