This section from Hekou to Sa Pa is the tenth 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.

Day 11: Transferring to Vietnam

I’d submitted my passport to the Hekou visa office at 9 am, hoping that it’d be ready in a few hours. Unfortunately, I learn that I can pick up my visa by 6.30 pm. It seems the best thing to do is get into the visa office before 4 pm on any weekday. That way you can be across the border by 7 pm the same day. Price is 450 RMB if you’re handsome, and 500 RMB otherwise – according to the giggling girls running the business. Bah. Another day at Hekou, it’s starting to get on my nerves.

I spend the day slowly – Yunnan style – walking around town, ignoring attempts by pompous Chinese trying to make conversation in abominable English. The hours tick away slowly. A visit to the Hekou uprising museum and trying to decode the text kills a few of them. The museum is actually quite interesting if you can read what it says (no English, although the titles are in Pinyin, as if that helps anyone). There are quite a few interesting pictures and maps from middle nineteenth to the early twentieth century, including the building of the railroad by the French and portraits with biographies of the revolutionaries.

carving up China
Carving up China


This section about Hekou is the ninth 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.

As I arrived just thirty minutes late to get my Vietnam visa done on Friday, I had to wait the entire weekend for official services to resume on the Vietnam side. In a town like Hekou, that’s a bit of a punishment. The town is not really boring, but isn’t interesting enough either to spend three full days in.

Fortunately, two French cyclists (Anaïs and Romain from Toulouse on their trip from France to Thailand) made the boredom bearable. It’s fun to listen to their descriptions of the cultures they’ve encountered and they kindle in me the desire to ride around Turkey and Iran some time. At the same time they remind me of how difficult it is to enjoy China without speaking any Chinese and on how much great food you miss out if you don’t know where to find it.

The riverside juice shop I used to go to has a new owner now and there’s no more Vietnamese ice coffee, which is a bummer, but the Vietnamese coffee on Vietnam street is still great – even though they get the coffee out of a bottle rather than making it fresh. There are also Banh mi stands (like French baguettes with pâté and veggies and eggs), a refreshing novelty in this town.

Hekou railway station
Hekou railway station, once a major stop on the metre gauge line Hai Phong – Kunming


This section from Honghe to Lüchun is the third 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.

I awake to the sound of people playing with my bike horn downstairs. I roll around in bed for a while but then get up, realising that it’s going to be a long day, whichever road I decide to take up to Lüchun 绿春 (“green spring”). There are plenty of options: several old roads connecting ‘directly’, and one that requires a 50 km plod to Yuanyang’s Nansha 南沙, where a new road has been built last year. My friend Frank at Zouba Travel recommends one of the older roads and I’m tempted too.

Coming down from Honghe
Coming down from Honghe


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


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.