A city like no other I have been to before, Beijing is BIG! Well more accurately, it’s HUGE! But, thanks to the 2008 Olympics, getting about, even for non-Mandarin speakers, is easy and inexpensive. With 16million people needing to get from A to B in China’s capital city, the only things a visitor needs to have are plenty of time and patience (and sharp elbows!).
The vast subway system is modern, clean, safe and simple enough to navigate. It is also a cheap way to get around more quickly (2 Yuan/20p per trip). All the lines are colour coded and written in pinyin, as well as many having coloured lights inside the trains identifying the stops. At the busiest stations you understand how a tinned sardine feels as you squeeze your way in and out of the trains and get swept along in a crushing and impatient sea of people towards the escalators.
Buses are even cheaper and you get to see more of the sights above ground, but none of the bus information or stops are in English, only Chinese characters, so it can be tricky to know where to get on and off (but if you are on the wrong bus, the ticket collector will soon be laughing at you and tell you to get off after reading your map!).
Allow at least an hour to get to any one destination from the next…the subway interchange stations are like small towns in themselves and you often have a 15 minute (or longer) walk changing between different lines, not to mention the hour you spend getting lost when leaving from the wrong exit (of which there can be as many as 10 or 12).
Cycling is another option, but not for the faint hearted or the novice – so as I didn’t pack my stabilisers I stayed well clear. Hiring a bike is free from some hostels for a deposit of around 200Yuan (£20), but comfort, safety, gears or brakes are not guaranteed and quality varies. All major roads have wide bike lanes and knowledge of the rules of the road is not necessary, as there don’t appear to be any. Be confident, do not hesitate and you’ll be fine – but don’t be surprised if you’re bike chain comes off in the middle of a major junction and the whole of Beijing is beeping at you!
Forget taxis (unless late at night). They rarely stop for westerners and the traffic is so bad that it takes longer in the car than on public transport (backpack or no backpack), so can be an expensive and unproductive option. Always ask for a ‘fapiao’ (receipt), that way the meter will be on.
Walking is a given! Whether you take the bus, metro or opt for a bike, you will walk further than you ever thought possible. Comfortable shoes, well balanced backpack and sightseeing stamina is undoubtedly required to get you round the well- trodden tourist trail. And, if you get a bit tired you are never far from a tuk tuk tout trying to give you a ‘city tour’ – do so at your own risk and agree a price in advance!