Guide to using Beijing Buses

By Veronica Smith

Beijing taxis are so affordable that visitors or local expats get addicted and often miss out on one of the best and by far cheapest modes of transportation in Beijing- the bus. One of the joys of taking the bus is the view, by seeing up and over all the cars you can get a better sense of where you are, check-out the nifty shops and restaurants you might want to come back to, and because youíre on the bus you will be able to find them again. The municipal government has developed a huge network of bus lanes designated for use during rush hour traffic; why get stuck in a jam when you can zoom past on a bus? And when you do get stuck at least the meter isnít ticking. The image of the bus as a sardine can is myth, only if you travel at peak hours may you get a little jostled; long gone are the days when people missed their stop because it was too crowded to get off. Nowadays if you are lucky you may even get a seat in an air-conditioned bus.

Bus Stops

In many western cities the bus stops have numbers; but in Beijing each bus stop has its own special name. A huge city like Beijing the names of bus stops are important points of reference very much like subway stations; the name of the stop is indicated at the top of bus stop panel. Sometimes the bus stop is named after the nearest cross street but not necessarily, it can also be an important landmark or tourist attraction or the name of a nearby neighbourhood. For the most important stops there will be distinctions between NSEW or Inner and Outer which refer to their position in relation to the old city walls and streets. Each bus stop will have a big metal sign card for each bus number which includes a list of all the name of the stops on the route- unfortunately these still only appear in Chinese characters so can be slightly baffling. At stops with heavy traffic and lots of busses they may two bus stop stands with the same name at a distance of 20-50 meters, make sure you are standing here the number you need is indicated on the stopís sign- or get ready to run when your bus flies by!

Bus stops are sometimes .5 or 1 kilometres apart so if you miss your stop or get off at the wrong corner be prepared for a long hike, or have 10 Yuan handy for a cab.

Name and Number on Buses

The name of the bus, each bus has a number as well as two Chinese words which are the names of the first and last stops on the route and where you will end up if you fall asleep. There are some vague guidelines to determine the number on the bus, 1-199 is usually travel through the city center, the 200 numbers all night busses, then 3 to 8 are sometimes, but not always busses that go to the suburbs. And the 900 are long distance touristís lines; you can get to the Great Wall for 10 Yuan on the 919.

Getting On the Bus

To control the pushing and shoving there are now designated doors to get on/off the bus. There is always a moment of panic when the bus pulls up and you try to figure out what door to get in (front, back, or middle?). In the olden days the direction was indicated with Chinese characters only, but thanks to the Olympics there are now international sings with arrows and pictures of little people going up or down. With all the new bus models each type of bus has different doors for getting on and off, there isnít a golden rule.


Fares are determined differently on different types of busses. Some have a flat rate of 1 Yuan cash or .40 Yuan with a smart card which you need to swipe only once. Other busses, either long distance lines or air-conditioned busses run by contracted companies charge by the distance, if you have a smart card simply swipe your smart card on the IC card readers when you get on the bus and then again at the end of the trip- the IC card reader will determine the fare to debit automatically. Some busses have ticket attendants and some donít so make sure you have the correct change if you are paying cash. Some long-distance busses use small hand held IC card readers used by ticket sellers in which case itís best to know where you want to go.

Smart Cards or Yikatong

A smart card can be purchased at any subway stations with a deposit of 20 Yuan, and money can be added in 10 Yuan denominations. If the card is damaged you will loose your deposit so we recommend that you purchase the protective cover for 2 Yuan. One of the advantages is that the smart card is that it is readable through most bags or wallets if placed against the lining, this helps avoid loss and theft.

Travelling with 2 people on one smart card? It can only be done with buses that have a flat rate - not when the fare is calculated by distance. If 2 people want to use a card on a flat rate bus the card has a safety feature so canít be swiped twice consecutively- so wait until another passenger uses their card and then swipe again. If you forget to swipe your card getting off a long distance bus your card will automatically be debited the amount of the route, normally this wonít exceed 2.5 RMB - if youíre lucky!

The advantage of the smart card is that if you donít have great Chinese using a smart card this will save you the trouble of communicating your destination to the ticket, the card will debit the fare automatically. Not to mention the great discount, 60% off when you use the card, instead of 1 Yuan you pay only .40 Yuan.

Bus Stop Attendants

Who are those people at the bus stop with red caps, arm bands waving small triangular flags? They are bus stop attendants. With loud voices and bossy personalities they keep the peace, stop unnecessary shoving and give directions. They also make sure the bus stops at the right place by flagging; each bus has a specific place to stop so the gate lines up with the door. Another flag signal will give the bus to go ahead to ďtake offĒ only in Beijing do busses get signalled like planes on a runway. The attendants are very helpful and if you tell them where you are going they make it their personal responsibility to get you on the right bus- so donít change your mind on a whim as you are likely to get grabbed and pulled off the ďwrongĒ bus.

Drivers and Ticket Sellers

Drivers and attendants arenít renowned for being friendly or polite but this doesnít exclude them from being helpful. If youíre trying to find the right bus to get on try shouting the name your destination to the driver/ticket seller, they will tell you if you can get on the bus or not. Even if youíre pretty sure where youíre going it also helps to tell them your destination then when itís time to get off they wonít let you miss your stop, local passengers may also take you under their wing. If you spontaneously decide to jump off before the stop you asked for- having seen some great little shop- stop donít be surprised if you get bossed around and physically held back - attendants donít want you to get lost; in Beijing if you ask for help youíll likely get more than you were bargaining for. Drivers and ticket sellers can be very friendly but more often than not it is service with a scowl, donít get intimidated and remember the friendlier you are the more helpful they will be - just keep smiling!

Finding the Bus You Needs

On the Beijing Public Transportation (BPT) web site they have a powerful search engine to find the best bus route; unfortunately it has yet to be fully developed in English. Get a Chinese friend to type in the name of your nearest bus stop and the name of the bus stop closest to your destination and the online system will show you the different possible routes on a detailed map, including subway lines and bus transfers. Type in the number of the bus and it will display the bus route on a detailed map of the city. If you donít have access to the internet the BPT has a hot-line; call 96166 and a live person will answer the phone and help you find the best route to your destination. Again their English may be limited, so itís best to get a friend or passer by to help.

Transferring Buses

If the instructions you have been given say transfer from one bus to another then be get ready to have to hunt out the other bus stop when you arrive. Busses may not stop at the same corner; be prepared for a five minute walk and perhaps a hike over a pedestrian bridge.

Get On Board!

The first time you are taking any particular bus route give yourself some time to get oriented, and possibly lost; taking the bus for the fist time in Beijing can be confusing even for a Chinese person, according to Beijing Public Transport there are ď25,368 operating vehicles of various kinds and 823 bus routesĒ Iím sure the bus drivers get confused sometimes. But the effort is worth while, taking a bus for even part of a long journey across town and then jumping in a cab to find the exact address can save you a considerable amount of cash, and give you are great cheap tour of the city.









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