Motorcycles in China

The Chinese climate is generally conducive to motorcycle riding, and you see bikes in many cities across China. However, the traffic is definitely not easy to cope with. The Chinese bureaucracy is no better. It can be quite difficult for a foreigner to get the drivers license, insurance and permits to travel around China on their personal motorcycle. Despite that, quite a few foreign residents have bikes and some tourists may want to try it. Remember for a motorcycle to be legal, it needs to be legally registered with a license plate; you must have insurance and a Chinese motorcycle licence.

There are some restrictions. Motorcycles are forbidden on most freeways and some cities forbid them in the downtown core in an effort to control traffic congestion. For example, motorcycles are banned from downtown Guangzhou, Dongguan, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Hangzhou, and there are restrictions in Beijing and Shanghai. Riding a motorcycle into these prohibited areas can lead to fines and possible confiscation of the bike. There can also be licensing complications; for example in some cities (such as Beijing,) only motorcycles registered within the metropolitan area can be legally ridden.

One of the reasons motorcycles are banned in cities like Dongguan is because of the amount of motorcyle drive-by robberies common back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. In the past, it was not uncommon to see two males on a motorcycle drive-by and pull necklaces and snatch purses from female victims.

Most Chinese motorcycles are 125 cc, with 50, 90 and 150 also moderately common. There are also many scooters and three-wheel motorcycle-based cargo vehicles, most with 125 cc engines. At least in some cities you cannot register anything larger than 250 cc. A 125 cc plain-jane Suzuki sells for around ¥4000 ($600 US). A fancier bike with road racer or off-road pretensions would be a bit more, a Chinese brand somewhat less. Some Chinese companies build their own chassis but buy engine/transmission assemblies from Suzuki or Honda; these are probably the best value. Of course, at the lowest end are simply bicycles that have been fitted with engines to function like motorcycles, something probably seen only in China.

You can also find imported Japanese bikes in most cities. Look on the outskirts for motorcycle repair shops and eventually you will find one with some older model XR’s or CBR’s or the like. A 10 year old CBR400 should be about ¥4000 in good shape. The Honda XR250 is also fairly common but are a bit more expensive around ¥10,000 for a 5 to 8 year old bike. The laws are not very clear on these bikes, if you buy one be careful of the police they may confiscate the bike. In 2006, a few foreigners in Shanghai were detained and evicted for unlicensed riding.

Few imported motorcycles meet the homologation requirements, including some BMW and Honda. Even if they are considered “big bikes”, they can be registered in some Chinese cities. Ask the selling shops for help.

Jialing and Zhongzhen started selling 600 cc motorcycles on the Chinese market, price including registration should start at about ¥35,000.

Many Chinese often ride without helmets, or only the male will wear one, or with the helmet on but the chin strap usually undone. Three people or more on a motorcycle or two on a bicycle is completely normal, as is having passengers ride sidesaddle. It is moderately common to see up to five on a motorcycle. There is a fairly well-known photo of nine people on a motorcycle, but Snopes says it is partly bogus [8] — the original photo only had eight (two adult couples and four children) and an extra baby was photo-shopped in. Loads of a cubic meter or so are common for both bicycles and motorcycles, and much larger loads are sometimes seen.

All in all considering how dangerous driving in China can be, riding a motorbike there by choice is only for the adventurous and not for the faint hearted.

Sidecar rigs[edit]

The most interesting bikes in China are Chang Jiang [9]. Back in the 1930s, BMW designed a 750 cc flat twin side-valve sidecar rig for the German army. They were built in the Soviet Union because the treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans to build military equipment, including motorcycles, and at the time Hitler and Stalin were on good terms. At the end of the war, the Russians took the entire factory in Germany as well, moved the whole operation to the Urals and continued producing bikes to that design. The Russian brands are called Dnieper and Volga. They also gave or sold China the equipment and Chang Jiang are the result. There’s also a modernised version with overhead valves and electric starter. These are not your high performance sport bike; even the new OHV model is only 32 horsepower. However, they were designed for military use and are very solidly built. They are about ¥20,000. They are invariably sold and ridden with the sidecar; it might not be possible to license them without it.

There are lots of older Chang Jiangs around and if you buy one that is old enough, it may be classed as an antique vehicle. This might mean it is exempt from your country’s import restrictions; most safety and pollution laws have some sort of exemption for antiques. This is risky: some people have lost bikes at customs. You need a thorough understanding of your country’s regulations before even considering it.

One vendor that does this type of export is Sidecar Solutions [10] in Beijing. They also rent bikes, organise tours, and help with Chinese drivers licenses. Another Beijing Chiang Jiang specialist with similar services is Gerald [11]. Shanghai has a dealer called Wild Wolf Sidecar [12] and a motorcycle club [13] that includes many Chiang Jiang riders. It is common for a rebuilt machine from one of these vendors to cost somewhat more than a new bike straight from the factory would; people say they are worth it because of the better quality control.

A real fanatic might consider riding a Chang Jiang from China to Europe using routes in the Europe to South Asia over land and Silk Road itineraries. You could get service on the bikes in Russia from people familiar with Dneiper and Volga; some parts are even interchangeable.

Motorcycle tours[edit]

There are motorcycle-based tours of various areas, often with rental of a Chang Jiang included:

  • The “Genghis Khan Run” an Epic Classic Premium ride, 12 days Inner Mongolia to the Great Wall. Toys for big boys, rough enough with just the right luxury trimmings, cuban cigars, grainfed beefsteak etc. [14]
  • HC Travel [15], based in UK, offer Chang Jiang tours to Great Wall, Tibet and Mongolia
  • Dragon Bike Tours [16] Chinese based, offer a Silk Road tour
  • Asia Bike Tours [17], based in India and using Enfields, run a tour into Tibet
  • Insiders Experience [18], offers off the beaten track city tours and expeditions on vintage jeep and sidecar motorbikes throughout China.

Yinchuan has an annual Motorcycle Tourist Festival [19] in late June.

Electric scooters[edit]

Electric scooters are common and cheaper than motorcycles (¥1,500 for a base model, ¥3,500 for the top-of-the-line). While they lack the horsepower and range of a motorcycle, they are quieter, cleaner, lighter, and easier to maintain. Beware however that while in terms of emission and noise pollution they are a welcome choice for China’s overcrowded and choked urban roads, but they are very very silent and often you will not hear them coming at all until its too late. This of course makes the danger of a serious collision with a pedestrian common. Scooters come with a battery (or batteries) that are usually removable as well as rechargeable from a household outlet. At least in some cities, these vehicles are licensed as a bicycle so one does not need a driver’s license to ride them and may take advantage of bike lanes and sidewalks (if present) to circumvent traffic. However, like motorcycles, some cities have banned them. The alleged reason is that many motorised bikes are being used in bag snatch crimes. Others suggest it is to make room for people with cars and people movers. Do not expect the majority of electro-bike riders to ever use the headlights at night or dusk.

Scooters are a target for thieves, so always ensure that one of the wheels or, ideally, both are secured with a solid lock. Batteries as well are liable to be stolen and should be locked to the scooter with the built-in mechanism or stored indoors while not in use. Some residences allow for scooters to be brought indoors overnight, which is preferable.

The bulk of used scooter sales are increasingly conducted over the Internet. Native Chinese who are knowledgeable in such matters should be able to direct you to a good website for your particular city. Be sure to understand what to look for when purchasing a used scooter. Most importantly, a scooter’s battery, like all forms of batteries, will lose its ability to hold a charge over time. It is often possible to purchase a new battery to go along with a used bike, however.