Get Me in a Taxi!

We’ve all been there. You need to get from A to B and the only option is a taxi. In China, the word seems to almost go hand in hand with “rip-off.” How can we avoid losing our cool and the contents of our wallets?

Tourists call a yellow cab in Manhattan with typical gesture

It seems like taxis come in four separate categories: illegal or “black” taxis that lurk around airports and transit stations, “black” street taxis, legitimate taxis and of course, the omnipresent Didi that knows your constant location.

I have recently noticed, particularly in Shenzhen and Guangzhou (and other select locations in China), that taxi drivers are allowed to enter airports.

Once, arriving late in Shenzhen, I was harassed and hounded virtually continuously from the moment I exited the gate. Not the most pleasant experience at one am after a long delay.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t able to leave.

Though I had previously arranged a hotel close to the airport, the standard airport taxis refused to take me there. They claimed that since there was a free shuttle bus, driving me was not permitted. This is not the first time I’ve seen this.

I understand that many of the drivers wait a long time for a fare and the last thing they want is to run a short trip, but they surely still have some legal responsibility to take a customer wherever they need to go.

After the first time, I learned my lesson. Upon seeing the shared car another time, I said I wasn’t interesting and walked away. They promptly told me to go and fornicate with my mother, to put it politely.

Perturbed to say the least, I took a photo of one driver’s personal details displayed on the dash, and stormed off in a huff. I needed to find the free bus.

Walking the long way around just to re-enter the airport, I soon found out that the last shuttle bus had already left. Back at square one, I attempted to arrange a Didi to no avail. I had no choice but to negotiate with the hordes of black taxi drivers loitering at the exit.

Like vultures circling carrion, they squawked their proposals to me, but I had been travelling for 10 hours at that point, and was far beyond haggling.

I told them in Mandarin that my hotel was less than two km away and I needed a reasonable offer. A first guy chipped in a far-fetched punt of 150 RMB. I burst out laughing. A second, more shrewd character piped up 60 RMB. This was more in the ballpark for the situation and my mental state. I eventually took the offer knowing that it was rip-off, but figured it was the best deal that I would to get—unless I was prepared to trawl the area, bartering for an extra 20 kuai in savings.

The most infuriating thing for me is that even neighboring international airports, such as Bangkok or Hanoi, have a better handle on the process. You go outside, get a ticket and the taxi takes you to your destination regardless of distance.

There are other annoyances, as well. After agreeing to take a taxi to Guangzhou South, I was quickly led to a shared minivan, which wouldn’t leave for another hour—until the entire car was filled. After the first time, I learned my lesson. Upon seeing the shared car another time, I said I wasn’t interested and walked away. The driver promptly told me to go and fornicate with my mother, to put it politely.

The black street taxis fall into very a similar bracket as the airport and station poachers, except they are generally less assertive and can be found in sporadic locations where there is usually a lot of foot traffic.

These rides come in the form of cars, motorbikes, e-bikes or tuk-tuks. None of them should be used, if possible, and expect to haggle over the price with them if you ever do. More often than not, they’ll charge a higher rate compared to metered taxis and are likely to try renegotiating the agreed price en route. Watch out for fake notes in your change, as well.

The metered taxis tend to tow the legal line, depending on where you are. The status quo seems to be that the further you venture out from the inner-city radius, the higher likelihood of encountering a driver who has a conveniently draped cloth or black tape over the meter. Nonchalant guffaws are the norm when requesting that the meter be used out in the wild.

Salvation came with the introduction of Didi. Anyone who has had one or many of the unfortunate experiences above will appreciate the satisfaction of being able to inform the seething leeches that their services are no longer required.

Now, with the system fully anglicized, including translated, commonly used phrases that can be sent to the driver with one-touch (e.g. “My location is accurate, please come ASAP.”), car travel has become easier than ever for non-Chinese speakers.

Besides offering typically better or at least comparable rates to taxis, the added security of knowing that your driver can be tracked, should any foul play arise, ought to give some additional peace of mind.

If for some reason Didi isn’t available, there’s still hope. Cameras and audio equipment, with real-time access to authorities, were installed in all Guangzhou taxis from August 1. Drivers will be required to archive footage for at least a week and incidents can be reported by calling 12345 or transmitted via WeChat. Here’s hoping (and praying) that the system is a success and gets rolled out nationally very soon.