Many expats don't take public transportation, and even those that regularly take the subway won't step foot on the bus. There are good reasons to avoid the bus, and the truth is, it's difficult to navigate if you don't speak Chinese and aren't familiar with any of the city's hundreds of bus routes. That said, my girlfriend speaks very little Chinese and doesn't read any characters and takes the bus all the time – it takes a bit of prior research, but once you're familiar with a couple of routes you can traverse Beijing quickly and cheaply.
Research isn't necessarily easy though. Most English language maps don't have bus routes on them and even the Chinese bus maps aren't very useful unless you have some prior knowledge of the routes and can dig through the mass of tightly printed bus information on the back. There're just far too many routes to fit them all on the map. If you read Chinese you can purchase a bus guide from the little newspaper stands that pop up all over the place. They should cost around 7 RMB and contain a wealth of bus information – every route by number and an alphabetical list of every stop with all the buses that stop there so you can plan your transfers. For those that frequently take the bus it's an invaluable tool. Ask for the B?ijīng gōngjiāo chéngchē yī b?n tōng (北京公交乘车一本通).
Chinese readers in any Chinese city can search out bus routes on the Chinese Google Maps and local sites like Mapbar and Mapabc. English speakers can also use the City of Beijing BJ Bus site although the site doesn't work in Firefox, you're better off using Internet Explorer if you still have it; Safari works okay. Unfortunately, this potentially very useful site suffers from problems that make it difficult to use – the lack of proper support for pinyin is maddening.
One of the bigger problems when taking a bus route for the first time is knowing when to get off. The signs on the road are only written in characters but Beijing buses have a couple of stickers spaced throughout the bus, stuck to the wall of the bus near where it meets the ceiling, that list all the stops in pinyin. You can also copy down the characters from the website or have someone write down the characters for you. If there is not an electronic recording announcing what the next stop is the ticket takers will holler it out. If there is a recording, there is likely a scrolling LED at the front of the bus that has the next stop in pinyin and in characters. If you don't see the info right away just wait a few moments for the messages warning you against bringing on explosive materials to end.
You can also ask the ticket takers help. Show them your paper or just say this phrase to them the following phrase, then be sure to not drift too far out of their field of vision.
I want to go (name of destination) please tell me when we are almost there
我想去(name of destination) 快到那个站时请提醒我
Wǒ xǐang qù (name of destination) kuài dào nà gè zhàn shí qǐng tí xǐng wǒ
Another problem for first-time bus takers is knowing how to pay. There are two ways to pay the bus fare in Beijing. You can either use your transit card – the blue card you use on the subway – or pay cash. You get a discounted price when you use your card – usually 40 or 60 fen (the RMB equivalent to cents), if you pay cash tickets are either 1 or 2 yuan. The price depends on the type of bus – newer air-conditioned buses are more expensive – and how far you ride. Buses with shorter routes are fixed price which means if you use a card you don't have to swipe when you get off the bus. Longer routes charge you by how long you ride and you must swipe again when you exit. Look by the exit to see if there is a place to swipe your card and look above the exit door – there will be a sign in English and Chinese if you need to swipe again. The transit passes, known as IC cards, can't be purchased on the bus – you usually buy them at the subway station.
If a bus has two doors you get in the front door and exit out the back. If it's a long bus with the hinge in the middle to help the bus around turns you get on in the middle door and exit out the front or back.
If you pay cash you either stuff the money in the metal box by the door, the fare is listed on the box in English and Chinese, or pay the ticket taker who will want to know where you are going in order to know how much t charge you. There is usually a lot of shouting involve but don't let it get to you, it's just how it's done and most ticket takers are very helpful. Sometimes fellow passengers will help mediate.
The biggest complaint foreigners have about the buses is that they're very crowded. This is absolutely true. During rush hour the buses make a sardine can feel spacious and sometimes the smells aren't much better. Get used to being elbowed in the kidneys.
Getting on the bus is often a full contact experience. Some bus stops feature older volunteers who marshal everyone into neat lines with their red flags but most of the time it's a free for all. Working on your positioning, keep your legs wide to prevent people sneaking around you and keep your center of gravity low.
When I first landed in China, I was sensitive about being a good cultural ambassador. I'm a reasonably tall while male and I didn't want to start any international incidents or give foreigners a bad name by jumping in line. On one of my first bus rides I was getting out of the bus opposite my university. I was getting off quickly, but an old lady who didn't even come up to my nipples grabbed the door railing, got one foot up on the step, and elbowed me in the back of the kneecap causing my leg to buckle, I tumbled out of the bus and nearly pancaked on the pavement. Since then, I've learned to imagine there is no one around me at all and it makes the whole process much easier.
Learning how to ride the bus in Beijing takes time and effort, and can be frustrating at times, but it's worth it. It's often the quickest and most efficient means of transportation and it's certainly the cheapest. The buses come very regularly and crisscross the entire city. And you can see things you wouldn't in the subway and meet people you wouldn't in a taxi. Go for it.
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