Regular contributor Matt Bowen continues with his story of himself and his dilapidated motor bike driving around the wild and bad lands of North Western China.
First part here
Part 2: Rules of the road
The idea came to me when driving on an organized trip up near the Mongolian border with some fellow adventurers; the idle rich of Baotou, who could afford BMW motorcycles and slick new Yamaha and Honda sport bikes. It was a 2 day one night affair, a dozen motorcycles followed by a rented bus full of gear, food and the women, ending at a Chinese-Mongolian camping area 20 clicks south of the Mongolian border in the desert. The trip there was uneventful aside from the complaints of my ‘nouveau riche’ traveling companions that my bike was too “farmer” for them being that it was made in China and not Japan or Germany and that it topped out at 70km/h.
I had met these other adventurers at a local outdoor gear shop where they had a motorcycle/hiking/camping club. I had been in China for just over a year and I had not heard or seen anyone interested in these sorts of things so I was excited to join their club. They were more than welcoming though quite a lot of the members were only there to show off their expensive camping/outdoor gear, sometimes in a very aggressive way, an attitude that I found to be quite pervasive – and extremely irritating – in China. Camping seemed more like a materialistic competition rather than a hobby, though thankfully it was usually only the men who were this way,.
During the drive up to the Mongolian border we passed through a few small towns, and at one of the towns the police stopped us and wanted to check our ID cards and passports. There was a brief argument and eventually the police let us pass, and due to my limited Chinese vocabulary I was unsure of what the problem was. At the time I did not have a drivers license and my motorcycle was registered in the name of one of my students.
Before I came to China in 2003 I can honestly say that I was expecting a more authoritarian, more strictly controlled place. I was expecting constant checkpoints, and a heavy police/military presence and though it is possible to see police everywhere in China, most of them are traffic police or Cheng Guan who give off the distinct impression that they are unconcerned with enforcing any laws, especially in Baotou where it is common to see police drift through red lights at about 10kms/h while on the phone with their lights on. My first impression of China when I arrived in Guangzhou, a city of 15 million people, was complete chaos. Without any order whatsoever.
My first solo attempt at crossing a road was unsuccessful. I was forced to stand beside an old man while he crossed. I quickly learned that the only traffic rule universally applied was that you never make eye contact with larger vehicles. If you do you will never step off the curb on a busy street. You simply look in the direction you are walking and go, it forces the driver of the passing car to either stop for you or run you over, and since running someone over in broad daylight is considered bad form in China, people generally don’t do it. (At night this rule changes to brightness of headlights; the brighter light has the right of way which of course leads to “brightness war”, where everyone drives around with their high beams on. I do not recommend driving a motorcycle at night. No, I do not recommend that at all.)
The same principle applies to driving a motorcycle. But since a motorcycle is larger than bicycles and pedestrians, it is them who must avoid your gaze, while you avoid the gaze of car drivers. This rule is so deeply engrained in China that even if you are driving 100km’s/h and mistakenly make eye contact with the driver of a car that is in front of you waiting to turn, he/she will turn out in front of you. This happened to me once directly after buying my motorcycle and it made a deep impression on me. I realized that there is no special caveat for speed and ignoring the eye contact rule can kill. When it happened to me I was so shook up that I chased the driver down and asked him if he was actually trying to kill me. His genuine look of confusion was instructive and it was there at the side of the road that I realized that I could die if I didn’t follow the eye contact rule.
Part three coming soon…………………………..
First part here
Twitter: Matt Bowen @mattbowen78