Riding Motorcycles in China
I had never ridden a motorcycle until I came to China in 2006. This is probably why I crashed into a shop door within three days of buying my first motorcycle. I survived but the door did not. I had to pay 300 RMB to have it repaired. This early negative experience, however, did not dampen my enthusiasm for riding motorcycles in China and 6 months later I completed a lone 2000 KM motorcycle journey through Central China which took me through large cities and the open countryside.
I suppose that a disclaimer is needed before I continue writing this article. Riding a motorcycle in China is dangerous. But you are going to do it anyway, right? Just make sure that you understand the risks: other vehicles, drivers who completely disregard traffic rules,animals,bad road conditions, crazy bicyclists, rogue policemen. Driving a motorcycle can be extremely exhilirating in China but when something goes wrong there can be very serious consequences.
I purchased my motorcycle at a market near the center of town. My Chinese friends helped me bargain and I was able to buy a brand new 150 cc motorcycle for about 300 US dollars. I was too nervous to drive it home on the day that I purchased it so I asked one of my friends to deliver it to my apartment. I spent the next week driving up and down my small street as I practiced switching gears and using the accelerator.
In China, like many other countries, a motorcycle driver must register with the local government. A Chinese identification card is needed to complete this process. One of my friends went with me and we were able to use his card without any problem. The registration fee of a few hundred Chinese yuan included an insurance policy that would protect me in the event that I accidentally injured someone or destroyed another vehicle.
As I grew more and more confident on my motorcycle, I took it longer and longer distances. The convenience of not having to wait for buses or pay for expensive taxi rides far outweighed the trouble of parking my motorcycle and securing it. For about US $1.50 worth of gas, I could travel for 130 Kilometers before having to refill the tank.
As the months went by, I became more accustomed to the “rules of the road” in my town. Motorcyclists and bicyclists could do as they pleased while cars had to pay more attention to traffic lights and lanes. If a road was blocked, it was perfectly acceptable for a motorcyclist to drive up on a sidewalk or maneuver in between cars. Motorcycles could also be parked virtually anywhere including on the side of streets or even on a sidewalk.
It was in 2006 that I felt comfortable enough with my motorcycle to take a longer trip. I began planning a 7 day trip that would take me through Wudang Shang in Hubei, up to Xian in Shanxii Province then over to Shaolin Temple in Henan Province. There were no English maps available in my town so I asked a Chinese friend to help me translate the names of the cities. I put numbers by the major cities that I would be passing through and then I entered these numbers (along with their coordinates) into my GPS. I also added the name of the city in English.
I left one early morning in May with nothing but a duffel bag strapped on the back of my bike. The first leg of my trip was a twelve hour journey to Wudang Shan, the birthplace of Taoism in China. A day later, I rode 13 more hours to the ancient city of Xian, where I visited the world famous Terracotta Warriors. It was not long before I was back on my bike again this time driving 11 hours to spend some time at Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, the birthplace of Chinese Kungfu. Altogether, I spent more than 50 hours driving and traveled well over 2000 Kilometers.
My only encounter with the Chinese police occurred on the first leg of this long trip. A policeman was standing in the middle of the road in front of a brick factory randomly pulling over vehicles. He motioned for me to pull over; I was wearing my helmet so I do not think that he realized at first that I was a foreigner. He was friendly but even with my limited Chinese, I could clearly understand what he wanted me to show him. All drivers in China are supposed to have a valid Chinese driver’s license. I did not have one; all I had was my international license. So, I did what I have done before in other countries when I knew that I needed to get out of a situation. I played dumb; I simply stood there and smiled. After about 5 minutes, he got tired of trying to make me understand what he wanted and waved me through. I was very greatful because I realized that he could very well have confiscated my motorcycle.
Other than a flat tire and a minor brake problem, the rest of my motorcycle trip through China was fairly uneventful. A gas station fixed my flat tire for free and the repairs to my brakes costed less than 10 RMB. Everywhere I went, people were extremely friendly and helped me as much as they could.
However, as I traveled I did pick up on a few tips that might be helpful to some of you who are planning on riding motorcycles in China.
- –Some cities do not allow motorcycles to operate. Make sure you find out about bans in the areas that you are traveling to.
- –It is very important to have a front wheel lock on your bike as well as some sort of metal locking device on the back wheel.
- –Always lock your bike no matter where you are or what you are doing. I have had countless Chinese and American friends lose their bikes because of carelessness.
- –Be aggressive but defensive when driving in China. Other vehicles will often stop suddenly in front of you or pull out and cut you off. Be especially wary of taxies.
- –Do not get angry if you are cutoff by someone. Bad driving is apart of Chinese culture and if you plan to drive a motorcycle you will just have to get used to this fact. I have rarely seen examples of “road rage” in China other than incessant pounding on horns
- –Be especially careful of people when you are driving. Many cities in China have severe consequences (at least monetarily) for injuring pedestrians. Unlike other countries where pedestrians can sometimes be faulted, the driver is always at fault in China.
I had a bike for nine months in China and I had relatively few problems. I was sideswiped by a taxi driver and did crash into a door but I escaped serious injury. Multiple attempts were made to steal my bike but because of the locking mechanisms that I used, the attempts were unsuccessful. I would probably never drive a motorcycle again in China unless I had to because of the risk. For those nine months, I really did need a motorcycle and I do not regret the time I spent driving. But driving a motorcycle in China should only be done by responsible people who have enough common sense to operate a motor vehicle safely. If that is you then go for it! But please be careful and understand that the risk is great.