It’s almost two years since we set off from Amsterdam (two years!!). We are still cycling and camping as much as we can in our free time, me in Yunnan and Cyril in Europe. Cyril just cycled three days in the Limburg hills, and I am looking forward to a two-month tour around Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK this summer. Here are the reviews of all of our gear. Follow the links to find our final verdicts on durability, customer service, usability etcetera on everything we took with us on our trip.
From Seoul in South Korea I fly directly to Rome, the first European stop on my way home. It took Vera and me 13 months to travel mostly on our bicycles from Europe to far East Asia, but it only takes 13 hours on a plane to get back. While Vera is settling into her new life in Kunming in China, I return to Europe for the first time in over a year. So it isn’t strange that I have a little culture shock. Everything in Rome looks so old and most of it quite dirty in comparison to Japan and South Korea. Buildings are crumbling and tagged all over, there’s garbage on the street and the road itself isn’t this smooth tarmac I rode on in Seoul. And then there’s the people. They are so much less reserved than back in Tokyo and Seoul. There is bare skin everywhere, shouting and of course a guy pissing against the central station in Rome where i put together my bike to make my way to Martino, an Italian we met while travelling in Iran. He invited me to stay at his place near the centre of Rome. When we meet I feel this wave on nostalgia and am happy to finally ‘land’. It relaxes me and I notice I start to enjoy Rome for the first time. I sense the warm evening air, smell the typical fruity aroma and enjoy some wine and great Italian food with Martino. Unfortunately we only get to share one evening together, but I am sure we will meet again.
After an espresso at the legendary Caffe San Eustachio and a short visit to the Pantheon I try to get out of the city as fast as I can. Rome isn’t really bike-friendly and on my way to Castelnuevo north of the city I pass some north African working girls on one of the roads leading out of the capital. Again I am wondering about our European cultural values and what they mean to me. We pride ourselves on openess, freedom and equality, but seeing these girls beside the road make me question the true meaning of those words. For months I haven’t seen any exploitation of women like this. I know it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but the way we accept it as a ‘normal’ day tot day element of our lives is also a bit shocking.
Thankfully the next few days in Castelnuevo show me the other side of life in the old world. My friend Karen from Scotland moved to what she calls ‘Newcastle’ after having had several appartments in Rome for many years. Castelnuevo is a small, medieval town where life moves slowely. Everyone gathers on the main square at night for pizza or a gelato and the social aspect of this is something I really enjoy. Together with the food, wine and nice weather I sense I’ve missed some parts of Europe as well, but I look at it differently now, appreciating some elements more than before.
For the love of film
On my last day at the Castelnuevo retreat we decide to visit a sight that has been on my to-see-list for a long time: CineCitta. This once thriving village was built within a year, under supervision of Mussolini in the 1930’s. It’s a massive complex of studios (teatros in Italian), massive outdoor sets and nowadays a lovely museum dedicated to the big names in Italian cinema. Everything just oozes love for film. The costumes worn by Elizabeth Taylor, the stories about Fellini who lived at the CineCitta for a while and the great insight in the mind of Sergio Leone are highlights for Karen and me. We conclude a great visit with a guided tour around the purpose built sets that look just like the real thing, except for some historically totally incorrect changes. Vera would have loved to have a look around here I think, and I feel the distance between us now we’re in different continents.
It’s time to head for the harbour of Civitavecchia as I ride around the beautiful Bracciano lake, passing through some more villages where time seems to stand still. On the way I spend a night with friends of Karen who host me although they don’t know me at all and when they head out in the morning for work, they leave me in charge of the house. Good to see that not only Warmshower or Couchsurfing hosts can be as trusting as this.
After travelling in countries like Japan and South Korea it takes some time to get used to the nonchelance of Southern European signage and lack of organisation at for example the harbour where my ferry for Sardinia leaves. Finding my way, understanding where and when to go to check-in, it all seems straight from a funny movie. Signs are missing, hardly anybody speaks (or wants to speak) English and together with some Austrian motorcyclists I manage to find the ferry and actually get on board as one of the last passengers after a very lacklustre customs check.
Neighbours with helicopters
Sardinia is just what I need. A warm place with lovely food and empty roads. Of course some towns are a little touristy, especially around the Costa Smerelda area, but is is a beautiful place as well. My first night I spend on a small beach with a multi-million dollar yacht as a neighbour. I count at least 7 decks and spot a helicopter on top. Hopefully they’re not looking when I try to put up my tent across their floating palace in a strong summer breeze. I do ponder about the difference in lifestyle, and decide I like the freedom my little tent and bicycle give me, as the yacht seems like a nice place to stay, but also as something that costs a fortune to keep afloat. The next few days I enjoy cycling around the North of the Island, switching from seaside to hilltops all the time and climbing quite a lot in the process, sweating like a wild Sardinian pig. Again I do notice the difference between cycling alone or together. On the bike I don’t mind being alone, but visiting towns, having lunch and pitching the tent are just less fun alone without VeloVera.
After five days it’s time to leave Sardinia and I hop over to Corsica. My last week alone on the road as Alex will join me in Nice for one of the more challenging parts: the Route des Grandes Alpes which we will tackle together. But first I take a ferry to another place I have been looking forward to to visit for a long time. Corsica doesn’t dissapoint: the roads along the coast offer great views of the crystal clear sea, the local food all tastes wonderful and if you want to you can climb all day when you leave the coast behind. It is also quite clear you’re not in Italy anymore. Gone are the gelaterias but in come the boulangeries. I cross the island from South to North, following the Eastern coastline. I have some time to spare and decide to head to the hills and the picture perfect town of Corte. It is a worthwhile detour and it means I can also enjoy the downhill parts when I make my way to Bastia. I stay two nights in lovely Bastia and enjoy the company of warmshower hosts Izabella, Aurélien and their happy dog Tuca. It is very nice to feel like I am actually meeting up with old friend instead of staying with someone I hardly know. Sharing travel stories, inspiration and just joking around feels very good. For the first time I also notice that I’m starting to look forward to going ‘home’… but first there are some Alps to conquer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.