Thirdeyemom

Street Survival 101: How to get around urban China without getting flattened

For anyone who has ever traveled in Asia, then you understand exactly what the title of this post is about.  Walking anywhere in any big Asian city – whether it be Beijing, Shanghai, Kathmandu, Bangkok or Delhi – requires a certain kind of expertise, guts and street smarts.  In these large urban jungles, traffic comes in all shapes and sizes and is massive, loud, aggressive and sometimes uncaring about human life.  You make a mistake once by stepping out into the street without looking and you could be dead.

The intimidating street:  Crossing the street in Shanghai can be a dangerous thing.

I discovered this frightening fact the first time I was in Kathmandu and New Delhi.  I had read about it before so was thankfully somewhat prepared and aware that there are real dangers involved in crossing the street and even walking down the sidewalk.  I grimaced when I heard the tales of the unexpected tourist who looked the wrong way and got smashed by oncoming traffic.  I was prepared, or so I thought.

I was shocked and horrified once I actually stepped onto these very streets for the first time and realized that you’ve got to truly pay attention whenever you are walking anywhere in a large Asian City.  For human life is not always valued the same in a big city where there are millions of people fighting to survive and get around (ok, this is a little harsh but sometimes I really did feel this way, especially when the cars, trucks and buses came right at me in the middle of an intersection during a green walk sign!).

Never before had I felt so threatened when walking the streets than when I first arrived in Beijing.  There were many close calls, especially when we first got there and were so jet lagged.  Yet, after a few days we figured it out and here are the main things we discovered.

Street Survival 101:  How to get around urban China without getting flattened.

First of all, there is no regard whatsoever for the “green” walk signs.  Cars, trucks, mopeds, buses, you name it, all come charging through the intersection honking their horn in warning as the pedestrians scurry across.  There were many times when I feared either I or someone else would be struck dead.  I especially got nervous when the elderly were wobbling across.  There were many close calls.

I probably shouldn’t have taken this photo and have been more concerned about my safety and my dad’s, yet this just shows how cars really don’t care if you are in their path.  You’ve got to get out of the way fast or else, well….

Second of all, vehicles love to run red lights.   It is extremely important that before you step out into the street you look ALL ways.  Do a 360 degree look around before moving forward no matter what color the street light or walk sign indicates.  Four times out of five, there will be something coming.  I found the bike lane to be the worst offender.  Many times bikes, mopeds, electric scooters and carts hardly stopped at all and kept going regardless of the red light.

Intersections in China can be a free for all—cars, bikes, motorcycles, trucks and people included!  Beware!

Third of all, whenever you cross a street you just have to keep looking and do your best to get safely across as fast as possible.  Vehicles can come out of nowhere and of course they won’t slow down or stop if you are in its path.

Getting around is a free for all.

I witnessed many “almost accidents” such as this one between the bicyclist and the moped.  

Hurry….hurry….hurry!

Finally, just because you are walking on a sidewalk does not mean you are safe.  I’ve seen motorcycles, bicycles and even small cars driving either behind or right at you on the sidewalk.  It would really hurt to get your foot run over!

This guy passed me from behind…thankfully the sidewalk wasn’t too crowded.  

The good news is that the Chinese are aware of the dangers of crossing the street and have done some things to make it safer for pedestrians.  In Shanghai, one of the most difficult places to cross the street, I found huge above ground walkways over some of the major intersections such as this one (Note:  In Beijing, these above ground sidewalks did not exist and I sure wish they had!  It was insane trying to cross some of the busy intersections there and I’m happy that there were no incidents!).

Climbing up out of harms way (thank you, Chinese Government!). 

I am much happier here than there down below! 

When Shanghai built this new highway a few years back, it was a welcome gift not only to the drivers but also to the walkers who received the above ground sidewalks. 

Because it sure beats trying to walk down there and be battling against that line of traffic. 

Shanghai also adopted the use of crossing guards on some of the busy streets near the high-end French Concession.  I had never seen these in other highly congested parts of Shanghai and certainly not in Beijing, which is notorious for having extremely dangerous crosswalks.

Finally there was some help for the pedestrians!  The crossing guard even blew here whistle loudly at aggressive drivers and stopped them from driving through the green walk signs.  Phew! 

Rest assured….after a few days of walking like a local you’ll be fine!  You will learn how to zigzag across traffic at extreme speed and expertise.  You’ll remember to take a 360 degree look before stepping out into the street.  And most of all, you’ll appreciate your streets back at home even more!

Stay tuned…more China coming soon!  Thanks for reading and comments are always welcome and appreciated!  

14 comments

  1. I have crossed a lot of streets in a number of Asian cities, and nothing compared to Vietnam–Ho Chi Minh City, in particular. It is everything you describe, only way, way worse. The sidewalks became an extra lane of traffic–a wide solid stream of motorbikes–a sidewalk of solid, moving motorbikes. It was insane! Made Delhi look like kindergarten.

    Great post, Nicole!

    Kathy

    • I have heard that about Vietnam and have even seen pictures of it. Must be crazy! I would love to go but will always remember to be extra careful there. Thanks Kathy!

  2. sas

    I used to live in Greece, and your description of vehicles driving up behind you on the pavement is eerily familiar to me. In contrast, I visited Las Vegas in 2010 where to cross the roads an elevator takes you up, an escalator transports you over the road and then there’s another elevator at the other side to take you back down. You barely have to even walk!

    • Thanks for the comment! Yeah, Vegas has a pretty nice set-up but I do recall a time when a pedestrian, albeit drunk, stepped out into the street and was stuck dead. He probably should have used the elevated sidewalk! Thanks for reading!

  3. Nothing beats that moment of shock, when you realise you are about to be ploughed into the pavement by a Motorbike user on the pavement in China, for getting the adrenalin pumping and a torrent of abuse flowing at the guy who nearly killed you. This post resonates for me, and I have a similar one scheduled for my blog later on this month. Be safe. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I will have to check out our blog and will subscribe right now to learn more about your experiences in China as well!

  4. I joke with my friends here in Shanghai, that it’s Look, Look, Look – Go! When you’re trying to cross the street. Really hit home.

  5. I’m always super careful when out and about but I’ve seen numerous Chinese people where I am in Guangzhou almost get flattened. I cringe as I see people walk out into the road even though the traffic police are telling them to stay on the sidewalk and then they have a near miss with cargo truck. It’s crazy! I will say that I believe China has the worst drivers in the world.

    • You are probably right! I am reading a hilarious book right now by Peter Hassler called Country Driving. He takes a long drive through rural China and the book really tells it like it is. Thanks for reading!

  6. Pingback: Shanghai ‘hoods: The French Concession | thirdeyemom

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