Every city has it own particular taxi culture, each with a specific set of rituals and rules. When we visited Paris several years ago, for example, we could never just hail a cab off the street, the way you can in New York. We had to go to certain intersections and only there would we be able to find a ride.
And we've encountered similar situations in Rome and Florence, Italy, though with the added requirement that we get in the right cab — sometimes the one that had been waiting the longest, other times (or so it seemed) the one being driven by the most senior cabbie.
In Shanghai, both rules seem to apply, though perhaps a bit more randomly. Cabs will congregate at certain spots. But if one drives past and has a green light glowing on top, it's supposed to be free. That's no guarantee, though, as some will drive right past you no matter how hard you try to get their attention. Maybe they've forgotten to turn the light off and are heading toward another fare. Maybe they really don't see you. Or maybe they just don't want to hassle driving around some foreigners whose language they don't begin to understand.
(China travel tip: It's a good idea to have your travel destination written out in Chinese characters, something that most employees at a hotel concierge desk should be willing to help with. Anyone with local phone service can download apps that will help, too.)
Whatever, we had good luck getting cabs yesterday in Shanghai, despite the fact that it was drizzling most of the day and we were hardly the only ones looking for easy transportation. (Shanghai's metro system is both cheap and easy to navigate, but its stops are inconvenient to where we are staying; if you have to walk a half hour to get on the metro, a cab could already have dropped you where you want to go.)
Our first stop was the Jade Buddha Temple, a working Buddhist monastery that was built between 1918 and 1928 (see the above photo). Its highlight, as the title suggests, is a state of Buddha made of jade, one of five that — according to Lonely Planet — had been sent back to China at the turn of the 20th century. I took no photo of the actual jade state because this was the only room where photos were banned (and I watched a guy get chastised when he pulled out his fancy camera and began clicking away). But we toured the whole temple, which took about a half hour, and — embarrassingly enough — found ourselves crashing a couple of Buddhist funerals.
Afterward, we hailed a cab almost immediately and headed across town to a completely different setting: a contemporary arts complex called ShanghART, a collection of several buildings in which serious galleries and shops displayed — for no entrance fee — the works created by a number of art collectives. Our favorite was Islands6, which featured mostly untitled works in neon and video/photo mashups making clever commentary on the clash between traditional and contemporary Chinese life.
And again, when we were through, we were able to grab a cab almost immediately. One final note: As I've noted below, Shanghai is huge. And street traffic is often a snarl of honking cars, trucks, vans and motor scooters. So trips across town can take as much as a half hour or more. One such trip cost three of us a mere 51 Chinese yuan — or about $8.31 U.S. dollars.
For offering that kind of a bargain, Chinese cabbies should be considered even more of a national treasure than any half dozen jade statues.