Friday, March 6, 2009

Getting around Beijing

Devoted readers would remember a passing reference I made to the relative cheapness of Beijing transportation. Perhaps I should restate with the appropriate emphasis:


The bold and all caps should have made my point clear by now, but let me elaborate. I'm no pro and at this point have only take advantage of four of the main Beijing transportation methods:

1: Your own damn self (By Foot)
Clearly the most inexpensive option, Beijing by foot is a daunting task and should only be entertained for relatively short or particularly beautiful distances. Beijing is notoriously smoggy (has been for about half of my time here) and incredibly expansive. Foot travel can get you around the block, to and from jump-off points for other types of travel and, most enjoyably, through the many parks, temples, university campuses (campi?) and other scenic paths. Walking is not advised for long distances unless you like walking along side busy roads for extended periods of time.

2: The Beijing Bus
The bus has two main pros and one gigantic con. The Beijing Bus is great because its INSANELY inexpensive (Most rides are 0.4元 - approximately $0.07) and it goes EVERYWHERE. However, these two pros are outweighed by the complexity of the bus system for a person that can't read Chinese characters:

Buses themselves are equipped with pinyan and character based signs and numbers and many even have a broadcast system that announces stops in Mandarin and English. Bus stops are a different story. Some may boast maps of each bus route - if you see one of these, count yourself among the lucky few. Most bus stops simply have a confusing schedule, completely written in characters - without any indication of where these stops are on a map. I assume a Beijingren would know where the stops are, but based on the number of people I see asking the drivers and consulting the route signs on the bus, this isn't completely true.

Beijing Bus Bonus:
Most Beijing buses are equipped with a "concierge". This person acts as a ticket taker for people that don't have RFID bus passes. You tell this concierge where you are going and pay the fare. Usually the "bus host" will call out stops and yell the route out the window as the bus pulls into a station. It seems this job is being phased out in favor of the more self service, cheaper, "greener" RFID card system. For me however, the bus host is just another person that can laugh at my horrible pronunciation. 

3: The Beijing Metro System
Recently spruced up for the Olympics, kept impeccably clean and consisting of 6-8 lines (depending on how you count), the Beijing Metro Subway System is nothing to scoff at. Though not as ubiquitous as the New York, Paris or London systems, Beijing's rapid underground expansion may soon dwarf them all. Note though, that hordes of people pack into the train cars, so the subway is not the best for claustrophobes. Its not Tokyo crowded, but during rush hours, you may have your personal space violated a bit. 

Fares can be purchased as single rides (2元 or $0.29ish) or en masse as credits on a metro card. If purchased like this, the card can be recharged and the fare slightly decreases. Buying one of these IC cards can be a challenge if you don't speak the language. It took me about 10 minutes the first time around, and I even prepared a written note that said "I buy 2 forever cards". I think the ticket taker thought I was proposing to her.

4: Beijing Taxicabs
Citroen, Hyundai and Volkswagon cabs are EVERYwhere here and, as I mentioned in my initial post, are certainly the way to go if you don't want to deal with finding a metro stop or navigating the bus system. The most expensive cab ride I've seen has been 100元 ($15) and that was 45 minutes long.

The bus and subway lines close relatively early 11pm, because the Chinese aren't notorious partiers, so Westerners are left with only one option for transportation home from the pub: The Bonkers Cheap Cabs. Really. Its BONKERS how cheap these things are.

Other ways to get around Beijing:
1: AutoRickshaw
2: Pedi-Cab / Rickshaw Bike
3: Bicycle
4: Motorized Bicycle
5: Scooter/Motorcycle

I'll try to take advantage of some of these, but don't know that I will. I don't have enough confidence in my motorcycle abilities to drive around this city and due to my proximity to the bus and subway, don't expect to need a bicycle. I did read about a cool bike touring group that takes fun trips - but I think I can just rent a bike for that.

I DO expect to take a rickshaw bike at least once. There is a very western-friendly bar area where all the bars are super close and a rickshaw bike path would take us about half of the way back to our apartment. I don't know what these thins cost - but it would be fun to ride in one for at least part of a trip home from the pubs.

Motorized Bicycles are a new trend that I'm surprised hasn't made it back to the states yet. These wonders of engineering are normal bicycles, fitted with small electric or gas motors. The motors get the bikes up to a healthy 10-20 KM/H speed, but can be switched off and pedaled too. I've seen both old bikes that were retrofitted and new ones that were designed like this. Electric models are visible in our hallway, as people bring them up the elevator and charge the batteries at night. I think this is a GREAT environmentally friendly example of basic technology making a difference. I'll try to remember to snap a photo and post one here.