The Beijing subways are the easiest piece of the public transportation system for tourists to navigate. The subway is an inexpensive way to travel (2 RMB per ride), and station signs are written in both Chinese and English. There are stops located at many of the most popular tourist destinations, including Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven (station depicted at right), and the Lama Temple. But Beijing is incredibly spread-out, so the walk to the nearest subway station can take more than half an hour, even in crowded downtown neighborhoods.
You can purchase individual subway tickets from machines in every subway station. It is also possible to purchase a multiride pass (I.C. card, or I.C.-ka) from attendants at subway stations and major bus depots (look for signs for I.C. card recharge, which are usually written in both English and Chinese). You pay a 20 RMB deposit for the card, which you can redeem before you leave the city. The card will save you time, though not money, on the subway, and the bus fare is reduced to 0.40 RMB per ride when you use the card.
The bus system is is more difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Mandarin. My non-Chinese-speaking parents have successfully used the strategy of “get on a bus that’s going in the right direction and get off if it turns,” though. And if you can read some Chinese, Mapbar lets you search for bus routes between specific addresses. Very helpful! Most buses cost 1 RMB per ride (decreased to 0.40 RMB if you have an I.C. card).
Taxis are also an option, with meters starting at 10RMB per ride. Before you get in a cab, check that your driver knows how to get to where you are trying to go. (This is a problem more than you might expect. It is helpful to show the driver the address — or better yet, directions — written in Chinese characters.
Beijing has four train stations, but most long-distance trains leave from the Beijing Railway Station in the southeast or the Beijing West Railway Station. The Beijing South Railway Station opened in August 2008 and serves as the departure point for the super-fast trains to Tianjin. Beijing South and Beijing Station are connected to the subway system; Beijing West is not.
For information on train schedules, buying tickets, navigating the station and the train experience, check out my guide to China train travel.
Beijing’s Capital Airport got a major facelift before the Olympics with the opening of Terminal Three and the Airport Express subway line. I can tell you that Terminal Three is spiffy, but I’ve never flown in or out. Continental, my carrier of choice, is still assigned to Terminal Two.
The Airport Express subway stops at the Dongzhimen subway stop and Terminals Two and Three at the airport. It takes about 20 minutes to travel from the city to the airport, or vice versa. Tickets cost 25 RMB, and you can purchase them at the station entrances. Trains leave every 15 to 20 minutes during the day.
A taxi from the airport to the city center costs around 120 RMB. Wait in the official taxi lines for a metered cab; avoid the gypsy cab drivers who try to woo unsuspecting tourists.