The Chinese refer to their infamous cities in order. First cities are Shanghai and Beijing, second cities that are candidates for first include Shenzhen, Guanzhou and others. Third cities perhaps include perhaps Ningbo, Wuhan, Suzhou and so forth. There is no formal classification, but it’s estimated there are more than 160 cities with more than 1 million population.
While Beijing is the capital, the greater areas of Shanghai, and arguably Guangzhou exceed more than 25 million. So moving from Shanghai to Beijing has given me a taste of the difference between northern and central China, but I’m still yearning for the the countryside.
Even more, China has some of the most beaurocratic motor vehcile laws I’ve ever encountered in my years of traveling. Most important to me is that motorcycles are technically not allowed in the city centers of Shanghai and Beijing. Though it’s possible, with a fat wallet, to purchase a license plate that identifies a bike as legal for such city centers. These plates, I’m told, are more of a status symbol than they are as practical. That is, the people that can afford the ¥100,000 (approximately $16,000 USD) just for the plate, are generally not the riders you may catch riding within the first 4 rings of Beijing city. Plates that will allow motorcycles to ride outside the 5th ring of the city are cheap, I’ve learned, and easy to get for even the poorest residents. Similarly, it’s expensive to own and operate a bike in Shanghai.
All of this plate nonsense is to say that I’m unable to ride my new motorcycle within the city of Beijing, so my exploration must be on foot, via taxi and mass transit. To get to inside the 2nd ring, I’ll have to truck my motorcycle into the city.
The other problem with owning a motor vehicle in Beijing, is that those that may be lucky enough to ride a motorcycle or drive a car must contend with the law that one day each week, drivers cannot drive or ride their vehicles. The license plates are coded as such so law enforcement officials can recognize this and take action. However, in cities with more than 20 million residents, it would be impossible to enforce such vehicle laws. However, the Chinese have thought of this. There are cameras everywhere. On big boulevards, toll roads, national roads, small alleys and more. When driving under these cameras a mass of flashes startle me; my taxi drivers points toward the sky at the massive pipe arch that extends over five lanes of one of Beijings major boulevards: yes, they are watching. Drivers that violate the laws will be fined and assessed points.
There’s a good reason for all of this plate nonsense, photo control and such: traffic in these cities is maddening. Going just a couple kilometers can take an hour or more by taxi or driving. Mass transit? Subways are packed tighter than any I’ve ever experienced.
You can move around these cities, it’s time consuming, often uncomfortable and frustrating.
Though this is easily managed with a bit of patience. I like Beijing. If it weren’t for the lack of sunny days and lung challenging pollution, I could hang here for a while. That’s why the expat community here is so strong and vibrant and why locals who’ve lived in the dwindling courtyard homes of Beijing’s hutongs still live and wax nostalgia for “the old days.”