Beijing is one of the world’s largest and most rapidly growing cities, with a population of about 20 million people trying to get around a municipality roughly the size of Belgium. A commute from one end of the city to the other can take more than two hours, and for Beijingers part of living here is festering in rush hour traffic, dodging bikes, buses and cars at intersections. This will likely feel overwhelming. However, with time, patience and perseverance, you’ll become familiar with the trains, roads, highways and neighborhood streets that you visit most.
As time passes, Beijing somehow becomes manageable. Most of the areas frequented by expats are in large Chaoyang District or in Shunyi near Beijing Capital International Airport. From inside Chaoyang District, you can get around easily by taxi or subway, which is continuously adding new lines. The city’s infrastructure was vastly upgraded and expanded in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, and the pace hasn’t slowed, particularly with the subway. Unfortunately, development is not keeping up with the monthly influx of new vehicles. Despite the inconvenience of driving in much of Beijing, the new Chinese middle class saves up for a new car to join the madness. Therefore, unless you live in suburban Shunyi you’re likely to end up using several forms of transportation, depending on where you live and which areas you frequent for shopping, recreation and nightlife.
Most international flights arrive at Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International airport, located near the expat enclave of Shunyi. It was promoted as the world’s most advanced airport building when it opened in 2008, and is indeed one of the world’s largest airport terminals, nearly doubling the airport’s processing capacity to 60 million passengers. The Airport Express links the airport with the Dongzhimen transportation hub, which connects to subway Line 2 and Line 13 and the city center. The journey takes around 20 minutes and costs RMB25. Taxis line up in well-marked ranks outside each of the terminals. A taxi into the city should cost RMB70-120, including RMB10 for the toll. Don’t accept a ride from an unmarked taxi and insist that the driver use the meter.
For the first few weeks – even months – it’s a good idea to carry an updated street and subway map around. Beijing has exploded in size over the past two decades, and the landscape and transportation options change rapidly. Whole neighbourhoods are demolished, reconstructed and renovated every year. Beijing is divided into districts, and it’s a good idea to become generally familiar with them, as they’re common reference points for addresses. Dongcheng is generally the eastern half of the center, Xicheng the western half. Chongwen is to the southeast, Haidan to the north and west past the Second Ring Road. Chaoyang, the most popular expat district, is to the north and east past the Third Ring Road.
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City lie at the geographic center of Beijing, with Xi Chang’anjie to the west and Dong Chang’anjie to the east. As you travel out from the centre, you pass five Ring Roads. The two innermost are the Second and Third Ring Roads (there’s no first ring road), inside which you’ll find what is considered downtown Beijing and most of the city’s major attractions and entertainment. During daily rush hours, traffic on these crawls or comes to a standstill. If you’re travelling from one central destination to another, they’re best avoided. The Fourth Ring road is also usually in a state of gridlock from 7-9:30am and 4:30-7pm. The Fifth Ring Road is 10 km from city center and a bit less congested. The Sixth Ring Road, which belts around the city almost 20 km from Tiananmen Square, is useful if you live in Shunyi or are travelling to or from the airport.
Fortunately for expats, the street names are almost always in Chinese and pinyin. The city’s wide main streets are organized on a grid system, running north-south or east-west, and the compass points are often reflected in the street name. For example, in Xinjiekou Nandajie, Xinjiekou is the name, nan means south and dajie means big street. Thus, this is a big street that will take you south. Central streets also contain the word men (gate), which means that the street once passed through a walled gate.
street — jie
road — lu
big street — dajie
north — bei
east — dong
south — nan
west — xi
by (as in crossing) — kaojin
Tip: Get to know your own neighbourhood well first, then gradually increase your comfort zone by branching out to further areas of interest
Tip: The iPhone craze continues to gain intensity in Beijing, and there are a few useful apps for newcomers. The Metro-Beijing and Beijing Taxi Guide apps are worth the investment, as they contain excellent maps and updates on traffic and subway stops.
Taxis are generally a cheap and efficient way to get around Beijing, traffic permitting. There are approximately 70,000 taxis operating in the city, belonging to at least 150 privately owned companies. It’s easy to flag one down on most busy streets – unless it’s raining, in which case be prepared to wait for the weather to clear or head to the nearest subway stop. Most of the drivers are friendly and know the city well, although being specific with directions will speed up your journey and make it cheaper. Taxi fares start at RMB10 for the first three kilometres (RMB11 at night) and RMB2 for each additional kilometre. Fares increase slightly after 11pm. Tipping is not expected. Most drivers speak limited or no English, so you should be able to show them your destination in Chinese or point to a map. The driver will supply you with a receipt (fapiao), which shows the taxi number and the company telephone number – very useful information if you accidently leave something behind in the cab.
There are drawbacks to using taxis. They could be safer, since seatbelts are almost never available in the backseat, and some of the drivers are unnecessarily aggressive in busy traffic. At times drivers can seem harsh and rude, but avoid conflict. These people aren’t paid very well and have to stomach Beijing traffic day in and day out. Disagreements can quickly escalate. Overall, disputes with a taxi driver are certainly not worth a few RMB.
Tip: Prepare a list of addresses that you frequent and carry around a guide or map that lists destinations in both English and Chinese.
Tip: If you’re travelling alone, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit in the front seat with a map. In the event that the driver is going in circles to run up the fare or genuinely lost, dissuade this behavior by making a show of taking down his or her identification details. However, it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth to argue about the fare.
The Beijing subway is clean, safe and modern, and with new lines opening up every year, has become the fastest way to travel across the city. Trains are almost always on time, and at busy stations in the central areas they come by every three to five minutes. This is generally a pleasant travel experience, apart from rush hour, when you’ll be crammed into a train car. The trains are clean, quiet and safe. Tickets cost only RMB2 for a ride anywhere in the city. If you buy a single journey ticket at one of the automated machines or from a uniformed vendor, keep it. You need it to pass through the exit gate. As opposed to buses, signs and maps are clear and in English, making the train system easy to navigate. All lines now collect fares through automatic fare collection (AFC) machines that accept single-ride tickets and the One Card (Yikatong), an integrated circuit card (ICC card) that can store credit for multiple rides. Riders can purchase tickets and add credit to their Yikatong at ticket counters and vending machines in every station.
There are currently 15 subway lines snaking across and around Beijing. Expansion has been very rapid: seven new subway lines have opened up since 2008, and there are plans to have 19 lines operating by 2015. The subway runs from 5am until 11pm. On the downside, riding the subway can be very uncomfortable during rush hour. You should be prepared to get pushed around, but it still may be more comfortable than spending an hour in a traffic jam.
There are nearly 800 bus routes that can take you to every corner of Beijing. Standard fares are RMB1, though some air-conditioned buses are RMB2 (less with an Yikatong). However, even short rides can take up to an hour, as most bus routes have frequent stops and seem to inch and jerk between more mobile vehicles. Unlike on the subway, maps aren’t easy to read. The buses are often crowded and struggle through traffic during rush hour. For information on bus routes, go to www.bjbus.com. On the whole, this is not a recommended mode of transportation for a newcomer, but you may discover a convenient route as you become more familiar with the city and learn some Chinese.
Beijing is not pedestrian-friendly. The summer and winter climate is harsh, and city roads are wide and car friendly, with barriers to deter jaywalking. Distances within the city are enormous, rendering foot travel as a means of getting from point A to point B unrealistic, even within the same district, unless you live in Sanlitun. Take great care when crossing the streets, as turning vehicles rarely respect stoplights when they make right turns, and Chinese drivers almost never respect the rights of pedestrians. During rush hour, cyclists and scooters use sidewalks to bypass gridlocked intersections. If you are moving around in the city centre, walking through hutongs or along one of the parks is a very pleasant experience.
Beijing is a bicycle city, and despite the onslaught of cars on Beijing’s streets during the past decades, cycling is still the primary means of transport for many of the city’s residents. The central neighbourhoods and the hutongs are particularly convenient cycling areas. Cruising in the hutongs is safe and pleasant and a very Chinese experience. The wide boulevards through the central districts usually have bike lanes. Beijing is far too big and spread out to make cycling a viable option for commuting across the city, but it can be convenient for getting around your own neighbourhood. Cycling is generally safe, but be sure to stay in the lanes and keep a helmet on (most Chinese don’t). Also bear in mind that you’re at the bottom of the pecking order after buses, trucks, taxis, cars and scooters. Don’t ever assume you’ll be given the right of way. Also, invest in a good lock to avoid falling victim to the extremely common crime of bicycle theft.
Driving in Beijing
Getting a driving licence
If you have a valid driving licence in your home country, you’re eligible for a licence in China. Before doing so, experience riding in a car in for a few weeks. This will allow you to become somewhat familiar with directions and major roads and get a feel for the flow of traffic. The mix of bicycles, motor scooters and pedestrians make the driving experience considerably more complicated than in most Western cities. Nonetheless, many expats are getting behind the wheel of their own car and finding that it’s more convenient than hailing taxis. To get a driving licence, you’ll need to prepare the following documents:
- Six passport-size photos with white background
- Health certificate
- Beijing Residence Card
- Original residence permit and copy
- Foreign driving licence or international license – the licence must be translated by an official translation bureau
The medical exam can be done at any provincial level (or higher) public Chinese hospital (not a foreign hospital). Attach one of your photos to your blank medical form and bring it with you, along with your passport. The medical exam is basically just an eye, height and weight exam. Make sure to get your official hospital stamp before you leave the hospital. Foreign applicants must then pass an eye test and a computerized road test (passing score is 90 out of 100), and pay a nominal fee. Visit the FESCO website for more detailed information – Beijing Foreign Enterprise Human Resources Service (www.fescochina.com). After you’ve gathered all the relevant documents, stamps and photos, make an appointment at:
Foreign Affairs Department of the Beijing Motor Vehicle Administration
18 Southeast 4th Ring Road, Chaoyang District
Hiring a Driver
Hiring a driver is popular among many expats, who testify to the convenience and security that a private driver provides as an alternative to taking multiple daily taxis. Good private drivers are friendly, reliable and flexible – on call at all hours to service any member of the family. For example, if you frequently have to run errands around the city, have a driver bring you around safely and securely without the hassles of communicating and watching the meter. Many families even have trusted drivers run shopping errands or pick up family members on their own – a tremendous convenience. Hiring drivers is particularly common in more suburban neighborhoods such as Shunyi, where distances are greater and simply flagging a taxi is not always an option. If you live in a compound far from a road and calling a taxi can take a while and cost a bit, it’s perfectly reasonable to consider hiring a private driver.
Hiring an on-call driver costs RMB2,500-4,000 per month. In some cases, the driver lives with the family in a spare room and uses the family car. In others, drivers have their own vehicle and provide services upon request. To find a driver, use a similar strategy to finding an ayi: check expat website or newspaper classifieds, look for postings in popular expat shops or meeting areas. Better still, ask other expats.