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 Furthermore, Ofo’s expansion to the world has now been retracted, with the company struggling to stay in business in China.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.

Summer Project 2017

Panzhihua (攀枝花) is a small town–for China–nestled in a mountainous area of southern Sichuan province. Back in July I spent 2 weeks as part of a group of Peace Corps Volunteers offering training to local Primary and Middle School English teachers. It was a 14-hour train ride south from Chengdu through some lovely countryside.

There were 6 Peace Corps Volunteers and 180 teacher trainees. It was a hectic time during which everyone felt exhausted. Although 1 week would have sufficed–the teachers gave up their summer and were already quite capable–it was a success. It was important to be a presence there as a foreigner to share new teaching ideas, exchange culture and fellowship, and to help them improve their own English skills.

Other than being a small mining town, Panzhihua is also known for mangoes, and I had a steady flow of those the whole time. One of the teacher trainees even mailed a box of mangoes to my apartment so I could continue enjoying them at home.

Hiking Up the Mountain

Last month I went with a group of students to a nearby mountain. Mianyang is in a basin, but there are many mountains in the Sichuan province. The students arranged for early transportation for the hour and a half ride to Jiuhuang Mountain (九皇山). No one had told me the scale of this mountain before I arrived. I came prepared for a hike, but not quite for this. As is common here, the mountain itself has been made accessible to non-expert climbers with kilometers of stone stairs, much of it leading straight up the mountain. For those who aren’t keen on stair climbing, there are a series of cable cars leading the way, although it is quite expensive.

About halfway up, there is a suspension bridge (called Lovers bridge) spanning across a wide gap as well as stairs that go alongside the sheer rock face. It was cloudy, and even rainy, which made for some tricky climbing. I imagine the panorama would be even more spectacular had it not been so cloudy.

This mountain also features a cave with spectacular stalactites and stalagmites lit up in a rainbow of colors.

All in all, it was an amazing day that left me exhausted.