China is a perfect example of how foreigners can be left completely perplexed. The names on bus stop signs or at subway stations are often displayed only in Chinese characters, with perhaps the pinyin displayed alongside, as is the destination on the front of the bus or train. Numbers will be familiar however for the most part.
Timetables are a different story however. At bus stops these are mostly displayed using Chinese characters only. This makes it very difficult to read and interpret, even for those who might speak a little Chinese.
The subway or Metro is a little easier to navigate since the maps displayed are fairly self explanatory. Furthermore in many big cities such as Beijing there maybe English translations of important directions or signs.
Some Chinese phrases will of course be useful in helping one get about, particularly when buying tickets, getting directions or instructing a taxi driver where to go.
Taxis are of course easier, once one has managed to inform the driver of the destination. For some journeys a taxi is certainly preferable to a crowded bus or subway train especially during rush hour. Taxis are also relatively cheap compared to western cities. While a ride from Beijing Capital International Airport to the centre of town might cost more than 100 RMB [around £10] an average trip within the city will likely cost only twenty or thirty RMB. However even during a relatively short stay these fares can soon mount up and you could well find yourself having spent more than 1,000 RMB in taxi fares in just a week.
But for those who don’t mind a little adventure and putting in a little effort, using buses and trains is not as difficult as one might think. What’s more you’ll save a fortune as buses can cost as little as 1 RMB which is about ten pence or 16 US cents!
With a pocket full of change you’ll first want to plan your route. And one of the best tools for this is Google Maps. With an increasing number of hotels having some form of Internet access, getting your laptop, tablet or mobile phone online should not pose too much of a problem.
A laptop is a little more user friendly since you may need a couple of browser windows open to plan and navigate a route.
After opening Google Maps one can zoom to one’s present location and right click to bring up a menu which gives the option to ask for "directions from here". In the left hand bar the location will be entered in a box, of course in Chinese. The user may drag and zoom to the intended destination and select the "directions to here" option. In the left hand bar a route will be displayed. By default this is set to driving instructions, however by selecting the "by public transport" tab, a series of bus and public transport routes are given.
The English display helps to an extent, but there is still another procedure to make that stress free journey. Selecting a route will display it on the map as a blue line with interchanges marked. Having made the decision to follow a particular route one will need to be able to read some of the characters. This is not entirely necessary, but will easier navigation since the pinyin, the Romanised form of Chinese is displayed inside the bus along with the Chinese characters. Bus stop names are also displayed in both pinyin and Chinese.
For our example we’re going to travel from our hotel near Wangfujing to the Temple of Heaven. Having found our hotel we right click and select “Directions from here” then we drag the map to the Temple of Heaven and tap on the north gate entrance. Like magic a selection of routes is displayed. However, while some parts are in English names of bus stops for example are shown only in Chinese characters. From our hotel we’ll need to walk to the 米市大街 bus stop. Writing these characters down will help, but it may be useful to know how to say them. Thus we copy and paste the characters into Google Translate which gives us Mǐ Shì Dàjiē or Rice Market Street.
Great so far, now it is suggested we take a number 110 bus to 天坛北门. Again we need to know the pinyin. Another copy/paste into Google Translate gives Tiāntán Běi Mén or Temple of Heaven North Gate. This will prove useful as we listen out for the tannoy on the bus or check on the route map in the bus. It is important to do a list of returning directions too since bus stop names may be slightly different.
Not having a printer available may make planning a little time consuming in that one will have to write out the itinerary by hand, but with practice Chinese characters are not too difficult to copy.
As for the protocols and fares, it is not as complicated as one might expect. Even if you're only staying a few days in Beijing, obtaining a Yikatong or Beijing Municipal Administration and Communications Card [北京市政交通一卡通; pinyin: Běijīng Shìzhèng jiāotōng Yīkǎtōng ] is very handy. The Beijing Transportation Smart Card can be used on all of the subway lines, city-buses, some taxis and the Airport Express Train. People can get a 60% discounts when paying for the city-bus fare by card. What's more, the Transportation Smart Card can be used at some designated supermarkets, long-distance bus lines and the expressways in Beijing.
The card, similar to Hong Kong’s Octopus Card, Singapore’s CEPAS, and London’s Oyster Card, costs only 20 RMB [£2 / $3] and no ID is required. One then tops the card up with cash. Top ups may be completed at subway stations, no more than 100 RMB [£10 / $15] is necessary for most people's needs. The card may be bought at various locations including many subway stations, bus stations and some post offices.
So go to the ticket office and simply say “Wǒ yào mǎi yīkǎtōng” [我要买一卡通], which translates as I would like to buy a card.” Most westerners’ pronunciation can be a little weird so it may be worth having a picture of one to hand and perhaps the Chinese characters written down in case you get a lot of blank stares. By giving 150 RMB to the cashier at the same time it should be clear to them that you want to buy the card and put the rest on the card. Don’t worry about feeling silly as you try to explain things in broken Chinese and sign language. In China they are far more used to dealing with people who don’t speak Chinese and a great deal more patient than Londoners might be if confronted with confused non English speaking foreigners.
To ask for the card to be topped up give the card and your money to the cashier at the station and say “Jiā qián” [加钱] which literally means “add money”.
To use the card it is simply swiped on the devices at the entrance and exits to stations. When using a bus they are usually only swiped on boarding. However there are signs in English asking passengers to swipe upon leaving. If you fail to do so the whole journey will be charged for, though this will rarely be more than 2 or 3 RMB.
Fares in Beijing are probably the cheapest in the world and using the Yikatong makes travel almost free. When paying by the card, passengers get 60% off the normal bus fare. For example, a single ticket for bus lines between 1-199 is 1 RMB [10 pence / 15 cents]. For passengers paying by card, the same ticket costs only 0.4 RMB or 4 jiao [4 pence / 6 cents].
So our example journey from would cost 8 jiao [8 pence / 12 cents] if using a Yikatong. The equivalent journey by taxi might cost more than 40 RMB [£4 / $6]. Not a fortune but that is the price of a pint of beer in one of the many bars dotted around Sanlitun. A week of taking taxis everywhere soon mounts up and you can be looking at a large bill very quickly. Save your taxi money for when the buses and subway shut down at around midnight.
The great part of travelling by bus or subway is one does not have to struggle so much with the language. Given you’ve planned your routes properly one can walk to the bus stop, board the bus and swipe your card, check and listen out for your destination before alighting at your stop, all without the need of conversing with anyone.
Getting around by taxi may take you from door to door but it can be a task trying to explain to a taxi driver where you want to go.
In fact in some ways using taxis are even more complicated since many drivers have little or no English language skills beyond "hello". In fact I have found I speak more Chinese than they do English! A map is indispensable and your home or hotel address is best carried at all times written in both Chinese and pinyin. A nice close up of the area you live in can prove very useful especially if you reside outside the main centre of town. But even then you will still need some key phrases.
Having managed to hail a taxi you’ll need to tell the driver where to go. “Wǒ xiǎng qù …” [我想去] and “Wǒ yào qù …” [我要去] can both be used to say “I want to go to …” then simply add the name of the hotel or street to the end of the phrase.
If you are familiar with the route and your driver isn’t, you might need to issue instructions. “Zuǒ guai” or “zuǒ zhuǎn” can both be used to say “turn left”. Meanwhile “Yòu guai” or “Yòu zhuǎn” are used to say “turn right”. At a junction where you wish to continue “straight ahead” simply say “wan qian”.
As you near your destination you may wish to give the taxi driver some warning that he’ll need to pull over soon. For this you’ll perhaps need to give an idea of distance and use the word for metres or “mǐ”. Thus you might say “Qiánmiàn yībǎi mǐ dàole”. Literally it means “In front one hundred metres arrived” but could be said to mean “we’ll arrive in 100 metres”.
Whether or not you’ve given the taxi driver the heads up it would be appropriate to tell him you’ve arrived upon reaching your destination. The actual word is “Dàodále” but it is more commonly abbreviated to a more colloquial “Dàole”.
Finally you’ll need to know the cost of your ride. Here comes a very useful phrase which you’ll likely use in many situations. “Duōshǎo qián” [多少钱] or “How much money” will likely bring a verbal response from the driver which may confuse most novice language students. “Sānshí kuài” [三十块] he might say. This in fact means 30 kuài - kuài is a slang term for Renminbi - but unless you know all your numbers you may be a little bewildered. Don’t worry too much though as the fare should be displayed on the meter.
Should you want a receipt ask for a “Fāpiào” [发票] and of course don’t forget to say “Xièxiè” [谢谢], “Thank you”. You may even hear the response “Bù kèqì” [不客气] which means “no need to thank” or more simply "You're welcome".
Taking a long distance mode of travel might prove a little more daunting, but many tickets can be booked online nowadays and many websites also have English language versions. Planes are the most convenient and fastest way to travel across the country. But if on a budget, and you don’t mind roughing it a bit, a long distance train ride might fit the bill.
Tickets will usually need to be booked in advance, especially if you want a sleeper. Nonetheless your first stop will likely be a train station or ticket agency. There you might ask “I would like to book a ticket from Beijing to Shanghai” in whi case you would say “Wǒ xiǎng mǎi yī zhāng cóng běijīng dào shànghǎi de piào” [我想买一张从北京到上海的票]. This could be used for either a plane or train ticket. However with regards booking a train you might need to specify a sleeper or seat.
In Chinese you would say Wòpù piào [卧铺票] for a sleeper ticket and Zuò piào [座票] for a seat ticket. Meanwhile if travelling by plane you would say Jīngjì cāng [经济舱] if wanting an economy class ticket, and if feeling flush you’d ask for Shāngwù cāng [商务舱] or business class. First class meanwhile is Tóuděng cāng [头等舱]. You might note that “cāng” means class while “piào” is the word for ticket.