One of the biggest downfalls of backpacking cities is the sheer size and distance needed to travel from A to B. Everything is spread out far and wide requiring a network of different transport to get there. Despite the horrendously enormous size of Beijing and its surrounding burrows, its surprising to find such efficient and in many ways, reliable range of options to travel throughout the city.
Like many major cities, a number of travel options are interlinked, paid for through the same transport card. The city holds every form of transport imaginable, all of which range in speed, reliability and price. These factors can vary considerably, and an important consideration when picking the right option.
Table of Contents
Beijing has a subway system which stands up to the demands and requirements of this major city. It covers every corner of the city’s monstrous outreach via its 17 individual lines. There will be a subway station marked by a blue D close-by wherever you’ll find yourself in Beijing, can guaranteed there’s one heading in your direction. The subway covers practically every major attraction within Beijing. The lines even extend to the airport which provides a line directly into the heart of the city.
Without a doubt it’s the most effective and reliable way of getting around the city, just like any other subway system. Its reliability comes in waves of subways no more than a 5-minute wait apart from each other. The subways also manage to avoid being another victim to Beijing’s horrendous traffic, saving you a considerable amount of time. Sadly however this transport is on a strict time limit, only running between the hours of 5am-11:15pm.
It’s also one of the cheapest forms of travel available, based on distance it will cost anywhere between 3-9 RMB per trip. Given the distances and speed in which it gets you to your destination, it’s quite a bargain. This is also one of the few transport options which can be paid for with a transport card.
There has to be a negative with everything. With the subway, its undeniable that at times this can be a very irritating form of travel. This is particularly down to the sheer number of people who’ve also chosen the subway as their preferred method of travel (rightly so). People who have no concept of personal space or general politeness with the constant barging and standing in the way. Its not an unusual site seeing some local Chinese person, face buried in their phone stepping off the escalator and completely blocking the way…fucking irritating.
Rush hour can get quite intense, with lines extending outside of the subway entrances and where pushing and shoving is generally accepted. Not quite as bad as the Japanese subways where people have to be crushed in by staff, but not too far off. The extreme’s in temperature can also make it a challenge. Standing in a steel oven packed shoulder to shoulder with locals in 30+ degrees is challenging. So too is stepping off the bitterly cold winter streets with excessive layers of clothing and having to stand in the same hot-box. Fainting therefore is a common occurrence.
Regardless of these minor downfalls, the subway (just like any other city) is clearly the overall best way of travelling within a city.
From the best inner-city transport, to the worst. Found within any bustling city, taxi’s have been the foundation of travel for many years, despite being the most expensive option available. Usually this added cost is made up with speed and efficiency, not so. Good luck trying to wave down a taxi when you need it, its near impossible. ¾ of the cabs are already full or on their way to pick up a client. Unless you’re where they congregate (i.e. outside a club) then you’re not likely to find one that’s free.
When you finally manage to wave down the 100th taxi you see, it’s still a flip of the coin whether they’ll actually take you. First tip, always have the address, and make sure it’s in Chinese (because not a single driver will know English). If its too challenging for him to figure out where you’re going, he’ll simply wave his hand and say no. Even having the address isn’t a guarantee that you’ll get taken. If you’re not going in the direction the driver wishes to go, he’ll simply refuse. Never knew taxi drivers that were so disinterested in business.
When you finally find a driver willing to take you, then it’s a question whether you’re paying the correct price or not. Just like in any other country some drivers will try to take advantage of the clueless foreigner. The base rate is 13RMB Always use the meter, no matter how much they argue otherwise.
15 hours later, you’ve waved down a cab, and the drivers agreed to take you for the correct price, but how long will it take? Well there’s no real way of knowing other than being at a dead-stop in traffic. Then you know it will take a while and you’ve made the wrong decision. The differences in speed is increadible. On the way home from the club at 2am, it easily becomes the fastest way of travelling. However at rush hour (extending for 4-5 hours) then it becomes the slowest.
Bus / Tram
The bus is very much the staple of inner-city travel, but in a city with the size and development of Beijing, are they really necessary? Practically speaking, it is easily the slowest form of transport. Not only having to deal with Beijing’s horrendous traffic, but in a vehicle of that size it becomes a snails pace.
Also, much like buses anywhere, it’s a fucking nightmare trying to decipher which bus you need to get where. There are hundreds of routes and bus numbers, with no reference points, at least not for the inexperienced. Even the spider-web cluster-fuck of subway systems are easy to figure out eventually, where the buses will remain a mystery.
The silver lining is that buses are a continuous cheap option of travel. They’ll always be there if you have no other option. This option can also be paid for via a transport card, and therefore based off the distance you travel rather than a flat rate. The price starts at 2RMB for the first 6 miles, and an additional 1RMB for every 5 miles after that. Another quite important benefit is that they run late into the night, where the reliable subways are closed by 11pm. Which would explain why they are the choice of the drunken locals late at night.
Long story short, this is Chinese Uber. Such a service fits in perfectly into the modern world which can only function via our smartphones. Being as the Chinese have more of a dependence on the smartphone rather than a love, it makes sense that transport is also arranged over it.
Although Uber does exist in China, much like any other Western brand, the Chinese version is represented much more. Its practically the same in every way. From whatever A destination you find yourself, you send out the request for a driver who’ll eventually turn up at your location to take you to the pre-arranged B destination. Essentially a much more reliable efficient form of a taxi.
In comparison however, you’re likely to pay a similar price to a taxi, making it one of the most expensive options. Although overall when compared to the West, the prices are actually quite cheap, where you could travel from any A to B location for around £5. However its practically 10 times the price of an equivalent subway journey. You might even find the price fluctuates due to the time or number of drivers available.
The number of drivers becomes an issue depending on the day and time, which affects the amount of time you’ll be waiting for a driver. This is why the process is unreliable, as on a busy night you could be waiting in-line for 45 minutes just waiting for a driver. For example, 12am on a Friday night will be one HELL of a wait whereas middle of the day will be a breeze. The didi’s will also be victim to the traffic exactly like the taxis.
Speed: Fast (Short distance)
One of the biggest new trends in any modern capital are rows of bikes lining walkways across the city available for rent. Beijing has taken it a step further. You’re unable to walk 2 minutes without tripping over one of the 3 million bikes strewn across the streets.
They’re technically not “public” bikes. Rather they’re provided by several different companies, recognised by their different colour bikes. The method of hiring the bikes is practically the same with whatever company you choose. As always, the smart phone plays a vital role.
Each bike has a QR code on it which must be scanned. Upon scanning the code, you’ll be a given a pin to unlock the 4 numbered lock on the back. Once its opened, your time has started and away you go. Quick and simple. Once the bike is unlocked, you do as you wish with it; take it anywhere for as long as your heart desires. Once your done, these bikes can be left practically anywhere (as long as its out of the direct way of pedestrians). All you have to do is close the lock on the back and your bill is calculated. The maximum you can be charged is 10 RMB (a £1). Its important to not that there’s a £20 deposit for use of these bikes.
This is an incredibly practical way of getting around town (as long as the distance is quite short) as these bikes are located EVERYWHERE in the city. Over short distances it becomes the most efficient and practical way to travel. It becomes an attractive circumstance when you compare a 45 minute wait for a 60RMB didi to take you the distance of a 5 minute bike ride at 3RMB.
There are some other lesser known and rightly lesser used options available. One of these will be the unofficial taxi driver. These are as unofficial as you can be. Armed with a car and a sat-nav app, they essentially drive round looking for the punters waiting on taxi’s. These should be avoided at all cost, not only as they’re dodgy, where shit could turn south very easily, but they charge an extortionate rate, higher than any other option. IF this is a last resort, agree on the price before even getting into the car.
Another one you’re more than likely to find much more in the touristy area’s is the authentic bike and cart that you picture anytime you think of China. However as their location would suggest, this is a complete tourist trap. You’ll get charged a ridiculous rate for some poor sod to cycle your fat-ass around some hutongs when you could get the exact same experience if you walked around or got your own bike.
Most modern up-to-date cities and towns are begin to have a similar system. Where London has its Oyster card (one card to pay for all forms of public transport), Beijing has its equivalent. The card allows you to hop onto a bus, tram or subway for the cheapest forms of transport available. The card will also allow you to enter certain parks. These cards require a 200 RMB deposit, and can be recharged at most subway stations. If you’re even more modern, you can do this entire process over your smart-phone, obviously.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible.
My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.