Volumes could be written about how to judge a city and its people by a simple taxi ride. A traveler could learn a lot about the rich inner narrative going on the lives of New Yorkers by the uninterested yet polite taxi drivers that make you feel like a friend of a friend is driving you to school on Monday morning. The friendly and helpful drivers of Prague are among the world's most dishonest with meters set at twice the legal price yet somehow they can tell by one glance at you the exact pub in which you'll feel most comfortable. A taxi in Tokyo feels like a ride on the Concord and costs about as much while a ride in Paris costs the least of all yet the smell leaves you unable to enjoy a meal for the next few days. London drivers are the world's best at brief conversation and possessors of "the knowledge", which allows them to get around the windy streets first laid out centuries ago based on pubs. The drivers of Chicago are tense and workmanlike. Those of Hong Kong are always thinking about something else. The drivers of Amsterdam are either bored or stoned. The drivers of Beijing, I've found, are above all things patriotic.
The first thing to remember about a taxi ride in Beijing is that Beijing is a city whose roads make no sense. The city is laid out according to its center, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square with "ring" roads going out from the center like ripples in a pond. Traffic generally goes in a counter clockwise motion around the city center because for some reason all the traffic going clockwise is always stuck at a standstill. This system makes a taxi ride either a quick, painless experience or a long drawn out mad thing that can suck the energy from even the most enthusiastic traveler. Also, should your destination be one of the hundreds of smaller avenues that criss-cross the ring roads, you'll be spending an extra half hour in the cab while you wait for the taxi driver to ask directions. If, say, you're going from the American Embassy near Ridan Park to the National Art Museum on Wu Si Street, you'll have an easy time. If you're going from the embassy to the Chinese Military Museum which is located south of Tiananmen, the ride will cost much more and take a while longer since the driver must avoid the square completely and go southeast near the Beijing Train Station. There is little you can do to avoid the long ride except trust that with the recent Olympics, the Beijing government has cracked down on those drivers that ride a few minutes out of the way in order to pad their fare. Another thing you can do is time your ride correctly since taking a taxi at six thirty in the morning or five in the afternoon is likely to introduce you to the Beijing version of traffic, which turns every intersection into a log jam unlike anything anywhere. Once on a particularly bad afternoon when I was going from the Beijing North Station to the northern end of Wangfujing Street, a trip of perhaps three kilometers that would take nearly an hour, my companion remarked that the at five in the afternoon the streets of Beijing turn into one large parking lot.
The second thing to remember is that the taxis in Beijing are on a tiered pricing system, which means that the price of the taxi per kilometer is different. On the window of the rear door of the taxi you'll see a sticker reading, "1.4, 1.6, or 2.0" meaning the price. Generally, the lower priced taxis are older and less comfortable. This only becomes important of course in summer when the pollution turns the city in a large greenhouse and twenty minutes sitting in an air conditioned taxi is a life saver.
The strangest taxi ride of my life happened in Beijing. After checking out the Ancient Observatory I hailed a cab, got in, and said, "Cheng Tu Qi Cher Zhan", meaning the long distance bus station. The driver replied, "The bus station?" Yes, the bus station. After which he dropped the meter, pulled around the corner to a bus stop, flipped it back up, and said, "Okay, ten yuan." I replied that I didn't want a bus stop but a bus station. What followed was a ten minute argument about how much I owed him, if anything. Remember that taxi drivers in all countries see tourists as easy prey. They think that the tourist, especially the western tourist in an Asian country, are packed with money and have come here explicitly to spend that money and that arguing over what is essentially a dollar and half is an annoyance they'd rather do without. Yet nothing can put a damper on a good holiday better than being taken by a cab driver, so I argued. The argument was a brilliant one, where I was accused as an American of intervention in Taiwanese affairs, a bogus witch hunt for China because of international opinion of SARS, America's war in Iraq, and strangely the resignation of Richard Nixon. In reply, I had the feeble, "but you tried to cheat me!" on my side which just didn't work as the man literally began trying to mug me. Eventually, I took out my cell phone and said that if he didn't go away I'd call the police, which caused him to say, "Zhong Gua Jia Yo!" meaning, "China Forever!" and drove away.
Another weird event was once when I had to get to the airport in half an hour from downtown Beijing, what is generally considered an hour's ride. After hopping into a taxi and telling the river of my predicament, he said, "Okay! I am Chinese Schumaher!" and peeled away, only to be stopped a block later by a phalanx of traffic. Apparently even for the Chinese Formula One champ, the log jamb was too much.
I suppose the thing to remember about the Beijing driver is that he's generally a helpful person without much need for dishonesty or overcharging. The thing to remember is that conversation about China is strictly limited to the patriotic and the positive. Remember that cab drivers in Beijing have seen their city grow. They remember what it once was and have a good idea of what it will eventually be, which is reason enough to be proud.