Getting Around Beijing

October 8, 2012 at 11:55 pm ,

Even with good command of the Chinese language, Beijing can be a difficult city to navigate. This is because it’s infamous for traffic jams and many of its most desirable locations are tucked away in small streets or narrow alleyways known as hutongs, which are difficult for taxis to traverse – and easy for visitors to get lost in.

Foreigners aren’t allowed to drive or rent vehicles in China unless they take a driving exam to obtain the proper permits, which is just as well, because the only apparent rule of the road is “me first” – to say that there’s a lot of reckless driving would be an understatement. Visitors usually don’t have time to adapt to this disregard for safety on the road like residents do.

Unless you are familiar with the tones of the Chinese language, a Chinese speaker may not understand your pronunciation of Chinese streets and locations, so be prepared to have any specific addresses on hand in Chinese. Our advice is to take cabs when they’re available, always prepare subway directions as a backup and use the Beijing Taxi Guide app when hailing cabs or asking locals for directions.


The rapidly expanding Beijing subway costs just ¥2 a ride and features maps, station names and automated ticketing booths in English and Chinese. Oftentimes, you’ll find that taking the subway is a much more efficient way to travel, particularly during peak hours, when traffic is at its worst. Though subways can be a bit overwhelming with the crowds during peak hours, they’re definitely worth investigating.

Tips for taking the subway:

  • The first trains start running around 5am, and the last train departs around 11pm.
  • Single ride tickets are ¥2 with unlimited transfers. The airport express train costs ¥25.
  • Queue up at the arrows pointing toward the train tracks. If someone tries to cut in front of you, you can tell them “qing pai duei”, which means “please stay in line”.
  • If you try to get off a crowded train at your stop, you can let people in front of you know you’re getting off by saying “xia che”, which means “getting off”. Sometimes, people preparing to get off from behind you may ask you “xia che ma?” to indicate they intend to exit at the next station.
  • Be prepared for security checkpoints with x-ray machines at most stations.


If you’ll be staying out after the last subway trains have left the station (around 11pm), don’t count on getting a cab without a wait, as cabs can be difficult to hail, especially during peak hours, on rainy days, and late at night. Don’t be too offended if available cabs don’t stop for you at all – it’s fairly common. Some drivers simply prefer to avoid the perceived complications of picking up a foreigner.

In the past year, cabs have become more scarce due to the hike in gas prices and increasing demand. You may be approached by illegal “black” cabs that offer rides to anyone looking like they are trying to hail a cab, but they will charge you at least double the cost of a legitimate cab.

Tips for taking cabs:

  • Before you leave for Beijing, download the Beijing Taxi Guide app. Get it. We can’t say this enough! It’ll set you back $10 but trust us: it’s an invaluable tool for getting around town -in cabs, or otherwise- as it includes things like Chinese-language taxi cards, offline maps, tips, and much more. Nothing instils confidence like an easy-to-read destination and having the address pulled up on your phone screen when you approach a cab driver will work in your favor.
  • Legitimate cabs have a taxi sign on the roof, a “Beijing B” license plate, a working meter, and a placard on the passenger side with the driver’s photo and registration number. Avoid cabs that do not feature these characteristics, and make sure the meter is running (it starts at ¥10, make sure it is reset to that amount) during your ride, so the driver cannot make up a figure when you arrive at your destination.
  • Don’t take an illegal car from airports, major tourist sites, or railway stations. An example to give you a sense of the extent of the scams: upon our arrival from Shanghai at the Beijing South Station, we were offered a ride for ¥500 by a black car. We held out for an official cab, and the ride cost only ¥30.
  • If you’re traveling alone, sit in the front seat and look out at signs as if you know where you’re going, even if you don’t.
  • It’s not customary to tip in China, like, at all. Unless you’re really compelled to.
  • Always ask for a receipt (fa piao). If you forget something in a cab, there’s a good chance you can get your things back if you call the number of the receipt, though you’ll need the assistance of someone who can speak Mandarin.
  • Pedi-cabs are fine if you’re not going too far and don’t mind a shaky ride. Avoid them near tourist attractions if you can, though – chances are they’ll overcharge.

    1 Comment

    • Matthew Davis

      Again, some great advice as I will be in Beijing in a few days. Downloading the app now. Keep up the good work everyone!!

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