A small, but necessary skill I have learned so far while in China is about transportation. My school and life here is in Beijing which has a huge population of Chinese in a relatively small area. I was concerned before I got here how I was going to be able to move about the city, namely how was I going to make it to Beijing Language and Culture University for another class that is about two hours away walking distance. Lucky for me that because of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing now has a complex and cheap system of public transportation!
Since Rhode Island is not a very big place and I usually only frequent Boston, MA, I was not prepared for the size of Beijing. I had looked it up on Wikipedia of course and seen the numbers, but actually being here really threw me for a minute. When I arrived at the airport a student member of CAPA came to meet Michelle and myself to bring us to campus. Here I experienced my very first taxi ride ever. In America I had no need to ever use a taxi, I have a car in Rhode Island and am capable with Massachusetts public transit so taxis are completely new to me. From the airport Doris and I took a taxi driven by a man who spoke very, very little English for an hour to campus. For those of you who are not from RI, an hour is a very long time to be in a car going somewhere for me. I had checked out a map of Beijing before I came to see how far away the airport would be from campus and I honestly didn't think it would take that long! Beijing is big guys, really big. So I got in the taxi to come to school and tried to put on my seat-belt, only to realize that while the shoulder part is accessible, the part on the seat is not because of the seat covers! Every single taxi is like this! I spent a slightly uncomfortable hour in the taxi while driving past signs that say "buckle up!" but nobody does.
Driving in Beijing is a terrifying experience for someone who is used to American driving I think. It certainly is for me. It looks like chaos and sometimes I think it is, but I've seen very few car accidents. You can not be a passive driver here and get anywhere. Buses and cars swerve in and out between each other and there appears to be a very small margin for error. I've just come to trust in the abilities of the drivers and keep my wits about me when I find myself on the street.
The bus was the second mode of transportation I learned to use. Last semester I had used the RIPTA buses to get to URI and back because it was too far to use my car everyday. I thought I was used to crowded buses, but RIPTA has nothing on Beijing buses. Because the Chinese "personal space" is so much less than the American equivalent, I often find myself squished on a bus so much that I don't need to hold on to anything to stay upright. Elderly people and women with children are given seats if none are already available, even though they always insist that it's not necessary. The good thing about the buses are that there are bus stops everywhere and the frequency is awesome, plus if you have a Beijing transit card, a bus ride will cost you .40 kuai. The bad thing, for me and my classmates, is that all the signs telling you which buses stop where are in Chinese. There is no English to be found making getting on a new bus a scary thought. I usually use buses that I have used before for another purpose and can make a connection from a prior experience or if I've memorized the Chinese characters (汉字) for a particular bus stop and I know that the bus will take me there. Otherwise I'm a bigger fan of the subway system.
The subway system in Beijing got a super upgrade in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. I had read somewhere that 10 years ago, Beijing only had one subway line and it was very difficult to use. Now there is a great system with what looks like 13 or 14 lines and more being added all the time. Because it is super convenient, lots of people like to use the subway. I was not prepared for the crowds I found in the stations themselves and then on the actual trains. I have tried to avoid traveling at rush hour because it is so many people moving around, but sometimes it can't be helped. Even at non-peak times the subways are crowded and depending on which stop you are at, they can be dirty. At least the signs have English on them and a the announcements for the present and next stops are said in Chinese and then in English. Super awesome for the English-speaking tourist. A ride on the subway will cost 2 kuai which is very inexpensive and awesome for the student traveler.