Exploring my new home: Yunnan province

After three months of living and working in China I have my first full week off. As Cyril is starting his working life in Amsterdam I am ready to go on a little cycling holiday. Getting on the bicycle is a perfect way to clear my head of work clutter and have some time to mull over the first impressions and experiences in my new home country. I send my bicycle ahead and take a train to Dali. From there I cycle to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang: visiting three major tourist destinations in Yunnan. We didn’t cycle here when we came through last year, because we were weary of high altitudes and cold, but now it is August and I am well rested and healthy. Some of the most special moments of this little trip occur in between these touristy places when it is just me, the bicycle, the surroundings and the people I meet.

Dali

Dali is six hours away from Kunming by train, towards the mountainous West of Yunnan. It is home to different ethnic minorities and boasts a historical city centre, with cobblestone streets and little waterways that flow between old stone houses. After China started opening up to tourists in the ’90’s it became a popular backpacker destination. Now the old centre is somewhat over-restored and converted into a slew of souvenir shops and restaurants.

Dali in the early morning
Dali in the early morning

Apparently this is get-away number one for Chinese people who are looking to have a bit of fun outside of their marriage. The streets are crowded with Chinese tourists who are pulling their trolley suitcases over the cobble stones, wearing flower garlands, taking selfies and munching on food. It is all very festive but a bit too much for me. Busy places can be strangely lonely when you are on your own. Still, the people who run the guesthouse and the restaurants are nice. I find my Chinese has definitely improved in the last couple of months and I can now order food, ask for prices and tell people that I love China.

Lake Erhai village house
Lake Erhai village house

I pedal out of the busy town, first cycling by three beautiful pagoda’s and then down to the edge of Lake Erhai. All of a sudden the tourists are gone and I am mostly alone. I follow a winding road through sleepy villages alongside the lake to the North. At the North edge of the lake is Xizhou, which is my first pleasant surprise. I visit the Linden Centre and speak to Brian Linden, the co-founder. He and his wife are also in love with China and have a long history of working and visiting the country. 10 years ago they decided to sell their house in the USA and invest in restoring traditional Bai minority houses. One has been turned into a hotel and cultural venue. Bai houses consist of three wings around a central courtyard, with the Western wing facing a ‘reflection wall’: it reflects good forces into the house and bad forces out. I’m so happy to have found this place, and very inspired by all this creative energy and historical beauty I cycle onwards.

Xizhou Bai house courtyard
Xizhou Bai house courtyard

Jianchuan

After a good nights sleep I pedal onwards. It is great to be out on the bicycle again, and to discover how quickly I find the familiar rhythms again. My second day is about 90kms. The road is a bit busy but I don’t care, I’m cycling! People are smiling and waving and I don’t have a care in the world. Rain has been predicted for every day but in the end I only get rained on for maybe an hour during the whole week.

New Vietnamese hat is great for the rain
New Vietnamese hat is great for the rain

I finish the second day in Jianchuan, which is an even bigger surprise than Xizhou. Where Xizhou is already a little bit developed for tourism, Jianchuan is completely off the map. It has beautiful streets with original shophouses and courtyards, still in use. I manage to stumble across a gorgeous little boutique hotel, again set in a traditional Bai house with courtyard and reflecting wall. The owner spends the evening explaining a lot of aspects of Bai culture to me. In Jianchuan the houses might not be as spectacular as in Xizhou but arts and crafts and traditions are very much alive. This is mostly visible in beautifully carved wooden door screens, stone work and a little good luck charm my host gives me, made by a local Bai lady. Together we watch a video of Bai dances and drink roasted tea out of burnished earthenware. Another inspiring meeting and another place I would love to visit again.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

From Jianchuan I push for Hutiaoxia, or Tiger Leaping Gorge, in one day. I am excited to see the Yangtze river and roll down to its banks to follow it up to Hutiaoxia.

The Yangtze river
The Yangtze river

The Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most famous tourist destinations of Yunnan and of China. Here the mighty Yangtze river pushes through a deep and narrow gorge, a spectacle of roaring river and forbidding mountains. Most people visit the gorge on a day trip from Lijiang, and when I arrive I understand why. The village of Hutiaoxia in nothing more than a dusty truck stop with a massive traffic jam that snakes through it, a lot of roadworks and one very underwhelming guesthouse (a cranky landlady and rats and fleas keep me up at night). I don’t think I’ve ever experienced roads that were simultaneously muddy and dusty but here it happens. Instead of hiking the high trail I decide to cycle the road that follows the gorge but it is so narrow and dangerous that I turn around after 5km. I am thoroughly disheartened by my depressing surroundings and decide to leave the morning after instead of staying an extra night in flea palace. I may have missed out on something amazing by not hiking the gorge but I am quite tired after a couple of long days cycling. I’m happy to opt for an extra day in Lijiang to just wander around and relax.

Lijiang

Lijiang has a poor reputation for being a noisy and busy tourist trap. When I arrive I am pleasantly surprised at how relaxed it is. Later I find out why: there are not one but two ‘ancient towns’, and I am staying in Shuhe, the one that has been most recently developed and is therefore not quite as crazy as the original ‘ancient town’ in the centre of Lijiang. Shuhe is also an easy 5km cycling away from Baisha, a charming Naxi minority village with an interesting embroidery centre and impressive historical frescoes.

Baisha fresco
Baisha fresco

It is quiet and as I wander out of the village this tiny old lady beckons me to follow her. Of course! I feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland when I follow her down some alleys to the courtyard of her home. Auntie Liu has a table full of big and small guest books with stories left by all of her visitors. She feeds me rice congee, tea and sunflower seeds and we spend a pleasant moment just sitting together. I have to pay 30 kuai (4 euro) for the privilege so here is one entrepreneurial 82 year old who has turned her charm and hospitality into a business.

Auntie Liu of Baisha village
Auntie Liu of Baisha village

The rest of my time in Shuhe I spend wandering around the cobbled streets and feasting on some fantastic Yunnan food in One restaurant. Yaya is the owner, a cool lady who lets me try some Tibetan wine which is surprisingly drinkable. I never would have thought of vineyards in Shangri-la but apparently a French couple has introduced winemaking here and it is doing well.

Wo ai Yunnan, Yunnan I love you

Before I know it it is time to board the night train, back to Kunming, and back to work. It has been a short trip but I’m full of renewed energy and ideas. Sometimes it is difficult, traveling alone again, trying to settle into a new country with a complicated language, but I am very much looking forward to the next 9 months in beautiful Yunnan. Most of all I am happy I am finding interesting and inspiring people. As we discovered time and time again over the last year, it’s always the people who make the journey worthwhile.

Naxi lady
Naxi lady

Back to the old world

From Seoul in South Korea I fly directly to Rome, the first European stop on my way home. It took Vera and me 13 months to travel mostly on our bicycles from Europe to far East Asia, but it only takes 13 hours on a plane to get back. While Vera is settling into her new life in Kunming in China, I return to Europe for the first time in over a year. So it isn’t strange that I have a little culture shock. Everything in Rome looks so old and most of it quite dirty in comparison to Japan and South Korea. Buildings are crumbling and tagged all over, there’s garbage on the street and the road itself isn’t this smooth tarmac I rode on in Seoul. And then there’s the people. They are so much less reserved than back in Tokyo and Seoul. There is bare skin everywhere, shouting and of course a guy pissing against the central station in Rome where i put together my bike to make my way to Martino, an Italian we met while travelling in Iran. He invited me to stay at his place near the centre of Rome. When we meet I feel this wave on nostalgia and am happy to finally ‘land’. It relaxes me and I notice I start to enjoy Rome for the first time. I sense the warm evening air, smell the typical fruity aroma and enjoy some wine and great Italian food with Martino. Unfortunately we only get to share one evening together, but I am sure we will meet again.

Not the most bike-friendly city in the old world

Working girls

After an espresso at the legendary Caffe San Eustachio and a short visit to the Pantheon I try to get out of the city as fast as I can. Rome isn’t really bike-friendly and on my way to Castelnuevo north of the city I pass some north African working girls on one of the roads leading out of the capital. Again I am wondering about our European cultural values and what they mean to me. We pride ourselves on openess, freedom and equality, but seeing these girls beside the road make me question the true meaning of those words. For months I haven’t seen any exploitation of women like this. I know it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but the way we accept it as a ‘normal’ day tot day element of our lives is also a bit shocking.

Thankfully the next few days in Castelnuevo show me the other side of life in the old world. My friend Karen from Scotland moved to what she calls ‘Newcastle’ after having had several appartments in Rome for many years. Castelnuevo is a small, medieval town where life moves slowely. Everyone gathers on the main square at night for pizza or a gelato and the social aspect of this is something I really enjoy. Together with the food, wine and nice weather I sense I’ve missed some parts of Europe as well, but I look at it differently now, appreciating some elements more than before.

Castelnuevo aka Newcastle on the hill

For the love of film

On my last day at the Castelnuevo retreat we decide to visit a sight that has been on my to-see-list for a long time: CineCitta. This once thriving village was built within a year, under supervision of Mussolini in the 1930’s. It’s a massive complex of studios (teatros in Italian), massive outdoor sets and nowadays a lovely museum dedicated to the big names in Italian cinema. Everything just oozes love for film. The costumes worn by Elizabeth Taylor, the stories about Fellini who lived at the CineCitta for a while and the great insight in the mind of Sergio Leone are highlights for Karen and me. We conclude a great visit with a guided tour around the purpose built sets that look just like the real thing, except for some historically totally incorrect changes. Vera would have loved to have a look around here I think, and I feel the distance between us now we’re in different continents.

It’s time to head for the harbour of Civitavecchia as I ride around the beautiful Bracciano lake, passing through some more villages where time seems to stand still. On the way I spend a night with friends of Karen who host me although they don’t know me at all and when they head out in the morning for work, they leave me in charge of the house. Good to see that not only Warmshower or Couchsurfing hosts can be as trusting as this.

After travelling in countries like Japan and South Korea it takes some time to get used to the nonchelance of Southern European signage and lack of organisation at for example the harbour where my ferry for Sardinia leaves. Finding my way, understanding where and when to go to check-in, it all seems straight from a funny movie. Signs are missing, hardly anybody speaks (or wants to speak) English and together with some Austrian motorcyclists I manage to find the ferry and actually get on board as one of the last passengers after a very lacklustre customs check.

Neighbours with helicopters

Sardinia is just what I need. A warm place with lovely food and empty roads. Of course some towns are a little touristy, especially around the Costa Smerelda area, but is is a beautiful place as well. My first night I spend on a small beach with a multi-million dollar yacht as a neighbour. I count at least 7 decks and spot a helicopter on top. Hopefully they’re not looking when I try to put up my tent across their floating palace in a strong summer breeze. I do ponder about the difference in lifestyle, and decide I like the freedom my little tent and bicycle give me, as the yacht seems like a nice place to stay, but also as something that costs a fortune to keep afloat. The next few days I enjoy cycling around the North of the Island, switching from seaside to hilltops all the time and climbing quite a lot in the process, sweating like a wild Sardinian pig. Again I do notice the difference between cycling alone or together. On the bike I don’t mind being alone, but visiting towns, having lunch and pitching the tent are just less fun alone without VeloVera.

Che bella strada

After five days it’s time to leave Sardinia and I hop over to Corsica. My last week alone on the road as Alex will join me in Nice for one of the more challenging parts: the Route des Grandes Alpes which we will tackle together. But first I take a ferry to another place I have been looking forward to to visit for a long time. Corsica doesn’t dissapoint: the roads along the coast offer great views of the crystal clear sea, the local food all tastes wonderful and if you want to you can climb all day when you leave the coast behind. It is also quite clear you’re not in Italy anymore. Gone are the gelaterias but in come the boulangeries. I cross the island from South to North, following the Eastern coastline. I have some time to spare and decide to head to the hills and the picture perfect town of Corte. It is a worthwhile detour and it means I can also enjoy the downhill parts when I make my way to Bastia. I stay two nights in lovely Bastia and enjoy the company of warmshower hosts Izabella, Aurélien and their happy dog Tuca. It is very nice to feel like I am actually meeting up with old friend instead of staying with someone I hardly know. Sharing travel stories, inspiration and just joking around feels very good. For the first time I also notice that I’m starting to look forward to going ‘home’… but first there are some Alps to conquer.

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Solo South Korea

The first few hours are rough. I have to find my way to the hostel in the dark, crossing several industrial estates with some guard dogs. Where is Vera, where is the pepperspray? I make it to the hostel and try to find some food. After japan with its seemingly infinite number of convenience stores, the north of Busan seems quite empty and deserted. I crash in my hot dorm room without dinner, hoping to sleep off this first impression of South Korea.

No I in Oufti

The sun is out and I am ready to get going. Stock up on food, water and fuel and head north. I’ll be following the 4 rivers bike path which will take me all the way from Busan in the south eastern tip to Seoul in the north west of South Korea. The ride is not really adventurous, but taking it on alone after cycling together with Vera for over a year feels strange and unsettleing. Yes, I can decide everything by myself now, but I really do miss sharing the first impressions, making the plan for the next few days and just being together. Sometimes I cry a little on the bike behind my sunglasses and think a lot about the last past year and everything we shared and experienced with the two of us. There is no I in team Oufti.

Cycle path perfection

The cycling in Korea is great. Near perfect bike paths take me further away from Busan and into the countryside. I meet some other cyclist who ride part of the 4 rivers route or are just doing a short workout along the river. There are signs everywhere and enough water and food to make the cycling very comfortable. I do notice I don’t stop a lot and prefer to keep pedalling along. Cycling alone is okay, but sightseeing or enjoying a lunch feels very different now. Camping along the river is no problem, there are some empty campgrounds that are supposed to be packed in the weekends and enough beautiful stealth spots to provide me with good sleep.

Keep going

During the six days it takes me to reach Seoul I run into some nice and interesting people. More and more I manage to open up and talk to these strangers. Jim, the golf columnist who brings me a Guinness beer, George and his friend Michael (for real!) who are cycling the other way and the english couple Yvette and Robin, who are travelling with Bike Friday folding bicycles and with whom I have a nice lunch all confirm what we have experienced for the last thirteen months: people are nice, they just need to talk to each other. Being on my own made me a little reserved and maybe even scared more than I used to be when travelling together. The combination of comfort, easy route was great for me to return to myself and be confident enough to keep going on my own.

Seoul searching

There are not many big cities that are so easy to cycle into as Seoul. There are great cycling routes all along the Han river that splits the city. I haven’t booked any accomodation in advance but manage to find a hostel smackbang in the middle of Gangnam. As always, a metropolis can enhance the feeling of loneliness, and it does this time as well. Until I ride out to the Rapha clubhouse a few blocks away that is. The feeling of coming home is a mix of the familiar interior and vibe, the espresso that tastes the same as in Amsterdam and a film about my home town that just happens to play on the big screen as I arrive. I feel goosebumps and some tears as I have my first real wave of homesickness since a long time. The coffee and company of RCC manager Adam relaxes me and I feel at home on the other side of the planet.

Big city life

In Seoul I spend most of my time cycling around with Rapha, the guys behind Far Ride magazine and on my own. I enjoy the company of other (road) cyclists, visit some nice bike shops and try to find my way in a city of 22 million Koreans. It is a intriguing hybrid between Korean and Western culture. It feels to big to live in, and most people I talk to agree. Yes the cycling paths and parks along the river offer the residents some space to breath and move, but when I ride along the path on a saturday it looks like half of all the people living in the city put up their tent for a day of camping. It feels more like a festival ground, the place is packed! I decide I don’t want to live in a city you can’t get out of easily, guess I’m just getting old.

Cycling unites: riding around with RCC members in Seoul

Take off

While I sit in the airplane on the runway that will take me back to Europe there are a lot of thoughts and emotions. I miss Vera like crazy and hope she is getting her life started in Kunming. We keep in touch of course, but it’s not the same as spending 24 hours together every day for more than a year. In Europa I’ll slowly will make my way back home, visiting friends along the way in Rome, Geneva, Zürich and München. There are still some challenges ahead, mainly the route over the Alps from Nice to Geneva, but the biggest one will be enjoying my time on the road alone.

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