On the road in China

Riding in China is like no where else in the world. Drivers here are dangerous and scary. Most are first-generation drivers and have no formal training. A one-word description of them – oblivious. Unaware of others on the road, ignorant or uncaring of traffic laws, impatient, and prone to random behavior. We honk our horn when approaching, overtaking, going into blind curves or driving through a town. They act like they are the only ones using the road. There are several traffic camera videos on YouTube showing their prowess.

The only traffic law is “size matters.” If you are bigger, then you own the right of way. A donkey cart passing a pedestrian, is being passed by a tractor, who in turn is being passed by a truck. They see our bright driving lights, but know that we are smaller and expect us to get out of their way. In USA we often flash our headlights indicating that it’s OK for others to pull out. Here it means that they are coming through and to get out of the way.

Road surfaces in China are changeable. One minute you’re riding down a beautiful concrete four-lane highway and suddenly, your two lanes disappear into gravel with no warning. Potholes that would swallow a microwave oven appear in an otherwise pristine surface.  Road construction is everywhere and causes huge backups. Whenever there is a slowdown, every vehicle tries to get through any space available. Most lane closures are unregulated, so the only traffic law takes effect, size matters. When the truck gets stuck, everybody from both directions tries to squeeze past. Our bikes take less room than a car, but our side cases make us wider than a scooter. We push cars out of the way so we can get through and another car squirts in and gets stuck.

That said, motorcycle touring here is fabulous.

Scooters are the primary means of transportation for most families. Multiple occupancy is commonplace. Like other Chinese drivers, riders pull out with no regard for others, do U-turns in the middle of the street, and stop for no apparent reason. China’s booming economy allows common people to buy more scooters. Since my first visit in 1988, scooters outnumber bicycles.

Private cars used to be rare here. Our visit  in 2006 showed a dramatic increase of autos. We were told that SARS had convinced those who could afford it, to buy a car to be isolated from others. Since then the number of cars have increased by orders of magnitude. In 1988 all we saw were Czech Skodas, VWs and Mercedes. Now we see Bentleys,  BMWs and Buicks. Yes statesiders, Buick is a prestige brand here. GM started building them here after WW II in Shanghai and even has a model named after the city. We also seen a number of Cadillac CVS sedans. If I had to drive Chinese roads regularly, my choice would be a Hummer with a 50-caliber machine gun.

Twenty-two-wheeled semi-trailers are very common. In large ten-wheeled trucks, the first two set of wheels turn in unison. Fortunately, the country has built many new elevated expressways. Motorcycles are not allowed on them, but we’re happy that most trucks and cars are up there. Most highway funds are spent on new construction, which makes maintenance on the old major roads spotty.


China’s government knows the drivers here are bad. To reduce severity of accidents, they crack down on speeding. It seems to be the only traffic law enforced. Police can’t be everywhere, but traffic cameras are. They sense our speed and take our picture. Since we’re foreigners, we’ll be gone by the time they’re processed.


Return of the topes. Where there are no cameras, topes adorn the road like Latin America. Rubber and concrete speed bumps are in places that seem to make no sense. Twenty-foot long sections of road are covered with rocks in the cement tat stick out about an inch. On one side, stones in rows a couple of inches apart and on the other it seems just scattered.


Expressways are often built over existing roads. Until completed our bikes can use them. Big cars will often speed up to pass us and pull up along side to take our picture. Then slow down so we pass them so the driver can take our picture. After that they often they just recede into the horizon.


Everything belongs to the people in China, so they feel that they can use roads for whatever purpose suits them. If they’re building a house, loads of bricks will be dumped on the road as the mason’s stockpile. Driveway construction means sand and concrete are dumped on the road to be mixed and poured. Farmers spread their wheat on the pavement so passing trucks, cars and motorcycles will run over it to separate the grain from the chaff. Tricky when we’re entering a blind right hand turn! When your truck breaks down, just chock the wheels with rocks, take off the oil pan and rebuild the engine right there. When finished they just pull away, leaving the six-pack sized stones in the road.

We are happy to have survived on Chinese roads. One car struck me while I was waiting for a traffic light and knocked me down into the adjacent lane. The driver in that lane kept moving forward pinning me against her bumper. Another rider was forced off the road by a passing truck. Gunter was overtaking a car and for unknown reasons the driver pulled into him and knocked him into a utility pole. Cathy provides details in our daily post. Diesel fuel spills took down three other bikes and construction surfaces a couple more. We will think long and hard about ever riding here again.

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