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.