Learning the Tricks of Getting Around Beijing
I first set foot in Beijing, China in August 2005. But less than 24 hours later, I was in Renqiu, a small city more than two hours outside the capital where I was hired to teach high school English for the next school year. Fortunately, my colleague Teri was assigned to the same school. Since we'd only had a few weeks of culture and language training in the U.S. before we arrived, those first weeks were full of wonderment and plenty of learning opportunities.
It would take us the first year to realize that we were calling the gatekeeper "open the gate" rather than the common and respectful word for "master." Luckily we were much faster making our way out to the amazing vegetable and meat market, and to the single place in the town where we could get a tiny taste of the West: KFC. Over the last 12 years in China, I’ve become a pro at many of the things that used to confound me. I've forgotten many of the small things that I had to learn, usually "the hard way," but one I'll never forget was our first solo trip to Beijing.
There were no other foreigners in Renqiu, so by October of that first year, Teri and I planned a trip to Beijing to visit a few friends who lived there. And, we wanted to do some sightseeing. After all, that was part of the reason we took jobs here.
Navigating Buses in a City of Nearly a Million
Train travel was, and still is, the main way most Chinese travel between cities. So we went to the Renqiu train station to buy tickets. This was over a decade ago; there was no option to buy them online.
I had expected getting to the train station would be difficult since a bewildering number of buses passed the bus stop where we waited. Once we found one that was going to the train station, we got on and saw the transit map, detailing a surprisingly streamlined system. There were only eight bus routes in a city of 800,000 people! The bus lines zigzagged their way across the city, and were easy to learn.
We dropped in a one yuan coin ($0.11), and spent half an hour passing parts of the city we'd never seen before.
Buying Tickets With Limited Language Skills
Prior to going to the train station, one of our colleagues had given us a quick lesson in buying tickets. To ensure we were successful, she even wrote out our request to show the ticket seller.
We were moderately confident, armed with this paper and the knowledge that a ticket should cost less than 30 yuan ($3.50). What we weren't prepared for was the absolute absence of lines.
Tons of people but no lines. Everyone pushed and shoved, trying to get to the counter as quickly as possible.
We at first waited patiently and tried to be polite, but soon realized that doing so only would make the wait longer, so we soon joined in the push to get the the counter.
Tickets but No Seats
We bought our round-trip tickets to Beijing without a hitch, but noticed that they were different prices. Two were 24 yuan ($2.82) while the other two were only 18 yuan ($2.11). We wondered how that could be possible. Since the tickets were printed in Chinese, we couldn’t understand what they said or notice any difference except the price.
Back in my office at school, we got our answer. A colleague told us that in order to transport China's 1.4 billion people efficiently (and meet the huge demand), once rail tickets are “sold out,” they start selling "standing tickets.” This is exactly like it sounds: You stand in any open space in the aisle or at either end of the train car. As far as I can tell, there are an unlimited number of standing tickets sold at a reduced price — the 18 yuan tickets, in our case. We stood for the two hour ride to Beijing.
On our return trip we did get seats, hence the higher price. Train tickets go on sale two weeks in advance and sell out quickly. If we had known, we would have booked them more than two days before our trip.
An alternative, though we didn't know about it at the time, is to book a ticket for a "hard sleeper," or a bed. Bunks are three to a side of a cabin, and while not the most comfortable, the extra cost is worth it for the extra space. These tickets are typically bought by people who have a journey that’s longer than half a day, as trains that leave Beijing often go all the way to the south end of the country, a two-day trip.
On the day of our trip, we arrived at the station early, and when the train arrived, pushed through the ticket checkpoint with the rest of the crowd. Once on the train, we took up a section of the aisle that wasn’t too crowded, and braced ourselves as the train started rolling down the tracks. Thankfully, the trains run smoothly so we never were too jostled, though we did get pushed and squeezed a bit as the snack cart came through on multiple occasions.
Queuing for a Taxi
After arriving in Beijing, we once again fought crowds as we made our way off of the platform, into the station, through the ticket check, and out to the taxi queue. Since the 2008 Olympics were just three years away at that point, the city was starting to translate some signs to English. Luckily, the train station was already outfitted with bilingual signs, so finding our way around wasn't difficult.
What was difficult was remaining patient during the hour-long queue to get a taxi. We'd been standing for over three hours by the time we entered the line and were anxious to sit for a while. Even the restrooms didn't offer a reprieve for our feet. The majority of public places in China were, and still are, outfitted with squat-style toilets. Definitely challenging, but a good thigh workout.
Once we got a taxi, we used a mix of Chinese and English to ask the driver to take us to Tiananmen Square, a place that loomed large in our minds as the site of massive protests for democratic reforms a decade and a half earlier. We were excited to walk around for a bit, take the obligatory photos, and cross it off of our bucket lists.
First Stop: Tiananmen Square
The ride to Tiananmen Square was a treat for our feet. During the hour-long drive, we drove through areas that looked like they were stuck a hundred years in the past, and others that were ultra-modern. The massive amount of cars and people were mind-boggling for me, a Midwesterner who used to be afraid of driving in Chicago, a city whose size and level of congestion pales in comparison to Beijing.
In Chinese, Tiananmen means “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” due to its location as the entryway to the Forbidden City. Located in the city center, the square is home to the Monument to the People’s Heroes, the National Museum of China, the Great Hall of the People and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.
We were looking forward to going to a place that has been key for many events that shaped the country’s modern history. It was here, on October 1, 1949, that the country was established by the revered Chairman Mao, and it is home to frequent military parades which commemorate the anniversary. It has also been the site of protests, the most recent of which was the deadly 1989 pro-democracy movement, which drew global attention.
When we pulled up to the huge sprawling square, we paid the driver and got out. Unbeknown to us at the time, he purposely dropped us off in an area with a few dozen souvenir sellers and waiting rickshaw drivers.
The Rickshaw Drivers
The sellers didn’t waste time pushing their wares at us to try to get us to buy.
Polite smiles and a few strong utterances of "Buyao" (no, thank-you) got us past them, but we then found ourselves surrounded by rickshaws. The drivers were nearly bumping us with their vehicles, offering a trip around the famous square. Finally, as a way to get away from the madness, we agreed. After all, a ride was only 3 yuan ($0.35).
We soon found out that the price would double to six yuan because they wouldn't let us sit in a rickshaw together. An extra 3 yuan wasn’t a deal-breaker — we just wanted to get away from the crowded area as soon as possible!
Trip Around Tiananmen
The two drivers pedaled off and stayed together, but after a few hundred meters, they stopped to switch drivers. They were tired, they said, because of our weight. While we may not be petite-sized, this should have tipped us off that something wasn't right. But we had just arrived, were trying to be understanding and felt a bit overwhelmed.
The drivers then told us they’d take us to a special spot along the way, for just 20 yuan ($2.35). Sure, whatever. Just get us to the part of the square where we can take photos, we told them.
The pattern of trading drivers every few hundred meters continued. Finally, as we thought they were about to make the final turn around Tiananmen, they left the square. The peddled a bit further, and turned into the hutongs.
Abrupt Ending in the Hutong
Hutongs are traditional-style adjoining houses, one story high, with narrow roads between them. They account for a small part of residences these days — most were demolished for skyscrapers. But they can still be found around Beijing.
This particular strip was empty, not at all like we envisioned from photographs — grandmothers chatting while husking corn and watching the toddlers play nearby. There was no sign of life except for our two rickshaws. We went down a long alleyway, turned the corner and were told to get off.
"Done. No more!" was their brief announcement. Um, okay. So, we'll just walk back.
Teri and I both reached into our purses and took out 20 yuan for our drivers. "No! One thousand," was their response to the two 10 yuan notes. What? Impossible. But they held firm, and pulled out a well-worn laminated card that read:
- Trip Around Tiananmen: 300 yuan ($35)
- Forbidden City: 300 yuan ($35)
- Hutong Tour: 300 yuan ($35)
- Rickshaw Drivers: 100 yuan ($12)
- Total: 1,000 yuan ($117)
I couldn't believe it! My heart was racing and I was scared. I only had 1,000 yuan with me. That was all my money until my next paycheck at the end of the month.
I was glad I'd hidden half of my money in my shoe — that would be enough to finish up the weekend in Beijing and get back home to Renqiu. We insisted we each only had 500 yuan with us. Eventually they agreed, so we each handed over five crisp pink 100 yuan notes, and walked as fast as we could out of the hutong.
Fortunately one long road, and a turn later, we were back among people, cars, and noise. Sobbing, and feeling foolish, we made our way towards what looked like a commercial area and spotted a McDonald's.
Taking Refuge at Mickey D's
To this day, I've never been so happy to see a McDonald’s, and never have I felt so comfortable inside one. We ordered drinks and sat down to regroup and figure out how to get over to the district where our friends lived.
This was before smart phones, so we pored over our Lonely Planet guide book and a hand-me-down map of the subway system.
As we sat there we overhead a group of foreigners at the next table over. They'd just experienced the same situation. It was nice to know we weren't the only ones who fell for this scam.
We struck up a conversation with them, and wished each other better luck on our respective journeys before heading out to navigate the subway system.
Although it had operated for 36 years, Beijing's subway system was still in its infancy, route-wise, at that time — with just four lines. Some eight more were set to open before the 2008 Olympics. There are now 22 lines.
Back then, finding the nearest subway station proved difficult. Their trademark blue signs aren't very conspicuous. We'd learned it was best to ask college-aged people for directions since they'd at least have a minimum of 10 years of English in school. Excellent advice, even today.
Station located, we ventured down under the city to one of the first lines, which had been in operation since 1969. With the exception of the automated ticket terminals, its age was evident — it was cold, musty and dark, with no elevators or escalators.
We weren't quite prepared for just how busy the subways were — it's one of the busiest systems in the world and doesn't have the capacity to meet demand at peak hours. On the first line we had seats, but after transferring to another line, we were squashed in like sardines. There was no need to hold on to anything — it was not possible to fall over as the subway pulled in to each station.
At the second transfer, we couldn’t even get in a subway carriage because it was so full.
An hour and two line transfers later, we arrived at our friend's house, more than ready for a restful evening.