Chinese taxi drivers: the good, the bad, the ugly

About half the cab drivers I encountered in China were professional. They recognized the destination took me straight there. The other half were either incompetent, crooked, or rude, or some combination of the three.

Some would pretend to know where I wanted to go, but then would drive around in circles, lost. Several times I had to sit in the cab waiting while the driver went out to ask other drivers or pedestrians for directions. Is this a function of too many new cab drivers or too rapid an urban growth? I quickly learned to always ask the driver if they knew where a destination was before I got into the cab. If they didn't know, I'd just move on to the next driver. You wouldn't want a resident performing an operation on you, and I had no interest in having cabbies learn the city on my dime.

Locals always advise that non-Chinese speakers or tourists get their destination and address written down in Chinese on a piece of paper to hand to cab drivers, but that's often not enough. Instead, you need to get the cross streets written down, and even then, it's still worth confirming that the driver knows where the destination is before hopping in.

Many cab drivers were just rude, complaining and grumbling the entire ride about one thing or another. In Shanghai, soon after I arrived, I took a cab to meet Tony at a Starbucks. Since I didn' t know the city at all, I didn't walk. As soon as the cab driver heard where I was going he sighed and started muttering under his breath about what an idiot I was for taking a cab ride through rush hour traffic when I could walk that same distance in half the time. I asked him how I should walk there, but he refused to answer me. He grumbled the whole way, sighing with audible exaggeration every few seconds.

In Beijing, Joannie, Mike, and I hopped in a cab and gave him the address of Mei's uncle's house. Joannie mentioned that he could also follow the cab ahead of us because Mei was riding in it and knew the route. The cab driver recoiled in indignation.

"You want me to follow that driver! Why? I know where that address is. What are you thinking? Follow that driver. He doesn't even know where he's going. I've driven a cab in this city for 20 years. Unbelievable. Some people." He muttered like this the entire ride. I was so surprised at his behavior that I just had to laugh, but Mike was not pleased. Joannie tried to calm him down but he was on a roll, reveling in this perceived slight.

In Shanghai, Su and I hired a car and driver for a day to take us to Hangzhou. He made more off us that one day than a nanny would make in a month and a half. The trip started fine. The driver told picked us up in a Mitsubishi SUV with industrial strength air conditioning and told us that he was a specialist in Hangzhou, a sort of Hamptoms for the masses of Shanghai. When we got to Xihu (West Lake), though, he didn't know where to find Louweilou, one of the most popular restaurants on the lake. Su and I walked all the way to the other side of the lake to Leifeng Pagoda, perhaps the most visible landmark on the lake. We called the driver to pick us up, but he didn't know where that was. After Su tried to give him directions for several minutes, the driver asked us to walk all the way back across the lake to find him instead. It was like calling for a Town Car to take you to the airport only to have the driver ask you to walk over to his office to catch a ride. He finally found us after nearly half an hour, but when we got back in the car he complained that it would have been easier had we just gone and found him. Unbelievable. I was going to say that I might as well hop in the front seat and drive while Su gave him a foot massage, but I wasn't sure my sarcasm would survive the translation into Chinese.

When we neared Su's apartment, he started acting like a pain in the ass, perhaps just to get under Su's skin. Every time she gave him a direction (turn left at the next light, or make the third right), he'd repeat it back to her skeptically, as if she didn't know how to get back to her own apartment. When we finally arrived, we paid him the agreed upon fare, but as we climbed out of the car he asked for a 50RMB tip. I'm surprised I didn't have to hold her back from delivering a roundhouse to his face.

I only got taken for a ride once in China. On our last night in Xi'an, we had to split into three cabs to go from the Tang Dynasty park to the Muslim Quarters. Mei and her cousin Summer took one cab each with a group of non-Chinese speakers in each, and Joannie, Mike, and I took the other cab. Summer told our driver where to take us, but I didn't pay attention to how to say it in Chinese, nor did I ask Summer or Mei how much the ride should cost.

Our driver recognized as out-of-towners, and soon we were on an extended tour of Xi'an. Since the heart of the city is enclosed by a rectangular city wall, we should have only crossed one gate into the city. Instead, we passed in and out of the city, and it was soon apparent what was happening. Unfortunately, if we got out, we didn't know how to tell the next driver where to go. So we rode around, fuming, shouting at the driver who kept insisting he was taking us straight to our destination. What should have been a 10 minute 15 yuan ride turned into a 40 minute 32 yuan ride. Then the driver dumped us on a sidewalk, waved his hands at the sidewalk and said we were where we wanted to be, and drove off. We had no idea where we were, and we had no cell phone to call Mei on.

I was livid and wanted to track down the driver and go Tony Jaa on him, but more importantly, we wanted to find our friends. Fate intervened when our of the blue, Mike spotted our local tour guide James, just walking down the street with his manager. In a city of some 8 million people, we'd run into him by accident. James is one of the sweetest people we met in all of China, and his beaming smile was an oasis in what now seemed like a sea of unscrupulous cab drivers.

James called Mei and walked us over to them, saving what could have been a disastrous last evening in Xi'an, which otherwise was the most charming of the cities we visited in China. Taxis are still a real bargain in China compared to cabs in other parts of the world, especially New York, but I hope that half of them learn some manners in time for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and get themselves some GPS devices.

I picture Ron Artest trying to hop a cab to the basketball stadium for a game and getting taken for a ride by a rude cab driver who doesn't know who he is. Okay, so the chances of David Stern selecting Ron Artest for the Olympic basketball team are nil. I can dream, though, and in this dream, that bastard from Xi'an who took us for a ride decides to take Artest for a ride. After a few loops through Beijing, when Artest realizes what's going on, he reaches into the front seat and starts throttling the cabbie.