The Bikes of Chengdu

In the Spring of 2017 the dockless shared bike system fronted by Ofo made its way to the campus of Mianyang Teachers College in China’s Sichuan Province. The craze had spread across China’s larger cities, and to Sichuan’s capital Chengdu earlier. At the time my students expressed pride in this “great Chinese invention”–and then were confused when I explained China didn’t invent bike sharing, as it was used in the US for some years. What Chinese companies had done was improve, as it were, a system already in existence.

New Ofo bikes on Mianyang Teachers College campus, April 2017

The yellow bikes flooded the campus and were a great way for students to make their way from the main campus buildings to the front gate, 2km away. Yellow Ofos and silver and orange Mobikes also appeared around Mianyang city, with other companies stepping into the frenzy, too.

The concept relies on convenience: need a bike? Here’s a bike! It’s cheap and easy, use it and leave it wherever you are when you’re done. Yet problems in this system became apparent and only grew from there. My students, not used to questioning and critical thinking, missed the potential problems in their pitch to me, such as in order to keep costs down the company mass manufactured crappy bikes that broke down easily; someone has to be paid to keep the bikes repaired and in circulation in popular areas; and if people can, they will leave them anywhere–and I mean anywhere.

As it turns out, Ofo and the other bike share companies were not concerned with repairing bikes; they have left behind mass graves of misplaced, broken, and decaying bicycles throughout China. Furthermore, Ofo’s expansion to the world has now been retracted, with the company struggling to stay in business in China.


The number of bikes that littered the streets of Chengdu grew as if they reproduced like rabbits. By January 2018, the problems in their business model became glaring (to me), especially traveling through the central part of Chengdu. It’s as if they hadn’t thought–or cared–about how many people actually might use their product and the logistics involved in such an operation with so many bicycles, nor about the cost to the environment.


When I gazed in awe at their mass numbers, I realized this was a recurring pattern in how Chinese do business. Locally, at least, small businesses opened and closed all the time, sometimes with short lifespans. They had failed to do appropriate research on product, location, and target consumers.

Uncertain about the future of dockless bike sharing, below I posted a tribute to the bikes of Chengdu.

February and March in Pictures

The second half of March was more pleasant–the rains returned after a long winter absence which fostered new green growth and flowers. I had some time to get out and ride my bike a few times to enjoy the springtime. At school, the semester continued on. We foreign teachers introduced our English Corner students to the game of Monopoly, which went over really well. One student, who at first didn’t know if she would enjoy the game, said, “Wow, I like it!” after immediately receiving rent after buying a property. There was time to enjoy dinner out with students, as well as inviting students to my apartment to cook some spare ribs. I’m not yet proficient in cooking Sichuan food, but I expanded my baking repertoire by trying out some banana oat mini muffins.

Also pictured here are photos of the Anshun Bridge from a brief visit to Chengdu from February.


Chengdu

Rumbles of thunder echo beneath the constant rattle of cicada-like insects. The morning air is muggy, the afternoon air is muggy, the night air is muggy. Rain is in the forecast today and with it might come slightly cooler temperatures, if only for a few hours.

Yesterday morning the rain fell from a gray sky. If I could forget the heat, I could almost think it a Seattle-like morning–a blanket of gray, misty air and rain shrouding the tops of skyscrapers. My body craved sunshine, and yet the constant heat made me rejoice for a cloud-covered sky (unlike Seattle, where I always loved the sunny summer).

Last week I relished in the sight of a beautiful sunset at a nearby lake, and seeing the stars. Today I’m wishing for more rain.

Welcome to summertime in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province of western China.

Chengdu is an ancient city, though by the looks of the current skyline littered with high-rise apartment buildings and dozens of cranes erecting more tall towers, it would seem newer. Chengdu, along with many places in China, has seen recent rapid growth and development; however, it should be noted that this area itself has been inhabitaed for over 4,000 years.

The reality of this hit me yesterday when I stared at a bronze piece excavated from around this city, dated back to 475-221 BC. The Sichuan Museum has a unique collection of pottery, ceramics, stone carvings, and bronze ware made through the ages and found in Chengdu and other places in the Sichuan province.

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Bronze cooking ware dating back to 475-221 BC, on display at the Sichuan Museum in Chengdu

I’m still contemplating the ancient artifacts and the bustling city I see, hear, and feel around me every day: busy roads, car horns, people walking, ancient pottery, towering apartment buildings, construction cranes, expanding subway system…Chengdu is my home, at least for the next month. It has been my first experience in China, a window into life in the world’s most populous nation. This is still the beginning of life in China, with many layers left to see and experience. My eyes are open.

The distant thunder is gone, and the rain didn’t come near as I had hoped (at least not yet). It’s Sunday, and I’m staying inside for awhile resting my body from the intense schedule of being a Peace Corps Trainee and preparing for the week ahead. It’s going to be another busy one: mid-training interview, preparing for the future language proficiency interview, more sessions about teaching English, and more. With such an intense schedule, I enjoy the brief moments of rest and renewal so I can ready myself to keep moving through this training.

The first month in photos

As promised, a gallery of recent photos. There are many stories to tell from this first month, and this morning I offer a journey of photographs through the various experiences I have had as a Peace Corps trainee in China. Written stories are not far behind, but here are images to grab your attention.