Tuesday, September 11, 2018

5 Horrible Mistakes You Can Make When Driving In China

Dora :)
It’s another hot, muggy night in Beijing, China, and I’m roasting in the backseat fanning myself while Dora crawls all over me impatiently waiting for her dad to get us home. We’ve just spent four hours in Beijing’s largest mall in Haidian District, a few miles north of our home. It shouldn’t have taken us too long to get home, but as I had learned, commuting in China is a nightmare.

One-hundred-degree weather for another day left the night still feeling sticky with humidity and made the air thick. Coughing every once in a while didn’t help as it took too much energy. All my remaining strength was tapped long before I arrived at the mall. Dora, on the other hand, was as energetic as a cat high on catnip. I don’t know where she gets all her energy.

As my host mom suggested we take a short break and shop at a 7 Eleven, I gladly bought enough chocolate to last me through the apocalypse. I even bought some Coca-Cola in these fancy cans costing about three times as much as they are in the United States. Yes, I spent money on the important stuff. Chocolate was nearly nonexistent in Beijing and I needed my chocolate! Seven-dollar chocolate bar—here’s my money!

Our shopping trip ended with six bags full of “trash” food (as my host mom likes to call the food we call junk food). Once we got home, we were going to indulge in the “trash” food and watch American TV shows until the wee hours of the morning. It was a Friday, after all, and we had a long weekend planned.

Walking back with six bags full to the top with “trash” food entailed several people giving us the “look” of disapproval, but I could’ve cared less. Throwing the bags into the trunk and squishing myself into the back seat with Dora was the plan, but my host dad had other plans for me.

Yes. I was given the keys. The keys to the car! I was going to drive in Beijing. Dora had suggested it earlier that week and my host dad said he would think about it. As the keys laid heavy in my hands, I slowly got into the driver’s seat and started the car. For about five minutes, everything was going perfectly. But like most things, I was going to have to deal with obstacles in my way. Except for the obstacle in my way was the car.

While stuck in a traffic jam for the umpteenth time that day, my host family’s car decided to overheat. The car overheated so much that smoke started coming from underneath the hood and the car was yelling at me to pull over because it was too hot. I wanted to say the car could get in line. Everyone was boiling with the heat from outside.

After unsuccessfully trying to cool down the car, my host dad called us a taxi. We tried many different things with the car, but something was seriously wrong. As I messaged my dad over in the United States, I quickly sent him a text asking what to do if a car overheated. Thousands of miles away, my dad gave me some advice while asking me, “What I am supposed to do?”

Another expensive taxi drove up to us and brought my host mom, host sister, and I home while my host dad stayed behind to figure out what was happening to the car. Regardless, the car had to be towed, but was fixed later the next day and ready for some more traffic jams.
Beijing, China

In the five minutes that I was driving in Beijing, I learned 5 important rules and mistakes I wish I would’ve known about before I got behind the wheel. I learned some of these rules over the month I was there as I was in a car almost every day. Here’s what you should know if you plan on driving in Beijing.

1: Don’t Speed

Cruising down the Fourth Ring Road in central Beijing was beautiful, but the slowest ride I’ve ever taken in my life. There are cameras everywhere in China. On certain roads, there are cameras that will take a picture of your license plate if you speed and in about a week you will get a friendly reminder not to speed and that you own a hefty fine.

There aren’t many opportunities to speed while in downtown Beijing. The traffic is horrible. No matter the time of day, there will be traffic jams. I rarely saw my host dad go over 30 mph and I only got up to 25 mph. Yet, the one time we got outside of the city, my host dad went far over the recommended speed limit.

2: Follow the Road Signs

It’s normal for people to follow the road signs in the United States. When there is a sign saying you can not turn, most people will not turn, but this is a different story in China. Road signs are optional. Many times, just outside my balcony window, I would see people illegally turning in intersections and down streets not made for two-way traffic.

You can follow the signs if you wish. But I found myself following along with everyone else on the road, so I didn’t cause an accident. Driving in Beijing or anywhere in China is far different from the United States.

3: Stay in Your Lane

Many of the ring roads, that surround Beijing (there are a total of seven), have four or more lanes on each side. You may find yourself in a difficult position like I was if a four-lane road suddenly becomes a five-lane road. This isn’t unusual as some people will find ways to squeeze five cars into four lanes. If this happens to you, follow along with everyone else. You most likely won’t be hit by another car as this is another rule I learned.

4: Pedestrians Go Last?

Suddenly, the four-lane road becomes five and you're squished between two minivans and a truck in the front and the back of you. The stop and go lights turn green signaling that you may go, but you see some people on the side of the road starting to cross in the lane you are in. You stop, but then a choir of car horns starts behind you. You’ve just made a mistake.

Many cars will not stop for pedestrians. Pedestrians dance around the roads narrowly missing getting hit on every step. This doesn’t mean you have to almost hit someone because other people are, but you may want to keep moving along as quickly as possible or your ears will be ringing for the next week.

5: You may not be Legal

You’re walking down the street and you see one of the many bike share businesses on a street corner. It’s tempting because you could rent a bike or scooter and get to the subway in five minutes or walk and add at least thirty minutes of unnecessary travel time. You opt for the scooter and pay the fee (a mere 5 RMB, less than $1 USD) and go on your merry way.

There’s one problem though. You may be doing something illegal. Foreigners without a Chinese driver’s license cannot drive in China. This includes scooter and motorcycles. It doesn’t matter if a bike share employee or owner says it fine. If you're caught, you're going to be in trouble.

At the same time, so many foreigners drive scooters while in China, that much of the law enforcement ignores it and nothing bad happens. But this is a risk you’ll take if you decide to drive.

Take Away

I wasn’t legally allowed to drive in China, but what I was doing wasn’t unusual. I know how to drive. I’ve had my driver’s license for close to eight years. But driving in Beijing was like nothing I’ve ever experienced back home. I used to complain about traffic jams in the Fox Cities and having to wait ten minutes on the highway or when I was only going 60 mph instead of 70 mph on the interstate. I was lucky if I was going 20 mph most times when I was in Beijing. Learn from my mistakes and enjoy your time in the beautiful country of China. Be smart, if you don't want to risk it, take a taxi or other public transportation around the city. 

What was the most surprising out of the five rules and mistakes for you from the list above? Leave your answers below and make sure to share this post with friends and family. 

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