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Terrific Taxi Tales

In China, taxis aren't just a quick and easy way to get around - they're an experience you won't (or can't) forget

06·30·2010

Terrific Taxi Tales

In China, taxis aren't just a quick and easy way to get around - they're an experience you won't (or can't) forget

06·30·2010

I clung on the back of the motorbike-taxi for dear life. We zoomed through skinny alleys as the horn blared and headlights flashed. Pedestrians and cyclists moved on, oblivious to the warnings. The driver chuckled as we swerved to avoid a donkey. When we finally screeched to a stop, my heart was pounding. I swung my stiff legs off the bike, handed over the money and patted down my hair.

This was just another morning’s ride, my regular commute while teaching in Guangdong.

Traveling in China, taxis are one of the first things you’ll encounter. They’re cheap, easy to find and come in many shapes and sizes.

Big cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, have modern fleets with strict protocol and well-trained drivers. The Olympics and Expo 2010 have bred a new cab culture in which drivers are competing to provide the best service possible — strikingly different from just a few years earlier.

One driver in Shanghai bought dozens of MP3 players and handed them out to his fellow cab owners. He thought this was a great investment. The music, he was convinced, would soothe passengers and make the ride more enjoyable.

Beijing cabbies, meanwhile, are renowned for their friendly banter. They’ll talk to you about almost anything — maybe offering their opinions on Canadian exports or describing why they love Hawaiian ukulele music so much.

But this doesn’t mean that all cabs are pleasant. Many drivers eat their lunches in the car, and the garlicky odor will linger for hours. Some won’t show the slightest reserve when it comes to hocking a loogie out the window.

Even though these drivers are encouraged to study English, don’t count on them being able to understand you. Always make sure you have your address written in Chinese characters, and make sure your driver knows your destination. If they seem unsure, and you’re also unsure, it is always safer to wait for the next car.

Local dialects can also pose a problem. Riding a cab to a friend’s apartment the other day, I found that the only way my driver could understand me was if I spoke with a good Beijing growl.

It is rare now, in Beijing and Shanghai especially, to have a taxi driver try to “take you for a ride” and cheat you. Most always they will drive the most direct route. But if the ride seems too long, and if the price is getting too high, say something. Tell them what the price should be; they will usually stop the meter at that number. If you have any grievances, or the driver doesn’t cooperate, take down the driver’s ID number and call the complaint hotline on the passenger seat dashboard.

No matter what happens, get in the habit of taking receipts. You can use these to make complaints and—this is really important — retrieve anything you left in the taxi. Three people I know forgot expensive musical instruments in the trunks of cabs. They didn’t keep their receipts and the instruments were lost forever. As there are hundreds of taxi companies in Beijing alone, it is next to impossible to trace lost items without a receipt.

You also want to look out for what are called “black taxis” or heiche (黑车). They will sometimes approach you at the airport, outside malls and at universities. You can spot them because they drive regular cars, usually without meters, and will shout “坐车吗朋友?” (Zuò​chē ma péng​you? Want a ride my friend?) These are not licensed cabs, they tend to drive dangerously, are more likely to rip you off and you won’t be covered by their insurance in case of an accident. We urge you, don’t ride with them!

In small towns and villages, things get stranger.

You may see odd three-wheeled vehicles, get taken on wild off-road rides, enjoy unexpected car-pools, be expected to take the driver out to dinner, get switched to another cab halfway through your journey… The possibilities are endless.

The most memorable taxi ride of my life was in Inner Mongolia. It was the middle of the night and my friend and I were traveling to a nearby village by taxi. Without warning, our cabbie pulled into an adjacent field. The car jumped over farmland, pebbles kicking into the windshield. We swerved into a patch of tall grass and our headlights went dim—but we kept driving. I feared for my life, as country western music hauntingly played on the static-filled radio. Where was this madman taking us? Were we in Inner Mongolia, or a scene from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”?

Twenty nail-biting minutes later, we pulled back onto pavement. The cabby turned back to us, smiling triumphantly. He’d just saved us a lot of money, he explained; he had avoided a toll booth. He wasn’t a madman after all, just thrifty.

In the south of China especially, cheap taxi-motorbikes are common. You clench hold, behind the driver, usually without a helmet. These are dangerous, but sometimes unavoidable—the alleyways in many towns are too narrow for cars. The best you can do is hold on tight!

In more remote places, don’t be surprised if you are asked to share a cab with another passenger or to switch cabs halfway through the trip, for the driver’s convenience. If you’re going a long distance, agree on your price beforehand. If it’s a return trip, make sure you’re clear with the driver first, or you might, like someone we know, end up stuck alone on a highway by North Korea.

 

FARES

Cha-ching! Taxi fares vary from city to city. In Shanghai the flag price is 12 RMB for the first three kilometers and 2.4 RMB for every following kilometer. This increases to 3.4 RMB after 15 kilometers. In Beijing the starting fee is 10 RMB for the first three kilometers and 2.0 RMB for each following kilometer, with a 1 RMB surcharge for trips over3 km, when the price of fuel is high enough. After 15 kilometers, the price moves up to 3.4 RMB. If you’re a night owl be prepared to pay a little extra. In both cities the fare is higher from 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. In other cities, cabs are significantly cheaper, usually starting around 7 RMB. In small towns, sometimes there is a set price, and one fare will take you anywhere.

 

HELPFUL NUMBERS

Shanghai

Complaints: 021 6323 2150

Bookings and Companies:

Dazhong: 021 96822
Qiangsheng: 021 6258 0000
Jinjiang: 021 96961
Bashi: 021 96840
Haibo: 021 96965

Beijing

Complaints: 010 6835 1150

Bookings: 96103

 

LANGUAGE TIP

For many years in China, people would say 打的 (dǎdi) to mean “taking a taxi.” This came from Hong Kong, where the 的 is pronounced “dee”—sounding something like the “ee” sound in the English word “taxi.” Later, 的 was used to refer to taxis in the rest of China.