Compared with the utter immensity of China, Vietnam seems rather small. We spent, as you may already know, three months racing around Vietnam on a motorbike. There’s no doubt that we saw an awful lot of stuff, but there was also an awful lot of stuff that we didn’t get to see because of time constraints. We missed the entire Mekong Delta region in the south, everything coastal below Cam Ranh, the centre of the head of the dragon, and the far north-west. Here’s the map of our motorbike trip.
How, then, would we manage to see all we wanted to in China? We only have a two-month visa and the country is ten times as large.
Ah, yes, of course! Bicycles.
We’ve decided to go the opposite of lazy and ride bicycles for the foreseeable future. Yes, that means we will now be ‘bicycle people’, but rest assured it’s unlikely you’ll be seeing my pathetic, skinny legs in spandex any time soon. And we won’t be advertising bicycle companies on shiny, skin-tight tops without having those companies pay us for it either.
But before that
This is probably a good point to explain what we’ve been doing with ourselves since arriving in China almost a week ago. Through Couchsurfing we found Nancy Buswell, a US-born educator teaching English for the SCIC (Sino Canadian International College) at Guangxi University in Nanning. Nancy has hosted hundreds of travelers through both Couchsurfing and similar website that focuses on cyclists, called ‘Warm Showers’. We asked if we could stay for five nights and ended up staying for seven. Nancy lives in a block of apartments that hosts an assortment of other international teachers, mostly from the USA and Canada.
Nancy asked us if we’d be willing to do two things while we stayed in Nanning. The first was to give two talks to her English classes about how we travel, and so of course we agreed. There have been two other times where I’ve been thrown in front of classes; once in Thailand and once in Myanmar (which I never wrote about). Both those times took me completely by surprise and ended up being uncomfortable experiences. The great thing about Nancy was that she told us exactly how long to talk for, what our topic should be, and gave us a few days to think about our presentation.
We (I say ‘we’ but it was almost entirely Caroline) created a Powerpoint presentation about how and why we were traveling. Each presentation was to last about one hour and forty minutes, and would offer the students a chance to hear foreign accents and learn about the sort of travel that doesn’t involve group tours. I thought it might be difficult to fill the time, but as we went through our thousands of photos trying to choose some for the presentation, we realised that almost all of them come with a story and that we’d be able to speak for hours if necessary. A fact that may or may not excite a lot of listeners.
The students, mainly females, were very polite and responded well to our talks. They seemed genuinely interested in our ramblings and laughed at our jokes. I found that physical humour seemed to amuse them (how to tie a longhi; where kopi luwak comes from), and Caroline got a lot of laughs from speaking Manglish (Malaysian English slang – “What lah? Don’t know lah. No stock.”)
The second thing Nancy asked us to do was to be guests on her ‘Ten Questions ESL’ podcast. The ‘ESL’ means ‘English as a Second Language’ and is broadcast out to people wanting to practice their English comprehension. We each did a guest slot on the podcast, and I’ll add the links here when they become available.
We both really appreciated Nancy letting us crash in her lounge for a week. She was a lovely person with a very generous heart, and we enjoyed many evenings chatting with her and eating chocolate ice cream. She also introduced us to an amazing foodcourt on campus called ‘The Dog Hole’ which sold, among many other things, Xiao Long Bao – amazing dumplings with a soupy centre – my personal favourite. Caroline was partial to the goat and blood soup.
On our second day in Nanning city, we walked into town towards the Giant dealer (location here), but on the way we spotted a Merida dealer (location hereish). These two Taiwanese bicycle brands are both huge, and it’s considered a pretty safe bet to choose one of them over their no-name Chinese counterparts from a reliability standpoint – although I should note here that both countries have factories in China. After checking out both stores, it seemed that only Merida had touring bikes. Caroline and I liked the exact same model – The Wolf 5 – and so we bought identical bicycles. The guys running the shop seemed to think Caroline would prefer the women’s model, but it was here that we learned the strange truth: Caroline and I have the same length legs. Weird. Apparently it’s a freakishly long torso that makes me taller.
Or course, the people at the dealership couldn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak any Chinese, so bargaining was off the table. They did, however, throw in an awful lot of free stuff: helmets, flashing lights, side bags, a bike computer, water bottles, a puncture repair kit, and gloves. We paid extra and got bright lights, a multi-tool and screwdriver, spare inner tubes and a pump, locks, and panniers (the large side bags). Having nice, reliable bikes was going to be a very big change from our Vietnamese motorcycle, so we spent more money on these bikes than we have on anything else in the recent past. There is an unfortunately high amount of bike theft in China, particularly for new, shiny bikes like ours, and so we each bought two locks for extra security.
To test out our bikes we cycled about 20 kilometres around the city, visiting a few of the many parks, lakes, and the science museum.
As I write this we are preparing for tomorrow. It will be our first ever long cycle, so we’ll be starting early. The plan is to head up towards Guilin, but it will probably take about a week to get there. We don’t have much idea of where we’ll be stopping along the way, but that’s all part of the adventure.
A short edit here. I didn’t post this on time because the internet in China isn’t very good. We have now actually just finished our first two cycles. We made it almost 90 kilometres each day and it was very, very difficult. Ugh.