Saturday, August 30, 2008

Beijing's buses

As a brief postscript to that last rant about the shortcomings of the subway link to Beijing's Olympic venues, I should say a few words about the buses here in Beijing.

Now, I like using the buses here. The fleet has been completely modernised in the last few years, so the vehicles are all very new and clean and comfortable, with air-conditioning (some of the old ones used to just have a couple of small fans!). They're very cheap (only 4 mao per trip on most routes, if you've got one of the new electronic travelcards). And, outside of the evening rush hour, they're not usually too crowded.

The trouble is, it's incredibly difficult to find out where they go. The drivers and conductors never speak a word of English (so much for Beijing's efforts to learn English for the Olympics!); and none of the signs at the bus stops have any English on them (although most buses do now at least have pre-recorded announcements of the stops in Chinese and English; though that doesn't help you to decide if this is the bus you want to get on). In fact, even the Chinese have difficulty reading these signs, because they laboriously list every single stop - often using placenames that are obscure even to local residents, and completely alien to anyone from another district. There's usually a stop every few hundred yards. And many routes wind from one end of the city to the other, covering 20 or 30 miles or more. Can you imagine how difficult it is trying to pick out the name of the stop you want from a board covered with at least 50, perhaps sometimes nearer to 100 different names, many of them using rare and unfamiliar characters? Many Chinese have told me that it is hard. I haven't got much of a hope - even when I know the name of the place I'm going to in characters (which isn't often). And, of course, there are no maps.

There are a number of websites that provide information about the bus routes, but they never seem to have an English version. This one - set up especially for the Olympics, I think, or certainly heavily revamped for them - supposedly did have an English page, but it's offline at the moment.

There were supposedly 34 new bus routes set up to serve the Olympic venues, but with no information about these available in English, it was never very likely that many Western tourists would try to use them (of course, not many Western tourists came anyway, and the government wasn't much concerned about doing anything for the convenience of the ones who did). The one major failing I found with the Olympic volunteers was that none of them seemed to have a clue about the public transport links to get people away from the venues after an event.

Using the buses is great, once you know where the routes run. The only way, really, for a bumbling foreigner like me to find out where they run, is to get on them at random and ride to the end of the line, noting road names and landmarks along the way.

For Olympic visitors, that wasn't really an option. I saw plenty of Chinese at bus stops near the Olympic venues (perhaps out-of-towners?) looking lost and baffled too; this wasn't just a laowai problem.

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