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No road rules at all in present-day China

Be wary of Shanghai’s taxi drivers. They have an innate greed for money and as you generally have no idea where you are or where you are going they will as standard take you the long way around anywhere. A sub note here for your is there have been increasing cases of registered taxis putting electric motors into the odometers to speed them up so passengers get charged for a further distance that they have travelled. Be warned, going back to Shanghai PuDong airport is a treasure trove for these corrupt drivers. Make sure you have change and not just big notes. They will take your bags out first. You hand over the large denomination notes and as you get your bags together they jump back into the taxi and take off with the doors open, leaving you with no change and no fapiao (receipt). 80% of people I have spoken to have openly admitted this has happened to them at that airport.

Whilst China is generally a very safe place to be for the Lao Wa it is also very important to understand in their eyes you are there to be removed of your cash. You are seen as real live ATM, but recognise this and prepare for the challenges. Chinese people generally do not like conflict and Lao Wa tend to be more protected as the state does not like bad publicity if something happens to them.

Kelsey Cole book coverIf you do venture into clubs and bars, they are generally the worst places to be fleeced. There are local expectations if someone is talking to you they will ask for a drink. They will have some type of coloured water and for the privilege you will end up with a $50.00 bill. It is very easy to run up a four figure bill on a Saturday night (or any night for that matter), and when you question the bill things can get a little uncomfortable… figure it out.

Another group to be wary of is road users. The automotive industry in China is at best 13 years old (at the time of writing). 20 years ago there were two taxis in the whole of Shanghai. Today there are approximately 16,000 which sounds huge except the population is 24,000,000. When it rains you can never get a taxi! Back in 2000 the only cars on the road were taxis, government cars and Buick vans. Today in the region of 25,000 new cars a month are arriving on the roads in Shanghai alone. The vast majority of those new cars are being driven by first time drivers, and a huge number of these people may never have driven a car before their ‘driving test’.

However I digress so back to the taxis…..If you show a taxi driver a locator card, some of the magnifying glasses they get out of their glove boxes would actually allow you to see the insides of the craters on the moon. Another point is that many of the taxi drivers are also not from the city you are in and therefore they are probably as lost as you are. Don’t get excited if they wind down the window to ask someone else for directions….. frequently.

Another category is drivers employed by companies. One particular Mad Max, who I always requested, was a guy with a real interesting history. He was a driver in the last Chinese war and was the only survivor of his platoon. The distance from JiangYin to Shanghai is approximately 170 km and he would complete this trip door to door in 1 hour 15 minutes, where other drivers would take closer to 3 hours. He drove like every day was his last, but the positive is he seemed to have luck on his side.

Driving schools are a concept that have been heard of and do exist, but beware of the Shanghai Volkswagen Santana’s with a black and white chequered pattern. Invariably there are five or six people in the car, the ‘instructor’ in the front passenger seat, chain smoking and grabbing the wheel occasionally to steer the vehicle away from some poor unsuspecting pedestrian on a main road. Many of these cars have bald or cracked tyres, some have one wing mirror (never two) and plastic-covered, blacked-out windows – which you can’t see into, nor can you see out of. Usually these are the front and rear side passenger windows and occasionally the rear one. In fairness the only part of a vehicle that has to function is the horn, and much like in India, it’s there for guidance to let other drivers know ‘I’m here’!

The good thing is that all new cars are issued without a licence plate and these generally take a month to arrive. Therefore it’s easy to spot new drivers and find ways to avoid them. This, however, can also be used to the advantage of the less scrupulous. A very good friend of mine, from the Netherlands, who was an ex-pat living in Shanghai and who was a little challenged to get up early in a morning, would occasionally perform the following… Leaving his apartment later than he should the first thing he would do is remove the licence plates from his car and put them in the trunk. He would them drive like the locals – ie a lunatic, at about warp factor 1 – and laugh out loud as the flashes went off on every speed camera photographing the space where his licence plates should be. Arriving at a convenient Starbucks close to his destination, I would go get the drinks whilst he screwed the licence plates back on…

As a small note on the new drivers, a very good Chinese friend of mine went to take his driving test in 2010. Before he went for his test he had actually never driven a car. He was stunned when he failed his test. The story does however have a ‘happy’ ending: a week later he re-sat his test and passed. Again you have been warned.

Kelsey Cole book coverThere does seem to be some sort of hierarchy relating to vehicles and there are certain licence plates that if seen all vehicles have to get out of their way…even the police, Passenger buses seem to command the road, trucks tend to hog the road and passenger cars drive wherever there is a road… correct side or not.

One fun game to play at night is spot-the-vehicle. People riding electric scooters, for example, have this belief it’s better if you ride without lights as it saves the battery life….shame it doesn’t save the owners life. Bikes and scooters are not the only ones following this policy. Cars, buses and trucks all seem to think it is others who should have their lights on and there is no reason for them to light up…..except the next cigarette.

It’s always fun when a Chinese Sebastian Vettel drives slalom style down a motorway at night with only the rev counter to guess the speed, as the odometer stopped working two days out of the car showroom and cannot be fixed. The real fun is spotting the truck doing 15 kilometres per hour in the outside lane with no lights on, when a Mad Max impersonator is doing 180 kilometres per hours and is actually clinically blind.

You think I joke.

This introduction was designed to give you a small, but general, flavour of some aspects of the Chinese way of life, but the main reason for this tome is to share with you the realities of doing business in China based on real experiences with real people and real companies.

Extracted from Kelsey Cole’s new book, ‘Down (but not out) in Beijing and Shanghai’. Visit his booksite or buy it from Amazon

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