Cold Turkey; Reflections of Young Korean Shanghai-London Cyclist

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Chaewon Yoo

A young Korean girl setting off from Shanghai on a bicycle bound for Europe is not an everyday occurrence. As she hit the halfway point, it seems appropriate for The Nanjinger to catch up with her again, tracking her progress and keeping up with her adventures along the way.

We first interviewed global cyclist and founder of SeekRoad Ltd., Chaewon Yoo, when she arrived in Nanjing after kicking off her 10-month long trip from Shanghai at the beginning of June this year. It was at a tech meeting that she was hosting in Nanjing’s Xianlin area that I met her for the first time.

Embarking on that which Yoo (Eva) calls her “Seek Your Dream” project, she told me at the time she hoped to share her passion for following her dreams, and aims her efforts at, “those who want to break free from tradition, and follow their dreams”.

Catching up with Yoo 6 months later, I was surprised to learn that she had already made it to Turkey. Eager to hear all about her adventures, I first wanted to know how the journey had differed from that she had envisaged. “I could have never imagined how this journey would have been. You have no idea how it will turn out. I heard stories from people [before] but as it’s my first experience, I’m just ready to encounter something new everyday. Every day is different from yesterday and I love it. I think that’s the beauty of it”, she said.

Yoo gave us the run down of a typical day on the road. “I get up at 7am without an alarm, brush my teeth, have breakfast and get dressed. Then I turn on Strava and Google Maps, and start cycling. If I start cycling from 8am, the air is super icy and my fingers are all frozen. From 9am, it gets warm. I set a goal everyday before lunch; I say to myself, ‘When you finish 75km, I’ll give you lunch’. Before I finish 75km, I just eat an apple as a snack and then after finishing 75km, I will start looking for restaurants. And if there’s no restaurants I survive on apple and nuts, and then after finding a restaurant, I will cycle again to reach the destination before sunset. I take a warm shower and then wash my clothes by hand. Then I go out to eat dinner. When I come back from dinner, I post my diaries on my Korean blog and later translate some part of them and post them in English on my website. I go to bed at about 11pm. On average, I cycle about 80km a day.”

Chaewon Yoo

SeekRoad is a 10-month-long project started by Yoo, a Korean national born in 1990. Before starting SeekRoad and embarking on her adventure, she was an English language reporter for Chinese tech media company, TechNode. Eva aims to cycle through cities on the Silk Road from Shanghai to London, host 14 tech-related gatherings, and interview local entrepreneurs along the way. Her cycling endeavour started in Shanghai, on 2 June, 2018, and is predicted to finish in March 2019. The 13 countries along the Silk Road and elsewhere through which she has travelled, and has yet to see, comprise China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Italy, Switzerland, France and the United Kingdom.

At the time of writing this article, Yoo had made it to Eskisehir, Turkey, and said that in 4 days, she would reach Istanbul. “Last week it snowed in Turkey and it was 3°C. I only had a summer jacket and so I had to cycle in the cold air, and what’s more, it was raining and there was a strong headwind blocking my way. It was so freezing to cycle in the cold, but I just had to do it. I just cycled like that. Uphills are also very tiring”, Yoo recalled.

When The Nanjinger interviewed Yoo for the first time in Nanjing, she was accompanied by her partner Li Jianan. However, it transpires that something happened on the way to heaven. “Jianan and I went our separate ways in Trabzon, Turkey. The ostensible reason is because I wanted to go and see Kapadokya, located in the heart of Turkey, which is famous for its unique geological features called fairy chimneys and its amazing hot-air balloons, but Jianan wanted to cycle the fastest way to London”, she revealed.  

Yoo went on to explain that the two soon came to realise that they were pursuing different things. Only 1 month into their trip, the pair had begun cycling separately; Yoo explained that the two were polar opposites with everything that they did and wanted and were unable to come to any sort of compromise. 

Along the way, Yoo has relied on the generosity of strangers, natives of the places through which she cycled in order to put her up for the night. Staying longer in the places she liked or leaving the next day, she says she has experienced nothing but kindness and giving from the people who opened their home to her.

Chaewon Yoo

Yoo also confided that on the whole, she has to date felt relatively safe on her trip. “If you ask me, so far it hasn’t been that dangerous. Although when cycling alone in Azerbaijan, there was an Iranian guy who suddenly approached me and kissed me on the cheek, and tried to hug me, to which I made a very strong sign saying ‘No’ putting an angry face.”

“The most difficult moment was arriving in Tbilisi, Georgia. That day, we had to cycle 140km. We started cycling at 9am and got to the destination at 9:30pm. Cycling at night was terrible. We become very vulnerable to the roads because drivers could barely see us. Usually drivers are very friendly but at night they don’t care about us at all. Cycling while facing the car headlights is so stressful”, Yoo recalled.

“So in Tbilisi the roads weren’t really cyclist-friendly, with many uphills and highways that were too dangerous and narrow for us to ride. After all those difficult roads, I was getting very frustrated and I couldn’t take it anymore. I asked Jianan to stop at one point and when I stopped my bike, I saw my legs and arms all shaking. Then tears started to roll down from my eyes. That was the longest distance cycled in a day, and cycling in the dark for 3 hours accompanied by bad road situations was too much for me”, Yoo said about her toughest moment thus far.

“I have never wanted to quit at any moment. It has never occurred to me. Because I love my life like this. Every day, when I wake up I’m in different place, in [a] different room, and in [a] different bed. Sometimes it’s even on the floor because sometimes I have slept in gas stations”, she said when asked about potentially giving up.

Yet, on such an extraordinary journey, it is almost inevitable that Yoo meet people who also perform extraordinary acts.

“When I took a ferry to cross the Caspian Sea which is located between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, I became friends with the captain’s assistant, named Aydin. When I arrived in Azerbaijan, I cycled to Baku which was 70km away from the port. 2 days later, when the ship returned to Azerbaijan, Aydin only had about 3 hours break on shore, so he took a taxi for 70km to come and see me. He met me for 10 minutes and then he had to go back 70km again to his ship, before the captain finds out he’s gone. That’s been my most memorable moment so far”, Yoo fondly told The Nanjinger.

Chaewon Yoo

Still with enough savings to make it to England, Yoo said most of her spending was in China, where they stayed in hotels 99 percent of the time. From Kazakhstan onwards, the pair were invited to local’s homes and were even given dinner and breakfast, which greatly helped them to save money. From Turkey onward, Yoo has another 3,500km until she reaches London, which she predicts will be in January 2019.

Then after that?

“I might go back to South Korea and write a book about my adventures. Then, I want to either study in UK or work in France and learn French. Or if I find a new partner, I want to cycle through Africa. It’s a open answer, so I don’t know what will really happen.” 

On the advice she would give to anyone reading this article who would like to do the same thing, Yoo told The Nanjinger, “Firstly, whether you’re young or old, have money or don’t have money, [or] where you come from, it doesn’t matter. I met a 60-year-old couple who cycled from Shanghai to London, and two Iranian cyclists who were spending $1 a day. You just have to do it. People might say cycling through all these countries is a crazy thing, but there is beauty in it. We’re so much used to speed; riding on airplanes and using phones, so it’s a gift that you get once to take the slower speed and let the world give you what it’s supposed to.

“Secondly, I really advise you to start cycling in March or April. Now it is November and it’s getting colder and colder, and sun is getting shorter. Thirdly, make the best use of warmshower.org and Couchsurfing and make a lot of local friends on your way. Fourth, join cycling WeChat groups in your city, like “RideNow” in Shanghai, for example. Tell everyone your plans. I didn’t even have a bike in March, but when I told people around me about my plan, my friends and a group member of a cycling club gave me a road bike, jersey, helmet, sleeping bag, and panniers for free. I only paid ¥50 to transform from a Mobike rider to a professional cyclist. Cycling with professionals is very important too. They gave me very useful advice.

“Then, pitch your idea to relevant companies to get sponsorship. Think about what you can offer them in return. I received sponsorship from 14 companies. In May, there is a big bike fair in Xujingdong in Shanghai. Talk to all the bike brands, and get a free bike or at least, get a discount. Be creative and ask people to get what you want. I got three packs of tampons, sponsored by a tampon brand CEO, and one year insurance from a person who works in an insurance company.

“Finally, I want to say, it’s okay. Whatever happens or whatever will happen, it’s okay. All the world is ready, you just have to get yourself ready and go.”

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Renée Gray Beaumont
As an Australian journalist living in Nanjing for many years, Renée Gray Beaumont has a background in research, print and online publishing, taking great pleasure in discovering more about Nanjing with every article. 作为在南京居住多年的澳大利亚新闻工作者,Renee Gray Beaumont 有着调研以及印刷品和线上出版物的工作背景。她总是乐于在每篇文章里发现关于南京的内容。