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The Shanghai Diaries: Getting Around

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As we are only in China temporarily, and didn’t come with big, international jobs, we do not have an automobile here. As such we must rely on other forms of transportation to go to and fro. We use three different modes, all of which have pros and cons: the subway system, city buses, and taxis.

Shanghai has an excellent subway system that connects a great deal of the city to itself. The trains are fast and clean, they run often and on time. They are heated and air conditioned to create a reasonable temperature inside no matter the weather outside. They are well trafficked by security so that there is no danger of violence or much thievery.

They do get quite crowded during peak periods which makes me feel a bit like a giant sardine stuffed into a very small can. But this can be expected with any large city's public transportation. The price is very reasonable and they have a card system that makes paying for your ride simple and easy. Basically you purchase a reusable card that is swiped at automatic toll gates which automatically deducts money from your card. Money can be added to the cards at any subway entrance.

The only real drawback to the subway is that there isn’t one within walking distance of my apartment. To get to the subway I have to take a cab or ride a bus. I still use the subway, though, whenever I need to travel a good distance as it remains much cheaper for long rides than a taxi, and less problematic than a bus.

The public bus system also seems to be a well-oiled machine, but it is rare that we take one. As with the subways, the buses get very full during peak times. But where on a subway the squished ride is relatively painless and short, riding on a packed bus is all sorts of awful. Subway rides are pretty smooth going, but buses have to deal with the roads and the traffic, which causes lots of bumping and smashing into one another. Unless you are going a short distance, bus rides are a lot longer too, adding to the pain exponentially.

There’s that, and the fact that the wife and I have yet to figure out the whole bus system. We don’t really know which bus to take nor where to get off for the places we’d take a bus for, and thus we don’t take it at all. Or very often anyway.

When traveling, we usually take a taxi. Though more expensive than the subway or a bus, they are still relatively cheap. They start at what amounts to about a dollar fifty US and, unless we are going a long way, never cost more than about three bucks. Add to that the faster time tables and the enjoyment of not riding with several thousand other people and we generally figure it is worth the extra Yuan.

While this is true, there are still problems riding a taxi, the main one being that you have to actually tell the driver where you would like to go. I do know how to say where I live, but that’s about it. For all other places, my language is too limited. Luckily the company that my wife works for gave us a laminated card with a number of common destinations printed upon it in Chinese. When we go to those places I only have to show the driver the card and away we go. For anywhere else I have to call someone (usually my ever patient brother-in-law) and pass the phone to the driver where conversations can be had.

Sometimes even with a card things get turned around, like when my wife and I were trying to go to Metro (a Costco-like store) the other day. I showed the driver the name of the store on my little card, but he didn’t seem to know where it was. Being a good taxi driver he took off towards a destination (any one will do) at great speeds. I first began to get nervous when at red lights he would roll down his window to talk to other cab drivers.

Eventually we made it to one of the other shopping centers on my card and I was about to tell him to just drop us off there, when he talked to another driver and dashed off again. We essentially did a giant loop around greater Pudong before making it to the place we wanted to go. It took us nearly an hour and about 60 Yuan for a trip that should have taken ten minutes and 15 Yuan.

Riding in taxis is always an exhilarating (if at times life threatening) experience. With millions of people living in the city there are nearly as many cars and I think those cars are always riding on the streets where I want to be. There is nothing rush about rush hour. It is nothing but grinding, halting traffic at any hour.

This does not stop the Shanghai taxi service from getting you to your destination as quickly as possible though. Taxi drivers are admirable in their (daredevil-esque) drive to move you quickly to your designated spot. They drive quickly, change lanes on a dime, pay no attention to any traffic laws, and use their horn like they are trying out for the drumming spot at a Led Zeppelin reunion.

I have seen taxis make a left turn from the far right lane on an eight-lane road. I have been in the passenger seat while watching them pass half a dozen cars in a narrow two-lane avenue with oncoming traffic barreling down. I have seen my life pass before my eyes while they cut off buses, trucks, and speeding vans while pulling out into a major highway.

Waiting on red lights is for suckers. If you are at the front of the line at a red light one need only to turn right onto the intersecting road, make a quick half u-turn and then turn right onto the road you were on just moments ago.

Lane dividers are just suggestions. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t drive in the middle of those dotted lines so that you can pass two cars at once. Pedestrians are for target practice. Honking your horn makes everything right.

My mom would be proud of me for I have learned to pray while riding in Chinese taxis.

There is much to see in the glorious city of Shanghai and there are many ways to get there including subways, buses, and taxis.

I think I’ll be staying in for the winter.

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About Mat Brewster

  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    You’ll turn into a missionary yet! Spreading the good news of cooperative traffic laws…

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    You mean you don’t get around on a bicycle?

    Also, you should be inquiring how much a ride is and haggle with them before you get in. When your driver rolled down the window, he wasn’t asking for directions. He was telling his buddy that drinks were on him when the shift ended because he had just hit the lottery with his American passengers.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Dearly beloved we are gathered here today to sing praises to the most holy of traffic laws, the traffic light!

    I like the sound of that, Phillip I’m going to have to ask you to hit up your local precinct for a monthly donation.

    Bicho if I knew I was staying longer then I’d buy a bike. Although I’m not sure I would ride it that far as I’d fear for my life.

    You can’t really bargain with official taxis. They have a meter and you pretty much have to pay that. At least that’s what everyone tells me.

    There are unofficial taxis (which amounts to strange guys in vans) farther into the city proper and you can bargain with them.