Is there such a thing as an honest taxi driver in Asia? Although in the “first world” parts of Asia like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan the cabs are well regulated and always run on metres, in the rest of Asia…. well, good luck.
I arrived on Monday morning at the surprisingly pleasant Nanjing International Airport after a surprisingly pleasant flight on China Eastern Airlines from Hong Kong to Nanjing. After buying a China Mobile SIM card in the airport, I came across the airport’s tourism office and got some info on how to get to my destination. My friend who I’ve come to visit here, Laura, said to just take a cab from the airport, but for some reason that day I was feeling bold. I decided to try the local airport bus, which would drop me at one of the bus terminals downtown. I went to the bus attendant, stated the name of my destination like a question — Zhonghuamen? — and she nodded. This was indeed the right bus. I paid RMB 20 for the bus ticket, and hopped on board.
The bus was no problem and the ride was pleasant… it was when I got off the bus at the Zhonghuamen Coach Station that the problem started! As I exited the bus terminal and onto the street, I was immediately greeted by about six different enthusiastic “HELLOOOOOO!”s from waiting taxi drivers whose eyes lit up at the prospect of a tourist, travelling alone, and obviously not knowing where the hell she was, or how much a taxi should cost. This, of course, is their chance to fleece a few more yuan out of my pocket. But thankfully, after enough years of living and travelling in Asia, I knew how to deal with it.
Some of the taxi drivers were unofficial, using their private cars for taxis. A few official taxis were lined up, with the drivers leaning back on their trunks, taking a break and smoking cigarettes. I was the only foreign person around and of course I had no idea how long the taxi ride should take or how much it should cost. But, that’s just part of the game you have to play as a new tourist.
Three different people came up to me, trying to escort me to their taxis. I took out a piece of paper from my pocket to show to them, with the Chinese address of where I was trying to go (a tip for people travelling to China… ALWAYS have your address, and the address/name of the tourist attractions, written down in Chinese). A very persistent woman with a big smile said “Ohhh okay okay! 20 yuan! 20 yuan! Come come come!” and then tried to take my suitcase, pointing towards her white car. I held tight to my bag, smiling all the time and gesturing towards the registered taxis. Passersby paused to watch the taxi drivers fighting over the lone single female foreign traveller, many of them chuckling and laughing. I just smiled back at them and laughed too — I’ve been in this situation before in other parts of Asia, and know that all you can do is keep smiling.
Finally, one of the registered taxis finished his smoke, and ushered me over to his taxi and turned on the metre. He said something to the other taxi drivers and everyone laughed. Ah well. The lions had finished their game with the little lost lamb, and left me in peace. Off into the taxi I went. I had to ask him to turn on the metre but of course with him speaking no English and me speaking no Mandarin I had to mime it. “You turn on?” I said, pointing at the metre. I mimicked the sound of the metre, chick-chick-chick-chick-chick? He laughed so hard and broke into a coughing fit (all Chinese smoke, which is why they cough so much). Finally he turned on the metre, and we were off.
Last night as I sat in my friend Laura’s place, telling her about the taxi drivers, we both had a good laugh about it. These kinds of things happen all the time when you travel in Asia, particularly in countries where people make very little money and foreigners are an easy target for some harmless “negotiations” in price. But I’ve seen some tourists get incredibly irate, freaking out when people try to pick up their bag, or getting very flustered and upset if a bunch of people approach them and try to get them into their taxi. I’ve even seen a girl, travelling with her boyfriend, burst into tears, I suppose afraid and overwhelmed and intimidated. I guess it is just the fear of the unknown — you’ve just arrived, you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who to trust and who to believe.
This is why I honestly believe that the more you travel, the less scared you get of the world, and the more you realise that you can handle any situation that gets thrown at you. Once you’ve gone through it once or twice, you learn how it goes and you know not to panic. You see that little situations like these are not dangerous and you don’t have to be scared. These people don’t mean any harm to you, and it’s not like they want to kidnap you and rob you and rape you. For the most part, they’re just trying to see if they can earn a little bit more money today. All you have to do, is stay cool. Be cool, and they will be cool too.
And above all, keep smiling.