After waiting for my friend for over an hour in Beijing’s Capital International Airport following my arrival to the city this past August, I decided to give up and grab the next cab to my host university in Chaoyang District. Upon entering the elevator to the taxi waiting area of Terminal 3, I met a middle aged Chinese woman who asked where I was going. When I told her the name of my university, she immediately told me that none of the taxis would want to take me there as it was apparently too far. Without delay she told me she could take me there, as she was an airport employee and it was her lunch break. It was only when she told me, after we had started driving, that the trip would cost 200 RMB, that I immediately realized I had been tricked into taking a heiche (黑车, black cab).
Black cab is the term used to refer to regular looking cars – devoid of taxi color, insignia, and lighting – that are illegal due to the fact that they are unlicensed taxis, they drive unsafely, and the drivers and other passengers are not always as kind as they seem to be.
Heiche drivers have not only resorted to the robbery and rape of passengers, but some even have committed henious murders. A series of such crimes, including the one mentioned above, occurred around January or February during the Chinese New Year. Such crimes have ranged from the stabbing of a passenger who tried to negotiate the price with a driver to the late night rape and murder of a drunk woman in Changsha (whose naked body was found in the home of the purpetrator much later).
Although they are illegal, heiche are a very common sight in Beijing because there is such a desperate shortage of real taxis willing to take passengers and the act of hailing real one becomes a perverse audition. Heiche are usually small sedans that may or may not have three red lights in front of their rear view mirror when they are empty – a sort of equivalent to the vacancy lights in real taxis. Unlike real taxi drivers, heiche drivers usually wait near busy places like subways, train stations, airports, and so on, directly approaching potential passengers and offering their services. This offer, according to a former blog Terrific Taxi Tales, tends to be “坐车吗？” (zuòchē ma?, want a ride), but if you’re a foreigner, this is most likely changed to “Hello? Taxi!” or “Hello, laowai, taxi!” or, more simply “Hello!?”
While a heiche may look like a normal car, the thing that sets it apart is the three circular red lights hanging from the rear-view mirror (mimicking the more complex light of a licensed taxi). The drivers will tend to charge twice as much as normal taxi drivers, and may not name a price until after the trip, which can lead to quite a rude awakening. To avoid getting completely gauged, it is advisable to ask for and negotiate over the price upfront before you get into the car.
A few months ago when I was trying to get back from visiting my friend at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) on the west side of the city to my university all the way in East Beijing. As it was past 11:00 PM, the subway was closed and a majority of taxis were either occupied or nowhere in sight. While waiting for a taxi on a corner, I was approached by a heiche driver, who asked “你去哪儿？” (Nǐ qù nǎr? Where are you going?). Thinking I could scare him off once he realized I wanted to go all the way to the other side of the city, I told him I wanted to go to Beijing International Studies University (BISU). He was unswayed, and offered a price of 180 RMB. I said no at first, but after waiting a few minutes, he returned, so I decided to bargain. Being able to negotiate my fare down to 100 RMB, I decided it would be enough and hopped in the car.
The only problem with the bargaining tactic is that when there is no promise of a good payment from the current passenger, the heiche driver will often opt for picking up as many people as possible to guarantee that he can end the day with a full wallet. Such a situation occurred on the BFSU to BISU trip, during which the heiche driver stopped at almost every person on the side of the road to ask if they needed a ride. Wishing it would end and that I could just get home safe, I was glad he only found one other passenger before the funny business ended.
Having seen a great many horror films involving a group of happy-go-lucky hitchhiking teens who get picked up by the wrong driver and end up kidnapped by a psychopath or part of the heinous plan of a group of psychopaths, when forced to take a heiche, I always have to wonder what I’m getting into when the heiche driver seeks out other passengers.
Another such situation happened in Dengfeng, Henan Province, where I was looking for a cab that could take me to the long-distance bus station to catch a bus to Zhengzhou and then a train to Beijing. I found a heiche, but I had to wait 20 minutes for the driver to find more occupants before departing; making the trip into more of a hassle than it needed to be, and conjuring those ideas of horror film psychos.
The incident also reminded me of a recent tale from a foreign friend of mine who was staying in Dengfeng. He said that he had gotten into a heiche under the guise that the driver would take them to their destination for free. He knew things weren’t as they seemed when he noticed the scenery changing to a less-populated area, where the driver stopped and asked for payment. When my friend reminded him of their deal, the driver argued and started to drive again, after which my friend and his companion grabbed their things and jumped out of the vehicle.
Yet another breed of heiche driver to look out for is the heiche driver with a side business. While riding in the heiche from Beijing Capital Airport to BISU, the driver repeatedly asked me if I wanted to buy a used cell phone or if I wanted to take part in a trip to the Great Wall. Such things can seem appealing to the new arrival or unsuspecting foreigner, but all it ends up being is a hectic venture and less pocket change. An alternative method of hailing legit cabs that is rapidly growing in popularity is to use smartphone taxi apps such as 嘀嘀打车 (Dídí Dǎchē) or 摇摇招车 (Yáoyáo Zhāochē) to track down drivers nearby.