Goodbye Oufti, hello Vera and Cyril

Cyril arrived home after a couple of months of solo cycling and jumped straight back into his old job, and Vera is managing life and work in China. Time for our final Oufti blog post, some 16 months after we left.

For a while it was too early to know where the two of us would go from here. We were still talking. As friends, but also to see if we could reignite our relationship. Because of the good times we had, because of this amazing trip we made together. Apart from the underlying issues that caused the breakup the distance made this really hard so we were for a while experiencing the relationship equivalent of Schrodingers cat. That is, we simultaneously were and were not in a relationship, and we didn’t know how things would work out. It was painful and it made it hard to focus on settling into our respective old and new lives. But yesterday it’s been decided we’ve split up. We will both try to get our lives back on the rails.

Picture by Jon Woodroof
Picture by Jon Woodroof

Cyril: settling back in Amsterdam

It’s only three weeks I ago since I arrived back in Amsterdam, but it already feels like a lot longer. It is surprising how fast you switch back to ‘normal’ life after months of being on the road. My memories of our trip of a lifetime feel far way and I have to make an effort to think about all the amazing sights we’ve seen and inspiring people we’ve met. I do love being back in the city, something I wasn’t to sure about while riding towards Amsterdam. I see places with new eyes, love the laid back atmosphere and enjoy meeting up with familiy and friends. But most of all I struggle with the parallel universes that occupy my mind right now. I try to still ‘feel’ the trip and the time Vera and I enjoyed together, but sense that work and the general business of western life are already drawing me back in a lifestyle that is so different. Cycling keeps me balanced and I still ride the same distances I did for the last 15 months.

Cycling back into the city, passing the name sign on the edge of it, it all felt very surreal. I was very happy to go full circle and make it to the Rapha clubhouse where we started april 2016. Almost 15.000 kilometres later I look back at a real adventure that I feel blessed about. I would never have taken it on alone, having Vera by my side and experiencing it all together made it all possible… I would not hesitate taking it on again, I would change some of the choices we’ve made along the way though.

Getting straight back to work is a blessing. I do enjoy being creative and busy again and feel fortunate to do this surrounded by people I like an trust. Sometimes the speed with which everyone around me moves and operates is a little overwhelming, but I try to take a step back and take it all in. I think it will help me settling in again. Our trip sure has put things in perspective for me. It’s easier to see who and what is important to me, and I find it easier to express that as well. You live and learn I guess.

Photo by Erwin Schieven

Right now I have no idea how long it will take before I actually ‘land’ but I guess it is going to take at least a few more weeks (or months). Hopefully by that time our trip will come back alive for me. I also know that this will not be the last ‘big one’ for me. The experience and confidence I gained over the last year and a half made me curious and hungry for more. In the back of my mind I do hope to travel together again with VeloVera, but for now that is in the unforseen future.

 

Vera’s new life: Kunming

I think I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into when I moved here, and most ideas I had about the challenges I would face have proved right. It’s mostly a positive experience and living in China is something that I will never regret. I’m learning a lot and I love Yunnan, China’s most beautiful and diverse province. But, when things are hard they are really hard, because I am alone here. And sometimes I don’t have the energy to deal with the daily strangeness and I long for something easy and familiar.

China: there be dragons

 

Social challenges

I live in a beautiful house in an affluent suburb with no other foreigners but my colleagues, so this can be quite a lonely experience at times. I have always lived right in the middle of the action, with friends, film nights, coffee meet-ups and beers in a cozy pub never more than 5 minutes away. I’m learning Chinese which is a fascinating language with many poetic surprises, but realistically it will be another 3 years before I can have a proper conversation. This means I can only strike up friendships with Chinese people who speak English or foreigners

The foreigners I meet are mostly 20-somethings on some sort of gap year, and mostly interested in partying and drinking. Now, I do love a big KTV night, but my interests are more in good conversation and culture and travel. Luckily I regularly have interesting guests who stay for a couple days, through the Warmshowers and Couchsurfing networks. They are without exception wonderful people and we have the best conversations. I might not have close friends in Kunming but my circle of like-minded friends around the world is ever growing. Especially hosting cyclists is great, because it keeps me dreaming of more bike travel, and I get great joy out of helping them with travel planning, maintenance or simply a place where they can rest up for a couple of days. They keep inspiring me with their lust for life and optimism. Still, the loneliness is sometimes hard to swallow. Writing and studying are good distractions.

Warmshowers guest Phaon
Warmshowers guest Phaon
Professional challenges

Work is a very mixed experience. Teaching bright kids is a joy, and I’m really interested to see how China will develop when the next generation will bring their ideas and (international) experience into the mix. I know it is only a small group of privileged people but you can sense change, a growing individualism and questioning of the status quo.

Two of my favourite students and colleagues
Two of my favourite students and colleagues

Sadly the company I work for is a nightmare. Mostly I can be quite stoic about their mismanagement, thinking ‘this too will pass’ and focus on more interesting stuff outside work. But to see and hear my colleagues upset and angry every day makes it really hard. This too is a learning experience: conflicts in China are dealt with in a very different way from the straightforward Dutch approach of getting it out in the open, speaking your mind and moving on with things. Hierarchy is very important, and loss of face is something that must be avoided at all costs. So, issues will never be approached in an honest and straightforward manner. Frustrating to say the least.

I am looking at projects outside work, writing, exploring cultural initiatives and for instance getting an exchange project with Dutch artists of the ground at Nordica gallery. Since I am not a natural freelancer it is hard to work on this when I am alone at home, tired from a day of teaching. However it is projects like these that really sustain me, so I try to focus on this to keep me motivated. It is another novel experience and I am learning as much about myself as I am about China.

The new China

Now, before this turns into a big moan, there are lots of redeeming elements of life in China that keep me from getting onto a plane right now. Even if I don’t speak Chinese I really enjoy my daily interactions with my neighbours such as the noodle lady where I have lunch about 3 times a week. The people who live in my compound are very sweet, always greet me with a smile and encourage my efforts to speak Chinese.

Naxi lady with the best smile ever
Naxi lady with the best smile ever

Because of the lovely climate here people gather outside when the evening falls and exercise, walk their dog or their kids, grandparents chat together, middle aged ladies dance on the pavement, everybody is chatting and laughing. It is incredibly social and something I will surely miss in The Netherlands. It reminds me of the Italian passeggiata. I haven’t found a regular tai chi or kung fu group yet but I am searching and eventually I will join in the communal exercise. It is lovely way to be a part of the society without sharing the language.

Oh, and the food, glorious Chinese food… Yunnan cuisine is just as diverse as it’s population, with mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper, a wild variety of mushrooms and other vegetables, year round fresh tropical fruit, the lime and chili kick of the Dai people’s kitchen, hearty Muslim cuisine, a good vegetarian selection and the usual streetfood delicacies of jiaozi (dumplings), baozi (steamed buns) and hundreds of varieties of noodles. It’s cheap and never boring, and I stopped cooking altogether because it is so good.

Luofei fish. More please!
Luofei fish. More please!

Then there are all the myriad other dimensions of Chinese culture. When I was here 17 years ago Chinese traditional culture was strangely enough less visible than it is today. Many aspects of classical culture were considered imperialist and decadent by the Red Guards and thousands of years of history and culture were brutally destroyed during the 10 years of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. In 2000 the country had only just opened up to trade and interaction with the rest of the world under Deng Xiaopings leadership, and I couldn’t sense or see the pride in classical Han Chinese and minority culture that is visible today. One of the reasons I love being here today is to witness this renaissance of Chinese culture. Not all of it is good, as some newly built ‘historical neighbourhoods’ are quite tacky reimaginations of the old ways of life and usually chockful of eateries and souvenir shops. But I love the tea shops, the modern versions of qipao dress, modern gates with coloured tiles and flying eaves, Chinese opera and water calligraphy practice in the parks, people dressed in colourful minority costumes.

Our hotel manager in her festive garb

Most of all I love the confidence and pride of the people, who are mostly happy and confidently looking towards the future: they have never had it this good. There is of course plenty to criticize: a superficial consumer culture embraced by the new affluent middle classes, an ever stricter (online and offline) censorship, unfair incarceration and trial of critical intellectuals, rural poverty, pollution. I do however believe that the government has the best interests of the people at it’s heart, and this feeling is shared by most Chinese people I speak with. It’s interesting to see this up close since it is so different from what we read in Western media, which generally imply that China is a bullish state of very oppressed people. I’m quite sure it doesn’t feel that way for the majority of Chinese people. I’m really interested to see where the country will be in ten years from now, and hopeful that positive change will eventually come.

Then there is the practical consideration that I earn good money here, with lots of financial benefits such as the rent being paid by my company. There’s a big bonus waiting for me at the end of my contract and I hope to save up enough so I can afford another few months of bicycle tripping on the way home. I’m dreaming of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan..

Oufti bye bye… what’s next?

How long I will stay here, I’m really not sure. I’m going home in December, for three weeks. What happens then will hopefully help me to make up my mind. I miss many things from home even though China has stolen my heart. My contract ends in May. But there are many factors and the financial one is the least interesting of all. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I will keep writing, but on a different blog: www.verisimiles.com. Do sign up if you’d like to receive my articles in your mailbox, as we will no longer write on the Oufti blog. Thank you for following us on our journey.

Iranian extremism

Salaam, khoobi, everything good, everything allright? This is the standard Persian greeting. Lots of people greet us this way an stop us in the street for a chat. Often they ask us to tell our friends and family back home that they are not terrorists or extremists. So, read on for more impressions of Iran, the Iranians and their extremism.

In the last two weeks we have visited some of the highlights of Iran. We have also squeezed in a couple of ‘off the beaten track’ experiences. A personal highlight was hanging out with Arie and Gerben, two friends from Amsterdam who came to visit us. We have only just waved them goodbye after having traveled together for almost two weeks.

Leaving Kashan

Kashan was one of our favourite places in Iran. Large and touristy enough to offer ease and comfort, small enough to have a very laid back villagy atmosphere and little hassle.

The only thing we were quite disappointed with was a tour we took with Hosein ‘I’m in the Lonely Planet’ Moznebi. His business is not online, I cannot leave a review anywhere so I will do it here as a courtesy to other travelers. Apologies for the following moan!

Touring the desert

Hosein is a very nice guy who speaks great English. He found us in one of the traditional restaurants. He offers tours of the Kashan surroundings and we decided to take a two day tour that would take us from Kashan to our next destination Esfahan, with an overnight stay in a desert caravanserai. The tour included a visit to a mud fort, a salt lake and desert sand dunes, an underground city, a beautiful mosque in the city of Natanz and a visit to the mountain village of Abyaneh.

The price was supposedly all inclusive but unfortunately confusion and vagueries ensued and we had to fork out quite a bit more: the entrance price to the underground city and the mosque, the toll price to the village of Abyaneh, the lunch of our driver. We didn’t appreciate being treated like a stupid walking bag of money, expected to hand out cash at every opportunity. Now if this expected generosity from our side was met with an exceptional tour it wouldn’t be so bad.

Alas.. We had an English speaking tourguide with us but unfortunately he only offered a talk at the underground city stop. For every following part of the tour we were being driven around by different non-English speaking drivers without any further explanation or information. So, all in all an underwhelming experience which I cannot recommend to fellow travelers. End of moan.

We did meet three really nice Italian guys on this tour, we kept bumping into them in the next following days as a lot of people do the same circuit of Irans most famous cities.

Esfahan

In Esfahan we met up with our friends from Amsterdam. We greatly enjoyed strolling around the famous square and visiting the stunning mosques. Esfahan has a laid back, friendly and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Great coffee houses, a bazaar where craftsmen are hammering out silverware and copper pots. It’s hard to explain exactly what was so wonderful about Esfahan, in this case sounds might speak more than typed words: craftsmen at work and a tourguide who sang for us to demonstrate the wonderful acoustics of Masjed-e-jameh mosque.

Desert home

On our way to the desert town of Yazd we stopped over for one night in a delightful homestay in Toudeshk village. Our host Mohammad has been a longtime host of bicycle travelers before he started a guesthouse. He tells us that when he was a kid he used to stop bus drivers and trucks to ask if they had seen any cyclists. This so he could ‘catch’ them on their way through and invite them to his home. Now he runs a beautifully renovated traditional adobe home with elegant rooms around a peaceful courtyard. His mum is a great cook and it is nice to hang out with the family. This is the first place where I am invited to take off my headscarf, one more reason to love this place. It feels as if life in the desert is a little bit more free, far away from the prying eyes of government and nosy neighbours.

Yazd

Approaching Yazd it is hard to see what is so special about it. We enter a busy city with the same mad traffic as in any other Iranian city. Just behind the shops on the busy Emam road however lies the adobe-built old town of Yazd, where we settle into another lovely traditional guesthouse. Kohan house is one of our favourites because of the flowers surrounding the courtyard pool, the friendly and professional staff and the quiet classical Iranian music tinkling in the background.

The next couple of days we spend aimlessly wandering around the quiet and narrow streets of the old town. Since all the houses are built of adobe there are no hard or straight lines but instead the flowing organic shapes of rounded walls, domed roofs, the typical wind towers and vaulted walkways, everything in the same muted mud colour that glow beautifully in the evening sun. There are no distractions such as advertising signs, just the occasional ‘hello!’ from a neighbourhood kid cycling by. The overall effect is incredibly relaxing. There are a few rooftop cafes where we see the sun go down while listening to the crackling lo-fi call to prayer of the Masjed-e-Jameh mosque.

Visum stuff

Since Cyril and I are staying in Iran longer than our 30 day visum allows we have to organize a visum extension. We decide to do this in Yazd as some reports indicate that the office in Shiraz is too busy with immigrant workers to cater to tourists. A good decision. The whole process in Yazd takes only about an hour, most of it spent having a great conversation with the officer who is handling our application. He asks about our tax system and offers his opinion on Iranian traffic police. He is overall super friendly and interested. We are very aware of the luxury of our white Western privilige when we are ushered in past the growing queue of poor Afghan immigrants who are waiting for their work permits.

House of Strength

We spend our last evening in Yazd with a visit to the Zurkhaneh or House of Strength. We heard about this before but were a bit puzzled. Why should we visit a local gym to see men working out? The zurkhaneh turns out to be an incredible experience and a lot more than just a workout. The one in Yazd is housed in an underground water reservoir with four wind towers, just off Amir Chakmagh square. We walk in when a session is in full swing.

A small group of boys and men, dressed in embroidered knee-long tight shorts, are in a circular pit in the middle of the room. They are rhythmically swinging huge wooden weights over their shoulders in time to the drumbeats, chimes and chants of a man seated on a platform overlooking the pit. All around the room there are pictures and parafernalia of former champions. Apart from the wooden weights there are also iron bows with ringing chimes, to be hoisted over the head and swung from left to right in time with the drum beat. The practitioners take turns to whirl like dervishes, spinning with outstretched arms in the middle of the pit. The chanting, the drumming, the rhythmic movements, all of it is hypnotizing.

Spiritual practice

I read up a little bit about the practice and find out it is closely linked to different religious movements over the millenia: Zoroastrians practiced it, later on sufi and shi’ite religious elements were added. It is therefor a lot more than just a physical work-out: it is a spiritual warrior practice. It was in decline under the rule of the shah (who didn’t like this old fashioned practice in his quest for modernizing Iran) and imam Khomeini (who didn’t like the pagan pre-Islamic elements Lately there has been a rise in popularity as it represents nationalism and a pride of Iranian culture.

Shiraz

Persepolis

We meet up with our Amsterdam friends again in Shiraz and visit the incredible archeological site of Persepolis (Iranian name: Takht-e-Jamshid). Much has been written about Persepolis and it is truly magnificent, especially the finely sculptured walls, depicting the kings subjects bringing him wine and food from every corner of his empire.

Camping with the Shah

Next to Persepolis is another interesting place that is not as well known. In 1972 the shah invited most world leaders to a lavish camping trip. He erected a huge tent camp next to Persepolis and feted the invited heads of state in a gigantic PR stunt that won him much acclaim abroad. Unfortunately for the shah the people of Iran were less impressed with his inordinate spending and all that is left now are the skeletons of the tents. I appreciate the idea of a camping trip for world leaders, especially in this land where the people love to camp and picnic with a passion. There is unfortunately also a faint association with the traveling tent camp embassy of Ghadaffi, not quite as innocent as the Iranian families we see camping in the parks and next to the highways of Iran.

Shrines and mosques

Apart from our visit to Persepolis we find it difficult to fall in love with Shiraz. It is a busy, congested city and its most important tourist destination is a shrine that appears rather kitsch to our modernist Western eyes. The Shahecheragh shrine is an important pilgrimage site for Iranians and we get some interesting insights by doing a short tour with one of the International Affairs tourguides associated with the shrine.

We find out that mosques are generally more understated in their design since they are meant for prayer, but shrines can go all-out in decoration since they are meant to honour the imam that is buried there. The Shahecheragh is a riot of mirrored muqarna, shooting light and colours off the gigantic crystal chandeliers like a decadent disco. People are walking up to the shrine, rubbing and kissing walls, praying for good luck. As in all the mosques we have visited the spaces surrounding the actual shrine feel like welcoming community places where people can walk in at all times of day or night, to pray, to talk, to sleep, to meet up, to let the kids play, to read and to contemplate. We really like this strong communal aspect of Islam even if we don’t like the separation of men and women.

New friends in Jahrom

When we were in Armenia we met Ali and his wife Neda in our Yerevan hostel. They live in a small town some 200km South of Shiraz. After our Dutch friends have left we travel down to visit. Unfortunately Neda is away but Ali turns out to be a great host and we find we have made a new friend. Jahrom is an unassuming little town and we enjoy being the only tourists in town, experiencing the Iranian way of life. Ali takes us to a huge man-made cave, on a short hike to another cave overlooking the town and a date-palm garden. We visit the mosque for midday prayer and are greeted by stunned worshippers. They are quick to embrace their foreign visitors. We love talking about our different ways of life with Ali and his friend Reza and we hope we will meet them again sometime.

Iranian extremism

Since we have some very challenging months ahead in the autumn and winter of Tajikistan, Kyrgystan and China we decide to go back to Yazd to enjoy the slow pace of life in this desert town. We are back in Kohan house and are trying to meet up with some locals via couchsurfing. A few more days before we travel to Tehran. A few more days before we have to start packing for our flight to Dushanbe.

Iran has been an incredible experience. I’m glad we got to step off the beaten track and see glimpses of everyday life by meeting up with many lovely people. For us Iranians are indeed extremists. Extremely hospitable, generous and friendly people. We aspire to be similarly good hosts when we return to Amsterdam.