Tharp On: Motorcycles

I knew something was terribly wrong when I heard the horn blast, so close, followed by screaming rubber. My blood turned to ice, knowing that things were totally beyond my control—that the only factor between living and dying was just how quickly that driver could manage to stop.

Impact. Spinning. An audible crunch.


When I came to, I was on the pavement. My shoulder was on fire. A nova of pain radiated from my lower left leg, now bent at a 90-degree angle. I could see the jagged end of my shin bone sticking out through black denim. Blood. I was overwhelmed and disoriented and wanted to puke. The only thing I knew was that I wouldn’t be walking away.

Motorcycles. Yeah, they’re dangerous, but they’re among the most thrilling inventions of mankind. They represent the ideas of absolute freedom and total individualism. Jump on and go wherever you want. They’ve been mythologized and romanticized in cinema and song as the symbol of a modern iconoclast, outlaw or free thinker. And when you ride, you’re much more in touch with your surroundings than you are within the aluminum box of a car. I was so in touch with my surroundings that I bounced off its bumper, but there is something immensely satisfying about tasting the air and smelling the trees and feeling the wind whip around you. There’s just nothing that compares to cruising down the open road on the back of a bike.

You have carte blanche to take your machine wherever you want in whichever manner you deem fit. Red lights are just friendly warnings. Crosswalks were made to be blasted through at full speed—the more pedestrians, the better.

Riding in a large Korean city such as Busan is a different matter. You’re more likely to taste exhaust, smell raw sewage and feel the angry glares of chain-smoking taxi drivers. And there’s usually not a lot of ‘open road.’ You spend most of your time weaving between cars or dodging blue and orange busses piloted by sadistic men who probably grew up torturing animals. It’s a grueling, gory free-for-all out there, and motorcycles get little respect. They are widely viewed as the rodents of the Korean road food chain: annoying little creatures to be exterminated and preyed upon. People swerve into your lane without looking, signals be damned; they whizz by in lethal vehicles just millimeters from your soft body—one miscalculation and you’re jiggae, buddy; they pull out from side streets straight in front of you, just daring you to do them a favor and slam into their shiny, expensive front fender. Go ahead punk. Make my quota.

Riding in the city is a death wish, yet so many of us do it. The motorcycle or scooter is the preferred method of personal transportation for the expatriate in Korea. Sure some tubby, old lifers drive cars, but far more of us zip around on motorbikes. Why is this? One reason is that they’re cheap. Just a few hundred bucks will set you up with a decent, functional bike, but more that that, they’re fun. Humming around on a bike is a kick in the pants. Suddenly, every grocery trip to Homeplus becomes the trailer for Easy Rider 2: Cruising the Far East. And they’re inherently cool. Random, young Korean guys will see you on a bike and shout out, Oh! Otobi very good! Handsome guy!!! You can imagine yourself a badass biker as you pull into the school where you teach, a proper Hell’s Angel, with a backpack containing a set of flashcards, a bingo game and Let’s Go 3.

Most riders in Korea have a fairly elastic interpretation of traffic laws, meaning that they don’t view them as laws at all, but merely suggestions. And the cops don’t seem to mind. Sometimes they’ll pull riders over for not wearing a helmet, but otherwise you have carte blanche to take your machine wherever you want in whichever manner you deem fit. Red lights are just friendly warnings. Crosswalks were made to be blasted through at full speed—the more pedestrians, the better. And the sidewalk? That’s the golden highway, baby! Ask anyone who owns a bike: It’s like riding through butter. Even ‘60s rockers Steppenwolf allude to it in their classic song, Born to Be Wild:

I like smoke and lightning

Oriental sidewalks

Shooting through a red light

On a Daelim Daystar gearbox

Motorcycles, like drugs or extreme sports, are addictive. I certainly feel the jones to ride again, despite the fact that I’m still hobbling around on a crutch. Why? Because riding makes us feel so alive, despite the fact that we’re only inches from death. I found that out the hard way. Luckily, I avoided being turned into jiggae, though my leg did look a bit like pajeon.

So enjoy it while it lasts. Korea is where the free spirit ideals of riding a motorcycle are made even freer: Riders are unburdened from the yoke of traffic laws altogether. It’s still pretty much anything-goes out there, and despite the risks of grievous bodily harm, I think Peter Fonda would dig the scene. Korea is a great place to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man, and yes, it’s also a great place to get loaded.

You can get Chris Tharp’s book Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Koreaon Amazon or

Illustration by Michael Roy. You can see more of his work at

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