Five Taxis

The good, the bad, and the ugly – by Sam Duncan


The taxi system in Daqing, a city in China’s far northeast famous for its oil fields nearby, is an interesting beast. Drivers are in theory required to use their meters and not allowed to share rides, but in reality most fares are negotiated, whether the flag falls or not, and drivers will always want to pick up extra passengers along the way. It’s pretty fair, though. If you know the usual fare to your destination you can usually save a couple of kuai; if the driver picks someone else up you can use this to renegotiate the fare; and if you get in a taxi which already has passengers in it you know you can ask for a lower fare than usual.

Then again, if you don’t know how much it usually costs to where you want to go, you can get ripped off and end up paying more than the meter. Or you might accidentally agree to get in a cab with someone going in a different direction, and not get there as quickly as if you’d paid more and gone there directly. I remember getting off a flight at Daqing airport late at night and being extorted by the drivers there, who are notorious for holding people to ransom – they operate as a group, none of them will turn on their meters, and if you won’t accept their price none of them will take you. It’s criminal, but that’s what you get for living in a smaller city where the rule of law is weaker.

On the whole, though, I find taking taxis here fun, and the fare negotiation more often than not means that you can have a good chat with the driver. I tasted a little bit of it all, the good and the bad, over the course of five taxi rides in one day over the spring festival.


I need to buy a bus ticket in advance to Harbin airport. I leave my apartment and have no trouble finding a cab. I get in and ask him how much to the bus station. The taxi is an old Red Flag with a tape deck, the driver is a grizzled old guy with specks of gray in his stubble and a weatherbeaten face. The new one or the old one, he asks. The old one I say, and he thinks for a while before saying twenty five. It’s the standard fare so I agree, and he asks me where I’m from. I tell him Australia and assuming he’s up for a chat start talking. He grunts and turns up the radio, and we spend the rest of the ride in silence. When we arrive I pay him and ask him if he wants to wait five minutes while I buy my ticket, then take me back for the same price. He shakes his head and says he doesn’t want to wait. Fair enough.


On the return journey, I find another guy who will take me back for twenty five. Men from the Northeast are said to be physically larger than those in the rest of China. They have a reputation for being tough guys, real men who can drink and fight, who speak their minds and don’t take any shit, but who are honest, open, and friendly. A lot of them take great pride in that, and will happily tell you how hard they are and how much they can drink. My driver fits the stereotype perfectly – he’s a big guy, crew cut, crooked nose and teeth, scarred knuckles. He’s got a big open burn on the back of his right hand and speaks with a thick Dongbei accent, but is exuberant and super-friendly.

He loudly welcomes me into his cab as an “international friend” and peppers me with the usual questions I’ve heard a thousand times before. He’s a local like most taxi drivers here, and we start to talk about the local dialect. He gives me an example that I’ve heard dozens of times before but still can’t reproduce myself – it’s taken from a comedy routine where a guy trips over a road marker and skins his knee, which is considered extremely funny because people from other parts of China find it completely unintelligible if it’s said in the local accent.

We move on and talk about other things. I learn that at one point 60% of all oil consumed in China came from Daqing. He laments the sorry state of China’s education system. All in all it’s a great conversation, and experiences like this are the reason why despite being ripped off, insulted and abused by cabbies on numerous occasions I still consider taxi drivers to be some of my favourite people in China. Most of them are very friendly, surprisingly knowledgeable, open-minded, and, above all, great communicators.


That evening I go out to meet a friend at a duck head restaurant. It’s minus 25 degrees celsius out, and I hail a taxi which already has a guy in the front seat. The driver, skinny and nervous looking with long greasy hair, winds the window down. I say Hong Kong Street, how much? He say get in so I do, and he quotes me fifteen. I say ten and he says fifteen again. Fifteen will get me all the way to Soldier Road West, I say. He says sorry, I can’t take you for less than fifteen. No worries, I say, I’ll get out then, and I do.


As soon as I’m back on the street another car spots me and does an illegal U turn through oncoming traffic. It’s freezing so I get straight in. The taxi is full of smoke. The taxi driver, another large hard-looking guy with a bad haircut, squints at me over his cigarette and asks me where to. I’m already regretting my decision to reject the previous guy and know I’ll reek of tobacco by the time I arrive, which I fucking hate. I say Hong Kong Street. He says fifteen and I say ten, ready to get out again, but he chuckles and agrees, and we start chatting.

He turns out to be a funny character. He tells me that he’s always wanted a foreign friend but most of his foreign fares either can’t speak Chinese or don’t want to hang out with him. There was a Canadian guy he met who spoke perfect Chinese, but who never answers his phone. If I want to be friends, he tells me, he will take me out drinking, and if his relatives from the countryside slaughter a wild pig he’ll invite me over for barbeque. He seems like a genuinely good guy who wouldld be fun to hang out with, so we exchange numbers and add each other on Weixin. When I’m back in Daqing later this month I’ll give him a call.


After dinner, my friend has to buy his mother some spicy chicken parts from a little shop near the restaurant. I keep him company, and afterwards we see a cab waiting and get in the backseat. He lives really close so will get out in a couple of minutes, while I continue on to my area. He tells the driver where to go but doesn’t discuss the price. We’re talking about other things and as I subconsciously defer to local knowledge. It doesn’t occur to me to bring it up, so the driver flips the meter and sets off without saying a word, glowering at us in the mirror.

He’s the meanest looking driver of the day, with a massive hulking frame that barely fits in the seat. He’s hunched over the wheel with a sour look on his face. My friend gets out and the cabbie looks at me until I say my address. I try a bit of small talk but he ignores me, so I play with my phone until we arrive. He stops outside the building, and I take a quick look at the meter – it says twelve. I decide to try and save a couple of kuai and say, How much? Fifteen, he says firmly, and I know immediately that I’ve fucked up. I could have paid what was on the meter, but by trying to negotiate I’ve allowed him to set the price, and since we’ve already arrived I have no leverage.

Ten, I say and he says fifteen again. “Fifteen gets me here from Soldier Road West,” I say, trying to prove that I know the system around here. “Ten is the normal price.” “Fifteen,” he says angrily, turning around and glaring at me, “and it’s thirteen by the meter!” I look at the meter and it’s still 12, and I’m confused because shouldn’t that mean he can’t charge me fifteen? “It’s twelve on the meter,” I say, “I’ll give you twelve then.” “No way!”, he’s yelling now, “I turned it on when your friend got out.”

That’s bullshit, but I realise I can’t win this and that it’s my fault for not negotiating immediately after getting in. He probably feels like I was trying to cheat him out of two kuai – which I was – and he will never back down now. I’m also sick of arguing already and just want to go home, so I tell him, “OK, you’re right, I didn’t haggle with you when I got in so I’ll give you fifteen.” I hand him the two notes, and he snatches them out of my hand without a word, still glaring at me in the back mirror. I get out feeling thoroughly defeated.

I walk up to my building fuming, wishing I’d stuck to my guns for longer and saved three kuai. It takes me a while before I realise I’m getting mad about three kuai – less than a quarter – which no doubt means more to him than to me. But in this town of hard men it’s not my wallet that’s hurting but my male pride.

Sam Duncan teaches English in Daqing, Heilongjiang, and writes a langauge blog and the "Chinese Tuesdays" posts on the Anthill