There are 67,000 legitimate taxis in Beijing. They are mostly honest and plentiful if not fast (traffic is so bad in Beijing that the government is planning to restrict car purchases), and the meters issue official government fa piao (invoice). These taxis are easily recognizable because they are always painted yellow and have the same logo on the side. In Beijing, they’re either Hyundai, Citroen or Volkswagen, depending on the taxi company.

And then there are the black taxis. By some estimates, there are an equally large number of these. Many, though not all, of these are black in color. They aren’t licensed, they aren’t bonded, they aren’t insured, and they aren’t regulated. While many are equipped with meters, the fares charged bear no resemblance to the market rate.

On Subway Line 5, the Beijing municipal government shows videos warning against taking these. There is a series of videos featuring an evil hippo who does all sorts of bad and illegal things. In one video, the evil hippo drives recklessly through a town running over old ladies and giggling maniacally, only to be caught by the police when a bystander dials 110 to report the crime (Beijing has a rudimentary 911-like system,  where you can dial different numbers for police, fire and ambulance). In another video, the evil hippo takes a job as a black taxi driver, driving passengers to remote areas and robbing them with a knife.

Having been to Africa, I can agree: hippos are mean and they take no prisoners. You don’t want to ride anywhere in any car driven by a hippo. The government occasionally tries to crack down (and is largely successful in central Beijing), but in a municipality roughly three times the geographic area of Delaware, it’s a huge challenge.

A few weeks ago, Ikea delivered a terrific piece of furniture I found. It was a beautiful Chinese-style red cabinet, a showcase piece (well, “showcase” is perhaps too strong a word for anything from Ikea, but my standards of fine furnishings are pretty low since moving to Beijing).  I really loved it, and it fit perfectly in my living room, but the delivery company totally messed up the assembly and left huge nasty gashes all over the front of one of the doors. And then, as is typical, they disappeared hoping I somehow wouldn’t notice.

My administrative assistant helped me call Ikea and explain the situation and ask them to help. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any parts in stock to fix the cabinet and couldn’t get them. They could refund the delivery fee, though, would that be OK? Obviously, this wasn’t going to work, so I asked them to refund the what I paid for the furniture and also refund the assembly fee and also come and pick up the item they’d damaged. Surprisingly, they agreed to all of this (!) and showed up to retrieve the item. They left behind an Ikea gift card, which wasn’t exactly what I had agreed to, but it was redeemable for cash.

OK, fine. I had some things to return to Ikea anyway, and I hadn’t had Swedish meatballs for awhile. I caught a taxi to Ikea. From my apartment, 23 kuai, about $3.50, teeth-grittingly expensive but an expense I was grudgingly willing to absorb considering the 20 minute walk from the Taiyonggong subway station, the 2 transfers necessary to get there, and temperatures well below freezing.

When I take a taxi somewhere to shop, I tend to make the most of it. I still think of taxis as an expensive rare luxury, even though they’re commonplace here, and hate paying for them. Most of the furniture in the apartment that belongs to the landlord is trashed, so I’m having them remove it and I’m replacing it with my own stuff. Given how cheap Ikea stuff is here, the economics trump renting a place with nicer furniture that costs $150 per month more.  So, after my meatballs, I went on a mission to find a desk and desk chair. $30 later for the chair and $45 later for the desk, I had stuff that would easily cost double in the US. And by the time I checked out, it was after 10pm.

Ikea runs a taxi line, and there were dozens of people in line. It was cold, down in the low 20s at this point, and the security guards who normally run the queue were huddled inside the Ikea doorway having some sort of security guard meeting. So no taxis came, and no taxis came, and gradually the line drifted away, people left to their own devices, hauling flat boxes full of furniture wherever they thought they could find a taxi. Stubbornly, I waited to the end with another couple, who finally turned to me and said “no taxi anymore.”

I nodded and grabbed my cart, blatantly wheeling it off the grounds of Ikea. The security guards couldn’t be bothered–normally they rush after you to retrieve the cart, and then they have a reason to get you a cab, but I guess Ikea doesn’t care about people taking their carts. A few blocks away, I finally came to a main street, one where I could probably find a cab, and stood with the young couple hailing one. “You get next one, was next in line” said the man, and although I refused, the couple was very gracious,  helping me hail a cab.

Two cabs stopped, looked at me, and drove away. “Why they drive away?” wailed the woman. “I am laowai. Many cab drivers do not like laowai,” I explained. And it’s true. Stopping to pick up a foreigner who can’t always explain where he’s going and will argue if he’s taken to the wrong place is just too much hassle for many cab drivers to deal with, and they don’t know the difference between me (with a specific and well-known address that I can both pronounce and is written in Chinese) versus a drunk English teacher who has trouble pronouncing his far-flung suburban address.

And then, out of nowhere, crept a taxi: a battered First Automobile Works saloon. Black, with a magnetic taxi sign at a haphazard angle stuck to the roof. The guy driving it wasn’t obviously an evil hippo, but maybe he was wearing a mask. It looked sketchy, and I was suspicious. The nice young couple looked at each other,  then looked at me. I raised my eyebrows and shrugged, and they huddled at the window and conferred with the driver. “It’s OK,” they said, turning back to me. “No problem.”

Well, I didn’t have any reason not to trust these people. And the trunk was big enough to fit all my stuff, which would have been a hassle to fix into an ordinary taxi. What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen, other than being taken to a remote area and robbed with a knife? Well, robbed and murdered, but that happens rarely in Beijing, especially to foreigners. That would be bad for the city’s image. I tossed my stuff in the trunk and, swallowing the lump in my throat, hopped into the front seat.

The driver asked where I was going, I told him, and he started driving. Amazingly, he was going in the right direction and taking the shortest route and maybe this was going to work out and … hey, wait a minute, what the hell is the meter doing?

It was ticking up at an alarming pace. Easily 3 times the rate that it should have. I looked at the meter, and looked at the driver,  and looked at the meter again, and he turned and stared at me. At this point, he had all my stuff in his trunk, so I decided I’d probably better ask the question but not risk angering him to the point of throwing me out of his unregulated cab and driving away with all my stuff. I pointed at the meter, and gave him sort of the look of “is this thing on?” and he rather passionately said something which I assume meant “Dave, my meter is completely operational and all of its systems are functioning perfectly,” and wait a minute, my name isn’t Dave. But anyway, the driver took the exit (again taking the shortest route) and took a few shortcuts that I wasn’t familiar with and the meter started running at the normal speed again.

We eventually arrived at my apartment complex, and the meter was at 34 kuai, or 11 more than it should have been.  This is serious money, $1.75 more than it should have been. I didn’t say anything,  stepping out of the cab, grabbing a cart, and being grateful for the heavy security at my apartment complex who immediately began assisting me with unloading my items.

When I was done, I paid the driver 30 kuai. It was more than I felt I owed, but I didn’t have any smaller change and his trunk was bigger after all, and it was exactly half what it would have cost me to have the larger items I brought delivered. So a good deal all around. This unleashed a tirade from the driver and he pointed at his jacked up meter and he reached for something in his car door until seeing the glare of the security guard who was watching carefully at this point. A lot of important government officials, both current and retired, apparently live in my complex and the security guards are serious. It’s not like the half-asleep private security guards at most other complexes; these guys actually seem to be police. The guard looked at the driver and the driver looked at the guard and the driver lowered his voice and again started vehemently pointing at his meter.

It was my turn to point, and this time I pointed across the street at the police station that the driver heretofore hadn’t noticed. Mustering the best Chinese I could, I said “Gong An,” making it clear that I was happy to get the police involved if he wanted to press the issue. With that, the driver shifted into gear and drove away quickly, not saying another word.

While loading the stuff into my apartment, it occurred to me that I was willing to get the police involved in a dispute over 60 cents. Granted, I’m a cheap bastard anyway, but China takes this to a whole new level.

If you come to Beijing, avoid any taxis driven by hippos. I’m sure the videos are all completely true.