China – July 2006
Being from Los Angeles, I had never ridden in a taxi before I started traveling. There are several reasons for this, including limited access, expense, and the fact that in LA everyone drives. So, I had never hopped in nor even hailed a cab until I headed out of the country. My first major international trip was to Tibet, with a few days before and after in Beijing, where my first taxi experiences occurred.
I. Hotel Business Card
When my tour group arrived at our Beijing hotel, our guide told us to make sure to take a business card. “Show this to any taxi driver and they will be able to return you to this hotel,” he told us while distributing cards. As such, I was quite surprised when I hailed a taxi after a day of sightseeing and handed the driver the card and he seemed confused. Of course, he didn’t display this confusion until after we had set off. He knew a few words of English compared to my no words of Chinese but somehow, through miming and pointing, I was able to guide him back to my hotel. I have always used landmarks instead of street names to get around, which came in handy.
II. Counterfeit Precautions
Our guide had also told us that there was a rash of counterfeit bills flooding the city, so to try not to use larger bills as those are the ones being faked and some vendors may not take them. I’m reminded of this a few days later when I’m taking a cab back from dinner with another couple from my tour. They agree to pay me their share in the morning and head into the hotel when we arrive. As I go to pay, I realize that I only have a large note to cover the fare. The cab driver doesn’t speak English but makes it clear he won’t take my money. I try to explain that it’s all I have but he won’t budge and I’m not sure what to do. Luckily the couple I’d traveled with came back out to see why I was delayed. They have some smaller bills and pay the now content taxi driver. Thanking them, I quickly exchange my large bill at the hotel for smaller ones to pay them back with, saying good riddance to my rejected currency.
III. Stop and Go (and Stop)
Beijing’s traffic is hectic and slow, especially during peak times. Lines indicating lanes are just suggestions and passing on the right is always an option, even when the right is clearly not a lane. In many ways it’s like LA traffic, just in slow motion. One afternoon, in peak traffic, I’m sharing a cab and sitting up front with the driver. He’s growing increasingly agitated at the lack of progress and then starts veering in and out of lanes. Only we’re hardly moving—so it’s a rev to fill a gap I didn’t think we’d be able to fill followed by a sudden slowdown. After a few times, I start to predict when he’s going to do this. Even then, a few times I think “There’s no way we can fit into that gap” and am surprised every time that we do. It’s a talent for sure.
IV. A Taxi That’s Not a Taxi
My most interesting experience was my cab ride from the Summer Palace to a distant restaurant. July in Beijing is hot and humid, so those of us who headed out were quite ready for food and a cool down after our exploration. There are too many of us for one cab, so when we found two together near the exit, we grabbed them. Once we got going, I noticed that our “cab” does not seem to include a meter. After arriving at our restaurant, before the other cab, the driver wouldn’t let us out as it’s the other cab that has the meter and he doesn’t know what to charge us. So, we wait in the hot car for the other car to arrive, which seems to have taken the scenic route. Air conditioning and refreshments—so close and yet so far.
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