Cultural Differences Edition 4
In this post Dan covers public transport, and driving!
Whether you are a pedestrian, a passenger, or sat behind the wheel, the road is a challenging place! Observing the road, you will get the impression that if there are any rules, they’re certainly not being enforced. Unpredictable, even suicidal behaviour behind the wheel is common. Of course there are rules governing the chaos and people do generally avoid hitting each other. A small but growing number of foreigners do drive in China and if you opt to join that intrepid band you need to be able to adapt to the Chinese style of driving.
The Chinese approach to queuing is very similar to their approach to driving. Everybody jostles to get ahead, but despite this road rage is relatively uncommon, it’s just accepted. The cardinal rule governing all of this is ‘first is right’. Any vehicle with a slight lead in position or access to a gap before another vehicle, no matter how small, has de-facto right of way.
When merging or changing lanes drivers will not yield to traffic already underway and will often manoeuvre without visually checking their surroundings or signalling. If you don’t force the gap you will never get anywhere. Cutting people off, swerving into the oncoming lane, running red lights, driving on the shoulder, or in a fenced-off bicycle lane, or the wrong way down a divided highway are all fine as long as they keep you moving in the right general direction and do not cause an immediate accident!
Car-pedestrian relations in China are complex. If you take the shoelace express your main concern will be that painted cross walks are for display only and do not actually demarcate a ‘pedestrian protected’ area. You will often see cars pushing through busy crossings with those on foot expecting cars to try and force their way through. If you are standing at a crossing do not expect an oncoming car to yield for you. They will consider that they have the right of way and it’s you that needs to wait!
Many foreigners teaching in China purchase electric scooters because they are cheap, easy to maintain and crucially, in many cities, are licensed as bicycles and therefore do not require a full driving licence to ride, thus avoiding the hassle of acquiring a Chinese drivers licence. While great for their ability to use cycle lanes and pavements, be careful as in some cities they are banned and will be confiscated by the police. From a pedestrian’s perspective their quietness can be both a blessing and a curse. They are often driven on the pavement but you won’t hear them coming.
For other road users the main issue that arises is that people rarely use their headlights when driving at night in order to save battery life – very sensible… If you do purchase one invest in good locks as they are a popular target for thieves, and store the battery at home when the bike’s not in use as these can also be stolen. The best option, if the management of the building you live in allows it, is to store your bike indoors overnight.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
China is a beautiful, vast and endlessly fascinating land with such rich cultural and geographic variety that to not make every effort to experience it first hand is almost criminal. Long distance travel is cheap, convenient and so much fun!
China’s transport infrastructure is hugely impressive in its coverage and there is barely a corner of the country that you can’t reach by some combination of long distance bus, train and boat. Bus and train ticket prices are cheap compared to those in Europe allowing you to travel great distances at modest expense. For long journeys you can usually find a sleeper bus or train so you can travel overnight in relative comfort. Most Chinese rely on public transport to get around and provision reflects this with many travel options available that suit a range of budgets.
It is not without its challenges though. Delays are commonplace and can be lengthy, and the quality and cleanliness of older trains and buses can be alarming. In more remote and impoverished regions, the roads quickly deteriorate. Logic dictates that bus drivers would be some of the most careful drivers as they are carrying passengers, but in practice this is not the case.
Other issues worth noting include the obviously vast distances and long travel times. If you are unable to get a ticket for a sleeper seat (which is very possible during the holidays!) a 16-hour bus journey can be quite draining. The sheer number of people who use public transport during the holidays means demand for tickets is huge and cabins quickly become jam packed with people and their detritus.
You could always fly. Its relatively affordable and domestic carriers fly to a huge range of destinations, but Chinese airlines are some of the worst offenders when it comes to delays and cancellations. Around 80% of China’s airspace is restricted to military use.
In my experience, the best way to travel China and see it is on the ground. Flying robs you of the sense of adventure and accomplishment you might get otherwise. Travelling out of the cities rewards you with incredible varied scenery and while it might be hard going at times it’s an essential part of the Chinese experience, keeping you down in the thick of things, in touch with China at its most genuine.
Read the rest of our Cultural Differences Guide here.