"It's not professional for us to park up and find a toilet when we have diarrhea and a customer sitting in the car," says Mr. Li between mouthfuls of pork and rice. "The restaurants here are all very clean, so that means we won't get diarrhea from eating at them. I think about that a lot."
Li is one of the estimated 60,000-70,000 taxi drivers who work in Beijing, and is refueling his body in a dinky eatery named Shaanxi Handmade Noodles on the west end of Baiziwan Road. The restaurants on the stretch are almost exclusively populated by men wearing the distinctive yellow shirts that mark them out as cabbies. Most are attracted here by plentiful parking spaces and the area's relative lack of ticket-waving police officers, as well as the reassurance that they won't get the runs.
Many drivers work 12-hour shifts daily—either 6 AM-6 PM or vice versa—so it's hungry work. As such, a slew of eating spots such as Baiziwan Road have been tailored to cater for them and have evolved into bustling congregation areas.
Keen to get a little insight into what fuels the guys I never usually get beyond "Turn left here" terms with, I order a bowl of noodles for 10 yuan (£1.05). As the restaurant name suggests, many of the noodle dishes here are made in the style of those made in Shaanxi province. The most famous are known as biangbiang noodles and are thick and belt-like, but those I receive are thinner, churned out from the machine pictured below. Sadly, the dish was the saltiest thing I've tasted since I licked a horse's salt lick on a farm out of curiosity when I was about 12.
Li lets me have a dig into his pile of rice, pork, and vegetables though, which is more palatable. It costs 15 yuan (£1.50). With apps like Uber making it harder and harder for taxi drivers in China to make a decent wage, getting a mega-cheap, perhaps unspectacular but plentiful feed is a priority for most punters here.
A few doors down, the next Baiziwan Road restaurant I visit challenges Li's statement about all the places on the stretch being impressively clean. I wouldn't eat my lunch off that floor.
Still, the lunch deal is a good one: 14 yuan (£1.40) for a huge pile of pork, tofu, cabbage, and a chicken leg plus as much rice as you can eat. In that great way that Chinese hole-in-the-wall food so often does, its blandly beige appearance belies its impressive seasoning and taste. Crackly skiffle music starts emanating from a tinny radio in the corner, and despite initially thinking that the place looks like a Hostel torture room, I start to warm to it. Mr. Wang, the driver who has agreed to show me around the area, seems happy enough, both with his lunch and his life.
"I used to work building roads and driving diggers, stuff like that, but I then chose to be a taxi driver," he says. "I chose it because it makes me feel free. I can take a day off whenever I want. It's not about making loads of money. I wouldn't say I enjoy doing it, because it is very tiring, but it's flexible and better than other jobs."
We move on to Delicious Stone Pot, a few more doors further on. Here, owner Mr. Zhang beavers over bubbling pots of spiced soup and serves us helpings of mutton and cabbage along with glass noodles. He explains that he serves his meals in metal rather than stone bowls so that the food cools down quicker in them, allowing drivers to finish their meals and get back on the road as fast as possible.
Delicious Stone Pot is the friendliest of the Baiziwen Road eateries I visit. It has a fun, common room-style feel to it as drivers moan-laugh about awkward passengers and stub out cigarettes in ashtrays made from old Coke and Red Bull cans (My visit here has taken place just before the Beijing smoking ban has kicked in on June 1).
"I sometimes drink Red Bull or chrysanthemum tea to stay awake on shifts," says Wang, spotting the ashtrays. "The longest shift I did was 14 hours, but I usually work about ten and just have a nap for half an hour or so when I need to. And I'm careful about not eating too much." He slyly nods towards a driver with two fully loaded bowls in front of him. "Seems like all taxi drivers aside from me have big bellies due to lack of exercise."
Wang says he grabs meals at whichever large taxi driver eating hub he's nearest to when dropping off passengers. Another favourite is a huge buffet restaurant that translates roughly as "Fatty Fast Food Restaurant" on Jiangtai Street. We visit later but are all but shoved out of the door by the suspicious owners after grabbing a quick bite. Sometimes when you enter a venue in China with a pro-standard camera, you may as well be carrying an Uzi.
During our brief stop-off at Fatty Fast Food Restaurant, I ask Wang what aspects of the job he and his colleagues chat about over their food. In Beijing, taxi firms have been accused by critics of sitting on top of a monopolized industry, with the local government tightly controlling the amount of licenses handed out to them. Wang's deal is typical of the city: he pays a franchise fee of 5,000 yuan (£525) a month, keeping all his fares but paying all fuel and maintenance costs.
Wang says he earns about 5,000 yuan profit each month but the likes of Uber and Didi Dache, another taxi-hailing app, have caused profits to erode. Before their widespread use, Wang would make around 700 yuan (£74) each night shift but now he makes about 500 yuan (£53). "If these apps continue to be popular and franchise fees don't become cheaper, many drivers will quit," he says.
Some taxi drivers in China have exercised a rather more extreme form of protest against leasing rules. Last April, over 30 drivers travelled from the northern city of Suifenhe to Beijing and took pesticide in an apparent mass suicide attempt on a busy shopping street. The move followed protests against franchise fees across various cities in January.
Wang won't be joining any demonstrations soon, though. He says that if the financial problems get worse, he'll just find a different job. "I don't think it's necessary to cause such a big stir," he says. "It's quite simple: you tolerate it or quit. It's not the US; it's hard to quarrel with officials in China. You'll never win."
He gestures to his prison-cum-school canteen-style metal tray, which is loaded with wonderfully garlic-seeped pork, chicken, and shredded potato. "Having adequate food to eat is enough," he says.
Additional reporting by Cissy Young. This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in June, 2015.