A bit like New York, the streets of Chongqing are ploughed daily by armies of yellow taxis, but augmented further by a charmingly chaotic array of behaviours and sights to behold.
I’m going to be as fair as possible on the taxis and drivers here. The vehicles often cruise or tear through the city 24 hours a day, the shifts are punishingly long, the fares are low, and there is stiff competition from private drivers on the Didichuxing滴滴出行 platform, who vie for the same finite number of passengers with better cars. The less than hot reputation they have among many foreigners and locals is more down to industry practices than the drivers themselves.
During my early years in Chongqing, the taxis were mainly battered old Suzukis floored to their limits to reach their destination in good time. The doors clanged open and shut, giving way to upholstery which was mostly worn through, and front passengers were often squeezed by a metal cage that separated them from physically interfering, or perhaps attacking the driver in an indignant rage.
A few years later, these were phased out for a newer fleet of Suzuki taxis, with the addition of Hyundai Elantras that companies may also use with the same body paint design.
I had always assumed the taxis were all run by the same company, but I later found discovered that there are multiple taxi companies in Chongqing, and the only way to tell is from the name printed low on the back bumper. A few examples I found on a Baidu search were 国泰(Guo tai), 泉城(Quan cheng), 大嘉(Da jia), 威痛(Wei tong) and 市租(Shi zu). This won’t make any difference to your journey, as they all follow the same fare rules.
The starting fare used to be 5 yuan, but was increased to 10 yuan in recent years to match the rising cost of living. Between 6am and 11pm, the basic charge is ten yuan for the first three kilometres, after which the metre adds 1 yuan for every 500 metres travelled. The metre also has a setting for low speed低速(Di su), which is defined as accumulated time travelling under 12km/h. Once five minutes at low speed has been clocked up, 1 yuan is added to the fare, after which another yuan is added every two and a half minutes. Lastly, the per kilometre charge is increased to 3 yuan if the journey distance exceeds 25 kilomtres, and is called 返空费(Fan kong fei), and is meant to cover the expense of return travel.
Between 11pm and 6am, the same principles apply, just at a slightly higher rate.
The taxis are legally obliged to use the meter, but they may try to negotiate a flat rate for longer journeys to avoid having to declare it. I will sometimes agree, as I’m familiar with the distances and routes involved, and whether the driver is charging too much. In any case, they will relent as long as you insist hard enough.
As well as cash, taxis now also accept Wechat payments if you can use it in China.
Beyond the points stated above, the practical side of using taxis is like anywhere else. So here I’d like to share some of their more unusual traits and characteristics. To show fairness to the drivers, I will attempt some explanations for a more nuanced appraisal.
The number one complaint local Chinese consistently report in the media is about taxis refusing passengers. This might sound highly counter-intuitive, but the reason is that every day around three in the afternoon, the drivers have a set time and place for a shift change. Once they are an hour or two away, they start taking passengers who happen to be travelling in the same general direction. This way, they don’t end up driving long distances back to base with little chance of collecting fares.
For the citizen who is desperate to reach their destination, it can become disheartening to have vacant taxis pulling up one after the other, the driving winding down the windows to ask where you’re going, and then shake their heads and pull swiftly away.
When travelling to or from the airport with more than one suitcase between everybody, any excess baggage will vie with you for the limited space inside. This is because over half of the boot is taken up by a large LPG tank that allows them to go further between fuel stops.
Apart from that, like a scene from The Transporter, almost anything will go in the boot, as you will see in one of the photos below. It’s also quite common to see luggage bulging out of the back with the boot door wide open, bound with flimsy looking straps while the car races down the motorway in and out of the traffic.
During my time in Korea, I distinctly recall how the taxi drivers dressed impeccably and kept the interior generally spotless. Here, I nowadays kind of like seeing the odd driver who wears tatty old garments, smoking cigarette hanging from his mouth, arm out of the window whilst the other hand grips the steering wheel whilst handling the vehicle like it’s the batmobile, perhaps retrieving his arm from outside to receive a telephone call.
A few annoyances
One is certainly how any location, no matter how dangerous and inconvenient, is permissible for dropping off or taking on passengers. Countless times, a taxi in front has pulled off a virtual emergency stop where I just manage to avoid crashing into the back, yet unable to change lanes to squeeze past while they count small change, negotiate journeys, and shift cartloads worth of bags.
The high pressure environment forces them to take unbelievable risks at times. They can race past heavy traffic in an emergency lane and turn into a gap with barely a pinhead’s worth of space. I’ve witnessed taxis, and in fairness, many other road users, whizz by in the fast lane then sweep across three lanes of traffic to take an exit at the very last moment.
It should no surprsie then how many accidents I see involve taxis, albeit a solid second place behind the Panda cars I did in a previous blog. In fact, a good indication of the potential thrill factor you may enjoy as a passenger can be taken from the extent of mangled bodywork. Naturally, the more mangled, the higher the thrill.
I understand time is money for them, and passengers finite, but I honestly haven’t experienced taxi rides like this anywhere else, including other cities in China.
For the most part, the drivers are highly sociable when you communicate with them, and will love talking to a foreigner who speaks Chinese.
Finally, the only other annoyance is drivers not knowing where your destination is. Many are not originally from Chongqing, but have migrated from neighbouring counties in search of work, and it may be you are familiar with the city than they are, and you actually end up pointing the way. This is fairly rare, though, and many do know their way down to the most obscure alleyways and shortcuts.
Last few tips
In the past, I used to see giant queues leading up to a fuel station, and decide it wasn’t worth the wait. However, the taxis only use the LPG, which are in high demand, but a relatively few and take ages to fill a tank. The result is huge lines of traffic that some people mistake for the ordinary pumps. Whenever you see this driving in Chongqing, try driving past it all, and you may find you can park right up without having to wait at all.
Secondly, when you are desperate, and have stiff competition for a ride, you can try asking where the others are going, and hitch a ride together. Alternatively, it is sometimes possible to flag down a taxi that’s already taken, and the driver might allow you in if you’re travelling in the same general direction. The understanding is that passengers unconnected to each other both pay their full individual fares.
In conclusion, there’s barely a dull moment riding the yellow taxi cabs in Chongqing!