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The Big Turtle King: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Joined the Green-Tech Revolution

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)

Much has been written in recent months about China’s coming green-tech revolution, leading some to ask whether this is a genuine phenomenon or not (see also here).   I decided to see for myself and, this past weekend, took one small step into the green-tech revolution.  I became the owner of one of the more than 100 million electric bikes in China (some 90% of the world market).

I had ridden these many years before and not been impressed by battery power, performance, etc.  A few weeks ago, however, my friend Evan Osnos purchased a more recent vintage of electric bike, a Vespa-like electric moped known as the Little Turtle King.  His reviews were exceedingly positive, so I decided to jump back in for a try.

side image of e-bike

My colleague, Rich Kassel, notes that the more environmental option is still just to ride a bike and that in New York City the numbers of bike commuters has been growing (up 45% since 2006).  However, e-bikes are the growth area in China.  They are filling a niche created by the need to travel greater distances, still insufficient public transit systems and the hassle and relative unaffordability of cars for many people.  Air quality in Beijing can be a major deterrent to bike riding and, for me, an e-bike would replace longer trips that typically would have been taken via taxi.

Last Saturday, I travelled up north to the same strip of e-bike stores near Tsinghua University where Mr. Osnos purchased his Little Turtle King.  After a survey of the various models, including Little Turtle Kings and what appeared to be copies of Little Turtle Kings, I settled on the da gui wang - or Big Turtle King, which is like a larger Vespa with curving motorcycle handlebars.  Though e-bikes have the benefit of lower energy use and no local emissions, a crucial environmental downside of most electric bikes sold in China is that they come standard with a lead-acid battery.  By one estimate the production of each lead acid battery results in 3 kg of lead emissions.  Given 100 million e-bikes in China and counting, that’s a lot of lead emitted.  Disposal of lead-acid batteries also represents a major hazard to the environment on the other end of the battery life-cycle.

The cleaner alternative was a lithium-ion battery.  This came at a price though.  With the standard lead-acid battery, the cost of the turtle king amounted to about five hundred and fifty US dollars (3750RMB).  Switching to a lithium-ion battery added another five hundred and seventy dollars (4000RMB), more than doubling the price of the vehicle.  Still the shopkeeper told me that half of their sales were for lithium-ion battery bikes, not because of the environmental benefit, but because of alleged performance boost – longer range (up to 100km on a single charge vs. 50km with the lead-acid battery), more power and a lighter battery.  I suggested that she should advertise the environmental benefit.  She seemed to nod in assent.

In the end, I rode out of the dealership on a brand new, shiny black Big Turtle King (with lithium battery) onto the mean streets of Beijing, where I found myself at every intersection surrounded by an incredible diversity of vehicles, electric and otherwise, competing for Darwinian supremacy.  Amid this motley assortment, electric vehicles were clearly edging into the lead.  Indeed, they were everywhere, in all shapes, sizes and formats.  And it is here where I think you can see China’s green-tech revolution taking shape – the product of government policies (on e-bikes) dating back to the early 1990s – even if all those people on electric bikes are blissfully unaware of it.  It is not necessarily pretty in the beginning, but with all the ferment and China’s legendary reputation for rapid change, you disregard China’s green-tech revolution at your own peril.

lithium battery charger

Indeed, my turtle king was a makeshift retrofit from a gas-powered scooter body.  The technician sawed a jagged hole under the seat of my new bike to insert a large lithium battery that can only be described as a US tort lawyer’s dream (there are two identical plugs emerging from the battery, one for energy input and one for output; the technician warned “whatever you do, do not plug your charger into the wrong one” as she hand-labeled each plug by ballpoint pen.).  And on day 2 with my turtle king I ran out of juice after 45km instead of the advertised 80-100km.  However, as my colleague Roland Hwang notes, China’s electric vehicle companies are looking to learn from the tremendous success of the e-bike industry, trying to figure out how to build up from the lessons learned in putting 100 million plus e-bikes on the road.  I expect these early kinks to be worked out in fairly short order.

In the meantime, as a consumer and Beijing city resident, my move to an e-bike has been thrilling.  I am seeing Beijing in a whole new light, traveling down side streets I would never otherwise see, getting glimpses of daily Beijing life that have been hidden from me over the past five years, and perhaps best of all beating the choking traffic that all those poor car drivers cannot avoid.

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Comments [add yours]

Kaiser Kuo says: — 2009/10/21 at 10:18 pm

Instead of commenting, I thought I’d post my forthcoming column from “The Beijinger” magazine,

I’m not what you’d call an environmental role model. I have no idea how big my carbon footprint is, but I doubt I’ve shed the wasteful habits learned in 30 years of life in America, so we’re probably talking Sasquatch proportions. Air conditioning, beef consumption, incandescent lighting-—my sins against Gaia are numerous.

The one mark in the assets column of my eco-karmic balance sheet is that I don’t own or drive a car. I haven’t had one for ten years now, when I gave up a piece-of-crap Jeep Cherokee in the break-up with the woman I’d bought it with, used, the previous year. In the intervening years, as I’ve watched Beijing’s traffic go from bad to intolerably freaking bad, I’ve grown ever more stubborn in my refusal to buy a car. This was for a while a bone of contention between me and my wife Fanfan, who didn’t grow up driving like I did, and who like most Chinese can’t really be faulted for wanting a car. For her, cars were about self-expression thing; for me, conveyance was all that mattered. If we must buy a car, I said, then there’s no way we’re buying an SUV—her starting position. I countered with a Suzuki Swift (SmartCars hadn’t come to China just yet), or something equally tiny. I’d be willing to go as big as a Prius, I said, but she so hated everything in my acceptable range, and got so tired of my sanctimonious tirades about peak oil, smog and global warming that finally she stopped arguing with me. Sure, there are times I wish I could whisk the family off to Huairou or points beyond for weekend escapes from Old Chokey, but hiring or borrowing seems a more economical way to go. And so I’m glad to be car-free and planning on staying this way, at least until plug-ins are cheap and widely available.

But one must get around. Some years back, in 2004 or so, I started seeing all these electric bikes on the road, zipping past me as I huffed along on my mountain bike. I bought my first e-bike about three years ago. It was a Giant, but that was a misnomer: The thing was actually tiny, like a proper gas-powered scooter shrunk to 60% of its original size. Fanfan was livid. Riding the thing, she said, I looked like one of those circus bears pedaling a miniature bicycle. It was especially comical for me because, as she’s fond of pointing out, I have relatively short legs and an absurdly long torso. Within months, at her insistence, I had given the thing to her parents.

When we moved this summer to a part of town that’s beyond walking distance from a convenient subway stop and practically gridlocked during commute time, she relented and let me buy another e-bike. After a bit of shopping I settled on a Dushifeng—-a “Citify”—with an outsize lead-acid battery that can carry the thing 70 kilometers on a charge at a decent clip of about 30 kilometers per hour. With a 500 watt motor, it’s even got a bit of pep. It cost me about RMB 2300, and to Fanfan’s relief, it’s big enough that I don’t look ridiculous—-or wouldn’t, anyway, were it not for the bicycle helmet and ski goggles she insists I don before setting off.

A single charge gets me back and forth from Zhongguancun, where I go once or twice a week. Crossing the vast expanse of Beijing, one has practically limitless choices of route, and I change mine up every time, just to go through parts of town I’d not been through in a while. It’s astonishing how much you miss when you take the subway all the time, like me. The e-bike has put me back in touch with Beijing.

Last night I was at a dinner party thrown by an American environmental lawyer here in town, and oddly, electric bikes were the subject of prolonged conversation. A journalist friend of mine had bought one recently, and clearly enamored with it, declared that it had changed his life. The host, who had real green credibility he had to uphold, had finally decided to pay twice the going rate so that he could swap out the lead-acid battery for a lithium-ion job, which is not only less environmentally damaging but will also go something like 140 kilometers on a charge. The downside, it turns out, is it poses a higher chance of explosion. We wondered why they hadn’t gotten more popular in America. Another American journalist professed his hatred for scooters, electric or otherwise, decrying the “Guangzhouification” of Beijing and pronouncing them a major road safety hazard. You’re right, we agreed: they’re dangerous mainly because they’re so quiet and they pedestrians and other cyclists can’t hear you as you approach. But then we went right back to extolling their virtues.

Are you an e-bike enthusiast? I’m now contemplating formation of an outlaw e-biker gang dedicated to the noble work of keeping the bike lanes of Beijing free of cars. Those selfish assholes have driven me to paroxysms of rage on many a morning commute, and I’m for meting out rough justice. Who’s with me?

Alex Wang says: — 2009/10/21 at 10:35 pm


Great column and thanks for your tips on e-bike options as well. I’m in for the e-biker gang…

Kaiser Kuo says: — 2009/10/21 at 10:56 pm

Obviously Alex is the environmental lawyer referred to in the column. An excellent host, incidentally! And Evan Osnos is the journalist with the e-bike mentioned above.

Alex Wang says: — 2009/10/22 at 6:57 am

The development to watch will be how China moves up the chain from e-bikes. We’re breathing in an inordinate amount of CO and other pollutants right now as we bike along BJ streets. Mainstreaming electric vehicles that replace gas-powered vehicles will significantly reduce that pollution.

Re: “Guangzhouification” of BJ – in my view, it’s the car drivers, not the e-bikers, who are the real dangers to life and limb. Get them back to driving school!

Beijing Daze says: — 2010/07/13 at 3:09 am

Hey Alex,

Great write up! I’m fixing to get one of those Turtle Kings in the next few days and I was wondering about the Li-Ion battery performance. How does it fold up? Are you getting anywhere close to those 100km?
Cheers and thanks

Alex Wang says: — 2011/06/14 at 9:04 pm

Beijing Daze, Missed your comment. Apologies. The Li-Ion batteries are going for about RMB1500 these days. Prices have dropped by about 50%. The benefit is that they are very light and about the size of a lunchbox. The supposedly last a year longer than lead-acid. And of course they do not have the environmental issues associated with lead-acid. The range on the battery is only about 40km. The original sales pitch I received a few years ago was optimistic, at best.

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