A life-time cycle: Catching up with Ole Bouman, after 9,300km of cycling 

A life-time cycle: Catching up with Ole Bouman, after 9,300km of cycling 

Ole Bouman:
“You can stay within your bubble forever and keep imagining other countries and people as dangerous, as extremist – until you go there.”

Earlier this year, January 31st to be precise, we said goodbye to Ole Bouman along the lengthy corridor of the Markthal building in Amsterdam, where VOLUME had just moved in. Off on his impressively sturdy-looking bike, our dear former editor-in-chief disappeared into a zenith as he would commence his 10,000km journey to the East the next day. We had been discussing ways in which VOLUME could report his trip. As things go in life, catching up with him on his road journey to the East proved to be more challenging than expected. But now, 139 days later, we reconnect with Ole for a conversation. As the Zoom on his phone flickers to life we find him in a Chinese hotel room, looking sharper than ever.

Stephan Petermann: It’s great to see you Ole! You still look healthy, slimmer even! It’s 9 pm in China, so let’s get started with the first question every (German) podcaster or radio presenter starts with, and in this case it is even more important: where do we find you at the moment?

Ole Bouman: I’m in Henan province in China, in a place called Dengfeng. It’s about 60 kilometers east of Luoyang. According to the locals, Luoyang is the real beginning of the Silk Road. The actual origin of the Silk Road seems to be in dispute as there are now several large museums dedicated to the Silk Road in other cities, regardless, this region, east of Luoyang, is beautiful. This afternoon I went through a nature reserve which felt like a small gift, because I did not intend to cycle very far today. But despite this, I entered Dengfeng, which is most famous for the Temple of Shaolin and considered to be the cradle of the Kung Fu movement. So the monks here are vigilant fighters. Less contemplation and meditation, more martial arts.

SP: So, maybe this does relate to a question I had in my mind while reading your blog and found some considerations towards Buddhism. After seeing all these religions flow from west to east, do you read them differently?

OB: I used to think Buddhism was maybe only one branch of religion in China, or let’s say, minoritarian. But I stumbled upon so many cities where the Buddhist culture is almost omnipresent, not only in temples but also nestled within other tourist sites like grottoes. I realized how Buddhism is almost like a national dimension of Chinese culture. In Luoyang, for instance, there are the very famous Longmen grottoes. In Dunhuang, in Gansu province, you have the Moghao caves, and along the road West to Xinjiang there are a lot more Buddhist caves. You have temples, there are caves, but most importantly so many people have a little shrine at the front door or in their courtyard. And this is without a more formal affiliation to a Buddhist community. The people I speak with consider it as something important for their daily spiritual sanity. I think that is maybe a good explanation. So, it’s not so much to belong to a faith, or to a community of faith, but it’s more about a daily ritual to clear the mind. For the more devout Buddhists, meditation is important, while also the less devout Buddhists have meditation moments in their own way. It’s not, let’s say, lengthy, sitting down and thinking deeply, but it’s more like a technique to quickly get yourself together and clear your mind out. It’s not so much about morality – certainly not a morality to impose on others – it’s more about giving yourself a certain strength, mental strength, that helps you through daily life.

SP: And how is your mental strength at the moment, after 9,300 kilometers? Do you feel strengthened by this trip so far, or exhausted? And to evoke the most-asked question in the history of cycling: how are your legs?

OB: My legs are the best part. Over the first 1,000 kilometers, I did have some knee injuries. Also, my hands and my shoulders were hurting because I wasn’t used to cycling for six/seven hours a day. So basically the body protested at first, but now it doesn’t protest anymore. You know, I was a racing cyclist for years, and there were points when I was in my early 20s that my body just demanded that I cycle. If I wasn’t cycling, I just didn’t feel well. But I haven’t reached that stage here. Maybe I will never reach that anymore, because there are also many moments that I think it’s enough, and that also brings me to the mental part. What makes it enough for the day is that it may be too hot, or I might get a flat tire I don’t want to fix. It just extends the cycling. It hurts. Sometimes these steep mountains, well, they are not always fun, right? So, frequently I’m looking forward to the end of the day. And I also look forward to the end of the journey, because that’s also a big mental part of it. At the same time there are moments of intense beauty, and you also dread giving up this new lifestyle that has also grown on you over the months. Still, I want to wrap it up. I want to do other things: I want to finish my reflections that I can’t finish on the road. Most of what I’m doing is making many observations but not yet coming to many conclusions, but given the effort and the length of the journey, it’s almost inevitable to come to some conclusions and share them. So I have a lot of writing to do, and it’s hard to find time for decent writing. A little blog or an occasional online statement is fine, although even that can be already late-night work. After cycling, recovery, and dinner there’s just not that much time left, but sometimes I need to write something down. Sometimes at 11 o’clock at night I’m still writing… this is not the writing I want to do. I need a more thorough digestion of these experiences.

Ole Bouman:
“I look forward to the end of the journey. At the same time there are moments of intense beauty, and you also dread giving up this new lifestyle that has also grown on you over the months.

SP: I’m really looking forward to that. Many people here are also following your blog and your insights. My Chinese friends were particularly excited when you reached the Chinese border. When you departed from the VOLUME office in Amsterdam we spoke about the concept of borders and the report on your crossings, and even if it didn’t come to fruition as intended, I am still curious about how you experienced the borders themselves. Is there a particular border encounter that stuck with you over time?

OB: It was a key part of my concept because this whole journey is a project. Journey to the East was a deliberate attempt to reach the East by crossing all the borders that otherwise block or keep us from the East. And the East, therefore, becomes more of a conceptual term; it’s not located precisely, but it’s something like an orientation that you go into, and while you penetrate it you are embraced by the East. So I thought that I could write and think from the beginning to the end about all these stages of going into, going through borders Eastwards. I still think that many borders are keeping the Western mind away from the East, not only political and physical borders, but also mental borders that keep us apart. And in the beginning I wrote much more about this, because even after leaving Amsterdam there was already a border: the countryside. When I departed, on February 1st, I went to Betondorp, in Amsterdam, the birthplace of Johan Cruyff. In football you have attackers and you have defenders, and I quoted Cruyff as he was not really interested in the fringes but rather in favour of the midfield: it’s the midfield that brings the team together; everything is decided on the midfield. Very topical subject for the moment, I can speak for an hour about all these different borders in Europe, very related to concepts of Westerness. But one of the most profound experiences occurred to me when I entered Turkey: from there on, the sense of border becomes much less evident. So even yesterday, in a little village in Henan province, when I buy some bread from a Halal bakery, I greet the baker with Salaam Alaikum. So, you start this process of greeting people with Salaam Alaikum 250 kilometers before Istanbul, and keep saying it up to East China, because there are Muslims everywhere, and they clearly have a certain common ground. And the common ground is not just the Quran, but the common ground is in greeting. It’s a moment of engagement, a moment of acknowledgment of each other. I have a growing feeling that this sense of borders gradually shifts toward a sense of common ground. And the same for Buddhism, it also becomes like a dimension. Once you enter China you can go to a Buddhist place, a shrine or a temple almost every 10 kilometers. They practice rituals where people who don’t know each other, for a moment, share a certain value or a certain seriousness. That’s what I mean by shifting from borders to common grounds: this is one of the most important lessons for me.

Ole Bouman:
“I still think that many borders are keeping the Western mind away from the East, not only political and physical borders, but also mental borders that keep us apart.”

SP: But then it must have been quite upsetting that you were not able to get access to Turkmenistan.

OB: Yeah, it’s a pity, although this country itself does everything it can to keep people out. It’s not a very welcoming country, but I’m sure that once you meet the people on the ground, it’s different.

This is the same for Iran. I mean, the Western view of Iran is that once you enter you are in a really risky place. I was part of chat-groups of travelers in Iran, and you see that the newbies come with fear that they have to be careful for whatever may come their way. The more experienced members of the groups know instead that most times you will receive a very warm welcome in Iran. And that’s another very important observation: there is such a difference between what certain leaders say about each other, and not just about other leaders but about entire countries, as “zones of evil” or “zones of danger” – and this also extends to the media, repeating cliches about each other. But only a few people really experience the world of the other, right? You can stay within your bubble forever and keep imagining other countries and people as dangerous, as extremist – until you go there. As such this voyage has been an important un-mediated experience.

SP: I also have many experiences with different forms of hospitality, both in the Middle East and in China, traveling through the countryside. I can imagine you were greeted everywhere with genuine care and interest. Were there revealing insights from the people you met?

OB: Well, I think a pervasive fear that this distinction between ‘official talk’ and ‘real talk’ is a global predicament. It’s a growing concern that there is such a gap between assumptions, projections, accusations, and what people really feel. I think most people feel quite powerless, and this can escalate.

If you’re in a restaurant or a hotel and speak with locals, there is this sentiment that they feel they are living on borrowed time. As if the peace that they personally embody – by their mindset, by their way of life, by their spiritual inclinations – is moving away from them without their consent. So peace is no longer representative of a real place, it becomes something almost like a utopian state, it is believed to be increasingly hard to defend. You run into peaceful people and they want to talk about it, because they feel we are drifting away. Especially in Iran and in China. They feel that the worldview is not fair. On the train I had to take for a part of the Gobi Desert I spoke with a guy and he was actually a bit surprised that I was working in China and that I was taking the time to cross the country on a bicycle. He thought that Western people were completely lost, oblivious of what China was about or what Chinese people thought. He thought all foreigners think badly about China. And in Iran, the same thing.

Ole Bouman:
“Peace is no longer representative of a real place, it becomes something almost like a utopian state, it is believed to be increasingly hard to defend.”

SP: I was in Brussels recently for a round table organized by a policy group close to the European governance bodies. They had an Africa section in their organisation but no China section, which I found odd, so I asked them. They told me that, at a political level, contact with China is to be increasingly avoided. The inclination in Brussels regrettably was to reduce communication with China – which is obviously short-sighted and dangerous. But speaking of the Gobi Desert, from your blog it seemed that it was your second big struggle: you hinted that the heat was a major risk. What were the conditions? What exactly happened? Could you take us there?

OB: In the back of my mind I always had to reach this area on schedule, because I knew that the Xinjiang desert area in July and August would be impossible to cross – it gets to around 40° to 50°C, and there is no shadow. So if something happens, then you cannot even find a place where you can shelter, repair your tire, nothing. I calculated I needed to leave early in the morning, five o’clock or so, to make it before the extreme heat strikes, around 11 o’clock. But when I arrived it was already 38°C in the early morning, and when I went a little further into the desert there were moments of cycling in temperatures of 45° to 46°C; it just felt impossible. I bought a ventilator for my bike to give me some fresh air, but the heat was more than the small portable fan could cope with. I could anticipate these conditions in the desert, but what I could not anticipate is what the people there told me: this year, summer arrived so early for them, so they also felt that nature was out of joint.

At the same time, this doesn’t prevent the Chinese from transforming the desert into a giant powerhouse. Historically speaking this was a no-go area, only a place of death. Now it’s a place of energy. I read an article a few days ago that this year marks the first time China is using less fossil fuel because of their investment in renewables. And I think they are still in the beginning stages, because there is so much surface and land they can potentially use. I expected this to grow tremendously, and that is exemplary. So what you said about Brussels… and you cannot talk to a country that is doing so much right now – and not only about energy?

SP: Maybe we could propose your project to some of the European leaders, biking in the desert would do them well! In another blog post you wrote how your idea about perseverance changed, and I can imagine where that stems from, from putting yourself through the harshness of this relentless tour. Could you tell me more about what perseverance means for you?

OB: When was that?

SP: I think in March maybe?

OB: I must say, towards the end I’m thinking less about perseverance, because I feel it’s going to be alright and I’m going to make it. So I don’t need to reflect on what it means to me to persevere, because I think I have persevered, and I only need a few more days. But in the beginning I realized that there is a whole repertoire of tricks and techniques that help you persevere. Because clearly you need some good ones, especially if you still have 8,000 kilometers to go. If the weather is against you during a cold February, you think about what makes me keep cycling? What is really making a difference? So you can say to yourself, “I told everybody I was going to China, I cannot stop because that would be like losing face”, and that can be a motivation but it is not enough to suffer long? You can also say “I have such a beautiful ideal to cultivate global dialog. I need to keep doing that”, but that is also not strong enough to persevere in icy weather. Or for my students in Shanghai: “I signed up to teach them every week, I cannot stop teaching so it is my job to keep cycling.” So you have a whole set of very strong-but-not-decisive motivations to keep going. There are other tricks, much more basic I think, and they relate with your upbringing, with your values, with your body strength, so they are much more subjective. But one example is to break down 10,000 kilometers into 100 meters. When you do that your mind focuses on the next 100 meters, and not thinking too far ahead makes it easier.

SP: I have one more question: where are you and your precious steel and rubber camel heading tomorrow? And then of course, where will you end? Because you chose some very symbolic points at the beginning of your travel…Waterloo, the Dutch defense line…

OB: Tomorrow I go to a place full of historical memory reminiscent of Taoism and Confucianism. Every evening before, I research and learn what to expect from the following day. And by now, the richness of possibilities to visit and see things has been overwhelming, and I can’t track it anymore. There is so much that it all becomes a bit arbitrary: what I see, where I will stop. Compared to what I saw in Western China, here the presence of Chinese traditions in philosophy, thought, administration, is becoming very dominant, but I don’t know the details yet. Today I cycled 60 kilometers, tomorrow I want to do a little bit more, around 100 kilometers, to Xuchang. The day after I go to Zhoukou, the place that is supposedly the birthplace of Lao Tzu, the first Taoist, the writer of Tao Te Ching, the famous Taoist tractatus. So, I hope to find some more time to reflect about Taoism. Then I continue a few days more to Nanjing, which is the most notorious place of Japanese presence in China during the Second World War. There’s also a museum about the massacre committed by the Japanese.

SP: Wasn’t that a Stalingrad-like moment?

OB: The Nanjing Massacre was a deliberate genocide by Japanese forces, like a collective punishment. And that brings me to another reflection, about how we occasionally turned our back on mass killings when they weren’t welcome in the main narrative, and just chose to ignore them. And this is something that I would like to see in Shanghai: just a few kilometres from my university there is a museum dedicated to 35,000 jews who came to China in the last part of the Second World War, and got refugee status. So it’s a very interesting museum to see how the Chinese were allowing refugees to start a new life in the Yangpu neighborhood, in Shanghai. It is a story that not many people know, and I hope I can evoke it in some way.

This trip is, in a way, timeless: I cherished the idea for a long time. It brought together history, architecture, and cycling, three things I always liked; it’s timeless because the route already existed for thousands of years. But I’m also doing it at a very critical time, and I don’t think I can make such a journey without relating it to this critical time. That’s also why I want to spend some more time writing conclusions, and not only keep observing.

Ole Bouman:
“This trip is, in a way, timeless: I cherished the idea for a long time. It brought together history, architecture, and cycling, three things I always liked; it’s timeless because the route already existed for thousands of years.”

SP: I also noticed that you’ve gone beyond architecture and borders, or beyond architecture and cycling. You also went to Solomon’s mountain, now you go to Lao Tzu’s birthplace. There seems to be a quest for wisdom at the heart of your tour, am I wrong?

OB: Yes, that’s true, and it relates to this critical time because we are completely lacking wisdom. We are blindly running into disaster because we can no longer distinguish between right and wrong, so, in an era of complete hypocrisy, you have two options: one is to step back and study wisdom, because it is built on a great tradition that is not only wisdom. Taoism is not really about wisdom, but about a certain way of life. Buddhism is, I think, mostly about patience and how not to impose your petty point of view on others, let alone competition, domination, or worse. I learned a lot about the traditions of peace and wisdom, as I mentioned in my blog on Solomon. There are many references to Jewish history: you see a lot of Stars of David these days, but don’t see much about his son Solomon, maybe more needed today as someone who can compromise.

SP: And then finally, where do we draw the finish line for you? When and where should I tell my Shanghai friends to wait for you with a flag?

OB: July 5th at 5 o’clock, that is when I have final reviews with my students. So I plan to reach Shanghai in the morning, maybe visit that museum down the road to Tongji University. The street is called Heping Lu which translates to Peace Boulevard, a rather appropriate last street to go down to; then left into the gate of Tongji and into the architecture faculty, where I teach.

SP: Your own Champs-Elysées.

OB: Let me think about this: the Champs-Elysées are a very obvious trope for any long cycling tour, but Elysian fields refer also to the time after death. I wish to make it an ode to something like peace for our times, not peace for the time after.

SP: Thank you for this interview, and god speed on the last kilometres.


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Photo report of The Not-So-Easy Systems Change Meet-Up