Many moons ago, sometime in the beginning of this millenium, I bought a small poetry bundle by famous Tang dynasty (618-906 CE) poets, contemporaries and friends, Li Po and Tu Fu. Goodreads says this:
Li Po (AD 701-62) and Tu Fu (AD 712-70) were devoted friends who are traditionally considered to be among China’s greatest poets. Li Po, a legendary carouser, was an itinerant poet whose writing, often dream poems or spirit-journeys, soars to sublime heights in its descriptions of natural scenes and powerful emotions. His sheer escapism and joy is balanced by Tu Fu, who expresses the Confucian virtues of humanity and humility in more autobiographical works that are imbued with great compassion and earthy reality, and shot through with humour.
The poetry by these two friends was one small and early attempt at enjoying and trying to understand Chinese history and culture.
Yesterday my friend Yu Li came to my house, for my weekly writing class. I have been studying Chinese on and off for the last three years now, characterised by enormous ups and downs in motivation and effort. It’s a frustrating process, mostly because of my chronic lack of time. Learning Chinese takes unwavering dedication and lots of hours of plodding away, it’s not a language you just absorb by being immersed in it. But, it’s a beautiful and rich language and recently I started again, with fresh motivation and two new teachers.
Yu Li is first of all a friend, but she’s also a very good writing teacher. Until now I hadn’t bothered with trying to write, as I can type Chinese on my phone and on my computer. But as I’m learning more characters, I found I needed a better way to memorize them. Plus, they are beautiful. The homework of endlessly repeating characters is very relaxing, like meditation, and I’m getting much better at recognizing recurring components. I already had a vocabulary of about 600 characters. Now I’m learning how to write them, scribbling like a five-year-old.
Poetry without boundaries
Yesterday she wanted to try something new. She had written out a poem for me, by Lï Bái (李白). Jìng yè sī (静夜思), or ‘thoughts in a quiet night’ is the best-known classical poem in China. Here it is, with pinyin and a translation:
床前明月光 / Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng / Bright moonlight before my bed
疑是地上霜 / Yí shì dì shàng shuāng / Seems like frost upon the floor
举头望明月 / Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè / I raise my head and watch the moon
低头思故乡 / Dī tóu sī gù xiāng / I lower my head and think of home
As we are practising it I get a bit emotional, as the restrictions on travel have just been extended until at least October. There is no way I’ll be able to go home this year. Only two weeks ago I went on a short trip, for the first time since the Covid-19 restrictions were imposed on us months ago. Finally, I was outside Kunming, alone, in the countryside, listening to croaking frogs and crickets, and seeing a gigantic full moon rise over the hills. So yes, I get the sentiment in the poem, even if it is sweltering hot right now and the poem was written some 1300 years ago.
Then the penny drops – this Lï Bái is the same person as Li Po, who I read so long ago. Back then, I was longing for Asia, having just returned from a stint in Thailand. Now I am in China, and longing for home. Same poem, different circumstances, similar feelings.
Yu Li and me end the class by sitting on my balcony and talking about Leonard Cohen, listening to Jacquel Brel’s ‘Le Plat Pays’ (cue more homesickness) and reading Rilke’s Herbsttag in German. Sentiments like these are the same the world over and throughout the centuries. Yu Li and me are both delighted – and a bit emotional – that the other truly ‘gets’ their beloved poets from home. Art truly connects people across cultures, but so does language, so I have to get back to my Chinese homework.
Last month I returned to Kunming from my yearly big bicycle odyssey. For one month I explored Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.
August is, supposedly, the best month to visit Hokkaido but the overarching theme of this trip was water. Wild rivers, waterfalls, pristine volcano crater lakes, steaming forests, hot springs, ocean spray, massive sea waves and precipitation in a thousand different guises. Fine drizzle, thick fog, muddy splashes, clouds, roadside puddles, showers, torrential rain for days, morning dewdrops on the grass and on my tent and a typhoon. There was also sweat and (once, briefly) tears.
Another theme was the joy of rediscovering solo cycling and how that smoothed the way for encounters with lovely Japanese women who generously took me in.
I also see quite a few Japanese cyclists, I cycle with a Tasmanian Antarctic researcher for a couple of days and hang out with two Australian cyclists in Niseko. On one wet morning I meet a lovely Taiwanese family at a campsite and share stories about bike travel and talk geopolitics over breakfast.
One night I stay at a local biker gang campsite and have a barbecue dinner with the guys. Hokkaido is very popular with motorbikers and they always wave at cyclists, so it feels as I’m part of a gang of road warriors.
But, getting to know some Japanese women has been the best. Kumiko, a 72 year old lady on holiday in Kushiro, takes me to a traditional festival with dancing and drumming and then a fabulous seafood barbecue. Scallops drenched in fresh butter, shrimp, potatoes… it’s delicious and great fun.
She looks and moves likes a sparrow, with quick bird-like head movements when she wants to get a point across. She only speaks a few words of English, alongside my non-existent Japanese, but we connect nonetheless.
At one point she tells me something that google translates as ‘the sakura (cherry blossom) is in bloom’. I don’t understand what she means as it’s not the season for cherry blossom watching. But no, she means my red cheeks, hot from the barbecue and the sake we have been swigging. A great girls night out.
Another great encounter is with Eiko. I meet her at the end of a long and hot day (this is before the endless raining started) outside a conbini(convenience store) which are the lifeline of any cyclist in Japan.
She sees me and my bike loaded with gear and starts positively growling and squealing with delight. So positive! So amazing! Ooooh! Aaaaaah! Sugoi! I ask her if she knows a good place to camp, and she invites me to come and stay at her home.
I spend an evening with her and Benzo, her mental dog. She used to travel a lot. Diving in the Maldives, living in Australia, backpacking around the world. Until she got married to her husband and moved from Sapporo to rural Shimizu, on a flat-as-a-Dutch pancake floodplain surrounded by mountains.
She works at a check-out in a supermarket. They couldn’t conceive, drifted apart and are now in the process of getting divorced. Eiko takes me shopping to the local mall, which is the only thing to do in the small town. We have a good chat, and I’m sad to leave her behind in her depressing situation, being bored out of her skull in Shimizu. Luckily she has Benzo.
Osanai-san of Honobono farm
My last encounter is entirely positive and uplifting. After a medium climb, I am looking for a good meal before I will find my wild camping spot for the night. Just outside a small village, not far from Lake Toya, I spot Honobono farm. It is a meticulously maintained idyll of organic farming on a traditional Hokkaido farmstead, combined with a cafe and offering yoga classes for more relaxation and a healthy lifestyle.
I relish the crunchy fresh vegetables after almost a month of living off processed conbini bento box food and snickers bars. Looking out over the flowers in the sunny garden I’m overcome with a feeling of complete peace. I ask if they are a campsite, knowing quite well they aren’t, but this is the roundabout and polite way of asking I can stay, as it offers them an easy way to say no.
Yoko says no, but 5 minutes later comes back to say that her mother has agreed to let me stay for the night. Yay! I put up my tent and after a game of volleyball with the whole family, I prepare for an early night.
But, I can’t go to sleep just yet. Grandmother Osanai-san brings more food to my tent and invites me to go to the village onsen with her. There she scrubs my back, and we enjoy a nice long soak in the simple white-tiled space. She invites me to sleep inside, afraid I’m going to be cold in the tent. They have already shared so much and I don’t want to miss out on the last night in my tent, especially as it’s not raining. I decline the gracious offer. Their farm is a traditional wooden building without a shower, and I glimpse raised tatami rooms with futons inside.
From a complete foreign stranger, I came to feel like a member of the family, without a shared language. They decided to like and trust me within minutes and let me in. At 5.30am Osanai-san calls me outside my tent: Bira-san, kohi (coffee)! She cooks me an amazing breakfast and I’m on my way, enveloped in a warm glow and with a big happy smile on my face.
Going the distance
It was pretty hardcore at times, and I cycled more than I planned: an average of about 60km per day (including rest days, meaning that most days I did 75km or more, often doing big climbs, in the rain). I was only planning on cycling from New Chitose airport to the Shiretoko peninsula and back. In the end, I tack on a loop in Niseko, southwest of Sapporo, home to some spectacular volcanic lakes. I’ve done about 1500km in total, in a little bit under a month.
Wet and wild
The first six days are very hot, and then it starts raining. And it keeps raining, for days on end. Descents in mist and rain with soaking wet shoes are no fun. The tent and sleeping bag are very comfortable, as are outdoor onsens at 6am, with views of steaming volcanoes.
One day I unwittingly cycle through a typhoon. This means thick fog, solid rain and punishing side winds. There is no shelter or conbinis on the long, straight and boring road through coastal flatlands. That day the roads are mostly empty. All the fishing boats are on the shore, and it feels as if I’m cycling through an extremely wet zombie apocalypse. The occasional motorcyclist that passes me shakes his fist or waves at me, encouraging me in my craziness. Ganbatte!
I decide to bypass the peninsula beyond Nemuro where I was planning to wild camp on Hokkaido’s easternmost cape. Instead, I head for the nearest campsite with a hot shower and a laundrette. I’m glad about that decision, as I later read on the Japanese meteorological website that a 1m tsunami warning had been issued for that very peninsula. That day I do 105km, as there was nothing to do but push on.
The only way is up
Another challenge, apart from the rain, is the climbing. I’ve done quite a few mountain passes, going from sea level to 1000m. the gradients are usually very good, the views of forested mountains absolutely stunning. Reaching a summit is always a satisfying feat, and the downhill a nice reward for the hard work.
Hokkaido history and culture
Hokkaido is the ancestral home of the bearded and bear-worshipping Ainu people, and I visit some interesting Ainu sites and museums around Lake Akan.
Japanese culture really only arrived when settlers arrived around the middle of the 19th century. Many of them were decommissioned samurai, as the colonization of Hokkaido more or less coincided with a societal shake-up that saw the abolishment of this particular well-educated and cultured warrior class.
As it is there are not that many historical or cultural highlights such as temples and museums, and it’s all about natural splendour. I do visit one museum, about a famous sumo wrestler. I can’t read the signs but the collection of pictures and religious paraphernalia is impressive.
In that sense, Hokkaido is very different from southern Japan, where I cycled before. There is little interesting architecture, but I like the log cabins, made of solid wooden beams.
One aspect of Japanese culture that I do get to enjoy is, of course, the fantastic food. When I am not eating the standard bento boxes from the conbinis that is.
The Hokkaido Wilds
But, oh, the nature… Hokkaido is indeed wild and wonderful. The flood- and coastal plains can be a bit boring, and actually remind me of my home village. Flatlands, straight lines, grassland and cornfields, cows, farms, modern harvest combiners. It’s weird to see this kind of almost Dutch-like countryside but with Japanese farmers on the tractors. Hokkaido produces a lot of milk and I love the fresh ice cream.
I only spend a couple of half-days cycling in the flatlands. The rest of my time in Hokkaido is filled with cycling up the side of volcanoes, finding gorgeous lakes or pedalling along the coastline.
Hot spring, you make my heart sing
Then there are the onsens. My expectations of Hokkaido were high (inspired by the fantastic Hokkaido Wilds website), and one thing I dreamed of was spending every night camping next to a hot spring. I wasn’t disappointed: at many places, I could have a long hot soak after a long cold and wet day on the bicycle. The cutest onsen I found was one with a little concrete statue of tanuki, a little mischievous raccoon spirit. The hot water comes spouting of his gigantic cock. I found the onsen in a little hidden jungly valley and shared it with a super nice Japanese couple.
In the first days, I do quite a bit of wild camping.
I had hoped to do a bit more wild camping, but the many signs warning of bears around the Shiretoko peninsula lead me to stay at campsites that are surrounded by electric fences. One day a police car stops me, as I am cycling up a big climb. In the rain, naturally. The cops try to tell me something. I explain that I don’t speak Japanese. They then do a very funny bear impersonation, with big smiles on their faces. They are all smiles but I don’t think they are joking. Finally they send me on my way with a ‘be careful, ok?’.
I don’t see any non-taxidermied bears, and I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed. One time I hear one. I’m cycling down a small road and all of a sudden I hear something that sounds like an elephant falling out of a tree. I stop the bike, start shouting and clapping, and the bear disappears with more noise of breaking branches. Whoa. I do see lots of other wildlife, such as the sly kitsune (fox) and some magnificent deer.
I could write a 1000 more words on the beauty of cycling around Hokkaido and all the impressions it left on me. But after one month I pack up my bicycle and return home, to Kunming.
I’m fully recharged, and ready to take on my new job of editor for GoKunming. Since my new job is writing (dream job!), I won’t have much time to update this blog anymore. If you like you can sign up for the GoKunming newsletter and get weekly updates about life in Yunnan.
It’s been a while since my last update. If I wasn’t fully emotionally immersed yet in my life in Kunming because of visa uncertainties, I definitely am now. I got the coveted residence permit after my Hongkong trip. life here does feel different now, more secure. I extended the lease on my apartment with another two years, a big commitment.
Since then there has been one more set back. I ended up in the hospital with a malfunctioning heart. This happened right after a week-long solo bike trip over Chinese New Year. I’m feeling healthy and strong and all of a sudden I am in the emergency ward of a big university hospital with something that looked and felt like a heart attack. A few days later I am discharged with a fancy diagnosis: Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease, and luckily my heart was only showing the symptoms and there is no lasting damage. My own body attacks my thyroid, which in turn led to my heart to slow down to a dangerously low and arrhythmic heart beat.
It was a scary experience, but throughout I have felt warm and safe, surrounded by excellent medical staff and my caring friends. If anything, I’m happier than ever before. The acute realization that I might be dying and at the same time feeling that all is well in my life gave enormous reassurance about the choices I have made that brought me here. After the initial shock, I felt in good hands in the hospital and my friends helped me by bringing food, looking after my cat and entertaining me with sci-fi series and stupid jokes about life and death.
For a couple of weeks after I was very tired but right now I’m feeling very good. I’m on medication for my thyroid and changed to a gluten free diet, which is fairly easy to manage in a city that runs on rice noodles. As a result I’ve lost five kilos and feeling even more energetic then before.
In short, I’m in tune with the season. Kunming, the city of eternal Spring, is in bloom. Lilac clouds of jacaranda are billowing over the streets, it’s almost 30 degrees, and I’ve been participating in some fun outdoor activities.
I’ve bought a longboard, joined the Hash House Harriers, the ‘drinking club with a running problem’, and last weekend I walked a 13km charity walk to raise money for We4She, an initiative of a friend of mine that aims to help women who have suffered domestic violence, sex workers and LGBTQ people. This is important since they receive no recognition or support from the government or acceptance in the society.
As if I wasn’t busy enough, I’ve initiated an art collective. Kunming has a small but thriving performance art scene, and together with like-minded artists and academics I’ve started the Kunming International Situationist Society. As yet it has been a pretty informal and infrequent gathering of artists, historians, feminists and anthropologists. We have reread and talked about the Situationist canon and other neo-Marxist theory, which offers an interesting angle on contemporary Chinese society. This is supposedly a Marxist society, yet it is the most capitalist society I have ever lived in. Another thing is that everyone is constantly staring at their phone screens.
I’ve always been interested in the Situationists, their theory and practices. How to have real experiences instead of experiencing life through a screen, how to fight the relentless commodification of everything from work down to the most intimate and personal life experiences. In a way this ties in with my passion for bike travel, which is all about being in the moment. It also ties in with my background in architectural history and city planning: how to design a city that is made for living and playing rather than a machine that is making money for the few. I’m pondering my own art practice, how to translate these ideas into more coherent writing, thinking and practice. Im probably thinking too much and not producing, but for now I am very happy to meet up with like-minded thinkers and practitioners. We have done a dérive, and walked from the new Kunming far south to the old Kunming around Green Lake: a 40km walk that made us feel and experience the city and it’s changing meanings in a new way. Soon we will do a film screening, our first public event.
Another initiative I have been part of since it’s inception is the Kunming Knitting Club. We don’t knit. We are a feminist collective, but feminism is a word that doesn’t sit well with the powers that be, and definitely not in organized form. So, we talk about knitting on WeChat, and about heavier topics when we meet up in person. I have more women friends than I have ever had before in my life and I’m learning a lot about Chinese society from my Chinese girlfriends. I’ve heard shocking stories, but I’m immensely inspired by the power of these women who are fighting the norms posed upon them by this society. If all I can do is offer my home and be quiet and listen then this is what I will do.
All of this is within what is legally allowed in China, but skirting the margins. Right now there is a big crackdown on organized crime. All the bars in Kunming have been closed for a week and everyone is feeling a bit on edge. Censorship is encroaching further every day. More and more foreigners are leaving. Today I find that my blog has been blocked in China. In a way it is an honour: I am not afraid to be critical of the country that I love. What I am doing with these groups is sharing international experience, and hoping that change will slowly come from within, by Chinese people who I am very proud to call my friends.