Don’t close your eyes

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 break.

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 talked.

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 Finnish.

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.

Trying to get to Panzhihua

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.  

Cyclist with helmet and filter mask in the foreground. Burning trash in the back ground.
What’s the problem about using plastic? It burns so well, doesn’t it?

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.



Living the sweet life in Kunming

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.

Last time I saw all the stuff I sent off to Kunming

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.


Yeah – that’s me. Learning TaiChi on the road! (oh and on a smaller note  – BOTH of them tell me how to do it *gg*)

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.

Oh and talking about the sweet life: This is a melon! Have you ever seen such a tiny melon?! I am eating loads of fruit here. And in all sizes. The other day on the train, I ate like the world smallest apples


… but I don’t need help!

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)