The number of cars in Beijing has shot up five fold in the last decade … so one more won’t hurt, right? There’s plenty of fun to be had outside the city limits for the fearless traveller. With the freedom a car brings, you can explore far-flung stretches of the Great Wall, visit the lesser known Qing Tombs, overnight in the historic mountain village of Cuandixia, sink into some hot springs, ride horses in the Kangxi grasslands, or make your way to the temple-strewn mountain resort of Chengde. Major roads have English signs but basic language skills are mandatory for such trips. Consider investing in the useful but dated Beijing Excursion Guide published by Immersion Guides, available at Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet, western grocery store chains with branches across the city.
However, if you just plan to trawl the major sights plus a Great Wall excursion, a car will be a whole lot of bother. Congestion is nightmarish; traffic rules are flaunted with impunity; and why bother anyway when taxis are so cheap?
Getting a licence
You must have a Chinese driving licence to drive in China. Conventional wisdom – and Lonely Planet - states that foreigners can only get one if they have a residency permit. In fact, if you’re arriving on a tourist ‘L’ visa (which you doubtless will be), you can pick up a Chinese licence in the airport without much fuss provided it’s before 5pm. You’ll need your own licence, a passport photo and 50 RMB. In Terminal 3 arrivals, take the escalators down to the first floor and look for Exit 7. Opposite you’ll spot a rather grim Traffic Police office. Enter, answer a short medical questionnaire (height, weight, etc), complete a form and hey presto. You’re now the proud bearer of a Chinese driving licence valid for the duration of your stay (maximum three months).
Getting a motor
Terminal 3 has just one car hire desk – Hertz (8am-8pm, firstname.lastname@example.org) - adjacent to the Traffic Police office on the first floor. They speak English, and prices start at 450 RMB per day for a Buick saloon car. If you take the free shuttle bus to Terminal 2 you’ll find an Avis and three cheaper Chinese hire companies. There are also car hire offices in the city. Check their websites for details:
On the road
If you take the plunge and find yourself behind the wheel, drive defensively. Assume that a wayward pedestrian will make a dash for it at any second. There’s also the issue of traffic restrictions which means that one day a week depending on your number plate you, like everyone else, won’t be allowed on the road.