Visiting China in 1991, I left with vivid images of a thousand bicycles flooding Chinese roads. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine traversing those same roads with hundreds of Harley-Davidsons. Twenty years later China now has more than 40,000 miles of highway (and 2.3-million miles of paved public roads). Within a few years China will surpass the United States and have the most extensive highway system in the world. Currently, motorcycles are restricted from elevated highways and some inner ring roads. In fact, 80 cities across China have some sort of motorcycle licensing, riding, or ownership restrictions. Some cities completely ban motorized two-wheel vehicles. It’s reasoned that restricting motorcycles rather than cars decreases traffic on the congested urban streets.
Rules of Engagement
Harleys make front-page news in China.
Honored with the opportunity to participate in the 3rd annual Chinese Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) event, I flew nonstop from Los Angeles to Shanghai. It’s a 14-hour flight that is about as pleasant as a dentist appointment. The upside is there’s no drilling, but I do suggest sedatives regardless. Arriving at the fabulous J.W. Marriott hotel in downtown Shanghai, a beautiful young concierge assisted me in contacting the Shanghai Harley-Davidson dealership. She cooed, “Oooo! Harley-Davidson. Real men ride Harleys…” I already felt at home. I met up with James Rice, Head Road Captain for the Shanghai H.O.G. Chapter. An American who has lived and worked in China for 22 years, James has become an unofficial ambassador for Harley-Davidson here. An avid rider, he single-handedly engaged members in his weekly rides earning him his Head Road Captain status. He even brings Chinese members to ride in California several times a year. Harley currently has seven dealerships and H.O.G Chapters in China with about 375 registered members. The largest being the Beijing Chapter, followed by Shanghai. We discussed the next seven-day itinerary and rules of the road. “Americans are used to the Right of Way,” James stated. “In China, it’s First Right: whomever is first has the right of way, which means everyone is vying for the same space at all times.” China’s 100-million scooters/125cc motorbikes obey no traffic laws whatsoever. They weave helmetless through opposing traffic ignoring all signals and signs, carting around families, packed with goods…at night.
There are no rules
Size, attitude, and position are the keys to survival
Shanghai Harley-Davidson staff members
I needed a shakedown run. We took to the bedlam that is Shanghai and hit the streets. Motorcycles are low on the evolutionary size scale; cars, trucks, and buses rule so that leaves us with attitude and position. This is why riding a big, rumbling Harley-Davidson is perfect in China. At any given moment, there are three objects within your field of vision, moving on an intercept trajectory. As the Audi drifts into your lane from the left, you accelerate between two overloaded trucks while a scooter moving in from your right field of view accelerates to avoid the pedestrian directly in front of you. Horn honking is the soundtrack to this real life video game and you’re the target. This is not for the timid or faint of heart. Riding here is exhilarating.
China has 100-million active motorcyclists, (almost a third of the U.S. population) and 99 percent of them are commuting to and from work. The concept of motorcycle allies, poker runs, or even leisure riding in general is a completely foreign concept. In fact, riding a large displacement Harley-Davidson at all is a foreign concept. But motorcycling in China will surely become big business. Much of China’s Silk Road, linking Shanghai to Kyrgyzstan has been transformed into a modern highway. Route 312 is 3,000 miles of mother road waiting to cradle the purr of an Electra Glide’s big bore roar. However, many legal issues and local restrictions need be overcome, such as the 11-year, “Scrap Law.” Currently, all motorcycles are to be scrapped before they’re 12 years old and it’s a very good tactic to eliminate smog-spewing two-stroke 125cc scooters. Almost all the scooters I saw in the major cities are now electric. A commendable step towards improving air quality, but the thought of scrapping a modern 11-year-old Harley Electra Glide is mind numbing.
James Rice, Craig Franz (Owner of Westminster (California) Harley-Davidson), and several Shanghai H.O.G.s spent the day with me navigating everything from side streets to city center. James’ knowledge of Shanghai is extraordinary and is often requested to give visiting notables tours around town. He escorted Republican Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman while in Shanghai and refreshed actor Bill Paxton’s riding skills while filming the upcoming feature film Shanghai Calling, scheduled for release in early 2012. Bill Paxton’s character in the movie is actually based on James, but the life of James Rice is a whole other story.
We visited Lonhua Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Shanghai, founded in 247 AD. The present Pagoda dates from 977, during the Song Dynasty. It’s not open to visitors due to its age and fragility and can only be admired from a distance. Made of wood and brick, the delicate octagonal structure has seven stories, each topped with upturned “flying eaves” from which tiny bells are suspended. It was once the tallest structure in Shanghai. The rest of the temple centers around four main halls dating from around 1900. They are: the Maitreya Hall, the Hall of the Heavenly King, the Grand Hall, and the Three Sage Hall. Each houses the three treasures of the temple including the Dazang sutras, the gold seals, and the Buddhist statues.
That evening, overlooking China’s most modern city from high atop the Marriott, I contemplated my next day’s departure to the H.O.G. rally in Qingdao. Far below, a six-lane elevated expressway gridlocked with Mercedes Benz’s and Audis grinds through the heart of downtown. In a city of 23-million people, the hazy Shanghai skyline is punctuated with massive modern skyscrapers puzzled together with high-rises as far as the eye can see. In fact, there are more skyscrapers in Shanghai alone than all of America. Shanghai is China’s New York City; home of their stock exchange. A single apartment in the heart of downtown costs 1-million US dollars. This is a completely different world than I visited 20 years ago, and I can’t imagine what lies ahead.