Riding in China - FAQ

1) What are the rules for riding in China?

2) Hey, I live in China and I’d like to ride.  What do I need to do?

3) Hey, I live in China and I’ve never ridden before but I’d like to ride.   Do you think that’s a good idea?

4)I have no interest in living in China but would like to have a riding adventure there.  What are my options?

5) What about bicycles and traveling by bicycle?

6) What’s the deal with the border crossings?

 7) What are the traffic conditions like in China?

8) I've got a question that I'd like to ask and have it added to the FAQ. What can I do?

1) What are the rules for riding in China?

This question has an ever changing and allusive answer.  Generally, I would say that people are friendly and not very camera shy which makes China a good motographic destination.  If you’re not paying mad money to import your bike to China then be prepared to ride smaller bikes at slower speeds. 

In many cities, roads in China are not well maintained and each time it rains a wonderfully slimy black layer of pollution can hide the white lines on the road and effectively turn them into oil slicks.  Outside the cities you can experience everything from silky smooth brand new sealed pavement to some the hardest but most rewarding times of your life. Perhaps the best thing I could advise here is to be extremely careful and carry an ever vigilant awareness of traffic, weather, roads, people and - most importantly - yourself.

2) Hey, I live in China and I’d like to ride.  What do I need to do?

There are currently two ways to ride in China; legally and illegally.  Legally, to operate any motor vehicle in China requires a certified Chinese license.  China does NOT recognize international driver’s licenses and should you want to be licensed you should contact your local Motor Vehicles department and go through the correct circus ac….uh, I mean procedures.  Each province in China has its own requirements and standards to meet before being issued a license.

In the Sichuan province there is no practical test but you need to have your passport and native license translated and certified.  Finally, as they have not developed or cared to make an English version, you need to take a Chinese language touch-screen computer test.  As a result, you also need to have a Chinese friend who has already received their license to come with you to take the test.  Only scores above 90% pass but that’s not so bad because the book they give you to study is, in fact, the exact questions and answers of the official test.

Most foreigners who live and ride in China live in or near Beijing, Guangdong or Shanghai.  These highly developed cities already have experience dealing with foreigners and may have quite simple and clear guidelines for getting your license and insurance.  Other cities, especially in the west of China, may not have this same level of experience and if you’re one of the first few in an area to get a foreigner’s license you may have use a little more gesticulation and insistence to get it done.  Regardless, this is by FAR the way I suggest you ride in China but that’s not always an option if you don’t have a one year work, business or student visa. If you’re only going to travel in China, the considerations are rather different.

3) Hey, I live in China and I’ve never ridden before but I’d like to ride.   Do you think that’s a good idea?

Generally, no.  Each person is different about riding and certain people may naturally have the necessary qualities to safely learn how to ride in China.  I absolutely DO NOT recommend learning to ride in China unless you have a high level of self-control, are committed to riding in the most serious of manner and willing to develop slowly and cautiously.  If you still want to try anyway, it’s your choice.  It’s your life and death. 

I’ve seen enough people’s heads bleeding out their ears or trapped underneath truck tires to know I don’t want that to happen to me.  And yes, people here will kill you and run away without thinking twice.  Actually, just recently a Chinese truck driver got arrested because he hit a child on the road, got out to see how he was and found he was not dead.  Most of us would choose to get the child some help but, so the driver could avoid the insurance hassles, he ran over the kid a second time and tried to escape. It’s a jungle out there.

Constant Awareness. All the Time.

4) I have no interest in living in China but I would like to have a riding adventure there.  What are my options?

Travel in China by motorcycle is entirely possible and every year I meet more and more people who choose to see China this way.  Some get a month of stay, buy a cheap bike, ride it for two weeks and sell it before they leave. For about 400USD you can buy a used 150cc motorcycle in decent condition which can take you further than you may think.  The benefit of this is that used bikes in China keep their plates and registration which provides at least some form of documentation should you be stopped.  If you want to experience the massive, beautiful and underappreciated western China you will certainly get stopped. 

As a foreigner, you can ride without a license in China but I believe it’s good to show that you’re at least trying to do something in the proper manner.  Often a “ting bu dong” (I don’t understand Chinese) is enough for a cop to say “suan le” (forget it) but, like many things in China, what actually happens is a toss of the dice.   Speaking very generally, I would say that you could feel safe riding in China and run an extremely small chance of having someone confiscate your wheels or take you into custody.

Besides the aforementioned methods of riding in China you can also go as part of a group package which will take care of everything for you.  In addition to being on a relatively fixed schedule these trips are quite expensive.  I’ve only seen a few organized tour groups of foreigners on the road but as the roads develop so will this arm of the tourism industry.  I have no experience with motorcycle tour groups but I’m sure a quick search of the Internet would likely turn up several sites selling packages in China.

5) What about bicycles and traveling by bicycle?

Actually, one feature I love most about the Chinese culture is their love of long-distance bicycling enjoyed by both men and women.  Also, in China you will find a fair amount of international cyclists from Germany, England, France, Japan and many other places.  Of course cycling is its own brand of travel but I want to add that there is a great deal of support for the cycling community in China.  Quite good modern bicycles are relatively inexpensive in China and can be rented in many places. Although I’m not currently involved in long-distance cycling, I’ve always felt a certain admiration of cyclists touring great distances under their own power and often stop to assist or talk with these two-wheeled brothers and sisters - after all, we share basically the same concerns.

6) What’s the deal with border crossings?

I think this must be one of the most commonly asked questions in the international traveling community whether on motorcycle or not. Naturally, it depends on the political circumstances of where you are. We all know this should be a simple process but unfortunately its not and the reasons for complications are numerous and almost all stupid.  I’ve gotten emails from people stuck at borders asking for letters of invitations and I’ve known people who have been able to enter and leave China with no Carnet or any other official documentation. 

Ultimately, I think you shouldn’t worry too much and give it a try.  Don’t let it effect your ride too much. Be sure to have a contingency plan and, more importantly, attitude if they turn you around.  Finally, while you should smile and be polite, DO NOT believe anything they tell you until it actually happens.

7) What are the traffic conditions like in China?

In China, different rules apply to traffic within and outside cities.  Most large cities restrict riding within what they call “ring roads” like beltways in the US.  Usually denoted as first, second, third, etc. rings roads local laws in large cities usually prohibit riding inside second or third ring roads; they claim it’s for noise and pollution.

Outside of cities, the attitude is much more relaxed but the drivers can be much more aggressive and try as hard as they can to maintain higher (read as, dangerous) speeds.

No matter where you are though, the larger the vehicle the more likely they are to play the “I could crush you and not even feel it” card.  In order of mass I’ll comment on a few vehicle types.


Trucks - near cities are often poorly maintained and over loaded carrying extremely dangerous drivers.  In contrast, out in the very remote regions of China, they can be quite helpful and friendly.  The long distance drivers have to carry large loads over unbelievable terrain in old and tired trucks.  It’s very common to see parts splayed out all over the road as the crew repair their dogged engines brakes, transmissions and axels.  These guys often live and die by the road.


Busses and Vans - I think busses are the worst and there are many varieties of them in China.  City busses kill and injure people daily and have little to no problem pushing you aside.  Long distance tourist buses are continually being updated, which is good, but the drivers remain aggressive, narrow minded and – you’d think - suicidal, which makes me happy I have my own wheels.  They will also likely kill you and run off so I always give them plenty of room and am especially careful of staying out of their blind spots as they are prone to make erratic direction changes.  Vans, follow much the same suite but are seen primarily in cities.  Out on the highways it’s mostly trucks and full size busses.


Passenger cars and Taxis – Every more and more passenger cars pop up in China to contribute their fare share of pollution, danger and insanity.  It’s worth mentioning that I feel the current standards of driver training and testing is unbelievably poor.  Unlike many western countries that culturally developed with automobiles over the past 80 -90 years, China is receiving this glut of modern machinery in only the past 10 or so years and the effects are obvious.  The driver training courses here lack real instruction and, like much of the education system, are geared towards passing the driving exam instead of really learning how to drive.  As a result, it appears to me that people treat cars like bicycles and just weave in and out of wherever they can fit in a “me first” fashion.  Depending on where you go, it’s almost totally unorganized and like watching fish navigate a stream.  At night streets, often insufficiently lit, hide group of people walking down the road wearing all black or dark grey and in rain, fog or smog are impossible to see.  According to chinadaily.com 300 people die each day in China which I think must be a very optimistic figure.

There’s much I could say about this topic but I’ll just add that the three most dangerous and negligent passenger car drivers in China are taxis, black Volkswagon Santantas (a popular and very successful model of VW), as well as official vehicles.   Please consider paying more than usual attention to these three particular hazards.

China Daily Article Link


Tractors and animal carts – The tractors in China are nothing to be worried about as their slow and usually predictable tracks makes them easy to deal with.   The simple and crude tractors in China make a great “Thumpy thumpy thumpy” sound and usually drivers are happy to give you a wave and smile.


Motorcycles (two and three wheeled) – It’s not hard to understand that motorcycles and bicycles don’t have the same protection as their larger, slower and less efficient caged counter-parts and as a result most riders I have encountered are quite conscientious.  The biggest problem is many have the bad habit of simply shooting out onto the road and not first checking traffic.  As many times that I’ve seen it, I still don’t understand.  Tibetans are usually helpful, if not a little crazy, riders but often quite skilled and have rugged wild-west like demeanors.


Bicycles and pedestrians – By far the most common road hazards in China are bicycles and pedestrians.  In regards to bicycles, many are poorly maintained and heavily overloaded.  In some cities it’s common to see two or three people on a 15-20 year old bicycle.  If it’s not people, bicycles bear their fair share of the load in moving very large containers of goods - oils, fruits, vegetables and water barrels for example. Even if they were properly maintained, I’m not so sure that would change much.  Because many people don’t ride in straight lines and choose not to look at traffic or listen to MP3 players, casual riders are often unpredictable and tend to be a common party in traffic accidents.  Pedestrians are similar in terms of traffic behavior but at least are smaller in size and slightly more difficult to hit.


Incliment weather exponentially exacerbates these problems.  If you include reduced visibility, slick poorly designed and maintained roads, underpowered head lights and low light you’re asking for it.  Outside cities or in poorly lit areas, driving or riding in China at night is extremely, I repeat, extremely dangerous and to be avoided as much as possible. 

8) Questions and Feedback -- If you have any comments or questions you would like to add to this section please let me know and I’ll update it as soon as possible. 

Although riding in China is legally and practically complicated the opportunity to explore and discover the unseen regions of this beautiful and truly massive country are well worth the efforts.  Whatever or wherever you ride in China or the world, please use utmost caution while operating any vehicle at speed so you may once again safely arrive at your final destination - home.