Expat Magazine

“Mad Max” Scenes! The School Run in China!

By Mint Mocha Musings @nicoledwebb
Note: This is not how we get to school

Note: This is not how we get to school

So the truth of the matter is, I may well have been heard (from across the miles) whinging and moaning a few times (just a few) about the hour and a half (plus) round trip to take my daughter to school, here in China each morning. (Especially mid-winter!)

But…(there’s always a but)… i’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s actually one of the highlights of my day. (Yeh, I lead an exciting life, I know!)

As an expat (especially one living in a 5-Star bubble) it’s easy to avoid the real world in which you’ve been plonked in….and pretend you’re just on a stay cation (kind of).

So my forced early morning plunge into the real world is invigorating, to say the least!

For starters, I’m not a morning person, so the fact that it gets me up and (presentable for the outside world) early, is not entirely a bad thing. 

China Roads

Most of all though, I am fascinated by the kaleidoscope of color I see flying by me on the daily 45 minute journey from one side of town to the other. The eye opening sights and the cacophony of sounds have me permanently mesmerized (which often includes the crackle of fireworks, at 9am, no less)!  

Like any city, it’s a busy time of day….and here it’s a patchwork quilt of hustle and bustle in hair-raising fashion…

And it’s not just on the roads.

I’ll see workers starting the day by dancing in unison to a particularly well choreographed beat on the side of the road…(team building at its best).

HK dancing

In winter, mini open fires are breathing a toasty warmth at chilled workers starting the day outdoors.

China workers

Some people are already snoozing, in the most unlikely spots (like the side of a busy highway)!

Majong games are underway…. and the elderly are exercising up a storm in local parks.

Cleaners in their now familiar bright orange uniforms dot every street corner with their makeshift straw brooms, dare I say, rather aimlessly sweeping up the rubbish (not to mention dirt…they like to sweep the dirt). 

School Run Sweeper

Water trucks cruise to the tune of “It’s a small world” spraying away the dust.

Street food carts line footpaths catching the work crowds for breakfast.

Snap of the day 37a

Xi'an Street food carts

Whatever the season, the daily drive through the manic, bumper to bumper traffic includes bikes, lots of them. Until 20 years ago, there were no cars on Xi’an’s roads, so this is a city with a mammoth bike riding culture.

SChool Run Loaded

Testament to this, is every conceivable type of bike on the road..all idling along amongst the fast cars (old and new) and snuggling beside ridiculously overcrowded busses. Three wheelers, Tuk Tuks, electric bikes, bikes with trailers, tiny push bikes with overgrown men….or one of the myriad of bright green bikes you can hire at numerous bike stations planted all over the city.

School Run boxes

School Run poles

School Run Shopping

Many are loaded up with precariously balanced goods including everything from white goods (i’m talking fridges and the like) to sky-high piles of rubbish, even mattresses and people, so00 many people, all on one bike sandwiched together for their morning run.

School Run China Traffic   Mint Mocha Musings

Bike rules China

School Run Fridge

Pizza Delivery China

Safety is naturally questionable. Crash helmets are optimal and very few are worn. Although I do see the odd “Village People” style helmet perched on the top of someone’s head.

Road Safety China

Side-saddle is pretty mandatory for the ladies, often riding on the back. Texting/talking on your phone, perfectly acceptable, as is riding in the back of a trailer in the middle of the city. 

Riding a motorbike China style

Bike loads

Umbrellas are the accessory du jour. Rain or shine, brightly coloured brollies (some edged with lace, others with spectacular patterns) are wielded to protect from the elements. Specially created umbrellas act as rainproof roofs never failing in the most blustery conditions. Raincoats come in a variety of shapes and sizes….some made to fit two people, some made to fit you and your bike. In winter, no one rides without big, warm gloves attached to the handle bars.

Xi'an weather

School Run Keeping warm

Tuk Tuk wet weather gear

It’s never ever dull and I spend most of my time frantically trying to capture what I see, on camera (usually with little return for my investment).

School Run ladder

I know! Trying to take a photograph in a moving vehicle is largely futile! (For the record, I’m not driving!) Although here, no one would bat an eyelid if I was trying to snap a shot whilst behind the wheel!

School Run cig 1

Here tackling the roads as a driver is an event like no other I’ve seen. I thought Hong Kong roads were wild…. looking back, they seem tame and (shock horror) rather orderly. 

Here it’s a complete mish mash of busses, cars, bikes and people all vying for a spot almost seemingly oblivious to each other.

But ironically, the system, whatever it is, works!! Most of the time, anyway.

I’ve observed, that, on the whole, here in Xi’an, cars on the road don’t really ever stop on their journey. By that I mean, there are very few traffic lights and everyone is just moving forward (sideways and backwards) albeit rather slowly….weaving in and out…but rarely do they grind to an actual halt. 

Invariably, this is not helping me to capture a good shot! And I don’t think my driver would be too happy if I started asking him to stop every 30 seconds so I could snap the picture.

School Run Plants

Every few days though, somehow, I do manage to get a half decent one, which I’ve been saving to put together in this one post for your viewing pleasure. Hopefully you’ll find it as much of a fascinating assault on the senses as I do. 

The longer I’m here, naturally the more I learn about this city and what makes it tick. Why it is what it is.

School Run rickety

I’m told, until just a few years ago, locals could more or less get their driver’s license without too much effort. 

These days things are a little more strict and you must register with a driving school but there is no set number of driving lessons.  Who needs practice eh!

School Run This is china - Cars

At first glance, it seems like drivers here drive well, terrible! (The saying getting your license in a cornflakes packet seems rather apt!) It’s not uncommon to see people in brand new, rather slick cars ‘stuck,’ simply unable to drive them from point A to B. They’ve literally driven them off the showroom floor without so much as a driving lesson. It doesn’t seem to matter. People (rather comically) expect this. 

It’s probably why the rules are so few and far between. No one sticks to their lane, ever (unless on the freeway) and very very few drivers use those things we call ‘blinkers’…and guess what, no one gives two hoots. (Or maybe they do?!) 

School Run Blinker

These people have a much more powerful tool at their disposal….it’s called the mighty horn!!

The horn seems to be the answer…the thing that allows drivers to weave in and out of traffic in any fashion they choose.

Crossing into four lanes of oncoming traffic without so much as a hesitant foot on the break is completely normal. (For the first few months, I literally closed my eyes on the run!)

The beeping is the one constant in your day! It’s loud, prolonged and ear splitting! Night and day! Initially, I assumed there must be a lot of angry drivers out there. I mean, where I come from, beeping at someone means you’re pretty peeved. Road rage is all the rage!

China road rules

Here though it acts as a type of ‘warning’ system. A friendly nudge, if you like (moments before the nudge)!

“Hey I’m coming up behind you, move to the side”….”Hey small car, I’m moving into your lane move over…” Hey person, I’m right beside you, be careful.”

No one is offended by this courtesy beep…they just move ever so slightly out of the way.

Interestingly, come exam time in school though, the government bans all beeping!

Cars come within inches of each other (and people) but mindbogglingly rarely collide! 

I’ve seen very few major accidents around the city….the speed limit rarely gets over 40 – usually a few minor bingles are visible…which themselves cause more chaos because unless both parties can agree who’s at fault, they must stay put in the exact spot they collided until the police arrive (which can take awhile). My small person and I have had the pleasure of being stuck giggling nervously in the back seat after a ‘bump’ with another car, while traffic edged past us in every direction on a very busy highway. (It wasn’t ideal to get out….and have a gazillion Chinese men gawking at the whiteys!)

The same goes for crossing the road. There’s absolutely no set rule. Most people just step out without so much as a sideways glance over their shoulder…

No body really waits until the little ‘green’ man says it’s safe to cross (because it’s not). Cars still keep driving directly at you without slowing down. It’s you who needs to stop and let them pass, not the car. 

I’m always amazed more people don’t get run over but somehow everyone manages to narrowly miss one another. 

It sounds manic (and a little frightening I know) but once you get used to it, the heart failure moments are minimized – mind you teaching the four year old road rules is probably out of the question!

School Run back of trailer

The one and only rule you need to remember, whoever is bigger gets to go first! 

There’s no mistaking you’re in China.

It’s a school run with serious attitude!

This is China!

School Run Piles


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