Bicycles and Students

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.




Nancy had a sweet scooter which I had the pleasure of driving.

Buying Bicycles

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.


Along the Xinwei River with our brand new bikes.

Nanning Science Museum

The Science and technology museum: fancy on the outside, slightly neglected on the inside. Entry was free.

Nanning Science Museum

This ‘Welcoming robot’ seemed to be stuck on a endless, loud, ‘Ni Hao’. The obnoxious robot was right next to a little cafe and the worker there appeared to be grasping the last clutches of sanity.

Nanning Science Museum

Come for the attractions, stay for the English descriptions!

Nanning Science Museum

Nanning Science Museum



Electric bikes at rush hour.


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.


Just an ordinary train

10 Replies to “Bicycles and Students”

  1. You two are going to be amazingly fit after this next adventure! I am pleased you are finding time and viable internet to write the blog. Your faithful reader from Welly is still reading with enthusiasm 🙂

  2. Oh how I feel for your asses. I know Dave has a nice one, how I pity its pain and bruising!


    Hope its going well, Guilin is really nice to bike around, will be amazing to bike to. Hope you are taking the backroads… China’s backroads are brilliant. And I hope you visited a Xinhua book shop and got one of the amazing road atlases that only a communist government could produce!

    I also hope you are able to stop in places you want to. Sometimes in those provinces you are only allowed to stay in “tourist hotels”, but can usually get around this… find some friendly locals.

    You will be probably going through areas with Minority peoples. Look for people that look weird. They are awesome. Don’t I give good travel advice??? :-p

    1. How delightful and unnerving it is that you are a fan of my derrière. Right now it’s having a terrible time chaffing and forming horrible little sore bits. Vitamin E cream helps.

      You were right about finding a Chinese person to help with the hotels. We cycled with a local today and he did all the talking at the hotel. The guy behind the desk had to call his boss because he didn’t know what to do with foreign passports.

  3. Oh – once you are addicted to cycling, point West towards Kunming and beyond. In Yunnan you will find cycling nirvana (downhills) along with cycling purgatory (massive 2km high uphills).

    The first week is hell. The 2nd week you don’t know if you are suffering from delirium or are actually enjoying yourself!

  4. Dave and Caroline, it was such a pleasure to host you two! I enjoyed hearing your stories and am thankful that you talked to my students. Seven days wasn’t long enough to host you! Best wishes as you continue your journey by bike.

    Here’s the link to hear your podcasts online: I posted Dave’s yesterday and will post Caroline’s Friday. For those who already listen to podcasts, do a search for “Buswell” or “Ten Questions ESL” on your phone or iTunes and you’ll find me. My podcast’s name is The Ten Questions ESL Podcast, and it’s to help non-native English speakers to improve their listening comprehension and speaking. I had to put a warning in the notes for Dave’s episode! He speaks quite quickly and has a wide vocabulary.

    Best wishes from Nancy in Nanning, China
    PS: Thanks for teaching me “sweet as”. I’ve been using it quite often.

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