Finding your way around a foreign city can seem like a daunting task, especially when all the signs are written in a language that you don’t understand, but Beijing is a very traveller friendly city, and an ease to navigate. With an extensive metro system and a plethora of taxis, any place in Beijing is a quick and cheap trip away.
Walking is by far the best way to understand and explore the city of Beijing, but depending on the distances, it is not always the best option. Although taxis are plentiful and quite cheap, Beijing traffic (which gets more and more congested by the day) sometimes makes it quicker to just walk. Plus, when travelling by foot, you’re able to discover a lot of off the beaten track locales and are able to see much more of the city. All road signs are clearly marked in both Chinese and English, so you shouldn’t have much difficulty determining where you are, as long as you have a map. Some of the best restaurants that we ate at in Beijing were the hole in the wall shops that we passed whilst walking from one place to another. Although I don’t remember the names of any of them (or whether they even had names), you’re bound to run into many traditional (and cheap) restaurants when navigating Beijing by foot.
Whether it was intentional or not, the Chinese created a new sport in recent decades. Crossing the Street. In much of the Western world, when the little green walk sign is on, you just need to look both ways to make sure no traffic is coming, and if cars do approach when you are already in the intersection, then they’ll yield to you. This is far from the case in China. If you wait until the little green person is on and the traffic stops, then you’ll likely never make it across the street. The traffic follows their own set of rules that each driver determines themselves, so the only way to properly cross a street in Beijing (or all of China), is to cross the street weaving your way between the incoming cars. It’s kind of like playing Frogger, but in real life. Although there are zebra crossings throughout the city, cars pay no attention to it, so keep your wits about when crossing. Of course, some intersections are worse than other, and in central Beijing, where most of the tourist sites are, there are many underpasses and bridges over the roadways so that you don’t even have to worry about traffic. This is usually only something to be concerned with when crossing the street outside of the immediate city centre.
For longer distances, the easiest and quickest way to get around Beijing is by using the extensive subway system. Having undergone a lot of expansion and improvements in the last decade, largely due to the Olympic Games, Beijing’s metro rivals that of many other cities around the world. All the facilities are extremely modern and well marked, and only cost a fraction of what one would expect to pay in New York, London, or Sydney. Currently, a total of nine lines are in operation to zip you anywhere in Beijing, and regardless of how far you travel and how many times you transfer, you’ll only pay a flat fare of ¥2 (about $0.30USD). However, in order to reach the Beijing Capital International Airport, the fare is ¥25 (about $3.50USD), but is very fast and efficient. Pretty much all the main sights in Beijing can be found along lines 1, 2, and 5, and transferring between these lines are very easy and quick. Signs (in both Chinese and English) are abundant throughout the stations, directing you on how to find your next line. When transferring, make sure that you don’t go through a turnstile which requires you to insert your ticket because if you do, you’re exiting the station and will have to buy another ticket to get back on. When buying tickets, the automated ticket vending machines are in both English and Chinese and are extremely easy to use. If you are travelling with large pieces of luggage, the station attendants might stop you and have it x-rayed, but this is relatively painless and they often don’t even care about scanning the luggage of foreigners. People often have the impression that the subways in East Asia are jam packed, but in Beijing, due to the frequent trains and efficiency of the system, Beijing’s metro system is not overcrowded, but you likely won’t be able to find a seat.
Taxis in Beijing are also plentiful and extremely inexpensive (a ride of typical length across town will cost you about ¥20), but as the drivers usually do not speak English, you need to find other ways of communicating with them. Have your hotel write down the location where you’re going in Chinese characters and show that to the driver, or bring a map and point to the place that you want to go. If you know the general whereabouts of where you want to go, it’s often easier just to take the metro and walk to where you’re going. Although some fake taxis do exist, the official taxis are easily distinguishable as they have a large yellow stripe on the side with the taxi company’s name on the front doors and a "B" as the first letter on the number plate. Even if you find yourself in an unofficial taxi, likely the worst thing that is going to happen is that you are going to be charged more than what the standard fare should be.
Although buses are existent within Beijing, understanding their schedules (written only in Chinese) and knowing when to get off make them very difficult to use. Unless you are extremely proficient in Mandarin, don’t mind getting completely lost, and have a sense of adventure, then the buses are probably not for you.
Through my experience travelling in Beijing, I’d definitely recommend walking if possible, using the metro/subway if travelling longer distances, and taking a taxi as a last resort. Always carry a city map and a subway map with you, and you’ll likely not find yourself lost.