A two-wheeled migration


Spring Festival which falls early in the New Year on the Gregorian calendar is the start of the Chinese New Year which takes its dates from a lunar calendar. The Spring Festival is marked by window shuddering firework displays for which the Chinese are famous and street carnivals featuring the iconic Dragon Dance. It’s a time of celebration with family and friends and quite often, for many Chinese, means making an annual pilgrimage back to their homes in faraway towns and villages outside of the big cities.

During this period the public transport sector becomes overwhelmed by travellers eager to see in the New Year with their children, parents and other loved ones. Ticket prices hit peak cost due to the demand created by the masses as some journey thousands of kilometres on cramped trains and buses.

Not all travellers can afford a ticket for a train or bus and in the last few decades a new migratory system has formed – the motorcycle migrants. Nicknamed the “Motorcycle Army”, a growing number of Chinese workers opt to ride their way home and head out by motorcycle to face the cold and often dangerous roads.

Many of these industrial workers live yearlong in the cities where work is available and they can earn better money but come Spring Festival most business close for celebrations giving workers up to a month off to spend with relatives.

Mr Dai of Guizhou province has been making the journey from Guangdong province to the home he grew up in for nearly 20 years and was happy to share his memories about his trips home.

“I don’t remember a single year where it hasn’t been cold riding back for New Year. Some days are bright and the sun shines a little but it doesn’t help much to warm you up. The first year I rode home I had only worn one pair of trousers. I quickly discovered that this was not enough and my legs were freezing so I had to buy another pair after the first day.”

“Not only is the cold a problem but the roads are often very bad. We cannot use the motorcycle on the highway; it’s not permitted, so we must use the smaller provincial roads which vary in quality. If the journey is 1000km it is likely that at least half of it will be on bad roads. Only those who are very lucky will have a smooth trip all the way home.”

Adding to the problem of brutally cold weather and poor roads are the ever increasing numbers of car owners who themselves prefer to take the roads home rather than use public transport. This new surge of cars on the roads can make the journey even more perilous for the motorcycle migrants. Inevitably with the amount new traffic at this time of year some motorcyclist are killed or badly injured. Wang Fa explains why he and his wife make a 600km journey every year from their job in Guangdong to their home in Jiangxi province.

“We must go home at this time of year because our little boy is at home. We don’t have any other time to visit other than Spring Festival and maybe one other occasion each year. It’s very difficult to be away for so long but we must work where the money is. We cannot afford to send our son to school in Guangdong so he must stay with my parents. If we take a bus it will cost us twice as much as it will by motorcycle so we save the extra money to buy gifts for our boy and my parents.”

“I remember last year being much easier. This year was bitterly cold and in many places we encountered snow. When the snow settles on the ground we make slow progress because it is so slippery, I often have to walk the bike for several kilometres before the roads is safe enough to ride on. This year it took us 3 and a half days, one day more than last year.”

“Luckily we don’t know anybody who was hurt this year. In the last few years some of our colleagues got badly injured on their way home and one died after a collision with a truck.”

The number of members joining the “motorcycle army” has risen in recent years by as much as 300%. In as little as five years the amount of riders has increased from somewhere around 150,000 to well over half a million.

A large portion of those returning home are veteran riders who have made the trip many times. Bo Wei is now in his mid-40’s and speaks from experience. “There are many people who already have a motorcycle to get to and from work so they think “Why don’t I ride home?” but don’t realise how difficult it can be.”

“As they travel north during the Spring Festival it gets colder and most will end up wearing all the clothes that they have packed to take with them. Myself I have worn three jackets over three shirts and still been cold on the bike! It was much easier 20 years ago when there were fewer cars on the road. Now car sales are increasing and the roads are busier it’s much more dangerous.”

For anybody wanting to see more about the hardships faced on these annual journeys head over to YouTube to watch 1350km: China Motorcycle Dairies. The video is all in Chinese but the visuals alone tell an amazing story in this hour long documentary.

May 19, 2016