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Zen and the Chinese art of motorcycle driving

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One cloudless August day in 1998, I rented a bicycle and rode straight through the heart of central Beijing. It was the kind of day China's capital never sees anymore — expansive blue skies, crisp, clean morning air and virtually empty city roads.

I cruised alongside hundreds of other riders crowded into bike lanes nearly as wide as the adjacent avenues. Bicycles dominated the city, outnumbering vehicles ten to one, with most being one variation or another of the classic Flying Pigeon. The riders all moved together in improbable synchronicity, like a shimmering shoal of fish. The lanes were extremely crowded but it felt as if the shoal carried me along and I effortlessly kept pace with everyone else, propelled by the exhilaration of facing my first day in China.

Fast forward to now, after more than 16 years in the country, and I struggle to find ways to keep that exhilaration alive. These days I ride my off-road motorcycle through the streets of Kunming trying my hardest not to flip the bird at every driver that gets in my way. This year, after a decade and a half of self-control, I finally let it fly. I took my right hand off the throttle, thrust my upraised fist toward the offending driver and extended my middle finger to the sky.

I was full of rage and hoped to provoke the same rage in the driver. I wanted to ruin his drive as he had ruined mine. Instead, the driver lifted his index finger, pointed at me and smiled. I could see him mouth two words to his friend in the passenger seat. "Kan! Laowai!" — Look! Foreigner!

I bought my first motorcycle in 2002 when I lived in Dali. I had never even ridden one before, but I planned a solo road trip north along the borders of Myanmar and Tibet. I didn't have any idea what to expect, even strapping a machete to the side of my saddle just in case a band of ruffians threatened trouble. I never needed the weapon.

The countryside roads weren't without their dangers. Tractors tore out from side roads without warning. Dogs, chickens and even children seemed to appear out of nowhere. But obstacles aside, I fell in love with China's countryside and my mind raced with ideas of where to ride to next. With one twist of the throttle I was off to new adventures, making up songs and singing them as loud as I could over the roar of the engine.

But now, after more than a decade of driving in Kunming, I have been transformed. In place of gleeful songs, only obscenities broadcast from my helmet. I tear through the city as if I'm the Road Warrior on the run from murderous bandits. I honk my horn at every intersection as a warning to anyone who dares cross my path. Traffic rules mean little and courtesy even less. At times I feel like the Hulk — usually I'm the mild-mannered Bruce Banner, but with a spark of the ignition, the beast is unleashed.

In the past, I always obeyed traffic rules. I never got a ticket, made sure to yield the right of way and rarely honked my horn. More importantly I never lost my cool. Why then am I now so tempted to throttle so many that cross my path on the city roads? Or perhaps a more intriguing question is: Why am I becoming more and more like the very drivers I detest?

With a traffic culture that favors the aggressive and impatient, it is easy to blame everyone else for turning me into this creature. It is actually more dangerous being a law-abiding driver than an aggressive and selfish one. If you go too slow or stop for a crossing pedestrian, you might end up getting rammed from behind. And on a motorcycle, the safest place to be is out in front of all the traffic. Speeding or running a red light is sometimes the best way to stay out of harm's way. On China's roads, it seems that only the strong survive. Unfortunately, this is an attitude that derails any prospect of efficient traffic.

There are very few parts of the world outside of China that have ever seen such an immediate growth in urban traffic. Over the last decade, the number of cars on the roads in cities like Kunming has increased more than tenfold. Urban planners and law enforcement have struggled to adjust. The roads have widened and the laws continually change, but cities need more than just the stroke of a pen to adapt. Efficient traffic systems can't just be instituted. They are cultural and evolve over time.

The safety of everyone on the road is best guarded when cars yield to motorcycles, motorcycles to bicycles, and bicycles to pedestrians. But the pecking order has been lost and so too has any proper 'right-of-way' mentality. Instead, roads in China are often plagued by many who cling to a sense of entitlement. Motorists feel as if they have earned the right of way just by the very purchase of an automobile. And those who can afford even more expensive cars feel that much more entitled. They drive brand new black BMWs, flashing their brights and honking their horns warning everyone ahead – 'VIP coming through!'

Every time I mount my motorcycle, I do so knowing exactly what to expect. I know that someone will cut me off. I know that an electric scooter will dangerously tear through a red light right as I cross an intersection. I know that some fancy car behind me will honk its horn, urging me to acknowledge his self-importance. So why should I let it surprise me or stir my fury when I know exactly what is likely to happen? Expecting the worst is the best way to avoid the worst. And it should be a lot harder to get angry when I know what is coming.

China has changed at a rate never seen before at any point in time anywhere else on the planet. Everyone is racing to find their place in society, making sure that they don't get left behind. Traffic culture is only one manifestation of this, and it is constantly evolving. Today's traffic might be closer to a frenzy of sharks than a shoal of fish, but I'll be better off passively following the current than angrily fighting against it.

After the middle finger incident earlier this year, I decided that before expecting change from any of the others sharing the road with me, I needed to at least be more responsible for myself. I've stopped expecting everything to fix itself all at once, and I try my best to be a part of the evolution by incorporating a little more common courtesy into my daily drives. I am increasingly amazed by how much I receive in return.

This doesn't mean that I don't still curse motorists that cross me from time to time, and it certainly doesn't mean that I am now a perfectly patient driver. But the next time I let the middle finger fly free, I'll at least try to do it with a smile.

Images: Yereth Jansen

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Slamming your hand on the hood is an effective method to deal with pricks in expensive cars. It makes them so furious but there's no way they can catch you as you slip away like an eel among the shoal of two-wheelers.

BMWs top my ahole list. Unsurprisingly, in both USA and China.

people reveal their true natures by the way they drive.

Driving brings out one side of peoples nature.

so much for your Zen, Colin :)

车让摩托让单车让行人 - then all will be good

My sympathies, Colin. Beijing by bike was wonderful in 1986, and in Kunming not all that long ago, as you remember.
@bluppfisk: I sympathize too, but I'm not sure if increasing the aggression level is going to help, whether deserved or not.

has anyone else read Herbery Allen Giles books? he has an interesting analysis of traffic culture 100 years ago. everyone gives way to the man with the load. its one of the very few things that have changed since he wrote his books.

The Aholes in the "Don't Touch Me" vehicles, especially with white license plates (most likely fake) are a fact of life that none of us are going to individually alter.

My understanding of the history of car culture is that the U.S. Had similar issues with incompetent drivers in the post-WWII period when many first time buyers bought cars. The problem is exacerbated in China because so many new drivers have not grown up in motor vehicles and don't have a good sense of the time/speed/distance sensibilities of an automobile vs a bike.
Like so many other things it will evolve and (hopefully) improve over time.

As the title of your article indicates, the whole thing is a mind over matter issue. Try to do your best to let the craziness wash over you and remind yourself of how wonderful it is to be in Kunming and Yunnan. I, for one, miss it terribly, growing pains and all.

I intentionally crashed my e-bike into the side of a car that pulled up without looking onto the bike lane. Then I showered him with expletives. Also slapped the hood of a few cars on Xuefu lu that were in the bike lane and trying to get past the little bus stop. It may not help but it feels so sweet.

Some day I want to be brave enough like that foreigner in Beijing who just stopped his bike in front of a car in the bike lane and forced the driver to reverse out.

I may have actually flipped drivers off in almost every province. The funniest thing, which you mention, is watching the expressions of those on the receiving end. Most of the time they don't even realize they've done something wrong and so just look genuinely surprised.

Once in Tibet, I was stopped at a checkpoint with a driver that had previously cut me off on a blind turn at high speeds on a mountain road earlier on. I walked over to him in my full riding gear, front of the helmet flipped up, and confronted him about it. He was so surprised to be on the receiving end of a scolding from a foreigner on a motorcycle that he didn't know what to say. When I asked why he passed me on the blind turn, he just said, wide eyed, 'bu zhi dao' 'I don't know." After a bit more scolding I eventually turned to walk away and head back to my bike. At this point the driver finally seemed to have gathered his wits about him and he yelled back at me, "You were going too fast!" to which I responded "YOU passed ME!" and that was the end of that.

Nice write up. Thanks for sharing!

Keep the paint side up and the rubber on the road ;)

@bluppfisk, you might consider returning to your country of origin.


Great article, thanks Colin. I think there are a couple of points worth making. First of all, traffic conditions in China are appalling, not just to foreigners, but to every sensible Chinese person as well. Second, having ridden with horrible drivers (in cars, trucks, and buses, etc.), I find that most, if not all, horrible drivers are not maliciously - or even intentionally - bad at driving. It is easy to ascribe malice or other negative motives to those (especially driving expensive cars), but more often than not, I find that their poor driving is probably a product of ignorance and stubbornness more than anything else. That certainly isn't an excuse, but I think should provide some context, and perhaps some cause for restraint. I have several years of personal experience driving in China, and have had my fair share of road rage revenge fantasies, but in the end, given that as individuals we are essentially powerless to change the driving culture of China, the most practical solution, as Colin pointed out, is probably to try to change our own attitudes.

Reading your excellent article in neighbouring Phnom Penh. Suggest you come over for some biking lessons on how to flow purposefully through chaos. It actually not that much different in the rest of Asia, except for the growing aggressiveness of drivers, that frightening unique in China.

I would say that, apparently, the growing aggressiveness of some foreigners is also a problem, at least for the foreigners.

I don't like the Hollywood happy ending to this article. Road rage is a serious problem.

Rule number one here in China is everyone in front of you has the right of way. I don't care who it is whether it be an aggressive mother shoving people out of the way with her baby stroller or an 18-wheeler pulling out into ongoing traffic with horn at full tilt. Number two is if it weren't for cars, the taxes on cars, and the aholes that pay gas taxes to drive them, there wouldn't be the roads for us to get upset with them in the first place. Finally, I have seen many fights between cars and motorcycles. In my lifetime, the car has won every single battle. Don't push it.

One more thing. The Chinese usually drive relatively slowly. This one aspect of their driving culture is the key to survival on the road in any culture. It makes bad decisions avoid becoming fatal ones.

Very good article (:

True, the Chinese do drive relatively slowly and I find it's only in the cities, mainly bigger cities where drivers can be quite aggressive. Out of the highways it's a doodle though, especially compared to Thailand where you generally have higher traffic volumes and drivers who drive at much higher speeds.

*Out ON the highways

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