Living the expat life in Beijing requires a fair amount of getting around. Upon arrival in the city I was given a Beijing Taxi Book. The subtitle is “Helping Non-Chinese Speakers Get From A to B in Beijing, China.” This is an essential resource. Inside are locations such as restaurants, bars, hotels, shopping, embassies, Olympic venues, churches and sightseeing destinations frequented by travelers. When one gets into a cab (more than likely with a non-English speaking driver) you simply show him the page with the place you hope to end up and he reads the Chinese translation and off you go.
According to one report, there are 66,000 taxis on the road in Beijing. It does not take long to hail a cab, unless of course it is raining, and then I hear it is impossible. Beijing is a very large city and it is congested with traffic. Taxi drivers must dodge pedestrians and many, many bicycle riders. There is much horn honking and many near misses. It can take quite a bit of time to get around. In addition, it is impossible for every taxi driver to know every street so passengers often have adventures.
A recent ride went like this. My friend shows our taxi driver the book. He has an “aha” moment. We take off. We jump on the 5th Ring Road where he proceeds to weave recklessly through traffic. In two instances he comes precariously close to the vehicle in front of us then suddenly swerves into the next lane directly in the path of another car. I cover my eyes as he creates a lane of his own between the two. He then zips across several lanes only to discover he can’t get where he’s going any faster so he zips back to where he was originally. As he is just about to pass the exit he crosses over two lanes quickly and gets off the freeway.
He then pulls over to the side of the road to let us out, but we are not at our destination. We try to explain that this is not the place we need to go but we do not speak Chinese and he does not speak English. We show him the book again. He looks confused. He calls someone on the cell phone. They can’t help. He gets out of the cab to ask directions. Someone points him down the road. We drive a couple miles and stop again. He looks at us hopefully. My friend shakes her head. He gets out of the car and asks for directions again. He learns we have passed our exit. We are now on a one way street. It doesn’t matter. We make a U-turn so we can proceed up the ramp behind us. One more near miss and we finally arrive at our destination. We exhale.
Another experience goes like this. I pick up a cab outside the Westin in the Financial District and ask the cabbie to take me to my apartment. He looks at the card and seems confused. He barks something at me in a husky voice, puts the card under the light and looks confused again. I am not feeling confident. We take off. Eventually he pulls to the curb and tells me we are here. I do not recognize the neighborhood. The cab fare is 50% more than the trip to the Westin and I have no idea where I am. I do not want to pay the full fare for a ride with a driver who drops me off in the middle of an unfamiliar street. I give him 25 yuan (the cost of the original trip out to the Westin) and gather my things. He barks at me again and demands more money. We argue with each other, neither of us understanding a word the other is saying. I get out of the cab. He gets out with me. I try to walk away. He grabs me by the arm. I try to leave again. He puts his hand in my purse and digs for my wallet. I try to get translation help on the street. Folks look sympathetic and amused. A passerby suggests I just give him the money and hands him 5 more yuan. With this gesture the cab driver saves face. Turns out I was right where I needed to be. The cab driver barks at me and storms off.
I just returned to my apartment from work at the International Broadcast Center. My cabbie dodged and weaved through traffic and dropped me off in a somewhat familiar area. I pay my fare, thank him, then confidently walk off in the wrong direction.
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