Compared to taxis, busses, private cars, and bicycles, the subway is the fastest, cheapest way around town. With the preparations for the 2008 Olympics, the government has poured a lot of money into the subway system, and now we can all benefit!
Step 1: Obtain a Current Subway Map, and Find Your Location and Destination
Use this map to find your current location and your destination. If you are not near a subway stop, or your destination does not have a subway stop nearby, then the subway won't do you any good!
Step 2: Get to the Nearest Subway Station
The stops are easily a half mile apart or more, so you want to make sure you are heading to the nearest one. The easiest way to do this is to ask someone (or better yet, several people) who look like they know what they are doing.
Here is a handy phrase:
Please, where is the subway stop?
"Qin wen, di tie zhan zai na li?"
(cheen wun, dee tee-eh zshan zai nah lee?)
Step 3: Buy a Ticket or a Pass
A single ride anywhere in the city is 2 RMB (approx US$0.30), with unlimited transfers.
To get to the airport, you have to transfer to the airport express line, and pay 25 RMB.
There are two types of tickets, single ride tickets, or a Yikatong transport debit card, which I recommend.
(1) To buy a single ride ticket, there are automated machines which take coins and small bills. You can buy up to 10 tickets per transaction using the machine, but I don't recommend it because I believe they expire at the end of the day. You can also get tickets from the ticket counter.
(2) A better alternative is to get the Yikatong card, and store money on it. This is the most convenient option, if you plan to take the subway often. Don't be dismayed if you face some silliness while trying to get the Yikatong card. In some stations, you need to buy a single ride ticket, go inside the station, and then buy the Yikatong from within the station. The cost is 20 RMB "deposit" to get the card, and then you can store on it however much money you want. Note: to get the Yikatong 20 RMB deposit back, you have to take it to Xizhimen station, which is a pain. If you are finished with the card, it may be easier to just give it to a friend!
Step 4: Enter the Turnstile, Get on the Right Platform, and Go!
Follow the arrows to the platform that is headed in the direction you want to go. At this point it may be helpful to have your own copy of the subway map, since some stations only show maps of the single line that the station is on, and not the entire system.
If you need to transfer lines, get off at the transfer station, and the tunnel to the other line should be clearly marked in both Chinese and English. Currently, there are only 2 lines at transfer stations so it's not easy to get lost.
Step 5: Departing the Subway, and Choosing the Right Exit
Now that you've exited, you may be faced with a bit of confusion. At most stations, there are several exits, labeled A, B, C, D, sometimes up to G! Unfortunately, this labeling is done in a haphazard way, since not each station has the the same number of exits.
Each exit should have a sign indicating which buildings are on its corner. It may also have a map of the intersection so you know the overall orientation.
This being said, the general convention for the exit labels is a clockwise pattern: A leading to the northwest corner of the major intersection, B leading to the northeast, C leading to the southeast, and D leading to the southwest.
Find your correct exit, and head on out! If you chose the wrong exit, then at worst it will result in an extra 5 minutes of walking. Good luck!
Step 6: Tips for Taking the Beijing Subway
(1) There are some subway lines that are older and some that are newer. The line 1 is the oldest, and you can tell because the trains are older. Some don't have air conditioning, only fans.
(2) Busiest times are during rush hour, 7-9am, and 4-7pm. Expect to be packed in, and you may have your face in someone's armpit (or vice versa!).
(3) The subway runs from about 5 am to about 11 pm. If you're going to stay out late at night, you'll have to cab it back home!
(3) Subway trains usually run every 3 to 5 minutes. The distance between the stops can vary from 0.5 km to up 4 or more km. An easy estimate is about 5 minutes per subway stop you take, plus any line transfer time. Don't forget to include outside walking time as well!
In general though the subway will be about the same speed or faster than taking a taxi, and is a bit more reliable than taking your chances with the Beijing traffic! Costwise, taxis start at 10 RMB for up to 3km, with each additional km costing 2 RMB.
In summary, a subway ride is very affordable, you are saving the environment, and getting some walking exercise as well!