Recent Posts

Taxicab Confessions: Beijing

The Beijing city government is continuing its push for Beijing taxi drivers to be conversant in English by 2008. Frankly, I’m not sure why unless the first phrase they learn is: “How do you get there?” You see, in Beijing knowing the location of a particular place is not included in the “taxi fare package deal.” Unless you’re going to someplace VERY big and rather famous (and even then, it’s no guarantee–more on this later) be prepared to have more than just an address. And if you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before yourself…good luck.

Recent conversation (in Chinese):

Me: “Take me to the Liangma River Building, Number 8, East Third Ring Road, North branch.”
Driver: (scratching head) “Errr…I don’t recognize this place. How should I go?”
Me: It’s on the Third Ring Road, big building, you don’t know it?
Driver: (scratching belly) “Err…I don’t recognize it. I’ll go if you tell me how to get there, okay?”
Me: I’ve never been there before, I don’t know how to get there.
Driver: This will be difficult…

We finally found it and then only because 1) I kind of knew the area 2) it is RIGHT OFF OF THE Third Ring Road and 3) the building is 27 stories tall.

Things are getting better. On some of the streets inside the 2nd Ring Road, red signs with street numbers are being taped to the front of buildings to give cab drivers a fighting shot at locating a particular address on a particular street. (For those who have never been here, having an exact street address usually means nothing unless you know which park or bridge is immediately adjacent.)

Sure, if you’re going to Tiananmen, Sanlitun, Kerry Center, Temple of Heaven or someplace relatively well traveled, you’re going to be okay. Usually.

Sometimes cabbies just don’t want to go where you do and a common excuse is the “I don’t know that place.” I found this out one day when I wanted to cab it from Houhai to Qinghua University. True story:

Me: “Qinghua Daxue”
Driver: “I don’t know this place. How do you get there?”
Me: “Qinghua University! 2nd most famous university in China, Hu Jintao graduated from there. You don’t know it?”
Driver: (scratching head) No, I don’t know this place.
Me: (Banging head against safety cage)

I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s just me. Lots of people with nary a word of Chinese take cabs without the slightest hitch in their travels aside from the terrific traffic snarls. I guess I can always console myself that three new subway lines are opening sometime between now and the Olympic opening ceremonies. Plus: there’s always the bus.

14 Comments on Taxicab Confessions: Beijing

  1. Of course, that’s it the taxi driver isn’t half-asleep (or actually asleep!), or isn’t laughing hysterically.
    I live in a smaller city in China, and even here I have to give cab drivers instructions, and sometimes I would feel safer driving the taxi myself.

  2. It’s not just you. I’ve had all those experiences and more, and I’m sure everybody has been here more than a few weeks has too.

  3. I actually had a taxi driver offer to let me take the wheel once. I didn’t take it, since I wasn’t wearing my glasses and had a few drinks in me. I still wonder if I would have gotten home faster, though.

  4. 花崗齋之愚公 // March 15, 2007 at 8:37 am //

    Great comments. Glad I’m not the only one. Chris…given the horrifying state in which I’ve occasionally been forced to “da” the “che,” I’m truly horrified at the thought of being given the wheel. Then again, given the horrifying state of some of the cabbies, maybe it would be better…

  5. The taxi driver just did not want to take you there. Trust me, they certainly knew where Qinghua Daxue is, but that was an area he did not want to go, because the traffic might be too bad, and he would be trapped in traffic for over 2 hours without much revenue. I once met a taxi driver who shamelessly told me that he did not know Wangfujing, and anyone who refused to take me to Beijing Railway Station because he was not familiar with the place.

    Well, there can be another explanation… The taxi driver might be a secret Qinghua troll who was offended by your comment that Qinghua was the 2nd most famous university…

  6. 花崗齋之愚公 // March 15, 2007 at 6:09 pm //


    Yeah, as you saw in the post, that was my thought too. I just loved the Alfred E. Newman shamelessness of the tactic. Then again, your second theory is certainly interesting…

  7. You’re not alone. If I hit my head against the cage everytime I had an experience like that I’d be even more drain bamaged than I am now.

    You hit the nail on the head about the total lack of street numbers in BJ. If China wants to help the cabbies out for the Olympics, forget the English. Put up street numbers and PLEASE teach the cabbies orienteering.

  8. In my humble opinion, this is problem easily solved:

    I’m Not A Blogger: this is the the one group post I ever did, but its on topic.

  9. It is intriguing to me that many cities in China do not have street numbers, including the fairly developed Beijing and Guangzhou. How could this deficiency persist through all these years is beyond my understanding.

  10. Ha – that would be “2nd most famous” after…. Fudan, I presume?

    There’s definitely something about Qinghua – it’s the only place I’ve frequently had problems getting taxi drivers to recognise (and that’s travelling in the morning, or late at night, when traffic isn’t too much of a problem). Of course, my Chinese is almost non-existent; and I have been told that it is one of those names that is particularly prone to humorous misinterpretation if your tones go astray.

    I do think the cab-driver situation is getting better here, though; I’ve had very, very few bad experiences in the past couple of years. And, once in a while, you get a heartwarmingly good experience – I recorded a recent instance of this here:

  11. 無名 - wu ming // March 16, 2007 at 2:29 am //

    my favorite beijing cabbie episode was when the driver missed an offramp, and nonchalantly threw the little red hatchback into reverse on the freeway until she got back to the offramp, into full oncoming traffic.

    i had far more near-death experiences taking rural buses, though. nothing like a game of macho bus chicken on a windy mountain road to get you humming tom waits’ “hang on st. christopher” to yourself nervously.

  12. 花崗齋之愚公 // March 16, 2007 at 5:37 am //

    I too have had my experiences with the “Miandi of death.” At one point we were…driving really doesn’t capture it…slaloming into Tiger Leaping Gorge in a Miandi. One tire clinging to the mud and me, riding shotgun, getting a good view of the valley floor every time we passed a car at a curve. Each time this happened I remember thinking to myself: “So this is how it ends. I’ve always been curious and now I know…”

  13. It’s not all bad. I’ve had some cabbies who felt so sorry for me because of my poor Chinese that they bent over backwards. I was once looking for a restaurant at number 17 Huayuan Lu, but it turned out there were TWO number 17s on the one street, so the cabbie got out and asked one of those inexplicable sentries for directions. Whoever said Chinese people lack initiative was being a little unfair. I’ve found that as long as you have the phone number for wherever you’re going, they will use their own phone and call [ and have a conversation which is totally unintelligible because of all the ARRRRs ] and things eventually work out. But as for the Olympics, well I think they’re up shit creek. Aside from the recorded message “hello, welcome to take Beijing taxi” the poor tourists and athletes will find English words few and far between. I’ve heard a radio program that attempts to teach the cabbies English while they drive, but I’d really rather they weren’t preoccupied with getting their tongues around “ok, let’s look at the map” while careening through the streets of Beijing. The government should put all those school kids who’ve been learning English from age 3 to good use and stick one in each cab to translate.

  14. Was in Beijing for a few weeks recently and found the taxi situation infuriating. Beijing cabbies seem much less knowledgable about their city compared to their Shanghai counterparts.

    Though part of it has to do with Shanghai being more compact and having street numbers that actually mean something.

    I remember Beijingers complaining to me that Shanghai streets were too windy compared to Beijing’s “orderly” grid. But perpindicular streets are of no use to me if I can’t find an address (especially when a street name changes like every other block!)

Comments are closed.