The bad news? Beijing's premier attractions are spread far and wide. It takes a good hour to get from the Temple of Heaven to the Summer Palace by subway and taxi, for example. The good news is the city's ever-expanding public transport system is among the world's cheapest. What’s more, Beijing is full of cycle lanes (not to mention as flat as a eunuch’s posing pouch), making its historic centre ideal for two-wheeled exploration.
Beijing’s subway system is very foreigner-friendly, with signs, announcements, maps and ticket machines all in English (unlike the Tokyo Metro, grr.). Tickets cost 2 RMB for a single journey whatever the distance. Line 1 is useful for Wangfujing, Tiananmen Square, the Silk Market and the Military Museum. Line 2 encircles the centre following the same route as the former city walls, handy for the Drum and Bell Tower and Houhai Lake (Guloudajie stop), and Beijing Railway Station. The newly built Line 4 stops at Beijing Zoo and the Old Summer Palace. A staggering five new lines are due to open by 2015, the most interesting for visitors being the Line 8 extension in December 2011, connecting the Olympic Green with Houhai Lake, Nanluogu Xiang and the National Art Museum.
Beijing taxis are, in my experience, honest and reliable. Cars come in a variety of models and colours (most commonly green, brown or blue) but are always identifiable by a band of orange above the wheels and a taxi sign up top. On rare occasions you’ll spot an all-black taxi – grab it! Confusingly, ordinary motorists illegally touting for passengers are referred to as "black taxis", but the handful of literal black cabs you'll see are the biggest and most comfortable.
English is rarely spoken beyond clipped phrases memorised before the Olympics like “Welcome to Beijing!". Best to have your destination written out in Chinese characters. Hotel desk staff will be happy to assist and some even provide handy flashcards for the major tourist sights and restaurants. Bear in mind that traffic can be dreadful most of the day – especially on the second and third ring roads – but starts to ease after 7pm. Taxis are as cheap as they are plentiful - a journey of up to 3km costs 10 RMB, then 2 RMB per km after that. Tipping isn’t necessary.
Buses are a great way to get close to the locals. Very close. More often than not it’s standing room only, and you’re at the mercy of traffic congestion so journeys can be laborious. That said, they’re cheap – 1 RMB a ride, 0.4 RMB with an IC Card – and everyone should try them at least once. Visit www.bjbus.com/home/index.php to plan a route.
Don’t let Beijing’s well-documented traffic woes put you off. Most roads have dedicated cycle lanes letting you whizz past grumpy motorists with a smug smile on your face, and bike theft is rare. A bicycle is also the best way to explore the city’s hutong alleyways. Small and mid-sized hotels usually have a bike rental service, and rental shops can be found on almost every street. Expect to land a well-used bike for about 25 RMB per day plus 200 RMB deposit (negotiable).
Staying for a week or more? Consider purchasing an IC Card. It won’t save you much unless you ride the bus but it does save you the hassle of buying a ticket each time you take the subway, plus it can be used in some taxis. Every subway station has a counter where you can purchase a card (20 RMB, refunded if you hand it back) and top it up.