This section from Shiping to Honghe is the second instalment of my bicycle ride from Yunnan to Cambodia – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Shiping west gate
Shiping old town’s majestic West gate

I awake from a deep and long sleep with a little “woah” – first time I can remember me doing this, really. It isn’t painful, but I think this is what time travel should feel like. I feel fully recovered. Somewhere in another dimension, little blue beings with funny faces have restored my body. I mess around in my room for another hour or so because I’m sure outside it’s still grey. A mistake: when I open my curtains, a weak little disc makes respectable attempts at piercing through the thick layer of clouds. (more…)

This section from Tonghai to Shiping is the first instalment of my bicycle ride from Yunnan to Cambodia – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Today’s the big day. I haven’t noticed. With every tour I do, I grow more and more lax with the planning and I’m more and more confident in myself. This is going to end badly some day. Until then, I’ll just be blissfully happy.

My body thinks differently about it, though. Knowing that something was up today, it woke me up at 6am despite having been drinking until 2am. I snoozed another hour until I really couldn’t stand the alarm sound coming from my oh-so-unreachable desk and got on my feet. Switching off the main breaker, I left my building and headed for the train station, where I hoped to catch a ride on the new line to Tonghai 通海 (“linking lakes”).


iPhone back cover with swastika

Hitler’s a bit of a hero in China. No-one seems to fully understand what he’s done, or maybe his cruelties just pale before what other despots have done in, say, China. So it’s common to see references to Nazism in the streets of Kunming, and indeed elsewhere in China.


27 November 2013

Kunming’s new metro system is slowly but surely taking form. It’s unlikely it will have been worth the nuisance or the money.

Kunming Rail Logo
Kunming Rail Logo

There’s something to be said for metro systems. They’re clean, fast and almost entirely invisible from above the ground. For large yet space-strapped cities like New York or Hong Kong, they’re the only efficient public transport solution. In other cities, such as Berlin, there simply wasn’t any other mass transit technology available when it was built.

But for smaller and more modern towns with loads of space, like Kunming, the question arises whether a metro is the right solution. Is the Kunming Metro really a worth the pain? Or is it just another China mess, in which politicians vying recognition from Beijing ruin entire cities with prestige projects?


26 November 2013

Radio 5 NederlandIn the meantime, the folks over at Ikon have uploaded last Sunday’s radio show about homosexuality onto their website. It includes my contribution about the Chinese gay scene. The show is called De (Ver)Ander(d)e Wereld (“The chang(ing/ed) World”) and you can listen to it on-line. The report comes in at about 41 minutes.

I hope you enjoy it, and you can read the full article on my blog if you want to read more about being gay in China.

The background music used by the radio editors is 三十年 (“3 decades”) by Yunnan-born 山人乐队 (“Shanren (Mountain people) band”).

Some people have been wondering what air pollution looks like in real life, so I decided to snap some pictures from my window. I live on the 31st floor on busy Beijing street and my window points north to Snake mountain 长虫山. At different times of day, I get a good idea of what pollution looks like, and I’d like to share.

Air quality is expressed in AQI (Air Quality Index), and our first picture shows a pretty much haze-free, beautiful clear day. The (American) AQI index is at 39, and you can easily distinguish detail on the mountains at the horizon. The recommendation is to do anything you like. At the bottom of the picture you can see one of the culprits of much of Kunming’s current pollution: the construction of a city-wide underground rail network. Another polluter runs straight through the picture: the traffic on Beijing street. With Kunming greatly encouraging car ownership, and cars generally using dirtier fuel than elsewhere in the world, the pollution peaks at 6-9am, when everyone wants to go to work, and at 4-6pm, when everyone gets back. Other polluters, like factories and coal plants, are not visible here.

AQI Index 39: 9.4µg of PM2.5/m3
AQI Index 39: 9.4µg of PM2.5/m3


23 November 2013

Yunnan, and undoubtedly most of China, is strewn with propaganda billboards, urging people not to kill their daughters in favour of a son, to form a tight society, or to entice people to send their children to Harvard. Matthew Hartzell over at his blog has just posted a splendid collection of them. My favourite is undoubtedly the one about poverty below, one we came across together on our ride through Malipo county in Wenshan Zhuang and Miao autonomous prefecture in Yunnan province. It reads:

If the poor don’t receive education,
Poverty’s root will be difficult to eradicate;
If the rich don’t value education,
They won’t be rich for long.

Apart from the beautiful message (which seems to have fallen on deaf ears – Wenshan is one of Yunnan’s poorer prefectures), it also beautifully illustrates how insanely compact Chinese can be. 25 English words fit in a mere 16 characters.

Chinese propaganda billboard about poverty
Billboard linking education and poverty in Wenshan prefecture. Photo by Matthew Hartzell

Last week, I was asked by Dutch radio programme De Andere Wereld (“The Other World”) to do a short audio report on being gay in China. During my interviews with several people in the Kunming gay scene, I met so many interesting people and opinions that I realised the subject was worth more than 5 minutes of radio time. I’d like to share my findings with you here.

A man in a Roman toga walks up the catwalk at Nono bar
A man in a Roman toga strides up the catwalk at Nono bar

Legalised in 1997 and scrapped from the list of mental illnesses as late as 2001, homosexuality in China is still a fairly sensitive topic. Even though modern cities as Beijing and Shanghai have a thriving gay scene, many homosexuals remain in the closed, nailed shut by family expectations and a lack of information. This is no less the case in Kunming, the capital of chiefly rural Yunnan province.


China, despite often put down as lacking innovation, actually boasts a lot of small but refreshing concepts. If you ever come up with a great idea, there’s a good chance that it has already been done in China. Take for instance dual SIM phones. A great idea that should really be standard: for people that travel a lot, live near borders or in small countries, or for those looking for the best calling rates. Back in the West, you’ll only find them on very specific models which are expensive and not just because you’re getting a cool smartphone. In China, almost every locally-produced phone comes with a secondary SIM slot.

Other great ideas include pens with magnets for whiteboards, cars that speak (why would you have a beeping noise if you can tell everyone that you’re reversing), or battery chargers with a built-in LED. They make a lot of sense because there’s a good chance that when you aren’t near a power outlet, there is also no light.

Innovative idea: brake pads that light up as you brake
Tiny lights switch on when you apply enough pressure.

Unfortunately, many of these concepts are poorly implemented. My newest discovery are brake pads with built-in brake lights. Failing to find normal brake pads, Lieuwe from bought this fancy pair in Baoshan, Yunnan. When enough pressure is applied, its tiny LEDs flash on, vying for visibility with a million other light sources on the busy streets of China. Or at least as long as the battery lasts.

Having brake lights on a bicycle, especially in a country where no one uses a bike light, is a good idea, but the implementation is sad. Maybe here’s a good idea for better engineers: a brake pad that converts the braking force to power a much brighter LED.

Morning bliss at the Dulong river

This is the account of a trekking journey I recently undertook in the Dulong river valley, Yunnan’s remotest corner in between Myanmar and Tibet. Part one of this story was originally published on

We stretch our stiff legs when we alight the green and white jeep. For the past three days, we’ve done nothing but sit in ever smaller vehicles: big comfy bus from Kunming to Liuku 六库, a smaller regional bus from Liuku to Gongshan 贡山, and finally a small jeep loaded with eight people bouncing their heads off the padded bodywork that took us across a high mountain pass from Gongshan to Kongdang 孔当.

We’ve arrived in Yunnan’s most secluded valley, home to the Dulong river 独龙江 which rages from its headwaters in Tibet through a mere 100 km of Yunnan, shedding over 1000 metres in altitude before flowing into Myanmar’s Irawaddy river. Locals consist of the Dulong 独龙族 and Lisu minorities 傈僳族 , but there are some Nu people 怒族 to be found as well.