Zen and the art of Xi’an’s motorcycles

Article by Jimmy Reid

Iwas cruising past South Gate, one hot, dry summer’s evening a few weeks ago, the dusty air blowing through my hair. Needless to say, I felt like the lord of all creation. At one of the ring road exits there was a gang of scooters, not moving but loitering, forming a semi-circle. All of their scooters were stripped down, sporting fluorescent colours and all the riders were wearing similar clothing. Revving hard, it was apparent they were preparing for something, but I never gave it a second thought. Thinking nothing of it, I continued with my day, until going through a tunnel I heard a rumble, not unlike an approaching storm. Six, seven, no eight scooters tore past me at a frenetic pace. They were racing, and though I was not participating I felt as though I was losing. I needed something faster.

2Despite motorbikes being banned in the inner city, there is still a thriving bike culture which doesn’t revolve around racing. Bar Street at the weekends becomes the Vegas strip, young hopefuls parading their bikes around for brief glimpses of adoration and acknowledgement. Despite being mass-produced, each bike is like a snowflake, their uniqueness not coming from their chassis, but from the various bumps and bruises that come with a lifetime of driving in close proximity with thousands of other buses. Where could I buy one?

The motoguan is where it all goes down. Located not too far from Jiaotong University, this is surely where those fluorescent scooters come for their service. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone, ask around about where they meet and purchase the tool necessary to keep up. Greeted with the beautiful smell of two stroke, this is no high-end showroom. Children cry, men smoke, women chatter loudly, this is China as it should be, stripped down to its barest form like the bikes they are mending. There are many alleys of bikes and possibility, in various states, being pulled from the crate before your eyes or having the rust sanded off and ancient wiring re-jiggered. Bargaining hard here is essential. Not perusing is a fool’s errand. And showing interest, well, you might as well write “mug” on your massive foreign forehead. I purchased a tasteful little number, never having been one for neon colour schemes, and set off with new found purpose.

3These bandits have possessed my thoughts over the past weeks. I encountered many princelings in their high end, daddy-bought-me, sports cars, but the interest was not there. I dreamt of speaking to the unlikely band of misfits I encountered, asking them why they did this, what was the appeal, and most importantly, what’s up with the garish paint job? My quest took me to bars, clubs, ring roads, lakes; but not a whiff of these elusive vagabonds. However, the quest did reveal something equally interesting: Xi’an’s burgeoning motorbike scene and what it represents in a city of almost ten million. The expat community adores their scooters and motorbikes. The commute to work for many of us is the highlight of our day, the return home a therapy session. And for many of the locals motorbikes provide them something the princelings will never have: a solid dose of cool (disclaimer: our definition of cool may differ).

4I received a tip that they were meeting at Qujiang, so I headed over just before dusk. My trip at first seemed to be futile, as in my search for my prey I ventured further and further from the city. High rise buildings slowly morphed into shacks and the air was peculiar, it was clean! Before I knew it I was in the boonies, both lost and immediately struck by the immense natural beauty of my surroundings. Historically chosen for its geographical position for defense purposes, Xi’an is flanked by mountains. A short ride south and you are in the Qinling mountains.

Every town and village there is a time capsule containing a slower pace of life. Stray dogs loiter, old ladies unabashedly stare with intense curiosity, and people live their lives unaware of your presence. The air, for a brief moment, feels acceptable, and the sky is on display like it always was. Forget the bars for a second; this is very much within your grasp.

1A few nights ago on the second ring road, it appeared before me: the golden snitch. A shocking pink number, with flashing neon lights and a jolly roger for a number plate, cruised on the nearing horizon. I dutifully tried to intercept, but upon reaching the end of the bridge, Moby Dick entered warp speed. Despite my updated vessel, I was left in both the proverbial and literal dust, at the same time realising the irony that perhaps I, just like Captain Ahab, should adorn the Jolly Roger. A story for another time perhaps.

Jimmy Reid is a miserable Scottush bastard that can be contacted
via email at jimmy-reid@hotmail.co.uk