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!

Sawasdee kaa Prathet Thai!

After our unlucky start in Thailand with persistent belly aches and mechanical trouble we make an optimistic departure from Khon Kaen. Cyrils bike is as good as new and I am eager to reach Phetchabun.

This provincial town was my home for only a short while but I have very good memories of the place and its people. It is nothing special but therefor all the more exemplary of everyday Thai life, or more specifically Isaan life. Isaan is Northeastern Thailand, an area where many Lao people settled and as a result quite close to Laos in culture and language. There are not as many tourists as in other areas. It is rural and the pace of life is pretty laid back.

Sharing a camp site with a monk

We take the only possible road, a flat and straight line from Khon Kaen to Lom Sak. It is a busy four lane highway but there is enough space for us on the shoulder. Still, the drivers are real maniacs with a need for speed and the constant drone of traffic wears us down. We long for quiet country roads. In the end I put in headphones and we thunder along the flat road at more than 20kph. As the music is thumping so are our legs, and we make 112km that day.

In China and Laos we became a bit apprehensive about wild camping but we are determined to do lots of it in Thailand. We as tourists no longer have to be afraid of corrupt or authoritarian government here, as Thai authorities are careful to maintain Thailand safe and pleasant for foreigners.

On our first night we strike lucky. Tired, hot and dirty we turn into a small road leading off the highway and towards the first karst mountains of Nam Nao national park. It is a small village, with a bare sugar cane field at the end of the road. The last house of the village is a traditional wooden house on pillars, with a neatly swept yard and some chickens. A man is fixing a wooden pen, and he directs us towards his wife who is cooking by an outside fire. We ask her in gestures and with the google translate app if it’s ok if we put up our tent in the field next to their house. She seems somewhat apprehensive so we leave her to it and take a stroll down the village road, waving and smiling at the other villagers. We settle in our little camping chairs with a beer and wait. Soon the villagers to come to us, and one boy can read our google translate message. Our neighbour is happy for us to spend the night here and the kids are positively ecstatic. As we are setting up the tent we see them from the corner of our eyes. They are sneaking peeks, daring each other to come closer to us and taking turns dashing around our tent, as if jumping over a fire. The older ones yell English greetings at us from a safe distance and giggle at our replies. They are super funny but quite shy.

Then a solitary monk shows up. He is wearing dark mustard and maroon robes, not the bright orange of boys and men who traditionally enter the sangha or buddhist community of a monastery. He is walking barefoot and only carrying his alms pot. As he walks into the sugar cane field he asks if we are staying the night. He smiles and tells us this is good, and if we need any help in talking to the villagers he can help us with translating. About 100m from our tent he sets up his place for the night, merely hanging one of his cloths around a small platform and sitting down in lotus position. We are somewhat embarrassed about all of our gear. How much do you really need to travel?

Later on the villagers come back, bringing water and candles to the monk. We receive the same generosity and care as the monk, and our neighbour keeps handing us water and food over the fence around her yard. Every now and again she comes to sit with us, quietly chattering in Thai. She brings mosquito repellent, sticky rice with bamboo shoots, a mat to sit on, a bucket of water to wash ourselves with. We are moved by the sweetness and hospitality.

The monk comes to visit us again, to give us the supplies he doesn’t need. He says the villagers, and especially the children, are happy that we are there. It gets dark and we are quietly sitting outside with only the light of a candle. When the monk is back at his spot we hear him reciting texts for a good long while, adding his voice to the peaceful atmosphere.

What a wonderfully welcoming first night of camping in Thailand. We leave early in the morning with many wais for our neighbour, grateful and humbled by these lovely people.

Beware of the elephants!

In the morning we continue on the same road as the day before but it changes as soon as we enter Nam Nao national park. It is now a quiet two lane road, we head into the jungle and we start climbing. Our first climb in Thailand and oh boy it’s hard. This road was not designed with cyclists in mind. Someone must have looked at the map and drawn a straight line between two cities, nevermind the steep hills inbetween. The road goes right up and down, never hairpinning, resulting in murderous inclines. I am still not feeling well so we do two short stretches of hitch-hiking but we cycle about half of the way through the park.

We see a lot of signs telling us to look out for elephants, tracks where they usually cross the road, a bunch of cheerful park rangers and one big pile of what can only be elephant poo. Sadly we spotted no actual elephant. Still, the ride through the park is beautiful. No villages ergo no scary dogs who want to take a bite out of our tasty calf muscles. Just green woods with bird sounds all around and little traffic.

Phetchabun

It is decidedly weird to roll into the town where I used to live and to realize we cycled here from The Netherlands. The last stretch into town is lovely, rolling along a flat country road with little villages. The Nam Nao mountain range is on our left, the peaks of Khao Ko national park on our right.

We make it just before sunset but it is still light enough to recognize the school where I used to work and live, the market and of course Topland, the mall where I used to go during my breaks. We spend one day at the hospital where the super nice and funny staff help us out really well. A course of antibiotics for me, and a couple of days to rest up and get my strength back.

We explore Topland and the market and meet up with the family of my friend Koi. Koi was one of my English students 16 years ago. She is now a doctor in Bangkok. Her family helps us out enormously by being the delivery adress for several packages, and they take us out for a nice meal. Phetchabun is much the same, still un-touristy (although we spot some falangs), a laid back country town with lovely people.

I’m happy this was my Thailand home for a short while. After this little trip down Thai memory lane we set off again, heading North towards Chiang Mai.

Zen godverdomme

Two and a half weeks ago we arrived in Chengdu, and funnily enough we are still here. It’s been good to settle into this megacity for a while and to feel like a local instead of a nomad. The reason for our stop was not so nice unfortunately.

Chengdu highlights
Chengdu highlights

Chinese medicine

Cyril got an acute hearing problem and needed to be treated in the hospital. Two weeks ago we went to Huaxiba International Hospital where Cyril got diagnosed with sudden deafness, a weird condition that needs immediate treatment to have a chance of recovery. Luckily the hospital and the prescribed treatment were excellent and his hearing is almost back to normal. A special big thank you to our new friend nurse Zhang! She performed the daily injections and invited us for a lovely day out with her family last weekend.

Cyrils Angels of the Huaxiba hospital
Cyrils Angels of the Huaxiba hospital

Going to a Chinese hospital is (just like traveling on the train) an interesting experience. On the first day we ended up in a chaotic A&E. Waiting times of a few hours, nobody who spoke English, a confusing system of payments, receipts and other procedures we didn’t quite get. Cyril got the medical advice to come back for daily medicine transfusions. In addition to this he got prescribed the more holistic advice of cheerful demeanour, a lot of sleep and no more meat, only vegetarian food. Luckily he could continue treatment in the International Hospital next door. Staff here speak English so we could actually understand what was happening. This is the place where important government officials, rich people and Western long-haul cycling bums go if they need treatment.

Sudden deafness. Say what?
Sudden deafness. Say what?

Since the treatment only took an hour every day and Cyril was not in pain we got the opportunity to kick back and relax for a while.

Zen, godverdomme!

So there we are, forced to stay in Chengdu for one week. Forced to slow down to an absolute standstill after months of being on the move. We feel we are both quite tired so we listen to the doctors advice and sleep a lot. As one of Cyrils friends says: Zen, godverdomme!

It’s a gigantic city but there are not that many tourist highlights, which helps a lot with our mission to do as little as possible. Since I am recovering fast from my cold I tick off the not-to-be missed highlights in the mornings while Cyril gets his treatment. Panda’s, temples, Tibetan culture and more great food. I do eat a ducks head but don’t feel brave enough to try the chicken claws.

After one week Cyril gets the advice to continue the treatment for another week. This is good news because it means the treatment is working, but it is bad news because we were eager to get going again. We settle in for another lazy week at our hotel. We have stopped over in cities before but never before have we been this slow, we were always out and about, trying to do and see as much as possible.

Chengdu highlights

Giant Panda Research Base

The panda’s are much cooler than I expected. I get up at 6am, to be there for their feeding time and to beat the tourist hordes. The Giant Panda Research Base is beautiful, with lanes meandering through bamboo forests. I wander around until I’m eye to eye with two panda’s who are munching on bamboo. Later I find more, climbing trees and playing, rolling around and pushing each other. They are super entertaining.

Panda <3
Panda <3

But I think I love the bushy tailed Red Panda even more:

Red panda
Red panda
Little Lhasa

Most people in the West know of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army annexed Tibet in 1951 and came to an agreement with the then 15 year old Dalai Lama. In 1959 however the Dalai Lama fled, denounced the agreement and established a government in exile after Tibetan uprisings against the oppressive Chinese rule. Some 6,000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and thousands of people died during the Great Leap Forward and the retaliation after the Tibetan uprising of ’59. For most Westerners it would appear that the Tibetans are virtual prisoners of the Chinese government ever since.

It is strange then, to see a whole tranquil Tibetan neighbourhood in a quintessential Chinese city. Most of the 60.000 Tibetans living in Chengdu’s Little Lhasa are not from the Tibetan Autonomous Region but from Tibetan prefectures in the surrounding Chinese provinces. They are one of the 56 recognised ethnic groups living in China and as such free to practice there culture.

The Tibetan quarter of Chengdu
The Tibetan quarter of Chengdu

There are shops selling Tibetan buddhist paraphernalia, monks wander around, restaurants serve momo and yak butter tea. The same thing however happens in these Tibetan provinces as in Xinjiang: Han Chinese are encouraged to move to the Tibetan regions, roads are being built, their culture gets ‘disneyfied’ in a similar way as we saw in the Kashgar Old Town.

Tibetan demon
Tibetan demon

For non-Chinese it is difficult to obtain visa for Tibet, but Chinese are of course free to go. It is popular with Chinese bicycle travellers. Our warmshowers host Zhu has cycled to Lhasa, and we are envious when we see the pictures of her trip.

Local nomads

In the evenings we meet up with some great locals, mostly other cyclists who stopped over in Chengdu and decided to stay for a year. They are earning good money for the rest of their trip by teaching English. Scott & Sarah, Rae, Sean and Robin make us feel like locals by providing a great instant social life. We see some of our cycling friends from the Pamirs come and go as well.

Time

It is very odd to be settled into some sort of urban routine for two weeks after half a year on the road. We have never stopped this long before, and never before have we done so little.  This does something strange to our sense of time, and after two weeks it is hard to tell how long we have been here. Cycling feels like a lifetime away. I am tempted to stay here too and find a job, if only the air pollution wasn’t so bad. Eventually we decide we will move out of our Hotel California and go to a warm showers host, to get off our lazy butts and to get closer to the cycling vibe again.

Water calligraphy, evaporating like time
Water calligraphy, evaporating like time

Traversing megapolis Chengdu

We cycle 20km South and find we are still very much in the city. Since Chengdu is home to about 14 million people it takes a while before you reach the edge of the city. Amsterdam is a quaint hamlet by comparison. This is the first time we physically experience a megapolis. Cycling through a city of millions is quite different from merely reading about it. Without the physical experience it is so hard to comprehend the consequences of this big scale urban fabric. It is exhilarating to cycle through the landscape that Le Corbusier envisioned: endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks stretch towards the smoggy horizon, surrounded by small patches of green, intersected by highways with separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. At the foot of the apartment blocks are eateries, gaming arcades, beauty salons. There are shopping malls. The lanes are wide and well organised but busy, it is noisy and the air is dirty. As we cycle South along such a high-rise highway we see a building frenzy going on all around us. New blocks are being erected everywhere, new houses for the millions. It is a breathtaking sight, it would be futuristic if it wasn’t happening right here and right now.

Smog
Smog

Small town Chengdu

Parallel to experiencing the enormous and seemingly inhuman scale of the city it is getting less intimidating as we are getting to know it better. We can now find our way around by bike, by taxi or by metro. We get a feel for the different neighbourhoods and find pockets of quiet and old fashioned living in-between the highrise. In our neighbourhood we start seeing familiar faces who we greet on our way to the metro station. We develop a taste for certain dishes and cafes. In one little park we see old people playing classical Chinese music. I try to dance along with the people who exercise some sort of line-dancing in the park every night. Every night we hear the particular chime of a street vendor when he comes through our street.

Streetlife nightlife

Chinese conversations

Chengdu is also the place where we meet some locals who speak good English. We make some friends and get some small but interesting insights in Chinese life at individual level. Just like in Iran it is not at all surprising that there are many contradictions and nuances. Even if we will never grasp all of this gigantic country with its many cultures and the consequences of its long and complicated history, maybe we got a tiny bit closer to understanding.

The government is widely supported and can take credit for making China an economic superpower. Many things have improved for a lot of Chinese people since Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution: literacy has increased enormously, as has life expectancy. There is now a middle class of 300 million people who gets to travel and enjoy the finer things in life. This stability and prosperity come with a price tag attached though. Crackdowns on separatist movements, severe restriction of freedom of speech, media and internet censorship and other blatant disregard for the basic human rights we generally take for granted. Another huge concern is the high level of air pollution in the big cities, even if China invests billions in clean energy.

When we meet up with nurse Zhang we also get to meet her mother and her mother-in-law. Nurse Zhang is our age. They are both lovely ladies and they are enjoying the time spent with their grandchildren. Nurse Zhang has brought her two children along; Parker is 9 years old, and Mei Mei (little sister) was born after the one child policy was lifted in 2015. We talk about how different China is today from what I saw 16 years ago. I mention I notice the prosperity and nurse Zhang says, yes, not so long ago there was hunger. Her mother and her mother-in-law experienced hunger during the economic reform (read: disaster) of the Great Leap Forward. It wasn’t just the Tibetans who suffered during that time: all of China did. It is estimated that between 18 million and 40 million people died during the campaign. I look at her elder family differently now, they have been through so much.

A few days later we meet Zhu, our twenty-something warm showers host. I try to practice my Chinese and tell her about our siblings. Wo you mei mei, wo you didi. I have a younger sister, I have a younger brother. Zhu and her flatmate tell me they have no siblings; they are from the one child policy generation. Together we watch the crazy news about Trump being elected president of the USA. They are the internet generation and very well informed. They do not agree with the strict internet censorship of the Chinese government. Apparently 70% of the Chinese people still lives in the countryside and doesn’t have more than primary school education. As a consequence they are quite easily led by the state controlled media. Educated people however know very well about news and opinions in the rest of the world and they are hoping for a gradual change in China.

China for the win

All in all I really like the China of today, even despite the obvious objections I have against a non-democratic government that violates human rights. There seems to be a renewed national confidence after the hardships of the last century and the future looks bright. Chinese culture is back en vogue with the Chinese after much of the classical imperial culture was stamped out during the cultural revolution. You can see this revival in the fashion, with detailing referring to classical hanfu and cheongsam clothes. Confucianism is experiencing a comeback. There are fancy tea shops where elegant hostesses perform a tea ceremony and you can find a tea that is fertilised with panda poo. Ultimately the rebuilding of previously destroyed Qing and Ming era neighbourhoods show this new nationalist reappreciation of the pre-communist past.

When I was here 16 years ago there was none of this, only some classical art forms such as calligraphy, Beijing opera and Chinese medicine had survived the cultural revolution, and of course there were the cultural treasures of the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. But in everyday life on the streets it looked as if everybody wanted to emulate Western culture and not in a good way. It looked a bit cheap and not at all creative or interesting, as it does today. Of course this interest in Western culture and products is still here, with Starbucks and Zara in the highstreet and a Swiss watch and a BMW being the ultimate status symbols. But the Chinese are on a roll. They really no longer need our Western products to have an edge, they are making their own Chinese brand of cool.

The above observations are of course only applicable to life in the cities as we observed it in the last few weeks. I am really curious to find out about life in the countryside. That is where the majority of the Chinese still live, despite the rapid urbanisation that is happening here as it is in the rest of the world.

Wenshu tea house
Wenshu tea house

On our last evening in Chengdu we celebrate the birthday of Zhu’s flatmate. We sing Dutch birthday songs and we watch Chinese superstars sing on tv. We feel at home here. But, tomorrow we go back to our nomadic lives, on the road again, and into rural China.

When people ask what bike travel is all about
When people ask what bike travel is all about