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

Solo & Moto

After nine months on the road, spending 24/7 together, we decide to travel solo for a week. Thailand is well developed, geared towards foreign tourists, an easy country to travel around in. A perfect place for lone cyclists. We opt for skipping the obvious tourist attraction of the beaches and head North instead, towards the mountainous province of Mae Hong Son.

Solo cycling: Velo Vera

Thus I venture South, skirting the big hills of Khao Ko national park before heading North. Cyril heads straight North, opting for less kilometres but more climbing on the way to Chiang Mai. Central Thailand consists of some long North-South ridges and those will have to be crossed if you want to get anywhere, but further South they are a bit less challenging.

It is strange to cycle alone after such a long time together. Since I have a new phone I can listen to music again. I make longer cycling days because there is little incentive to hang around the tent or in a restaurant on your own. I break my personal longest distance per day record: 150km in fierce sunshine and on hot tarmac. I miss Cyril but I get a kick out of being a strong and independent solo cycling woman. Thai people are the smiliest people in the world so I never feel very lonely. People wave, give a big thumbs up, shout hello, and some even hand me water or powerdrinks as they are whizzing by on their mopeds. One night I camp next to the house of a lovely family. They let me use their shower and offer me food. I feel snug and safe alone in the tent. The only time I feel lonely is when I am in super touristy Sukhotai, surrounded by others farangs but not really connecting with them.

Sukhotai is one of the old capitals of Thailand. Today it is a beautiful park dotted with ruins of wats, buddha statues, walls and moats. A very pleasant place to cycle around in, especially in the early morning.

Solo cycling: Cyclo Cyril

It is truly weird to see the person you’ve been cycling and traveling with ride off in another direction. After the initial shock I start enyoing my time alone. All of a sudden you decide everything yourself instead of discussing it. Where to eat, what to eat, when to eat for example. So yes it is easier in some respects, but I am not sure if I enjoy it more. My route takes me over several ranges that gradually get higher and higher.

On the third morning of my solo adventure I decide to take a short cut. My trusty maps.me app shows a dirt path heading in the direction I want to go, it should save about 25 kilometres of climbing. Two things I don’t check well enough: the gradient of my shortcut and the condition of the path. At one point my ‘road’ disappears into a cornfield. As it is going downhill I just slowly roll on until I get to a thick jungle at the edge of the field. My ‘road’ should just be a few metres further, but all I see is big trees and unpenetrable bushes.

There is only one way back: up that steep hill, through the cornfield. It is one of these moments where you curse the 20 kilos of luggage on your steel bicycle. After an hour or so struggling through the field I find my path. A few super steep parts further and I arrive at the last hurdle: a small stream where according to the map a bridge will take me to the other side. Of course the bridge is gone. In its place is a rickety construction made of bamboo and old tree stumps. Bag by bag I balance across to safety, saving my bike for last. In true cyclocross style I shimmy over the ‘bridge’, step by small step. Relief and pride fill me when I finally see tarmac again.

During my solo week I visit Phrae, Lampang and other smaller towns. The heartland of Thailand sees few travellers and has a very laidback atmosphere. Just like Vera I experience many acts of hospitality and friendliness. A couple of Thai I have never met before take me out for dinner. Reaching Lamphun means I will see Vera again. The last climb I am flying, eager to meet her again and continue together.

Lamphun, a city built by a queen

After our solo week we meet up again in Lamphun, a charming but surprisingly untouristy town just South of Chiang Mai. The town was the capital of the Haripunchai kingdom and built by queen Chama Thevi. As I am strolling around the old town I find a troupe of young girls in traditional wear performing a temple dance in her honour.

There is a revered wat with a beautiful golden stupa. Devout Thais slowly circumnavigate the stupa, chanting and carrying flower offerings.

Lamphun is small but has some other interesting sights such as a well preserved city wall and moat, old teak houses and a food market. Most of all I love how it is undeveloped and as yet not discovered by mass-tourism.

Chiang Mai

From Lamphun it is a short ride to Chiang Mai, the former capital of the mighty Lanna kingdom from around 1300 to 1800. We take the old main road, a narrow two-way lane flanked by giant hardwood trees adorned with yellow and orange ribbons. All over Thailand we find these trees, with multicoloured sashes, little ghost houses and offerings of water, rice and incense around them. This indicates that the Thai believe these particular trees are inhabited by spirits.

Chiang Mai was an independent princedom until it became formally part of Thailand in 1939. Just South of the modern city centre we explore some ruins of an older version of the city. Until halfway through the last century Chiang Mai was only accessible by a long journey through the jungle by elephant or ox cart. Now of course there are highways and train lines, making it the capital of the North and the second most important city of Thailand after Bangkok. In recent years the number of tourists has exploded, growing 10% every year since 2010. I do not recognize the city I visited 16 years ago, apart from the night market which is still selling the same souvenir tat, some of it quite nice.

Thailand has a long running royal programme, initiated by the late king, that aimed to help developing communities in rural areas. This so-called OTOP programme (One Tambon, One Product) stimulated high-quality production of typical handmade goods such as textiles, silverware and basket weaving. Every village specializes in one kind of handmade wares. This ensures that traditional hilltribe skills and cultures survive and the villagers earn extra income by bringing these products to touristy places where they are sold for a decent price, like the Chiang Mai night market.

Moto: tackling the 1000 bends of the Mae Hong Son loop

Close to Chiang Mai is Thailands Northernost Mae Hong Son province. It is famous for its steep hills and diverse and remote hilltribes, including Tai Yai, Lawa, Shan and the famous long-neck Karen people. One very hilly road loops from Chiang Mai right around this province, closely following the Myanmar border. We leave our bicycles in Chiang Mai for some tender loving care at the fabulous Triple Cats bike shop and rent a couple of motorbikes. We tackle the ‘1000 bends’ of the Mae Hong Son loop powered by gasoline instead of musclepower, heading North towards Pai for an anti-clockwise tour of the 800km loop.

The first couple days we find all the creature comforts a glampacker could possibly need. A funky hipster coffee place here, a hippy pad-thai restaurant there, American breakfasts, bamboo huts for rent in the stoner backpacker vortex of Pai and excellent camping places next to some beautiful waterfalls. We tackle about 500 of the 1000 bends in the steep climbs and descends around Pai and we are really happy not to be doing this with a fully loaded bicycle. Some of the inclines in the sharp bends approach 30% which is frankly insane.
After Pai the road and scenery become more rural and less touristy. We visit the remote Ban Rak Thai village. The name tranlates as ‘the village that loves Thailand’ but it is in fact inhabited by Chinese. Kuomintang Chinese fled to this corner of Thailand after the communists gained power, and much of their Chinese culture remains. They grow excellent Oolong tea, serve Chinese food and live in Chinese houses with flying eaves. An odd place, even in this multicultural corner of Thailand.

The provincial capital Mae Hong Son is a sleepy town where we only stop for lunch. We opt to spend half a day and the night at the nearby Tai Yai village of Pha Bong. Here is a hotspring and some ladies give us a great massage before we end up in the hot pool. In the evening the villagers flock to the pool to socialize and wash together.

There happens to be a small village fest and I am invited to join the ladies on stage to dance. The steps of the circle dancing are not that complicated but I cannot match their graceful bendy hand gestures with my inflexible European hands. Still, they have fun at the sight of a farang who is at least trying and I enjoy the dance and the music as well. We camp right next to the pool and early in the morning we swim in the warm water, surrounded by mist rising from the hot spring.
Another interesting and unexpected stopover is in the village of Khun Yuam. This place played an important role in the second world war, when it was a base for Japanese soldiers traveling to fight in Burma. Thailand was a Japanese ally and the villagers were therefor treated well, and a lasting friendship between the Khun Yuam people and the Japanese developed. There is an excellent museum that tells the story of this relationship and of the different hilltribe cultures and customs in the region. It is unbelievable to realize that less than a hundred years ago this place was only accessible by bamboo raft, ox cart or elephant. Roads were not built until around 1950 and the use of elephants was only phased out around 1970.

The small town of Mae Sariang is the Southernmost corner of the loop, and from here we take an alternative road, a shortcut away from the main loop. We climb to the 2560m summit of Thailands highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, and spend another night camping near a waterfall.

All along the Burmese border we find beautiful wooden Tai Yai temples with stacked angular roofs adorned with hammered metal filigree borders. They are very different from the Central Thai temples with steep roofs, mirrored tiles and naga (snakes) figures along the roof edges. One such Tai Yai temple can be reached by crossing a long and meandering bridge made of woven bamboo matting. When we get there local kids are practicing their performance, banging drums and getting into a dragon dance. They try to scare me but can’t stay in their dragon role long enough, and the dragon soon breaks apart into two little boys. A girl is dressed up as a peacock, with an elaborate tail fanning out from her back.

Our shortcut via Doi Inthanon takes us through small villages where people are still very surprised to see farangs, even if we are less than 100km from super touristy Chiang Mai. We have one totally random surprise meetup with some SE Asia Rapha people who are doing a recce of the Mae Hong Son loop for an upcoming ride.

After 7 days, more than 800 kilometres and definitely more than a thousand bends we are back in Chiang Mai where we get to hang out with our cycling friends Eric and Cathy and Sanjay, ‘the worlds fastest Indian’. We pick up our bicycles. My Rohloff hub is whirring along nicely after a much needed oil change. We liked the motorbikes but prefer the bicycle: we love the silence, we love the pace, we have to focus less on the road and can pay more attention to the surroundings, there is no need for gasoline, it’s easier to stop, look around and take pictures or talk to people.

We are currently preparing for the ride down to Mae Sot, from where we will cross into our next country: Myanmar! Tomorrow we will set off, very happy to be reunited with our bicycles.