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

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.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Urban Japan

We have already left Japan, so this post is a throwback to our days in the Japanese cities, finishing in the biggest of them all: Tokyo.

A little bit over a month ago we arrived in Tokyo, a city of 32 million people and our final destination. We were a bit daunted by the mindboggling size and influenced by films like Bladerunner, Akira and Ghost in the Shell we were expecting a mad, hectic, sleazy and noisy monster of a place. In fact, it is quite a relaxed place and on our first day we cycle more than 30kms around Tokyo. We did have some preparation for the biggest city of them all though.

Kon’ichiwa Tokyo

Urban Japan

As pleasantly surprised as we are about the easy access to so much beautiful nature in Japan, it is difficult to cycle around the country without crossing some urban areas every now and again. On Kyushu and Shikoku the cities are not very large and quite relaxed. At first sight they are quite beige, but there are always some interesting places to visit such as a museum, a park or a shrine. There are still many houses in classical Japanese style with a carefully manicured garden to match.

When we start cycling towards Kyoto after our days on the Naoshima art island we opt for making some distance.  We cycled for a couple of days in seemingly never-ending suburbs, mostly existing of American-style strip building lined with chain restaurants and shopping malls along a busy highway. In more central city neighbourhoods we share the pavement with the cycling morning commuters: mothers with children, businessmen in suits and kids going to school. We love how bike friendly Japan is, and that it is a perfectly normal way of getting around for many people. The busy roads are not too bad since the traffic is slow and there is usually some sort of bike lane. When we veer off the main road we still find peaceful camping spots, one even right in the middle of Osaka in a small neighbourhood park.

Cycling into the cities has its perks too. We can add some variation to the daily convenience store bento box diet and we sample our first okonomiyaki, the Japanese answer to the Dutch kapsalon. It is a pile of noodles, egg, seafood or meat, fried on a hot plate and doused in sauces. Cheap, filling and tasty.

Kobe

Our first bigger city is Kobe. We arrive in the evening with a ferry from Naoshima and marvel at the wide boulevards, the highrise and the gleaming lights of some serious starchitecture such as the memorial for the 1995 earthquake. This magnitude 7 earthquake was the worst in Japan in the 20th century. It destroyed every building in the city that was built before the strict building laws of 1981 came into effect. The city and the harbour were severely damaged and the disaster cost more than 6000 lives. On the positive side, it resulted in a large volunteer effort with people from all over the country coming out to help, and the date of the earthquake is now national volunteer day. The city was quickly rebuilt and today it is a lively place with no immediate traces of the disaster. In Kobe we only spend one night, but we are lucky: our Amsterdam friend Enno has linked us with his friend Hiro and we are invited to stay with Hiro at his mother’s house.

Tatami room for two meets Ortlieb bags

The house is traditional Japanese, with tatami on the floor, sliding doors and calligraphy and ikebana arrangements in our room. The house where Hiro grew up was destroyed in the quake but rebuilt on the same spot. Hiro’s mum cooks us a fantastic meal and we have a great evening drinking beer and talking. We have one dish which consists of tiny raw squid. They are drowned in vats of soy sauce when they are caught so they are almost black, suffused with the salty sauce. Very cruel but also very tasty.

Osaka

From Kobe we cycle to Osaka in one day. Here we spend only one full day. It is a pretty modern city with shopping and clubbing as its main attractions. Not really our thing, but the city has a nice vibe and we are slowly starting to get excited about the big city buzz again.

Osaka welcome at Rapha

In Osaka we meet more cycling friends when we visit the Rapha Cycle Club. We are completely blown away by the warm welcome they have prepared for us: there are Oufti banners and photos and we have a great afternoon chatting with road racers who can’t believe how freaking heavy our fully loaded bikes are.

Kyoto

From Osaka we follow a traffic-free bike path along the river all the way into Kyoto, where we stay for a few days. My friend Roosmarijn Pallandt has an exhibition at the Kyotographie photo biennale and we spend a couple of days helping her out. It is decidedly weird to be back into my old line of cultural production work again after a year on the road. Her work hangs in a beautiful old house, formerly a kimono makers place, now a chique tea house and exhibition space.

The opening of the exhibition features a performance by an Ikebana artist. Ikebana is one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement that were developed in the 7th century and closely linked to Zen Buddhism. The art of flower arrangement, the tea ceremony and the art of incense appreciation all originated from temple rituals but developed into independent art forms. We are all sitting on the tatami floor in one of the larger rooms which opens onto the inner courtyard garden with sliding doors. The master is an older man who speaks very engagingly to the audience, before gracefully placing a single branch in a wicker container. This description of the performance doesn’t do any justice to the ritual of Japanese flower arrangement. The atmosphere is cerebral, and I have never seen an audience so rapt. The man disappears with the container through a sliding door. We hold our breath. Then, the paper doors at the end of the room slide open to show us the completed piece, with the garden as a backdrop. There is some time for contemplation and the master appears again, to a round of applause.

Geisha

Kyoto is one of the tourist highlights of Japan, and the first temple we visit we are surrounded by throngs of tourists. This is a small shock to the system after weeks of not seeing all that many foreigners. Many tourists dress up in garish geisha outfits which makes for nice people watching and a colourful addition to the historical sights.

Kyoto Geisha

Throughout the city there are still many traditional houses and one evening we glimpse a real geisha emerging from a private function in one of these houses. There are still about 2.000 real geisha working in Japan, but today they start their training after they finish high school, and not at the age of four as was customary. Geisha are highly skilled and independent businesswomen and not prostitutes as is a common conception in the West. The word geisha litterly translates as artist: gei = art sha = person. Traditionally it was a way to be financially independent without having to marry.

We like Kyoto but we find it difficult to be indoors instead of camping, so we are happy to cycle out of the city and into the green Kii Peninsula (see the latest blog post).

Tokyo

From the Kii peninsula we take a ferry to Tokushima, and from there an overnight boat to Tokyo. This ferry is mostly a cargo boat with only one floor for passengers and simple but very comfortable capsule cabins. There is no restaurant, only vending machines and microwaves. But, there is an onsen on board which is a huge bonus. It is strange to slosh around in a pool on board of a ship that is rocked by the waves. In the morning I watch Tokyo glide into view while floating in the hot pool with huge windows overlooking the sea.

We are too early for our Airbnb appartment so we do a recce of Tokyo with our fully loaded bikes. Our first stop is the small but exquisite temple for the god of strong legs. We could not have found a more fitting location to end our journey. We say a little prayer and leave a wooden plaque with a wish for more travel in good health, and gratitude for the trip we made.

Tokyo is easy to cycle around in, and over the next couple of days we do some sightseeing, in search of Japanese metabolist and brutalist architecture and exciting subcultures. The first we find in abundance; either from the top of the 45th-floor viewing platform in the Tokyo City Hall offices (designed by Kenzo Tange) or glimpses of small and smartly designed townhouses on street level. These concrete houses look somewhat grim and austere on the outside but imply a simple and beautiful Japanese interior, just like Tadao Ando’s designs.
I come down with a severe stomach bug so never have a chance to dive into Tokyo’s nightlife. Our apartment is supposedly in the heart of Japanese youth culture but the gothic lolita girls we met when we came out of Fukuoka airport are in the end the only ones we see on this trip. The people in Tokyo look mostly very normal and we are a little bit disappointed. A place that absolutely doesn’t disappoint is Tokyo’s National Museum, a treasure trove of historical artefacts. We can now link the certain historical periods to places that we have visited, which makes the artworks really come to life. There are amazing ink paintings, samurai swords, sculpture and other temple treasures. A must-visit when you come to Tokyo.

Another interesting outing we make is to the nearby academic hospital to find a diagnosis and treatment for my funky tummy. We marvel at the quiet professionalism and without any preferential treatment because of our skin colour we get to meet a doctor who runs all kinds of insanely expensive tests (thank you travel insurance!). He gets quite excited when he hears about our previous Central Asia stomach troubles. All kinds of parasites he has never before encountered in his practice. So, I will have to come back to Tokyo, because I spent most of the time here in bed, recovering and hoping I will be well enough in time to get on my flight to China.

Cyril leaves Tokyo for two days to participate in the Eroica Japan ride. The event is close to Mount Fuji but the mountain is feeling shy that day and hiding behind the clouds. Still, he has a nice day out riding with some interesting characters, other cyclists who love vintage bikes and gear. This being Japan many of them are dressed to the nines on perfectly restored vintage steel bikes.

Goodby Oufti!

And then, it is time to pack up the bikes. We are flying on the same day from Narita airport. Me to Chengdu, from where I will take a train to my new home in Kunming. Cyril will fly to Korea, where he will cycle for two weeks before flying to Rome and cycling back home. We have a relatively hassle-free trip to the airport and before we know it it is time to say our goodbyes. Cyril flies first, so I wave him through the security check. A long last hug and some tears, equally sad and happy. Sad because we are saying goodbye after a year of travel and three and a half years together. But happy with everything we have accomplished together and our friendship intact despite breaking up. On to new adventures.

In a couple of months, when Cyril is back in Amsterdam, we’ll post a throwback blog post to share our thoughts and feelings about this trip after returning to a more or less normal life. In the meantime I will start writing for a new blog. More about that later.  Right now I am quite busy settling into my new life in China, which is going rather well. I like my job, I have a challenging art project ahead, I’m meeting nice people, I have the headspace and stable internet connection to catch up with friends and family back home, I’m studying Chinese and I enjoy the creature comforts of having a lovely house surrounded by lush green, with a washing machine and a bathtub. For now, I don’t miss the cycling much, but I’m happy with the thought that I can pack up my panniers anytime and hit the road again. For now China is my challenge and I love it.

Thank you for traveling with us. Oufti!