Which bus to take?
Usually, multiple bus lines stop at the same bus stop. Beijing bus stops have a metal sign for each line with the bus number, its origin and destination, and the stops. A little arrow usually highlights the current stop. For long routes, not all stops are displayed on the sign.
These signs are often of limited use to foreigners because you need to be able to recognize the characters of your destination.
Once you hop onto a bus, you will find a sign inside that lists all stops in characters and in pinyin. Plus most buses have an electronic display at the front and a voice system that announce the next stop in Chinese and in English.
You can use the Google Maps app to find the right bus number. Select the public transportation option when searching for directions, which will give you bus numbers for your route. I have seen Chinese people use an iPhone app but it is entirely in Chinese.
Tip: Take a picture with your phone of the bus signs at your closest stop and other locations you frequent to capture the bus numbers and the bus stop name. That way you can easily compare if, let’s say any of the buses departing from the supermarket are also stopping close to your house.
Buses are cheap
Most regular buses cost 2 Yuan for a single ticket and 1 Yuan when paying with the Yikatong (as of Dec 28, 2014). To learn more about the Yikatong, see my post on how to get around in Beijing. Without that Public Transport card, you have to pay exact fare and put it into a box next to the driver.
The fare is higher for longer distances and depends on the number of stops. Those buses usually have an assistant who sells the tickets. If you use the Yikatong, you must swipe it again when getting off the bus for the exact fare to be deducted from your balance.
There seems to be no transfer ticket when you have to transfer between bus lines. You just pay again, but since the fare prices are so low, especially when using the Yikatong, this is no big deal.
Buses with two doors (most buses) are entered at the front, where passengers swipe their Yikatong or pay exact fare into the box next to the driver, and are exited through the back door. Buses with three doors are entered in the middle and exited in the front or back. (If it is really crowded and hard to move, you can get off through the nearest door. Just be quick before new people are pushing in.)
Younger riders are expected to get up and offer their seat to someone who is old, disabled or travels with kids. Well…
Is it safe?
As I mentioned above, buses can get very crowded during rush hour. I have not had any issues with pick pocketing or unwanted touching, just like anywhere else in Beijing. As always, if you carry valuables keep them close and use common sense. You will always find someone who has a story about getting something stolen. So don’t push your luck.
Most buses in Beijing are quite new and seem well maintained. They have handrails to hold on to, and I very much recommend you do. Traffic is not always smooth, and many drivers have a heavy foot, so an unexpected braking may send you tumbling.
Taking the bus to get out of Beijing
In addition to city buses there are long-distance buses, which look and operate a bit differently.
We took a long distance bus for a 3-hour drive to Chengde, where the imperial summer retreat is located. We also went once to the Badaling section of the Great Wall taking a bus from Deshengmen.