If there is one city in the world I would want to see through the eyes of an architect it would be Rome. With all these ancient, medieval, renaissance, baroque and modern structures scattered all over the place. Intertwined or next to each other – marks of three millennia.
So of course I jumped at the opportunity to spend a long weekend in Rome with a bunch of Canadian architects and their professors who spent up to forty years researching, learning and teaching there. All over the city and especially in the Forum! The most important excavating site of Rome!
The Waterloo University of Toronto was celebrating the 40 year anniversary of their Rome Program, where they send their architecture students for a semester to study and research in Rome. I was invited as one of my climbing partners and friends from Shanghai studied Architecture there. Living on different continents by now, we seize every opportunity to meet when we are ‘close’ to each other. And if you are thinking continents, Rome and Hamburg are pretty close by.
The most impressive and special part was the tour of the forum by Professor Eric Haldenby. He is the founder of the Rome Program, he has spent his working life on and in Rome; teaching, learning and researching the forum – essentially living for it. And he is an exceptionally gifted story teller.
Even when he was talking about different sub-types of stones, I tried not to miss a word of what he said. The ancient forum came alive in front of my eyes, he painted the construction site that it actually was in our heads, while trying to follow the political implications of that time. I was astonished to learn the forum didn’t look the way that it is usually shown. If you watched “The Roman Empire” on Netflix you’ve been fooled. During the time its set, all these buildings were still in the progress of being built. What got me most was one building which only had one entrance in the front. No back exit. No side exit. Growing up in a time where every hotel room has to have a map to the nearest emergency exit, where you do fire drills at every school to practice getting out in time – I started to feel physically uncomfortable by the mere thought of a place like that.
We were there at a special time: A part of the forum was open which had been closed the decades before was open for public – so Eric was also thrilled to finally go there.
I felt bad that we only got a short version of the “famous 10 hours version the students get each year,” and visiting the Pantheon the other day, I was utterly frustrated I couldn’t get close enough to Eric to fully understand his insights on the Pantheon that he was sharing on the busy Piazza della Rotunda.
We also got a share of the modern architecture when we went to a Schubert, Chopin and Weber concert at the Auditorium Parco della Misica and also at the museum of modern art with this flying-birds merry-go-round.
The most impressive fusion of modern and ancient architecture that I experienced was in the rooftop restaurant at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni – where modern glass and ancient stone complemented each other with such perfection, I even forgot to take pictures.
The last day was spent walking on one of the oldest roads of Europe, on cobble stone, where some ox-carts left their traces 2000 years ago.
Drinking fancy colored juices is just ONE part of traveling.
Communication and friendships back home
They will kind of forget about you. But with smartphones, social networks and a blog – things clearly are going to be different, right? They are for sure. But not necessarily in a good way.
That’s why, this part is the hardest to write and the hardest to publish. Because I am sad about what happened. But it doesn’t feel complete if I leave this part out – and it simply is part of it. Often it’s left out. Many times you can read about the glamorous parts of traveling. Of the excitement and adventures. Of meeting new people and making new bonds. But this is also part of long-term-traveling: Your friendships and partnerships back home change. Especially for partnerships it can be hard. It becomes very difficult to maintain relationships, especially the one with your partner.
Texting is different from talking. You miss out on the details. You hurt people. You don’t know you hurt them.
Your friends talk about you. About you hurting people. About you not being a good person, partner, friend. They judge you. Some take sides. Some don’t. Some stop texting. But you are busy, you are in a different world. You have patchy internet, need a VPN or fall asleep getting dressed for dinner. You loose touch with a lot of friends. You only text every few weeks to months with people you are in touch with on a more regular and frequent basis when you are back home. So, you don’t have a clue what is going on. Actually, you don’t even know that something is going on. No-one is turning to you. No-one is asking your side of things. No-one is keeping you up to date on what’s happening. Since they claim it’s none of their business.
You finally learn you hurt someone who is very important to you. Because they finally speak up. You try to sort it out. Text messages don’t suffice.
Talking on the phone needs to be planned and scheduled due to time difference. Finally, you make it.
You get home, nervous, sweaty palms. You get on the phone. You use Skype and WhatsApp. You use the WiFi and switch to mobile data. You turn your vpn on and off. Try your headset. Try without the headset. You swear. The connection sucks. There is more interference and loss of connection than communication. So you finally give up on that attempt.
People back home talk some more. Get angry at you. Carry a grudge. You don’t have a clue. You are far away. You got used to falling out of touch. From an 8000km distance there is no telling the difference between obliviousness and anger.
You try texting with your significant other. Since talking isn’t possible. You get a feeling of misunderstandings that happen. Drifting apart. Too much stuff happening. And even more things not happening. You have reasons. You can’t explain them. Your partner isn’t asking. You don’t know what they are thinking. You assume they understand you, they get you. But they don’t.
You return home. Friends suddenly text you to say that they can’t deal with you at the moment. You stare at your phone. You ask why. You ask yourself. You ask them. You ask mutual friends. You don’t get an explanation until much later. You can guess. For this moment, you only know, you are out. A friendship seems lost. You are sad. You feel lonely.
Finally, you and your partner talk. It feels weird. Something changed during this time. Due to what you did. What they did. What other people did. Hairline cracks in your relationship, that might have been there before, turned into crevasses. You break up.
This title feels like the one that fits the most. As it reflects what happened to me internally. If I labeled it “what I learned” it would be a totally different article. But this isn’t focusing on me ‘learning’ in the academic way. And some things I already was (kind of) aware of. What didn’t change at all is that I still strongly advocate solo-traveling! Hope you enjoy reading the article – please let me know what insights you gained from traveling!
moving vs being stationary I always loved to be on the move. Once, I took two trains from Melbourne via Sydney to Brisbane with an estimated travel time of about 24 hours instead of simply taking a plane for a couple of hours as I was going to enjoy the time on the train. Of course cycling is taking this to an extreme but this is whatI love about bike touring. Moving! But if you are always on the move, especially by your own body power, there are some disadvantages as well.
traveling vs arriving I groan. The road is closed. I am tired. All I want for today is to arrive. I am tired of traveling. Of sleeping in different places. Of finding my way. Of the cars and trucks that are passing me way to close on these narrow, winding roads in the mountains of Yunnan. Just tired of traveling, desperate to arrive. It got dark. So I sucked it up. Put up my tent. Went to sleep. Put down my tent. And cycled the last bit – the very last bit I would spent cycling during these five months. With this thought in my head – and two hard-boiled eggs in my tummy – my whole attitude changed. I enjoyed them. I dreaded my arrival. I stopped by the side of the road. To take in the view. To nudge some more moments out of the traveling part, before I had to arrive. This night and this morning exemplify how I feel about being on the move and arriving at a place. I love both. And at times, I dread one or the other. Inevitably both are part of bike touring. As are so many other things. Cycling ensures so much – I am physically active, I see new things, I come across surprised people and maybe even some wildlife I never ever dreamed of meeting in their natural habitat, I love all the food I’ll be eating, I take a wrong turn. I sleep at a strange, new place I don’t know anything about yet, not even where it is. Arriving, or rather staying at a place, ensures different things. I don’t have to wonder where to sleep. There’s no need to be active. I know where I get food. I meet the same people more than once, can have deeper conversations, we can agree on doing stuff together. If I stay long enough friendships can form. And I have more energy for other things. Like staying in touch. Like learning a language. Like climbing. Like writing. These are things that are really hard on a cycling day as so much energy has been spend on – of course – cycling. But besides that, there is also the mental energy that I use in a way I don’t need to do it at home. At home, I just go over to my bed – I don’t cover 15km cycling, looking for a camp site which I deem safe or put up a tent. I go over to the kitchen and grab a bite when I am hungry. I don’t have to scan my surroundings for restaurants or the tiny hints that give a rural grocery store away. One cycling night, I was so out of energy, I simply fell asleep over putting on my pants to go have dinner…
building bonds and friendships I arrived in a new-to-me place when I arrived in Kunming. I hadn’t been there before, never met a person living there – but a friend picked me up from the metro station after a 52 hr journey, walked me to her place, fed me dinner and gave me a bed. I was going to live at Vera’s place for the next two months. We were going to go to the massage and sauna together. She was not only introducing me to her favorite restaurants and cafés, but also to her friends and her other roommates who also just got to Kunming. We would have great conversations how our love of bicycle touring and China affected our lives. I settled in. I lived in Kunming, I built bonds, friendships and found climbing partners. It was an awesome, empowering feeling – being able to start anew in a far away place, and have a lovely farewell dinner with the people I grew closest too in my time there.
being able to make something with my hands Same with the clothes – I didn’t expect I would miss this so much. I never considered myself a handy or even crafty person, but on the other hand I like to make stuff with my hands. I enjoy sewing as much as building furniture or putting up some lamps on the wall. Or even cutting and laminating teaching material. Like, working physically with my hands and have something to show for it. It gives me a sense of achievement that writing – even with a pen – or taking pictures with my camera just can’t provide. It didn’t occur to me how important this is for me on any of my other trips. Looking back, during that time, I was busy with other things – like being in China for the very first time, being on my very first bicycle tour and even on this one – it only got really evident once I wasn’t traveling anymore, but living in Kunming. Mind you, I wasn’t bored. I studied Chinese, learned taichi, did yoga, went climbing, made new friends and met old ones. Busy, fulfilled – and yet I missed this so badly that one of the first things I did back home, was taking t-shirts apart to sew pillow cases.
So much for now – Part II is about the influence my travel(s) had on my friend- and relationships and how staying in touch works. Especially when you are sometimes so tired you fall asleep while putting on pants….
The top-less-chiefs with their extra-cool sunglasses are dancing while they are turning the meat and veggies on the barbecue and the girls that are presenting the mantou-dishes start doing the same. Techno music is filling the room. Vera and I have to yell at each other to make us understood. We are not having a dinner-party but a party-dinner.
Wait – didn’t I start talking about sauna and spa? A place where you relax in a quiet atmosphere? Words are merely whispered? And IF, very big if!, there is any sort of music it would be a syrinx, quietly in the background, hardly touching our consciousness, just intensifying our impression of being at a special, peaceful and relaxing place?
Most of this place is like that. But not the buffet at dinner time. And again – wait. Buffet? Sauna? Are you sure? Yes, I am.
Food in form of a buffet is an essential part of the 24-hours-spas. It’s included in a price where in my hometown I could maybe afford a three-hours-stay for.
Oh and then there is always the point of bringing towels. Shampoo. Bathing suit. Slippers. And. And. And. A big duffel bag full of essential items. Plus, maybe a book to read. Not so in China. And of course a bottle to fill up with water to avoid having to spend a small fortune on or offer your first born for enough water to stay hydrated. Back home, there’s the logistics of the unpacking part. Wet towels that need to be dried, washed and dried again. Or washed straight away. Anyway – WORK after you just came home from relaxing!
Not so in China. After checking-in (yes, bring your passport. It’s like staying at a hotel even if it’s just a few hours during the day) you are handed towels and short-sleeved pyjamas to wear in the mixed areas. The non-cloth-areas like Sauna, bath and showers are separated by gender. Massages and body scrubs are available as well. Shampoo, soap and face-wash, even toothbrushes and toothpaste is being supplied. We make proper use of it and scrub our bodies before even dipping the first toe into the hot-bath or going near the sauna as we didn’t want to be frowned upon nor pollute the water.
We soak in the heat of the sauna – when a worried employee jerks the door open, holding up small white towels towards us. They are wet and cooled, straight out of a small fridge next to it. Hold in front of the face they are meant to make the breathing easier but we are not interested. Just trying to get her to close the door as it starts getting cold.
Wearing the p-j’s we explore the mixed area, lounge, read and nap in the arm chairs until our party-dinner starts. Food is delicious and I put some effort into not eating at the speed of music. If we want, we could stay for breakfast. Or lunch. Or even the next dinner.
Heaven, especially if you live during winter in a place where most places don’t have heating!
That said – if you are headed to China and looking forward to a place like this. I couldn’t find them everywhere but Yunnan definitely offers these. For Beijing my search was without result – the information I found online was outdated. My friend Huan even called a few places for me but to no avail. They were either not offering the overnight stay or not open anymore.
“Oh no” I cry out. Never ever had I thought I would think this about a sign that’s promising a down-hill. 10km of down-hill on a nice, paved road with an acceptable amount of traffic. . A cyclist dream, isn’t it? Just rolling, rolling rolling. But I am not happy about it. Or relieved. I rather fear it. Why? you might wonder. Because I am cold. It is cold. My fingers feel as if they are about to fall off as I stop to put on my third coat – the one that is supposed to stop the wind. I constantly wriggle my toes. My scarf covers my face. My hood underneath my helmet is trying to keep my ears from freezing off. Okay, it’s not THAT cold. It’s about zero. But not much. The road stretches in the shade. The wind is strong as I roll down and I brake from time to time just to check if my fingers still obey me. Adding to the no-dinner, I skipped breakfast as I couldn’t find a breakfast place close to my uncomfortable, noisy sleeping spot from last night. So, I am cold. I am tired. I am hungry. On the plus side? No need to pee. Not a crazy amount of trucks on the road.
Checking my phone for the turn-off Reuben send me is futile – the cold let’s it slide from 50% to 30% to 10% to 1%. Not good.
To my left I spot a huge parking lot, a big store and some food stalls. There’s a roof but walls are only on two sides. Typical place for expensive, not good food where the tourist buses stop. I stop. I order soup. Soy milk – hot soy milk. And can charge my phone. Waiting for the noodle-soup I walk around. Trying to get my toes to stop hurting with the cold. My fingers feel okay when I finally spot it. A stove. With benches around. The stove is rather big, rectangular in size. On the top sits a stainless-steel bowl with a bit of water and some eggs. I sit. Stretch my feet towards the heat. Holding my hands out. Nodding at the man sitting next to me. Using the opportunity to practice my Chinese in a small conversation when my soup arrives and I inquire about the eggs, taking a couple. After a few minutes I feel warm. Energy returns. And I am full. Life is good.
“So, to Shigu, you go this way?” I am asked in as simple Chinese that matches my languages skills and the guy is pointing up the road towards the village with the closed road. No, no. I insist the road is closed. “But, going there – there is no road to Shigu.” he insists pointing down the road. Stubborn, I insist on the closed road and he that I am going the wrong way now.
After retrieving my phone, I check the turn-off. Geez – he is right! I already passed the alternative turn-off two k ago! He seems about as relieved as I am that I didn’t go 8 more k, down a steep hill into the wrong direction.
No, it’s not about summoning a pocket-sized devil even so it sounds like it. At least to me. Or maybe it is about it? If you see consumerism as the devil than this challenge is trying to tame it.
What is it?
Basically a game where you reduce your wardrobe for a while following some rules. For 3 months you are using 33 items to dress yourself. You count your shoes and your accessories in but not your sleep-wear, undies and work-out clothes.
It aims for people who live in abundance like most people in the global north. Middle-class with staffed wardrobes full of nothing to wear. Hello not-traveling me!
So, if people participate in this
challenge there must be some promised benefit, right? Why else would
you limit yourself if there is no need to? It promises to offer some
So, what are these typical conclusions?
Which insights does the game offer?
You don’t need as many clothes.
It is easier to pick what to wear.
You spend less time getting
dressed and more time doing ‘what-is-important-for-you’.
You feel more freedom. Less need
to buy clothes/things and instead have more energy to fucus on
How I stumbled across it.
It showed up in my Instagram feed one day as I lived in Kunming, China for two months. A woman posted a pic of herself, wearing a nice, smart outfit and used hashtags like #333challange #333minimalism. I got curious and she was nice enough to introduce me to the challenge and I continued seeing pics of her where I actually wouldn’t have noticed a lack of variety in clothes if she hadn’t pointed out why she was posting them but rather an attractive woman feeling comfortable and great.
So, learning about it, I realized I was
actually already doing the challenge myself – accidentally.
I was bike touring when I got to Kunming and knew I would be after. So I didn’t have that much stuff with me to begin with. And even so I could stock up my change of clothes thanks to my roommate and a clothes-exchange-party I still didn’t have loads. Including my nighty, socks and undies – unaware of the fact that I didn’t have to count them – I barely made it to 33 items – for two months. Before and after I had less but life and clothing necessities are VERY different when cycling.
For outerwear, I had 3 T-Shirts, 2 long-sleeve-shirts, 3 pair of pants, 2 jumpers, 2 skirts, 2 dresses, one pair of stockings, 2 shorts, 2 pair of shoes and an ultra-light raincoat.
Did I wear all my clothes?
Fascinating but at
this point I would have almost have to say no. But then I was wearing
the second skirt once. For the shoes: one pair were my cycling shoes
with a rather stiff sole which is great for cycling and so-so for
walking. Once my roommate gave me the light-weight-army shoes she
had, I never wore anything else again.
Was I happy with my choice of
It depended. The t-shirts and the jumper I brought from home were carefully chosen favorites. As was one of the pants and one skirt. The other things I chose more quickly at the clothes-swap-party.
And that’s what I ended up with. I loved the clothes I carefully chose. I felt great when wearing them. The others? Oh well… I was dressed okay. I didn’t mind them but they didn’t show my personality or clothing style that much. But then again, I believe I am not someone who cares extremely about her clothes or shoes.
What surprised me: The wear on the
Did you ever have clothes break on you?
Falling apart? With the tonnes of clothes that go to landfill,
op-shops or poorer countries every year it’s just not possible to
wear them out. Styles go out of fashion within weeks (yes! 26 times a
year the stock in clothing stores changes!) and so the low quality
fast-fashion gets faster out-dated then outworn.
So, yeah, I was hardly aware of the
phenomen as I would usually throw out clothes before this happens or
maybe just when it starts. And I actually saw me as a person that’s
wearing/holding on to clothes longer than average.
Plus, I am someone who is mending. But
I realized that this wasn’t making any long-term change. Hardly a
short-term one. The fabric became to worn and weak to hold the
thread. So I eventually gave up on that.
My T-shirts started to get holes. My
one pair of pants – which I have had for roughly ten years – was
ripping at the slightest impact. Another pair had given up before –
at the end of a hike this super-comfy cotton-pants (which I got used
of a friend) were totally ripped and so far beyond use I had to
borrow one before having street-food – yeah not even talking fancy
restaurants here – back in the city. I would have been embarressed
if I wouldn’t have been so fascinated how quickly this pants
Packing and Washing
„Have you packed for your trip yet?“
my roommate asks me about 24 hours before I go on a one-week trip. I
shake my head „No chance. I have to wash everything first.“ Yeah,
all my clothes were barely a load of washing and I had to wash what I
was wearing as well. So I would have barely enough for the trip with
hand-washing in between. I did a lot of that in Kunming as well. Due
to the limited stock I didn’t always collect enough clothes to
justify putting on a load of washing and realized how this is
actually putting a lot of wear on the clothes again. Shrubbing.
Wringing. Seemed to be working away on the fabric.
Luckely Kunming is a very warm and dry
place so I could pack my clothes for the trip in the morning. Wearing
the pair of pants that was still a bit moist.
Felt weird. At these times it was
comforting to know that this was a) temporary and b) choosen by
myself. If it would have annoyed me too badly I could have just gone
shopping to have as much choice of clothes I wished for. How
different must this experience be for someone who didn’t choose this
but just can’t afford more. But has to pack for the 5-day-class-trip
of their daughter? Running half-full loads of washing because there’s
not enough time to hand-wash or clothes around to wait for a full
machine? And by that, actually spending more money than needed if
enough clothes were available on water, electricity and detergent?
I need less. And I desire to have a
variety in clothes.
Yes, it is true.
For my situation back home: Even though I tremendously reduced the
amount of clothing I own over the last five years I still have more
than I need at a given time.
I believe we don’t
need 7 pairs of almost identically black pants. But if you have them,
have the space and not planning to move soon. why not wear them out?
If you reduce to 2 pairs, which you then will almost wear daily, you
will have to buy a new one soon as they will show signs of wear. But
then… what’s the point in keeping the ones that are uncomfortable?
We don’t like wearing? We feel awkward in?
When getting new(-to-me) clothes
there really is a point in making sure I like them.
As stated above
about some things from the clothes swaps as compared to my fav’s that
I brought from home. I didn’t like them too much. I didn’t feel like
„me“ too much in them.
Part of the
KonMari-method is to pick up every single item (of clothes, all your
shoes, all your books…) and check if they ‘spark joy’ when you hold
them. It sounds crazy, but it works (and it’s awesomly explained by
her in a tedtalk I can not find anymore on YouTube.)
I have been
practicing this for about three years now back home, ever since I
purged using the KonMari-method for the first time. I ended up with a
choice of clothes I appreciated much more and actually started
feeling happy when grabbing clothes to wear and didn’t have to go
past all these „nothing-to-wear“-items in a totally overloaded
So, when getting
new stuff into my place, I try to check if they ‘spark joy’ – what
I obviously didn’t do at the clothes-swap-party.
Different moods need different
The jumper I
brought with me is my absolute favourite one. I bought it at a
festival earlier this year of a store I love, accompanied by my best
friend. So besides just loving the feel of wearing it, it brings
happy memories. It’s an xxl-hoodie.
jumper from the clothes-swap, even though I really liked it as well,
was a xxl-style one as well.
And I don’t want
this style everyday that doesn’t fit for a T-shirt. So here comes my
need for variety!
The future: What I am courious
In a couple of
days I am going back home, where an abundance of clothes is waiting
for me. Don’t ask me how many t-shirts, pants, jeans and skirts I
own. I am wondering how I will react to that.
What I can’t do is
wear the stuff I had at the challenge. What I got at the clothes-swap
I left behind for other cyclists to use. What I took with me, is
almost worn out.
So, what’s your
experience with clothes? Have you heard about this challenge and what
do you think about it?
And mending… why
didn’t it work out? Maybe there’s more magic to that and it’s about
using the right technique? Happy for your adive!
Steadily I keep pedaling and pedaling. My progress is slow but there is progress. I let my mind wander. I count in my head in a meditative manner and repeat my mantra “It doesn’t matter how slow you go as long as you don’t stop”.
I want this to be my last day of cycling – and then I don’t want it to be my last day of cycling. I want to arrive but I don’t want it to be over yet. I have the strong urge to arrive at a place. To sleep. To rest. So on I go. Up and up this hill. At a speed so slow I can’t play my favorite game of checking the map for the remaining distance without stopping. It doesn’t really matter. I set my mind to arriving in Damaidi, close to Shigu, close to Lijiang where I started this morning lunchtime.
The road goes up and up and up, along fields, landscape that almost feels empty. I fix my eyes on something ahead – anything. A tree. A flag. A stone. I only plan to reach this next stop. Only the tree. Then, my eyes search for the next landmark, 100m, maybe 150m further ahead. That’s all I think about. Only the flag. Until I reach it and on to the next spot. The stone. I play this game for about an hour, emptying my head from all thoughts as I feel I need all my energy to simply keep going. And so I go. Just don’t stop.
Until I have to stop. I reach a small village that stretches along the road where some cars stopped inconveniently. So, how much further do I have to go? I managed about 5k with this mind-set since the turn-off. I actually didn’t think I would have to go up-hill for such a long distance, but hey. Can’t do anything about it. I check maps-me, as it allows me to judge how much further I have to climb.
The turn-off the Chinese map “a-map” showed me was wrong. I worked very hard for one hour to go the wrong way. At least… I didn’t descent. I turn my bike around. Stone. Flag. Tree. The landmarks fly by. 20 minutes later I am where I left 1h 20minutes ago.
So, it’s still a long way to Damaidi. To the Stone House. My bed. My dinner. But the down-hill comes. I make good progress. I make great progress. Soon, I will have to get my head-lamp out. The last 10k, maybe only the last 5, it will be dark. Joy fills my heart as I zip down the mountain. Take a right turn at the gas station at the bottom. A tiny village seems to live from the passing traffic. Not only the gas station, but a couple of restaurants, two hotels and a garage.
A road-block. A woman waves me to get my attention. The road to Shigu is closed. There is only this road. I can have a bed for 60 Yuan. Tomorrow, they believe, the road will be open again.
As I hesitate she calls her daughter who refuses to talk to me but uses her phone to translate Chinese to… Gibberish. She understands that it’s becoming Gibberish but refuses to use my phone for communication. Or to speak. I start getting frustrated. No, I AM frustrated. No new information is gained during these 30 minutes. By now it’s dark. Too late to keep cycling even though Reuben who runs the Stone House pointed an alternative route for me. So the blocked road is NOT the only one that goes to Shigu. By now, I am frustrated and pissed off at these people lying to me. As I turn my bike around the daughter keeps telling me the other hotel is more expensive before running over to talk to them. In my mind, to make sure they don’t give me a better price. But I had had it now. Frustrated, angry and overall tired I look at my options and decide to set up camp. While I do that, the restaurants close and I miss my option for dinner.
In short: It’s just such a convenient way to deal with my period!
What is a diva-cup?! A diva-cup, menstruations-cup or moon-cup is a small (usually) silicone cup which catches one’s period. The extra value is has, is that it’s re-usable! So instead of the few hours you get out of a tampon or a (single-use) sanitary napkin, you get a few years (!) of use. Between 5 and 10 years! So I’ve read. I lost my first one after having had it for less than that, so I can’t tell yet.
1. I always have enough sanitary products – no matter where I am. In Germany, Australia, the U-S and Canada (and more places!) it’s always easy to buy more tampons or pads when needed. Very different situation when I am cycling in rural Lao. Or even visiting friends in a city like Shanghai it’s not so easy to get tampons – even to a point where people who never had a period are aware of it. Imagine the look on the face of a (non-menstruating) friend who offered me some to take on my trip and I refused, explained I am very well aware that I probably won’t be able to get some soon but don’t need them. At this point I explained the cup to him.
2. It’s sooooo light and small! It’s just a few grams. Like, nothing! WAY less than a small box of tampons!
3. I add less to land-fill. In some parts of Cambodia there aren’t even any (public) toilets. There is no (good) system to deal with 20/21st-century waste like plastic-wrappings. Families just burn their own trash or collect it in a hole in the ground. So at this, I was really happy for every opportunity to add less to the land-fill and would have been at a loss at what to do with single-use sanitary products without (probably) offending or irritating someone.
4. It’s easy to dispose off. To dispose off the blood in the diva-cup in these circumstances you can just dig a small hole for it which you cover afterwards. Also works if wild-camping in countries that do have public toilets for example but not close enough to where you are! But there is also the:
5. Lower frequency of having to empty it! The diva-cup needs to be exchanged in a way lower frequency than tampons. This makes it a lot easier to find a nice place to do it.
6. It’s easy to keep it hygienic. During the menses it’s good enough to rinse it with water or just wipe with a paper towel/tissue/toilet paper. In between, it should be in boiling water for a couple of minutes for hygienic reasons. So that’s about three weeks time to get to a place with a stove/microwave/kettle or you just do it on your camping stove if you carry one anyway. For storage – it just waits in the toiletry bag.
7. It’s better for my health! Tampons and sanitary pads contain all kinds off chemicals and bleach. So a diva-cup is an easy way to avoid this! Plus, the production of tampons/pads is using up loads of resources. So I can easily avoid that at no extra hassle.
8. It saves a lot of money! Even when living in a country that is so famous for it’s cheap toiletries (seriously! Drug stores started accepting wechat-pay which is so far pretty much only used in China because sooo many Chinese tourists spent huge amounts on toiletries to take home. The price of a tube of hand-creme is lower as in Cameroon!) the diva-cup is already saving me a load of money and saving even more of my budget when traveling!
9. … and time! No need to look around for places selling tampons! Can focus all my energy on trying to find chocolate and pancakes instead!
Let me know what you think of the diva-cup and what advantages I might have forgotten about!
or: How I finally stopped envying people going by bus
Countless times I watched in envy the buses that are zipping past me. Full of tourists that don’t have to do anything to get to the next place – apart from buying a ticket, taking their seat and waiting. And then – by magic – they arrive. While I was working my way along the road, up the hill… feeling tired.
(And of course there were the times
when I thought how lucky I am not to depend on buses, independent and
loving cycling – otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it again and again.)
But now – I was one of them! Sitting
on this bus, finally getting around to answer all the messenger
messages I got, have a nap and listen to an audio-book. Apart from
listening to the audio book I wouldn’t do any of them. I would even
get a caffeine drink to make sure I keep my eyes open when we had a
Before: I am standing in front of the
bus. The boot is almost empty, plenty of space for my bike, my bags
and other people bags. But the bus driver is shoving me away, shaking
his head, twisting his hands – not saying a word. While everybody
else is shoving their luggage into the boot. Which is slowly but
surely filling. My bike still waiting outside. That’s when I spot the
blond guy I’ve seen before in the hall. He’s on the same bus. I catch
is eye over the top of the head off the other travelers. „You speak
by any chance Chinese?“ as the bus driver was ignoring everything I
was saying, only twisting his hands in the air while I was getting
more and more frustrated. He didn’t. But his girlfriend. Fluent in
Mandarin-Chinese and English. My saviour. To her the bus driver
His refusal to talk to me came out of
his not being comfortable speaking Mandarin-Chinese himself – as he
is usually using the local dialect. It’s something I so easily
forget. For many people Mandarin, the language I learned, it’s also a
language they learned at school and speak at home, at work, with
their friends and family one of the many local dialects or languages.
One of the Chinese words used for Mandarin-Chinese is Putonghua –
basically meaning „the correct language“ and schools would have
signs up reminding the students to only speak Putonghua instead of
their family language. Some of these are very similiar to Mandarin,
others have about as much in common with Mandarin as English and
So my poor Mandarin got him worried about me not understanding him, so it felt better for him to not talk to me. This way, we won’t have any embarrassing misunderstandings. Imagine me taking a deep sigh at this point.
So eventually, he agreed. Paying half
the price as I paid for my ticket I was finally granted putting my
dismanteld bike into the trunk of the bus. Happily I took one of the
last free seats in the back of the bus. As we drove on a straight
road out of the city, the girl in front of me was already crunched
over her plastic bag, her face pale. I was reading a bit on my phone
about Lugu Hu, the glacier lake I was headed to.
We got into the mountains, the roads
went around one bent after another and I realized I better keep my
head up. The girl in front of me didn’t have anything left in her
stomach but didn’t look any better.
Another corner, another time the bus
driver hit the gas and brakes shortly after another, I stopped
reading and braced myself. The girl was kneeling on the floor, her
upper body resting on the seat. She seemed to be dozing off and I
really wished for her she was.
I closed my eyes for a bit, dozing off
felt like a great idea. I was tired and sleeping felt like the best
way to pass time on a bus when you can’t read or write. In an
instance I opened them again. We went around another corner, the bus
driver kept playing his own stop-and-go game. No way I could stop
looking out of the window for more than the time I needed to blink.
No way I could let my neck relax. The girl in front of me wasn’t
dozing anymore. She was back in her misery and even worse. And by
now, even blinking became difficult for me. My brain needed the
information I got by looking out of the window to calculate the
position of my body sufficently to not feel sick.
When we stopped for a break, everyone
that hadn’t thrown up yet was talking about feeling sick and I downed
an energy drink to keep awake for the rest of the ride.
„I am looking for a place for my tent
and…“ I can hardly finish this sentence – and that’s not
because my Chinese is too bad, I am pretty good on this sentence by
now. And planed to have it followed by „Can I put my tent over
there?“ pointing to the far end of the restaurant where it has a
small parking lot. „Of course. You can put your tent here. Choose a
place.“ I get interrupted by hte young man I was adressing. WOW!
I just cycled past this beautiful gorge
– like, beautiful in a sense that I could hardly keep going as it
was taking my breath away and I had to take pics of the different
views, when I saw this restaurant with a terrace right next to it. I
pondered. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Still I always have to give myself a
small push before adressing someone for help.
Right now, I am so glad I did. I am full from a nice hot pot dinner with the extended family, had a bit of conversation with the daughter-in-law – who is an English teacher! How do I go for always meeting English speaking people everywhere, huh? – and let her two-year-old explore my tent. She was deadly curious when I started putting it up and very exited when she was allowed into it. Even though it was empty. A bit later we found out that my sleeping mat makes for an excellent trampoline.
I left with this weird mood this
morning that I tried to describe in the other blog post. I didn’t
feel like cycling, I was doubting my route and I had a not very yummy
breakfast. Exchanged some messages with my best friend back home –
who was just about to go to bed as I started – how miserable and
lonely I am feeling.
Now, 75km later, I am so happy I went out of the hotel and this way. So many cool things happened. I saw awesome landscapes, stepped up to someone to take my pic after I climbed the hill – a bit later we had a group photo with everyone else who was at this praying-parking spot and the crazy cyclist. I stuck around a bit more, admired the prayer flags, ate the gifted oranges and asked a women in the traditional dress of the Mi-minority for a pic which she granted me.
This is the magic of bike touring for
me. Emotions pass. You never know what the day holds for you. You
have amazing moments. The food tastes great. Once you found a nice
camping spot you are happy and if you meet families like this one –
it feels like the best that could happen.
At the end of the described night, I put down my tent, let the ice melt in the morning sun while reading and enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Gesala Eco Tourism Zone, got gifted some cooked potatoes by a group of militairs and set for the down-hill.
This trip is different. Or this part of
the trip, however you see it. The part, since I left Kunming. I had a
plan and a place I was headed as usual when cycling. Like the first
time I was going from Shanghai to Singapore. Or when going from
Bangkok to Yangon. Or when going from Hong Kong to Hong Kong. I like
this. It somehow makes life easy and straightforward when
biketouring. I am busy with stuff like getting food, finding a plae
to sleep. But I always knew where I was headed.
This time, I had to change my plans a couple of times as I am going to meet friends and we had to change the location. By now, it feels totally messed up how I am zigzagging around. So I was going straight for Litang in Sichuan – part of the famous Tibetan-Sichuan-Highway. The distance should have been okay but.
At this point, take a moment for this:
Have you ever seen pictures of Tibet? Try to remember them. Try to
remember the scenery. The landscape. You see mountains, right?
Friggin high mountains…
Before I started in Kunming I was
worrying that the hills might be bad. And that I will be awfully
slow. But how many times do we worry about something being bad and
then it’s actually not THAT bad, right? Well… the hills were that
bad. I sent stuff off on my rest day, about 5kg. Hoping it would go
smoother and for the first day it was. But still…
One day I managed 26km from my starting
point. And I climbed 1334m. I felt stressed about the distance I
made. I was slow. I was exhausted. I was tired. That night was bad. I
pitched my tent at a great, hidden spot around sunset and was inside
my sleeping bag at 6.30. But not sleepy-tired yet. Wearing all my
clothes, my raincoat stuffed at the bottom of the sleeping bag to
keep my feet kinda warm, I patched a heatpad onto my shoulders. Still
cold. Reading an e-book and sending some voice messages with friends
I felt lonely. And defeated. And bored! I was headed for a tourist
attraction not so far from last nights hotel but didn’t make it. It
was 3km and therefore about an hour away from my camp spot. I
couldn’t do anything but reading since I wanted to stay as much in my
sleeping bag as I could. I only got my hand out to get to the next
page in my e-Book.
I played around on maps.me on where to
go and decided to aim for Xichang. Not to many climbs and a bus to
So, that’s what I am doing now. And it
feels weird. It feels like I am cheating myself out of the hard
stuff. And away from all this amazing views. On seeing this very
different part of China.
Maybe it was just a fluke? Maybe it was
just that moment? I don’t know.
Da-dong. Da-dong. Da-dong. Something is not right. I can feel it every time my backwheel turns while I’m working my way up-hill. I am 15km in into a 21km climb and awaiting an equal descent. Started yesterday in the afternoon, I woke up to a flat tire this morning. Couldn’t find what caused it and just put in my spare tube. And now – again. Of course I checked to make sure it’s nothing stuck into the tire that would cause the next flat. But here I go. Another one. This time, I will have to patch. I sigh. I hate this. This is the part of bike touring where I can’t be matter of fact see it as part of it.
So, first thing I do, is eating some
soul-comfort chocolate I bought at an international supermarket in
Panzhihua. Then I get to work; tools out, bike apart, detecting the
pinch and so one.
But, It’s the small things that count
in live, right? I empty my tool bag. I empty the pannier where I
store my tool bag. I can’t find it. This tiny piece of sand paper
needed to roughen the tube so the tube, patch and glue become one. I
use stones instead but to no success.
There I am, grand-daughter of a
galvanizer, all alone, somewhere in Sichuan, not able to fix a simple
More chocolate, packing of stuff and
pushing of bike. What else could I do? No-one there to pick me up if
I a) throw a tantrum or b) break down crying and I feel like I might
need my energy.
On two kilometers of walking I meet one
woman who totally ignores me and two men who try to help but can’t
and learn the Mandarin word for sandpaper before approaching a young
guy who simply puts my stuff into his truck and gives me a ride to
some colleagues of my grandpa. (And yes – I am soooo close to the
summit and do the whole downhill in a car…)
I buy sandpaper and fix the tire. Easy,
as I know where it is broken. But by now, there is another pinch, and
another one and another one… We eventually find 8 (!) more
holes… And decide that this is madness and I walk into Yumen where
there are two stores selling bikes. And that’s what they do. They are
selling bikes. But not bike parts.
„Go to Panzhihua. There you can buy
Laughing? Crying? The man who helped me
find the second bike store feels sorry for me and explains me, I
could just take a bus. For his sake, I try to look
not-totally-devastated, nod, thank him and wonder, if I should just
abondon this trip and my crazy idea to cycle north from Kunming while
walking past Yumen’s beautiful lake.
Back at the work shop I am in for a –
good – surprise. The other tire has been fixed!
Off I am, finally cycling again and
getting another 25k done.
So, distances this day: cycling 27km,
pushing 2km, walking 3km, car 23km.
How I finally get my rest day after being turned around on the road twice and totally exhausted by all these mountains.
Puh. Was this a good idea? I am out of training. I am carrying lots. And it’s hilly as …. Well, to be honest, these are mountains. Six days on the road and I am exhausted. The higher I get, the lower my mood and moral get.
When bike touring, it’s always the first week that’s the hardest but maybe all this is too much A cold start after two months rest in Kunming, right into the mountains with a loaded bike? Having done 10k in like two hours is frustrating as… frustrating can be, I assume. Fitter or on flatter ground, I get a kick out of having down some k, seeing a bit of the landscape, passing villages, getting food. But with this speed, the landscape is not changing that much, I only came past a few houses and didn’t have an opportunity to stock up on food or water.
Okay, on the bright side – it never got so steep that I had to take the bags off to first push the bike and then get the bags. Or the other way round. I could always ride the downhills. No flat tires. But no piece of flat road either. Sometimes I am even cycling up-hill, but have to cross to be able to do it. So whenever a truck comes, I have to stop. And push until the next only extremely steep – as in compared to really extremely steep – part comes to get back on the bike. On the other parts this attempt will only get me to fall.
Yesterday I was turned around again. The small Y-road that I was going was closed and I had to take the big G-road around the valley. Two hours after I started cycling I past last nights camp ground. Another half hour I came past the small village where I bought water and had a small chat. More hours later, I was back on the G-108 where I turned off the night before. So after cycling for 70k my goal, my rest-city, is only 10k closer.
maps.me feels like a life-line. I keep checking the topo, how many more k of this uphill?? The last part until the outskirts of Panzhihua will be a total drop. I am almost at the border off Yunnan and Sichuan. The road will cross it a few times at it’s highest points. The sun is burning. the view is stunning – I force myself to look up from time to time – I am out of food and slow.
And then – a car stops. A door opens. A young guy walks smilingly towards me. He offers me a lift and I am far from saying No to that. Happy, relieved, thankful – we manage to get everything into his van. He invites me to lunch (and orders more food than a starved cyclist can eat! I am impressed that this is possible) and once we are out of the worst part, I hop back onto the bike. I don’t want to miss out on all of the downhill I worked so hard for!
After check-in and a foto-session with the hotel’s employees I have one of the best showers of my life. And wear the cleanest clothes ever for dinner.
Remember the last sentence of
this article about learning to speak Mandarin? I may quote:
“It will get easier – once you start learning the
Awesome! And here I am – learning the characters. My teacher
writes them with ease on the whiteboard. I draw awkwardly something
on a piece of paper that kind of resembles her hanzi. After
a while some of them look even kind of neat – and I get promptly
praised by my teacher. And of course I promptly feel proud.
In some ways the characters do help. Since so many words sound the
same, only the characters can reveal some connections.
The word for ‘worry’ is made up out of two characters that – by
themselves – mean ‘carry on your shoulder’ and ‘heart’. Isn’t that
fitting? If I worry about something – it moves my heart and it weighs
on me – like something that I lift onto my shoulder.
For a while I wasn’t able to remember the word for ‘wallet’ –
which I had only seen written with the Latin alphabet.. My life could
have depended on it – until my teacher reveals to me it’s made up of
the words for ‘money’ and ‘bag’ – which I both know. And suddenly it
sticks. – If I had seen and known the characters I would have figured
that out on first sight.
And then, there are these situations:
“What is the meaning of this ‘xing'” I ask holding up a
piece of paper with the character for ‘xing’. “That’s the same
as in ‘bu xing’ – not possible” I nod. I wish to live in a world
where paper has three sides – one for the character, one for the
pronunciation and one for the meaning, as my teacher continues. “If
you take this ‘xing’ and ‘ren’ – the meaning is construction worker.
If you take ‘ren’ this ‘xing’ and ‘dao'” – at this point she is
fishing for one of the other pieces of paper I’ve been drawing on
until she finds the ‘dao’ that is part of ‘zhi dao’ (meaning: to
know) as well as part of Daoism – finding it, she continues “and
this means ‘sidewalk’.”
At this point – I realize how futile my wish for three sided paper
Embrace the poetic of the language, I hear my roommates
word echoing in my head. I embrace it.
Shit. This time, I was pushing my luck to far. And my bicycle. Two hours ago I was in a lovely city with hotels, supermarkets and flat roads. The thought of a night at a hotel wasn’t appaling too much.
I just left Kunming after lunch and was so happy to be back cycling. I didn’t want to stay at a hotel when I could camp. Get the whole feeling of being on tour.
Now I am in the middle of the mountains. Well… technically not the middle yet. For the middle I was missing another 5k or so. But I am 12k in. Far enough to feel like I was in the middle. Hard 12km. Beautiful 12km. Or, beautiful 9Km (3km were a busy G-road where I was either be run over by trucks or fall into the ditch if I didn’t keep my frontwheel perfectly straight).
And it’s getting dark – that’s the optimistic view. Actually it was almost dark. The paved road ahead is covered in rocks from a recent rock slide. My front wheel about to loose grip but at least I am cycling – and not leaning forward, pushing my bike as before. And some time after this.
During the sections that are nice to cycle, I get my noodles out and eat them like a cracker. It’s dinnertime, I need energy and I want to keep going.
So, almost dark – even for the optimistic – I get my headlamp out – which isn’t as bright as I remembered it to be. Sh… I turn it off. Whatever’s left of the battery life I will use to suss out my campsite and set my tent. But there is no campsite. Still. I remind myself I still have energy left. I can still do it. I started late with the cycling this day. So it wasn’t like I did 80k already. Actually, I left Fumin thinking, I would like to do at least 50k today and camp. But… To my left it goes down, to my right it goes up. The two flat tent-sized pieces of land I spotted where the entrance to a public toilet and a garbage site. Not appealing. The sky is getting darker and darker – it feels like it’s completely dark already but I know it will get pitchdark soon.
A truck is coming up behind me – I would love to stop it and ask for a ride, but the way his engine is working hard on the uphill, it probably won’t be able to keep driving if stopped. So on I go. My phone is out of battery by now but it doesn’t really matter as there is only one road anyw….
Oh – Sh…. the road devides into two sections. Should I go up or down? Time for a rest, while the very last bit of light slips away and the night sky with countless stars appears. I admire it while waiting for my phone to suck energy from the battery pack.
I still have energy. I can keep going. And I still have food and water left. I peptalk myself. Feeling devastated and stuck won’t help me anyway, so I might as well keep my spirits up. If needed I’d just cycle (and push) through the night. 55K to Jiashizhen. A city big enough to have a hotel to sleep all day. At my current average that’s just a bit more than 11hrs and chances are I find a campsite before.
And this is the moment, where I can hear it, waiting for my phone and calculating the time until I reach my destination in my head. Is it really coming out of my direction? I turn around and see the headlights of a car! Oh yeah! Smiling, I wave my hand in the way you do in Asia to stop a car, and it stops. I ask for help, for a lift. Hoping. Even if they would take me 10k I would be happy. Then it would be only 9hrs to my next destination and rest.
Long story short – my new friend tried to talk his boss into letting my camp at their construction site and ended up calling two work mates that gave me a lift back to Fumin while he was giving me advice for an alternative route. The road ahead was apparently closed for construction – which is why they were there.
Oh, and in case you are wondering:
#436 is ordering insane shoes from Taobao
#438 are awesome, 24hrs Spas with party-dinner-buffets (not dinner-party-buffet, it really way party-dinner)– you will learn more about that later in this blog. Promise!
Short overview of how to get by in Kunming or China in general if you don’t speak Chinese.
My teacher looks at me in total
bewilderment. She switches to English and keeps repeating her
questions „But… how do they do it? Just… how do they live
I had just learned the word for
room-mate in Chinese; it’s literally „house-friend“. Which I
think, has a beautiful connotation that the German word „Mitbewohner“
lacks. It just means „person you life with“.
My roommates here in Kunming are Dutch
and English. My Dutch roommate knows a little bit of Chinese. Vera is
working on HSK Level 2 and Ellen is just on her first words since
it’s her first time in China and she just arrived about a week ago
and planning on taking lessons once she is a bit more settled in,
found an apartment with her – Austrian – boyfriend. He actually
studies Chinese and has easily the highest level between the four of
So, how do you do it? How do you cope
and live in Kunming without knowing Chinese? You can cope, maybe not
as easy as in Shanghai but then Kunming-people are incredibly helpful
and I came across English speakers a couple of times already.
The wide-spread of mobile phones makes
many things easier – and less adventurous. There are some
translating apps where you can talk into in your language and they
answer in the desired language. But there are still some
misunderstandings, sometimes the internet connection is way to slow
and it just takes the fun out of things.
Plus, there are a few things that are
very good to know: the words for the numbers up to ten, how you
indicate them with your hand and how you write them. And there is one
sentence that has been vital for me and was among the first
expressions I learned. „I want this.“ It opens the door to almost
anything – as long as you can point to it. It doesn’t mean you are
eloquent or especially friendly – but it helps yourself and the
other person in sucessfully handling an operation.
In the following there’s an insight in
a couple of everyday situations and how I cope(d) with them without
knowing the language as well as coping methods.
How do you take the bus? Or metro?
Amaps is a great help. It’s a map-app
designed for China. It not only gives you walking, cycling or driving
directions but you can use it for buses as well. Works like a
ONCE you got used to it. Since it’s
been designed for China, everything is in Chinese. You have to give
it your destination in Chinese. But it can cope with PinYin. Pinyin
uses the latin alphabet for phonetic transcription so you don’t need
to install a Chinese keyboard on your phone.
Using it without being able to read
Characters isn’t too hard either since it’s using a lot of icons for
things like „walking“ or „bus“. Plus how it’s made up it’s
not rocket science but similar to google maps.
It’s obvious which is the bus number
you have to take and it even shows you on which side of the road your
bus stop is so you don’t end up going in the wrong direction.
What really gives me a hard time is
following it’s spoken instructions as it not only telling you the
important things like „turn left“ but asking you to take care on
the road. It basically feels like it’s talking non-stop. But if
follow the dot on the map, it’s easy.
The only thing giving me a hard time
are bus lines that seem to divert. Goingtowards the city centre the
bus line number 1 turns either left or right at one point. I haven’t
figured out how to tell which of them I am on.
How do you get a metro card?
There are three ways to pay for the
bus. Either cash, by app (only an option if you have a Chinese bank
account) or by card. The down-side of the cash version is that you
throw your money into a box. Bus is 1 or 2 Renminbi so before I had
the card I was holding on like crazy to my one-renminbi bills to have
enough for the bus.
My first try on getting a metro card
wasn’t succesful – even though my Chinese skill were already at the
amazing level of being able to say „I want to buy a metro card“ –
like I knew all the words AND the right order. But the clerk at the
booth just waved me away. So I eventually took a picture of someone
elses to point to it. Worked like a charm as it gave me enough
self-confidence to walk up to the booth again, smile and ask for a
metro card which I hold in my hands minutes later.
But have done the „I want this“
picture thing many times before in China.
How do you buy food?
Apart from a splendid amount of
affordable restaurants there are more sources to food: Supermarkets,
markets and people selling from the back of a truck.
To be honest, at the start, China was
sometimes overwhelming in a way that I didn’t want to deal with any
of these options and decided for a pack of Oreo-cookies to be a whole
Supermarket feels the easiest as it
involves the least interaction. You go through the store and put
everything into the basket you’d like to have. You can go to a small
one in your neighbourhood or to a big one of a foreign chain where
you will also get loads of imported products. The smaller ones in
many places don’t sell vegetables and fruits though.
So you will want to opt for going to a
market. It feels scary at first – I felt a bit vulnerable and
unsecure. Going to a market stall involves a lot more communication
then I could master. It works with pointing, taking the food as well.
The situation is pretty obvious actually. Many stall owners would
have a calculator to show me the price if I didn’t understand it or I
would just give a rather large bill.
Buying from the back of a truck is
working pretty much the same – it’s just that they have less
variety. Here in Kunming, most times they are selling one or two
kinds of fruits.
It’s worth the bit of akwardness as I
get a load of nice veggies for a really good price.
But of course, I don’t want to cook
How do you order at a restaurant?
Yunnan has the best invention ever, when it comes to ordering food
without any language skills: Fridge restaurants! All the food they
have is on display, you just go and point what you want to have, sit
down and get surprised which food has been fried, cooked or become a
soup. But it’s the best way to really get what you thought you
Other places offer a a variety of options. Many places have
pictures of the dishes so you can point at them and hope it turns out
what you think it is. Most times it works out alright – it’s more
noodles and less vegetables most times.
Another option is to point at other peoples food and indicate you
want that kind of dish. Sometimes the staff hands me the menu,
completely in Chinese. I explain that I can’t read but they insist.
So I just point to a couple of dishes and hope to not get Chicken
feet. I opt for the cheaper dishes as they are most likely to be
vegetables and/or eggs.
The English Speaker
Many times, when it got more complicated, „the English Speaker“
evolved. Like the other day at the pharmacy – many times when I was
somewhere and there were some conversational issues – the English
speaker would show up. It would be someone being called from outside
– like this one lovely time when I was in a small store in a city
somewhere between Hong Kong and the Vietnamese border – a young
student who loves to watch English movies and speaks a conversational
English was fetched from the street to assist me. At other times,
someone would overcome their shyness in speaking a foreign language
and simply go for it. If the English speaker can’t be found among the
people that are there, she or he will be called on the phone to
translate. Like this one lovely day on my first biketour, just
outside Xiamen, when I was sad and lonely, eating an early lunch and
I think, the people around could tell I wasn’t in a good place. They
called an English speaking friend basically so she could ask me if I
was okay and if they could do anything for me.
The last resort: calling a bilingual friend!
This is the best joker ever if you are in China and you can’t
speak the language. If you have a Chinese speaking friends who also
knows English (or German or… whatever language you have in common).
It’s pretty much the reverse version of „calling the English
speaker“ as you are calling „the Chinese speaker“. Many times
one of them saved me when I was desperate because something just
wouldn’t work out. This summer, when I arrived in Qingdao, I needed
to take a ferry, was totally exhausted by that time and couldn’t
figure out where to buy the tickets. Even though there were people
trying to help me. So eventually, I called Huan who helped me out by
translating. Within a minute all the communication issues that had
been going on for twenty minutes were solved and I got my ticket.
Yes, it’s much easier when you are in a country where you speak
the language – but it’s also less fun at times. Plus: whenever I
handle a situation here I feel a bit like a hero. And the sales
person as well. Or she is simply smiling with relief when I walk off
with the desired item.
“I never ever gonna learn this language” I complain to my room-mate who just came home from work. Mildly smiling she just answers “Ah – it’s one of THESE days.”
Learning Chinese sends me from euphoric moments (“I asked a question today. And I was understood. And I understood the answer! I am so talented I will learn this in no time and soon have conversations in Chinese!”) to these down moments where I am sure, I’ll never ever gonna get anywhere with this language. My ears, my tongue and my voice are not made to recognize or reproduce this language. My brain sometimes simply seems to refuse using the grammar rules.
Focusing only on speaking (no writing or listening) there are four mistakes that feel like they are language-specific and I am happily fascinated at them in times (other times they frustrate me.) but right now, my fascination. As well: They do show I am making some progress. If I would still mess up the first three, no-one would realize I am making the fourth kind of mistake. (Imagine me nodding with a VERY proud smile on my face)
The wrong tone Chinese is always referred to having four different tones (let’s see if you agree with me once you finished this column). You kind of have to sing the language and the tones tell you, how. There is the high level tone, where your voice shouldn’t change at all. The rising tone where your voice goes up and you speak somewhat softer. The falling and raising tone where your voice first falls and then rises again. The falling tone where your voice falls and you sound rather sharp. And then there is the “no-tone”-tone. (Yes, the no-tone-tone is the actually the fifth one). So not being used to tones having this kind of meaning I often get them wrong because I forget them. Or I simply can’t do it. Was hard work until I produced an acceptable high-tone for the very first time… At the moment I am struggeling the worst with the second tone – so badly, that my teacher looks even surprised when I do it. So many times she looks at me and says “Remember? This is second tone!” and I answer in despair “I remember. I was trying to do second tone!”
The wrong pronunciation In Chinese the correct pronunciation of “z”, “zh”, “j”,”g”, “ch” and “sch” is very important to say the word you wanted to say and not something else (or in the best case, some nonsense. If you are talking nonsense, you are at least not accidentally being rude). For an English or German speaker they don’t sound that far apart from each other and I had to practice a while until I was able to produce them on command. I ended up drawing little pictures of the position of my tongue for some of them. But I still mix them up so my teacher gives me a queer look and I know I failed again and start to try different ones… On the other hand, some English sounds are hard to differentiate for Chinese speakers. My teacher was astonished that there is a difference in pronunciation between “ring” and “rain”.
So, as my tones and pronunciation are getting towards acceptable there is:
Grammar! When you start on Chinese you think “This is awesome! Grammar is so easy and logical!” And it it. At first. But then you come across “de”, “de” and “de”. Three different words, that do similar things and are pronounced the same way (but the Chinese writing is different). I usually put them where they are not needed or leave them out where they are needed. Basically, they link words together to show that they are related to each other. Like in between “my dog” would be a de. But on other places as well. I still try to figure out why and when and how… But sometimes I get it right and do a little victory dance.
Ok, and here we go. The fourth-type of mistake you can only do if you get tones, pronunciation and grammar right. You wonder, what that could be? Well… wonder no more:
My favorite mistake the “No mistake-but” I learned a new grammar structure or a new expression. I produce a sentence using this new grammar structure. And producing a sentence is a painstakingly slow process but I get there. My tones are correct. *throw arms in the air in celebration* My pronounciation is perfect. *bows to the audience in pride* All the words are in the order they are supposed to be at. I used all the “de”s I am supposed to and I did not leave a single “de” out. *picture me doing a happy dance* Short: My sentence is picture perfect. I am proud. Happy. Until… The BUT comes along: It’s not idiomatic. My teacher leans in, smirks, seems a bit uncomfortable until she says “uhm… we don’t usually say this like that… for this… we would use another structure”
If you are learning Chinese – keep your head up. Accept the beauty of the language, the poetic of the categories of the measure words and embrace the “de”. Actually the “de”s as there are three different ones… but I am not that advanced yet.
And -never forget (while reading this, please imagine me having a slight mental tone to my voice and hysteric laughter at the end): It will get easier – once you start learning the characters.
Here is the story how I got Mouse as my
most reliant travel buddy.
And she is the best travel buddy.
Always in a good mood, available and keen on seeing new places. And
her ears make sizzling noises when you massage them. Apart from that
she is very quiet.
Only downside is her laziness. Not one step does she do on her own. She wants to be carried always and everywhere. For photos she insisted on being leaned against something – otherwise she simply lies flat on the ground. So finally we agreed on buying some wire for her last weekend when we were in picture-perfect Dali, China. Mouse finally agreed on waving as well on that day. We are still working on the perfect exo-skeleton set-up and are open for recommendations.
So, we met four years ago, at Hamburg
Airport. It was both our first time going to Asia. But to be honest,
she never told me where she is from. Maybe each trip to China is a
bit of going home to her origins? We got introduced through my niece,
who was one year of age at that time. But here’s the whole story from
my point of view:
My stomach flatters. I am nervous and
excited. Desperate to go and afraid to leave. The whole mixture of
feelings before starting to a very new place. Lust for adventure and
new things wins – plus I had commited to a job and a paid plane
ticket in my hand.
Family and friends come to the Hamburg airport to see me off. I am going to China for the very first time. My father is here. My mother. As well as my sister and her boyfriend, Kai, they are also the parents of my first niece. She is about one year old at this time. My boyfriend. Around my neck a necklace one of my closest friends gave me for my 30th birthday a few weeks ago.
We are standing in line, two huge suitcases to check in, backpack on my back. Apart from my family I am surrounded by people with cardboard boxes, speaking a language I don’t understand at all. Despite my try to get a grasps of the basics in the last months.
So, do I have everything with me I COULD just eventually need in China?! No. I don’t. Kai runs off to the overpriced airport supermarket to return with two rolls of toilet paper. I hardly know anything about my new destination, about the city where I am planning to spent the next 12 months. But I do know that one of the worst things is to be somewhere without a sufficient amount of toilet paper.
Going towards the security gate I start to feel a bit wary, having to leave all of them behind. When Kai produces the mouse. „When I asked our daughter what to give to you, since you are going away for a year, she was very determined in handing me this toy.“
I smile and clutch on to the mouse. Not SO alone after all.
And that’s the story how Mouse became my travel buddy.
When I left on my current trip, my
niece – almost five year old at that time – and I agreed on me
taking pictures with Mouse for her.
I feel like writing an update of the last couple of weeks. Just a couple of sentences to each topic where I could easily fill a whole article with. But I don’t really get around to it. Why? You’ll see…
I really enjoyed the last rough bit with ferrys, trains and beach camping as I expected to settle down for a while when I get to Kunming. I settled down in high-speed mode as well as fell in love with this city.
My sweet warmshower-host, soon-to-be roommate, fellow solo-cyclist and first friend in Kunming, Vera picks me up at the metro station after a long-and-relaxing trainride (me) / a long day of work (her). The late-evening walk to her apartment was wonderful, I was amazed by the quietness of Kunming as well as it’s fresh air.
Most of my stuff was already at her place as my friend Huan helped me sent it there earlier. So I dreamt on the train of how I would take a shower to put on all-clean-clothes afterwards. This is the SWEETEST feeling!
So settling down in high-speed mode Vera offered me to stay in her guestroom while I’m here studying Chinese. Of course I jumped for it – not only no hassle to find a place but just – I don’t know how to phrase it – I didn’t even stumbled across it as for that, I would have had to at least put a foot out to search, I think. So with literally no-effort I got a nice place to stay and even co-hosted another female solo-cyclist for a couple of days. Sophie is on a big tour, going strong from Scotland towards the rest of the world; cycling, hitch-hiking, camping and woof-ing.
Couple of days after my arrival my Chinese one-on-one lessons started. I am making progress in speaking – but the listening is just killing me. I am still not able to HEAR the difference between “zh”, “ch”, “sh”, “q” and “z”. But I can PRODUCE these sounds correctly. This discrepancy totally puzzles my teacher. I know the words, I can recall them, use them and understand them when said on their own. But in a sentence? Nope.
Since only learning Chinese isn’t filling my days (please note my dry-german-sarcastic-humor here!) I do yoga, go to the climbing gym (only got to real-rock twice so far), spent time with my room-mates, explore the market and – I am really excited about this one – started practicing Tai Chi! A small group that meets every night nearby and I summoned all my courage to walk up to them to ask if I can join. I am so proud and happy I did! After one month of diligent training I should be able to do the first part they said.
how my evening stroll through my new neighbourhood in the City of Eternal Spring Kunming in Yunnan, China, alerted my neighbours
The man is carrying his one-year-old when he stretches out one hand towards me, assuring me, yelling „hold on, hold on!“ with a worried expression on his face before he flees the store for my rescue…
What happened before..
Two nights and days on the train brought me to beautiful Kunming and I can’t help falling in love with this city! It’s quiet (for a Chinese city anyways) and small but still big enough to feel like a city – there is a metro, climbing gyms, loads of small Chinese restaurants but if I want to I can resort to Western food as well or Thai or… and there are climbing gyms. Oh – and talking about climbing, it’s close to the mountains as well. As in climbing-areas in day-trip reach! One spot you can even reach by said metro. And on my first weekend I found two groups that were heading out so I got to go Saturday and Sunday.
It was just beautiful – it is a short drive and a really short and easy hike to „The Swallow“ where you get routes from really challenging, where I sit in awe and watch the other climb it, to really easy, where I can get a go. It’s set totally in the woods, surrounded by pine-trees and rock. No building to see, zero trash lying around. The only evidence of human impact where the bolts in the wall which we need to climb. Up on the wall I see into the distance. Terraced rice fields remind me of being in China and my heart fills with joy – for having successfully climbed this wall as well as for being here, in beautiful Yunnan for six weeks with loads of free, unplanned time that I can use for climbing, hiking, yoga and – finally – up-ing my Chinese level to a level where I can have a conversation.
I’ve tried to learn Chinese for a while. I had Chinese friends teaching me expressions, words and sentences. I’ve used apps, podcasts, YouTube Videos and just recently started learning with an Audio-course while cycling. The Audio-course was starting to get me somewhere but I just started it and was on my 15th 30-minute-lesson when I got to Kunming. I really enjoy the fact, that I can do it, while I am doing something else where I don’t need to be focused. Like doing the dishes or cycling. Every lesson they teach just a few new words or expressions so there is loads of spaced repetition and I have to talk out loud. Sometimes I would already know everything that’s new in a lesson, sometimes none. These are the ones where I realize I am getting tired in the middle of it.
The biggest advantage of this course is that it is building up, the stuff I learned in the lessons before, is getting picked up in the following ones using some spaced-repetition pattern. This way I don’t lose it but it sticks in my head. The other big advantage of it is, that it gets me talking. I repeat or answer what the course is asking, try grammatical structures and practice pronunciation.
Since it started with useful sentences, I can now say – pretty close to perfect – that my Chinese speaking skills are very badly and that I don’t have a clue, what the other person just said.
But who really get’s me to speaking is my Chinese teacher. We have daily lessons, Monday to Friday. Two hours, one-on-one. We don’t do the tone-practicing-thing – thank God! – but words, grammar and pronunciation.
In case you are wondering what the tone-practicing-thing is? Chinese has tones as in it’s not only important that you pronounce it the right way, but you have to use your voice in a certain way, go up or down, stay or go up and down. And when I first learned Chinese, I would spend ages saying the syllable „ma“ in different ways. It’s fun at the start and gets frustrating quickly. Like, you get to a point where, if you choose to learn Spanish, you would be able to have a small conversation. But you didn’t pick Spanish, or any other sensible language, so your teacher is still trying to get you to do the tones right without teaching you new words.
So, we are working on the language. Of course we are working on the tones, but we do it „on the job“, with the different words. Same with all these sounds that German or English don’t have but are really important in Chinese. I actually started drawing little pictures to remind myself where my tounge has to be to do „zh“ as supposed to how I pull my mouth for „j“. My minor difficulties in distinguishing the English „ch“ and „sh“ are much more of an issue now. But – despite all this – I AM MAKING PROGRESS! (Capitals intended. I didn’t think it would be possible).
I learned about 200 new words so far – well almost, the last 40 don’t stick yet – and am able to make up small stories, tell about my day or ask questions. Sometimes I even understand the answers! But my listening skills are way beyond my understanding skills. If you are wondering how that is possible – so much stuff sounds the same to me. Plus, sometimes words DO sound the same. Like the word for „house“ or „home“ sounds like the word that means „plus“. Of course, different characters, but same syllable, same tone. It’s „jia“ with the first tone if you are interested.
So it’s only context that allows me to know, if someone says „coffee, house, milk“ or „coffee with milk“.
Don’t think it’s easy. That is only ONE example! Of like many I came across with the meager amount of words I learned so far.
I can now manage situations where I walk up to a Tai-Chi-group and find out, if I can join, express to the worried people in that group, that I am aware that it is Tai Chi that they are doing and yes, I do want to study Tai Chi. They are meeting again tomorrow, at 7.30 and I am very welcomed to join. I am so exited!
Oh – how come I can just walk up to a Tai Chi group? As in, why is it there and where am I? It’s such an awesome Chinese thing that all over the country, pretty much every place would have groups of people doing sports together in the evenings and mornings.
It might be everything, from dancing – from very casual to rather serious and it looks like they are preparing for a performance – aerobic, Buddhist praying, marching around a temple with patriotic music from speakers following a Chinese flag or – like in this case – Tai Chi. You just walk around until you find one you like.
My dear friend Huan gave me the courage to walk up to a group for the first time when I was visiting her in her hometown a couple of month ago. And here I was now, walking down the street with my room-mate Vera. We just came back from a lovely dinner at one of the Western food places in our neighbourhood when she pointed the group out to me. So I decided not to think about it – in that case, I might have felt to shy to walk up to them – but to go for it, smile, walk towards the group, indicating I want to take part. So now, tomorrow, half past seven – I will practise Tai Chi. With a Chinese Tai Chi teacher. In a small, Chinese city, in the middle of the side-walk.
So it really pays to be brave! And to learn Chinese – as I managed to do all this, mainly talking, no smartphones and very little pointing involved. Way to exited to go sleep now, so I tell you the story of the man who came to my rescue when I didn’t even was in trouble.
Having just learned the way for pharmacy I felt brave enough to walk into one to have a look around. They are bigger than the ones in Germany so there are some products to be looked at. With most things I can figure out what they are for – not because of my Chinese reading skills, but they have some English-information on there as well. So I stroll around when a helpful employee comes my way. I explain, that I just want to have a look – and that my Chinese is very poor but I am feeling perfectly fine. Confused, she turns around and chats with her colleague while I continue browsing the store. They give it another attempt, other customers come in. And that is when my situation becomes obvious to the man with the baby:
I am a foreigner. I can’t speak Chinese. I need help.
So he stretches out one hand towards me, assuring me, yelling „hold on, hold on!“ before he flees the store to fetch his wife – an English teacher. We are actually neighbours and she is happy to explain me the way to the next stationery store where I get some pens and notebooks to motivate me for my studies. And maybe… maybe next time I can convince people who I really don’t need help. At least, at this particular moment.
How can I not fall in love with a place, where people are so helpful that they even try to help where there is no help needed? (Just in case – my teacher taught me how say that I don’t need help in a more eloquent way)
1. In Seoul, my first sleep-over in a Jjimjilbang. A sauna place that’s open 24/7 and offers places to sleep. A kind of stressful place that’s a bit too big but an adventure.
2. In Incheon, my second sleep-over in a Jjimjilbang. A great experience that you will be able to read about later.
3. On the ferry – finally. Even though it went to Weihai instead of Lianyungang (check it out on a map. It’s quite a distance between the two). Another adventure you sure can read about soon.
4. and 5. At Weihai-beach in my tent.
6. and 7. Number 6 had just happened at time of writing, 7 is to come. On the train from Yantai to Kunming, after transfering 30 minutes from Weihai to Yantai-South-Station and an hour on the bus to go from Yantai-South to Yantain-Mainstation.
And all this being out and about is the reason I can’t post pics here at the moment. But they are on my instagram (naiveorbrave) and will be here eventually as well.
And again – it’s not about what happens to you, it’s about the way you look at it. That’s how this days events changed from “meh” to “yeah”! Oh and this blog post is also about the stubbornness you develop when cycling. Or maybe I have always been stubborn but now it really shows?
But read yourself:
Smiling I enter the elevator after leaving the Chinese Visa Application Centre (CVAC). I got my student visa – 150 days, single entry without any hassle here in Seoul, will slowly make my way to Incheon, stop by one of Seoul’s Goodwill to ease my clothes situation a bit without having to buy newly made things and get to Incheon where my ferry to Lianyunguang leaves on Thursday.
But first, I’m off to get some Seoul streetfood – uhm, just that it started to rain. No, that’s wrong. It started to rain slightly on my last meters to the CVAC which made riding very pleasant. But now it turned into a down-pour. Instead of street-food I opt for the convenience store which is conveniently located inside this building and offers convenient food options.
Checking the route and the details while eating I’m in no rush. Until… I realize the ferry time-table has changed. My ferry leaves today. Approximately 60km of city cycling away from me. And it’s past lunch by now as I slowly took my time with everything – since I thought I had loads of it.
Shoot… I check the route, try to memorize it – at least I know the start anyway – but still. Loads of turns, not very detailed online map unless I zoom in… Needless to say I will have to stop to check. But hey – I am in Korea. The country with the longest waiting times at traffic lights. So many options to check.
If it’s not raining to bad. I am sure it will get better soon. It was so lovely when I started this morning. And yes, it will change eventually. From bad to worse. From rain to thunderstorm. But I have set my mind. I am getting to the port today. I will just keep going until I am there (and to be honest – once you are wet, it sucks to stop. You just get cold and uncomfortable).
I make it to the port by 6pm, I am soaking and getting cold while looking around for the ticket counter to Lianyunguang.. But… it’s the wrong terminal. So I cycle back to the right one. It’s like 6k past trucks in the thunderstorm with a lot of waiting at traffic lights.
I am soaking even more as I get there, getting cold while looking around for the ticket-counter to Lianyunguang. Immigration is still open, everyone is lining up, pushing parcels and suitcases. But… Immigration and the small store is the only thing that’s still open. The information is closed as well as all the ticket counters I see.
Frustrated, I sit around. Not wanting to go back to the thunderstorm and checking the hotel prices is just shocking and the pictures of the rooms are not very encouraging either. Maybe I can camp on the site? I just sit, listening to rain and thunder. It’s back to full force. The hall slowly but continuously empties. Eventually, the cleaning crew appears, grasps my situation and considers I shouldn’t be riding in the thunderstorm. Good, I agree. But what else can I do? Eventually they inform the head of the port who supplies me with coffee („Korean-style, extra sugar“) and a place where I can wait-out the rain. The coffee and the kindness do the trick. After being frustrated and exhausted, my mood lifts. I start to feel a bit less cold, more energy and the rain subsides. I start to change my point of view – away from „failure“ to „another adventure“ and remember just in time, that I don’t have to go to a hotel but could also go to a Jjimjilbang – a sauna, where you can stay the night.
After asking a few people for directions to the next one, I am close enough that one man pities me, gets his umbrella and makes sure I find the entrance. It’s not so easy if you are totally illiterate in the writing system a country uses…
Feeling warm again, I realize I haven’t had dinner yet – only the convenience store lunch. But that’s actually another story – how the lovely staff took care of me, fed me and helped my dry my stuff.
I stayed a week in Busan – I found climbers! I wasn’t carrying all this stuff for no reason around Korea! I sent everything that wasn’t a necessity to Kunming, China before I went to Korea. No jumper left, no sleeping back, less socks, less pants (remember the pants part…) undies and painkillers. BUT shoes, harness, helmet and quickdraws for climbing and my backpack to get to the climbing spot with my gear. About half of mz stuff in my two panniers was climbing related and apart from the shoes I haven’t used anything yet as I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to go climbing when it’s 37°C out.
But – now! In Busan! A group of guys is going to two different spots on the weekend – I am excited. We meet at a bouldering gym a few days before and it becomes obvious that I will bring a book to the climbing site since I will only be able to do the easy ones. But who cares? I don’t. Well, not too much. I wanna go anyway and they are still happy to take me.
The weather changed since the taifun – it’s actually raining in the morning but will stop at 11:30, long before we finish the almost two-hours-drive and the following 40-minute-hike. So, Remi, Matthias and I are in good faith when we meet. I wear the less-good-pair-of-pants of my two pairs. The other one doesn’t have holes and I don’t want to spoil it climbing.
It’s 11:30 and the rain continues. And continues. We park the car, debate, grab some snacks and start hiking. Even if it stopped now – the rock will be wet so we leave the gear behind. The hike actually involves some bouldering, rope support and I – as the least hiking experienced in our group – need a hand a couple of times.
It’s a beautiful spot, right at the sea, but not a place where I want to fall from a low height. The floor consists of boulders of different shape and size which would make any grounder uncomfortable. The rock looks good, but for me, for sure hard. Remi and Matthias are more devastated by not being able to climb.
Back in the city we stop by at Remi’s place and he hands me one of his shorts before we go to dinner. Remember the hints about my pants? Well… they had a couple of holes on the outer legs before. By now, after going along the rocks, they have completely fallen apart and I was in no shape to go even for a street-food-dinner.
The day ended with Matthias fulfilling his dream of eating eel – once the waiter fried them on our table Matthias didn’t look to sure anymore and I was happy I opted for sweet pancakes from a stall outside anyways and a change in plans for the next day. Giving up on the weather, we would meet at the climbing gym.
Fueld with breakfast, I am peddling away, gusts of strong wind making it harder while I am getting closer to Busan and therefore the sea. I noticed them the day before and before that, but they keep getting stronger. It looks as if the water is being pushed inland.
I am peddling through a village and wondering about the irrigation ditches. They are filled to the brim despite that there hasn’t been rain in weeks – but I quickly forget about that as I am leaving the fields to go through smaller lanes and alleys. The houses are painted colourful, with different themes and motives, even though most is bicycle-themed.
Back on the path, along the river, the wind and water lets me think about the storm floods my city back home get’s once in a while, during autumn, when it’s rainy and cold. And not sunny and hot like it’s here. Wind picks up when you get towards the sea. Getting to Busan would be an eighty k ride, which isn’t much but I feel lazy and decide to camp just outside the city, which saves a night at a hostel as well.
So I keep pedalling away, kind of bored, even by my audio book.
Apart from my breakfast hunt, nothing happens. Not even other cyclists seem to be out – since school started and it’s the middle of the week it’s not really a surprise. I sigh and just keep going, listening to my audio-book, when…
.. another cyclist approaches me in Korean. Face and hair are hidden underneath my scarf and helmet, blue eyes behind my sunglasses. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean.” normally solves this issue, the other person gets stressed out at having to talk English and cycles off. Not this keen university student who plans to travel the world.
We converse – the usual “Where are you from?”, “Where do you go?”, “How many days…” – when he says:
“I was going to Busan tomorrow. But because of the taifun, I want to go there today!”
It clicks. Finally, it clicks. The constant headwind, getting stronger. The gusts of wind. The filled irrigation ditches. My memories of storm floods. There IS a storm coming. Tonight! This night, which I planned to camp at the river close to the sea. Oups.
“Did you just say Taifun?!” I reply buffled. I stopped following the weather report as it was just “hot, hot, hot”, “sunny, sunny, sunny” anyways.
Needless to say, I skip my last night at the river, my new friend helps me order lunch and shows me the bus station to Seoul before heading to a friends place – his university is on an island – not the best place to stay during a taifun.
Awesome breakfast at a small restaurant across the street and a shop owner who made sure I found back on the bike path got me into the feeling of bike touring again. Head wind kept picking up, so I felt lazy when I came past an unofficial campsite. A few tents were already set-up and a family of four with two 5-year-old-twins was just setting up theirs as I was still pondering if I should or shouldn’t stay. Next to the other tents and them, with river view I felt safe.
I was a bit on the lower side when it came to food as I hadn’t past anything since I had lunch – but that was a rather late one at 4pm and I didn’t worry too much. Up till now, convenience-stores had been plenty, I could see some houses in the distance. I would have breakfast there and potato chips for dinner. Good enough – I fell asleep at 8pm, despite my efforts to stay awake.
Everyone around me was enjoying BBQ. The smell became part of my dreams and maybe reminded me on the bicycle-museums-movie – so I kept dreaming about being caught in forest fires. At least I didn’t dream of food all night.
Hungry I broke camp, left the path and went along the road to meet the expected convenience store. There was no convenience store. Nor a store. Just like the fanciest restaurant I have seen in all of Korea. I skip it. The next houses are in sight and for sure there will be a store there… No… Just a chicken farm.
I keep going.
In the distance I can see the sign of a convenience store – yeah! Next turn-off of the bike path and BREAKFAST! The sign gets closer, I look for the turn-off. The sign is next to me, I look for the turn-off. I pass the sign, I look for the turn-off.
Nothing. Just a never-ending trench.
In the distance I can see the sign of the next convenience-store – yeah! Next turn-off of the bike path and BREAKFAST! The sign gets closer, I still look for the turn-off. The sign is next to me, I still look for the turn-off. I pass the sign – no turnoff, just the never-ending trench.
I see a town on the other side of the river, right next to a bridge, it even has a church. A place big enough for a church will have a store as well! I can almost smell my breakfast! Excited I cycle towards the bridge. Looking for a way to cross – but… you guessed it: Nothing. The path led me conveniently underneath.
I sigh. I start getting frustrated but just keep going.
Next bridge – and yes! I can turn off the bike path and find a restaurant next to some non-food-stores! I am about to start a victory dance, kiss the floor of the restaurant as I park my bike, head to the door, clutch the handle aaaand – it’s locked. Ok. NOW I am frustrated. So close!
I’ll just follow the road – not going back on the bike path before I’ve eaten! Next restaurant – and PEOPLE! I smile at the woman, mimic eating, point to her restaurant and ask for breakfast. “No no. Closed!” But she provides me with directions to a place where I get breakfast.
The store has the flair of my grandmas basement – that’s the first thought I have when I enter. The ceiling is low, shelves on all walls are stuffed with a variety of foods, electric appliances and different odd’s and end’s. In the middle is a round table, surrounded my garden chairs. A few moments of mutual pointing, mimicking and showing pictures, she leaves through the curtain into her kitchen. Taking her store shoes off before and prepares noodles, two eggs and kimchi.
Like I said before – I planned to camp but wasn’t expecting language barriers, cultural differences and unexpected kindness yet.
Once I put up my tent, a security guard came out, my way, said something and I walked towards him, telling him I don’t speak Korean when he turned away to talk to a guy in a pick-up. Slowly I unpacked when he came back: No. No camping. But I could fill up my water bottles. The pick-up-guy was still there. Coming towards me. Talking to me. Touching my tent. Trying to help me to put it down. I felt uncomfortable. I am female. I am on my own. In the middle of no-where. I take my tent pole out of his hand before he breaks it. I wonder why he wears a cap. Is he trying to shield his face from the CCTV? Why is he sticking around? He points towards his car, says “house”, “no camping” and holds up both hands, all fingers “10”.
10.000 Won for a ride? 10k to his house?! I try to get him to go away, finish packing while he is close – closer than Koreans normally get and watching more than most Koreans do. Did I mention that I felt uncomfortable? Praying to God to get me out of this situation I packed. I wondered where to go. The last houses I passed a while ago, it was 10pm now and there wasn’t even anyone around at dusk. Go into the mountains? There is no-where I could run and no-one I could call. I opt to keep going. He stays, then follows. Shoot. Uncomfortable. Trying not to panic, praying. He stops. Points at one of the open huts that is there in a small park and says camping. Uhm… as if I could get a glimpse of sleep there when he is pointing it out to me. Being a sitting duck in my tent. He points to his car and repeats the “House” and “10”, while I say “bye-bye” and “no”, shaking my head, backing off.
Finally he leaves. I wait. It’s easy for him to just wait somewhere along the way for me. There are not so many options for me to go. Filled with adrenaline I keep going. I am pissed and annoyed. There is no other place to camp but I aim for a restaurant I find on maps.me – unfortunately I don’t find it in real life. So I keep going.
After 10k, I get to a village with two hotels. I walk into the one further down the road – guess who opened the door?! Yeah – the guy from before. It’s about 35 usd to stay in a depressing, kinda clean room with air-con. I get my bike and go to the other hotel. It’s less clean, without air-con, costs 30 usd, similar depressing features and is not run by a man who stressed me out before.
It took until the next morning, during breakfast, to get a different view on things than feeling t uncomfortable. Last night I was scared off the man. Because I am a woman and I have been brought up, to feel vulnerable, threatened and “have to take care so I stay safe” – because I am a woman.
Korean people tend to be extremely helpful – they would go out of their way to help you. And this was the hotel owner and the security guard trying to help me. Second, it’s not very ‘Korean’ to say directly no to someone and leave them in a tight spot (at least in my experience. Correct me if you think it’s wrong!). So it would be easier to tell someone “Why don’t you stay in a hotel? There is a hotel owner in a pick-up. He can take you, your bike and your stuff to a hotel. It’s a short ride, you can have a shower and a good rest! There is even air-con, that will be much nicer than sleeping in the tent after a long-day of cycling” than “There is no camping here, go away and find another place to stay.”
Therefore, the most likely explanation I can come up with, is the following: The guard saw me pitching my tent. Or maybe even before, when I was hanging around, trying to be obvious about staying. The hotel owner did not show up by chance. The security guard called him to help me (and maybe help the hotel owner to get a paying customer). He knew the next hotel is further away so if the man came, it would be easy and safe for me to get there during the night. As this would be too dangerous or straining for me (as a woman? as a cyclist who had already done his share of cycling for the day?) or I just wouldn’t get lost that way? Who knows…
When I started cycling the hotel owner tried to show me the camping spot (see the “going out of their way to help someone”) so I wouldn’t miss it and get lost in the mountains or have to cycle fast in the night.
Since the guard and the hotel owner spoke a few words of English, we couldn’t discuss all this in detail. And I felt threatened and pushed into a corner by their try to help me.
I opted for last nights camping spot for two reasons – the Weagwan War Museum opposite to the park and the drinking-water that was available in the park.
The second one was a success. I could drink, wash and fill up my bottles. The first one was closed as it was Monday. So after a short conversation with a French cyclist on a tight schedule – there was nothing to do but cycling, cycling and cycling. I felt bored. Neither letting my thoughts unwind nor listening to music or audio books was taking it away. Headwind was preventing me from just going fast so I happily opted for a hike when I came past a trail. Packed my laptop, a book and some water into my backpack and headed for it. It was an enjoyable hike and I enjoyed the difference in movement, sat on a swing along the way and let my thoughts wander. And then I kept cycling until I came up to the next trail.
Nonetheless I did 90k on the bike – if there’s nothing else to distract you what else could you do? – until I (planed to) camped. First time I camped close to a K-Water-office but out of water, no tap to find but a Convenience-store showing on maps.me before I hit the hills full of some more climbs it felt like the best option. I stuck around for a while, trying to see someone – there were still some cars and CCTV – and being obvious of my plans to stay. Taking off my shoes, brushing my teeth, reading a bit and some more searching for water or no-camping-signs – all this kind of stuff – before putting up my tent.
What’s the best thing someone can hand you, when you’ve cycled, feeling way too hot? Iced water! Again! The visit to the Bicycle Museum started with a highlight and should end with a double-highlight.
As I enter – after I’ve cycled and feeling way too hot – I get handed a bottle of iced water. The staff is extremely nice, agrees to charge my phone and since the young guy selling the tickets speaks well English so discuss my trip, the Korea(s) and the museum.
He is the first person who asked me, if I am not afraid of a nuclear attack on South Korea. I am to baffled that I doesn’t cross my mind to ask him his opinion. I feel extremely safe in Korea and well – if a nuclear attack should hit while I am here – I will have to deal with it then. Sounds naive but in a case like this – it would be to overwhelming to always have this option in mind.
The museum itself is filled with a number of curiosities that evolve around bicycles – a tandem where you sit next to each other up to bikes where you sit ten meters above ground and different ways to push and a history of the bicycle. The explanations are mainly in Korean, but the exhibits entertain me nonetheless.
There is even a 4-D-theatre. I am expectiong a bicycle-related-theme for the movie so I am at first disappointed when it shows a little-kids-movie. It comes as a fairly common, predictive story – one is the clumsiest, get’s lost but mom finds it and everyone is happy. I get ready to go as any German movie aiming at this audience would be finished now and everyone would go home happy.
Not so a Korean movie – it continues with a sudden story twist. A forest fire! The birds flee, of course the clumsy ones has some difficulties and I loose my confidence for a happy end. I remember the Cameroonian myth Marthe from the Cameroonian Ministry of Education told at a primary school in my home town. This one didn’t have a Happy End either – everyone died. Not all places in the world have the same longing to present kids with an easy ending, where everyone lives happily ever after.
So, the birds where trapped. The fire was everywhere. In front of them. Behind them. To their left and right. Mother bird looks up into the sky – she could fly off and be safe. But to no avail – all her kids would die. So she gathers them under her wings and hovers down.
The next morning, the fire has died down, everything lies in ashes and mother bird is dead. BUT – all her kids have survived under her wings!
Still – I am a bit disturbed by this movie when my new friend asked me how I liked it. From a Korean point of view it’s a very good and logical ending. Parents give everything for their kids, to help them, provide for them and support them. Whereas in German – mind me, parents support their kids and love them – we see things a bit differently and independence, “standing on your own feet” is am important part in supporting children, rather them giving them everything they need directly. And this – giving everything for your kids – is symbolized by the mother bird who just died for her kids.
Wit this food for thought, I get my bike ready to go as I hear a voice call out my name – and get handed two more bottles of iced water!
Some days are really hard to put into one blog post and this one is one of them as too many things happened that all should be mentioned – and I won’t even find a point where I mentioned I practiced Chinese for 30 minutes.
I break hard, smile broadly at what I see to my right and laugh back at Tom who passes me right then. I was reluctant to say good-bye earlier but I would have abandoned everyone at this point anyway. But let’s start from the beginning.
I stumble out of my tent as it’s finally getting too hot. For once, I appreciated the rising temperatures this morning as I had my coldest night ever. I ended up wearing all the clothes I had with me including my raincoat and towel but still lying awake freezing, closing the ventilation-openings off my tent. So, I haven’t had one of my best nights, hoping the small store on the other side would be open for my caffeine-morning-fix. Instead of an open store I find another cyclist with panniers. And another one. And another one. They ran into each other the day before and camped along the first climb.
I am very excited as most other cyclists I met weren’t camping. Actually the Korean way seems to just carry a very small bag with them and stay in hotels along the route. We roll down the hill at different speeds and as we pair up again, a man in a car stops next to us, handing us a bag of cooked corn on a cub which we will enjoy later.
Exploring a market I see my first Korean pancakes! Standing in line to buy one each with the Canadian cyclist another stall owner insists on paying for us. Filled with melted brown-sugar, fried in a lot of fat, it tastes like cyclists-heaven.
After a self-cooked-lunch we set off at different speeds and said our good-byes. All three of them were looking forward to being on their own again, but I feel a bit reluctant to say goodbye. I have days like that, where I really enjoy the loneliness of bike touring, the time with me, my thoughts and my surroundings, not having to be in social situations and they have had their experience of camping together last night.
Tom packed his stuff while we were talking, set off together but I eventually sped off so he could be on his own.
And here we go, back to the start: I break hard, smile broadly at what I see to my right and laugh back at Tom who passes me right then. I was reluctant to say good-bye earlier but I would have abandoned everyone at this point anyway.
Right next to the cycling path: a climbing gym where I end up bouldering, climbing and befriending an English teacher from Suanjo – And of course I am subject to the curiosity of almost everyone around – before camping right in front, freshly showered.
Lazy days can be so rewarding! Before leaving Suanbo I realized where I was – in a city with Hot Springs! I wasn’t going to leave them without trying them out, was I? So after breakfast I walked over and the tourist information recommended a Spa to me. I dare say I was a bit nervous about it as I didn’t know what to expect and how to do things around there.
The nervousness gives way to surprise when I see two foreigners – actually a couple from Germany – as I walk in. We get along and will share lunch afterwards. As we part – they are hitchhiking – I start feeling a bit lonely as I am circling back to the main square to sort out what I do next as I run into my third foreigner this day.
Ross is on his first big bike tour and we end up talking for three hours… unfortunately he is going the other way in Korea. Coming from Japan he is cycling towards Seoul where he has a flight to Taiwan – and again I feel a bit lonely as we part but this feeling subsides quickly as I get into my cycling mode again. It’s five p.m. already and it’s actually the perfect time to tackle what’s ahead.
It is a shorter climb and a 5-k-climb which is durable during the colder hours of the afternoon. My timing is just perfect as I reach the top of the climb – and tonight’s camping spot – at sunset.