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.

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

Zài jiàn Zhōngguó, sabaidee meuang Lao!

After two and a half months the time has come to say goodbye to another one of our favourite countries. Goodbye China, and hello Laos! We loved the last stretch along the quiet country roads of Yunnan. We moved from subtropical Kunming, crossing the Tropic of Cancer, into the lush jungle of Xishuangbanna, China’s most Southern prefecture and home of the Dai people.

Our newest team member Hong

We are currently in the small border town of Mohan, and tomorrow morning we will attempt to cross into Laos. This should be pretty straightforward. The only complication is we have found a pet on the road and we want to bring him along for the ride. At least until he is big enough to stand on his own chicken feet. Right now Hong (meaning ‘wild swan’) is still a fluffy little chick who likes nothing more than hiding in our pockets and tweeting like a canary. We found him in Mengla where a lady was selling chicks, dyed in all the colours of the rainbow. Later on that evening we found Hong, all alone, wandering the pavement, squeeking. He is dyed a bright pink so we call him the Only Gay in the Village sometimes. He travels in the snack pouch I have attached to the handle bars. When we stop for a break we let him out to eat and drink and then he follows us like a puppy, running after us with his little pink wings flapping. At night we make a warm nest for him, filling up our hip flask with hot water to keep him cosy. How could we possibly leave him behind?

Hong on the loose
Hong on the loose

Update: it is with great sadness that we found little Hong dead in his box this morning. But we are happy with the good memories of the last few days. We will miss his tweeting and nesting under our wings. 

Wild swan, red book

Hongs name is inspired by the book Wild Swans, written by Jung Chang. Her birth name was Er Hong, meaning second swan. She later changed her name to Jung, meaning ‘militant action’. The book tells the turbulent history of China in the last century by chronicling the life of her grandmother, her mother and herself. It is an amazing read and although it is still on the blacklist in China I found it secondhand in a bookshop in Kunming. It is hard to believe just how many changes and how much upheaval China has been through in only three generations. The book starts during the reign of the last emperor Pu Yi of the Qing dynasty, ruling a country bound by ancient traditions until 1912. Quite literally bound; as were Jung Changs’ grandmothers feet. Through war, famine, oppression, all the way down to the lowest point: a sustained campaign of terror by a totalitarian ruler, who kept a whole country in the dark by cultivating ignorance and fear and division. It is especially hard to believe since China appears so different today. Most people we meet are working, cheerfully going about their business, building houses, traveling, interested in us foreigners, dancing together in the city squares in the evenings. This was unimaginable only 30 years ago.

Square dancing
Square dancing

In the same bookshop we bought the famous Little Red Book with quotations from Mao, translated into English. I’ve read a few and with the clear hindsight of recent history it is hard to believe that this was followed like the gospel for a long time. The titles of the chapters alone are interesting: ‘The correct handling of contradictions among the people’. Whereby people are classed as being with the communists or as enemies. One thing I like however is the fact he wanted equality for women, after a long history of brutal suppression in imperial China. Even if the primary goal was not so much a better life for women but to have a larger work force in order to surpass the capitalist world with rapid industrialisation. Unfortunately today this equality is mostly visible in hard labour jobs such as road works, and not so much in high profile jobs or political functions.

Crossing into Xishuangbanna

Since we left Kunming we have mostly followed a country road with little traffic, closely following the Eastern border of Yunnan with Vietnam and Laos. The S218 takes us away from the mud and dust of road works and into the jungle.

China's country roads

As it veers away from the busy main road a few kilometers below the Tropic of Cancer it also takes us into the tropics and into the home of the Dai people, the autonomous prefecture of Xishuangbanna. We anticipated the change in climate and we saw early signs of the tropics in the palm trees we saw here or there. Still, crossing the tropic line marks an immediate and profound change.

Crossing the Tropic of Cancer
Crossing the Tropic of Cancer

Banana, tea and rubber plantations, a different people who live in a different kind of housing suitable for year-round hot weather, nights that are no longer uncomfortably cold and beautiful mornings with steaming forests around us.

STEAM
STEAM

The earth is red and the rivers run brown, flanked by lush green hills full of exotic sounding birds. The nights when we are camping we hear crickets whirring loudly, owls and other animals we haven’t heard before.

Welcome to the jungle
Welcome to the jungle

We camp a few more nights. Usually we find a spot where we are out of sight and on land that is not in use, in the bend of a road or close to a mountain pass. One night we spot a village with a church and try our luck with the builders who are working nearby. They indicate it is fine with them if we put up our tent wherever, so we pick a small field empty of crops on the edge of the village square. An old man comes to check on us from a safe distance. Later on in the night five police officers with torch lights arrive. Cyril talks to them in his best Chinese (hello, thank you, we are from Holland, thank you, hello) and eventually they leave us alone. We don’t sleep so well after that. This is the first time authorities have disturbed us during our wild camping nights and it is quite unnerving. It is officially prohibited in China, as it is in most countries. The language barrier makes it harder, even though we have a nice Chinese note explaining we are nice people who will leave early in the morning.

The rest of the trip down to the Lao border is peaceful and very beautiful. The road goes up and down a lot and we do about 1000 climbing meters every day, making for great views, a nice sense of accomplishment and ever stronger legs. Cyril logs our rides on Strava and we accomplish the monthly climbing challenge of 7.500m in no time.

Climb with a view
Climb with a view

We see traditional Dai villages with large wooden houses, open all around and raised on wooden pillars, with roof ornaments similar to those in Thailand.

The Dai people are related to the Thai in language, religion (theravada buddhism) and culture. And in cuisine: we have a fried fish for lunch with lemon grass, chili and coriander.

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

The famous Pu’erh tea comes from this region, and we see shops where they sell the double fermented black tea pressed into fancy shapes like large coins or sculptures. The tea gets better with age so it keeps for a long time. Special vintages can be collected, like wine.

Xie xie China, you have been wonderful. After two and a half months we have only had a glimpse of everything we could possibly see and experience here, so we definitely hope to come back. We are happy with the choices we made: the historical and culinary highlights of megacities like Xi’an and Chengdu, the time off and a chance to make some local friends, far away Silk Route places like Kashgar and Turpan, and finally the weeks of cycling through the countryside of Sichuan and Yunnan. The countryside which in many ways showed us the un-touristy, only ever so slowly changing and ‘real’ China of the minority people and the peasants, in contrast with the polished face of the future we saw in the city centers.We loved meeting the people of China, who never treated us as tourists but were always interested in us in a friendly, helpful and curious way. This will surely be different in Laos and Thailand, where we will no longer be the only white people in the village.

Our hotel manager in her festive garb

So, thank you Zhōngguó, we salute you in a way you will surely understand:

Happy New Chinese Year