Whether you are just visiting Beijing for a few days, or Beijing is your “laojia” (old home), it is of the utmost importance that you know how to get around the city quickly and cheaply. While you could take a cab from point A to B every time, this gets costly, and traffic in Beijing is...well its not super great. So why not try public transportation? Keep reading for some “pro tips” on navigating the public transportation systems of Beijing with ease.
First things first; some essential items to have on you at all times
In Beijing, you must carry three things on you at all times: your wallet (duh), a metro card, and a smart phone (or a basic phone/ipod touch combo). For tourists visiting Beijing, as soon as you get off the train or plane, the first thing you should do is buy a Beijing Metro pass, which you can pick up at any subway stop. Subway stops (地铁站) are located in/next to all of the train stations (the line 9 subway will open by the west train station very soon). Additionally, the Beijing Capital Airport has the “Airport Express” (25 RMB per trip), which connects to the subway system. Once you have your Metro Pass, using Beijing public transportation becomes much easier, as you can just swipe your card at the subway turnstiles (2 RMB per trip) or on the little displays on buses (.4 RMB per trip).
The other essential item to have on your person at all times is a smartphone, or an iPod touch-type device. With this, you can translate Chinese on the fly (using C-Dict, Pleco), load and save maps (using Google maps, Bing, Baidu), and access email. But to do most of these things, you need Internet access. Tourists might have some initial difficulty in finding Internet access. Hotels generally have some sort of pay-per-day Internet access plan (expensive!); Beijing hostels are a bit better as they almost always have some sort of free Internet service. In a worst-case scenario, coffee shops are a pretty safe bet for Internet access.
Pick a place and make a personalized set of directions to get to it
Now that we have covered the basics of what to have on you at all times, we can set about utilizing these tools to easily chart out directions. Once you have decided on the place that you want to go, it’s time to set about researching how to get there so go find yourself someplace to access the Internet. You will want to copy and paste the address of the location into Google Maps or Baidu. Click on the button to turn the map that pops up into “destination” and enter in the location of where you currently are. A handy way of knowing where you currently are is to take a name card from the place you are accessing the internet from (ask for a míngpiàn 名片) and use the address on the card as your starting place. Conversely, if you are in a relatively well-known area, like Tiananmen Square, just enter that in. After you enter your present address, and the address that you want to go to, take a screenshot of the open browser window and email it to yourself so that you can pull up the file on your smartphone/iPod touch, and Boom, your mobile personalized set of directions is ready to go!
Choose the best mode of transportation; what time of the day is it?
Reasons to ride the subway:
Easily the single easiest way to get “pissed off” at Beijing, is to get stuck in its notoriously bad traffic for two hours on a crowded bus or in an expensive taxi. The first thing to keep in mind when you are planning your day trip, is to try to avoid using public transportation during rush hours, which hits peak awfulness from approximately 8:00-10:00 and 16:00-19:00. But if you must travel during these times, it is generally better to ride the subway to your destination. It will be just as crowded as above ground public transportation, but as its schedule is regulated, it has a better chance of getting you to a destination in a reasonable amount of time. Keep in mind the number of transfers that you will have to make to get to your destination; besides the 2-5 minutes that it takes for each stop on the subway line, a station transfer generally tacks on an additional 5-10 minutes (up to 15-30 during peak hours). During non-peak hours, the subway is also generally 30-50% faster than riding the bus, so if your destination is located very near a subway, it’s a good choice!
Reasons to ride the bus:
While riding the buses may be a bit more difficult for the uninitiated (read this guide to Beijing buses), and they are literally “hell on wheels” during rush hour, they make up for these disadvantages in both price and the number of places they go. As mentioned above, subways cost 2 RMB per ride, while buses are .4 RMB per ride. If you are a penny pincher (Mao pincher?), then you will immediately notice that even those subway rides are starting to add up. You can ride the bus five times for the same price as one subway ride! The other reason to ride the bus is that they go everywhere. It may not seem like a big deal prior to the trip, but when you have to walk four or five blocks from the subway to your destination, it will tire you out. Using your previously Google’ed directions, you can easily figure out how to conserve some energy by riding the buses right to most places in Beijing. Check out http://www.bjbus.com/home/index.php for more information on bus routes.
One last thing to note about subways and buses is that they do stop running at night. For the subway lines, the “last call” is usually around 22:00, so try to be on your way home (or out) a bit before then. As for bus lines, depending on the route, buses stop running between 22:00 and 24:00, so plan accordingly.
The last resort: taking a taxi
As much as you should try to avoid taxis in Beijing, they do prove their usefulness from time to time. If you get lost and cannot find your destination, all you need to do is flag down a taxi, and show the driver the address on your smart phone map and they will generally be able to get you there. Also, if it is late at night, there is no alternative to taking a taxi somewhere, lest you want to wait for the public transportation to start running at 5:00 the next day!
One last thing to note: avoid using black coloured taxis. They are illegal privately run cabs, and historically try to rip you off (or steal your kidneys). It is better to wait for a legitimate cab almost always (if you are outside the city center, and it is very late at night, you may not have a choice. Be warned and plan accordingly).
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