A reader asked me whether it’s feasible to explore the reaches of Chongqing by scooter, to which I replied it won’t happen past your neighourhood limits. Ever since that message, I have awaited the chance to share the vicissitudes of two wheeled transport in Mountain City, from early days to present.
In the first decade since the breakaway from Sichuan, the motorbike reigned supreme on Chongqing’s then under-developed road system, able to zip drivers and passengers swiftly in and around endless lines of traffic, with little outside interference on trivial matters such as licensing, maintanence, helmets or even basic highway code.
The Lifan Motorbike Corporation did brisk business in those days, and Chongqing was no doubt the location of choice to mass produce them, thanks to the mountainous terrain and roads unable to cope with a rocketing level of car ownership.
Indeed, at busy times when vacant taxis were scarce, and every bus in sight packed to the gills, I used to approach the groups of motorbike taxi drivers (Known as Mo-di摩的) who congregated around likely traffic hotspots. For a mere five yuan, they would transport you quickly to anywhere within a few kilometres.
Perhaps rather foolhardy in retrospect, but the longest journey I took was an overnight trip from Hechuan to Chongqing long after the final coach station departure, and took nearly two hours on the windy mountain roads in middle of nowhere, in pitch darkness. That trip set me back 100 yuan, a good deal by today’s standards.
At the beginning of this second decade, new leadership took over with a mandate to revolutionise the city’s image and make it an attractive hub for international commerce. Since the once notorious criminal underground was eradicated in those first years, there have been vast improvements in safety and order, yet one that eventually saw a large decline in the use of motorcycles.
Even in recent years, I have known locals who casually drive motorbikes and scooters on a daily basis without a driving license, vehicle registration, insurance and helmet. However, police checkpoints are now a common sight, and there’s usually a few sorry looking motorcyclists parked up besides.
Nowadays, it seems that motorbike taxis cannot operate legally, and stricter law enforcement has forced the armies of non road-worthy vehicles off the roads, making the roads visibly safer and more orderly.
Scooters and Mango Bikes
A relatively new addition to the streets of Chongqing are the electrically powered dynamo ‘Mango Bikes’ called 芒果电单车(Mang-guo-dian-dan-che).
The basic principle is not dissimilar from the fleet of rentable mini Panda Cars (See Beware of the Panda) that used to cause havoc before their use also began to decline recently. I am not quite sure of the exact reasons yet, but I suspect a good few of them are now complete write-offs, and the rental company more picky over who they allow to drive them.
Once you physically locate one, each bike has a unique QR code for riders to unlock through the official Wechat portal, where users pay a 139 yuan deposit and fee online. Interestingly, there are no officially collection points, so you can find them scattered randomly over entire neighbourhoods, and in the most unusual of places.
I suppose there are two main ways to find these bikes. The surest is through the mobile portal, as the bikes all have GPS tracking, and so the nearest show up on the map for you choose.
However, since people leave the bikes in such random locations, it’s a safe bet you’ll come across one by chance wherever you happen to walk. So, using Mango bikes on a whim is always an option.
Mango bikes certainly look sturdy and attractively designed. The only bizarre side is the utterly random manner in which people decide to leave them. When driving around Chongqing, I often see them stood on busy roads, around building sites, remote stretches of pavement, the middle of public squares, beside traffic lights, or strewn in alleyways.
Whereas many cities have designated pick up and drop off points, anywhere seems to go for Mango bikes users. Despite the fact the Mango portal details the locations where users shouldn’t ride or leave them, spotting them has become an amusing feature of daily life.
Since I usually pass them while driving, it’s difficult for me to safely take photographs, but I will add to the collection whenever I come across them on foot or as a passenger.
Can you explore Chongqing by scooter?
Back to the original question.
My answer is that you could explore the city and outer reaches this way in theory, but not in any practice sense.
First and foremost, Chongqing now covers such an expanse that sheer distance makes it impractical to go much beyond your immediate neighbourhood, and a lack of charge points can diminish your chances of making it home if you go out of range.
When you factor in legal restrictions, the lack of cycle paths, and the long, steep inclines a scooter climbs up at snail pace here, you will sadly realise they are only good for short local journeys at best in Chongqing.
One final hazard are locals who open car doors in traffic without the slightest care or warning. Earlier this month, a British acquaintance told me how this has happened to him more than once.
The last time this happened was when he drove up the right side of a line of traffic on a bridge. Suddenly, the door flung open, causing him to veer out of the way. His passenger hit the door and sustained quite a bad leg injury. Fearful of communication issues and dealing with traffic police, he swallowed his anger, and chose to drive away.