Cycling half the globe on the road to tea
Today we sit down to chat with Vera from the Netherlands. A female entrepreneur, globetrotter, and avid tea lover, Vera has spent her last five years living in Yunnan after cycling half the globe to get there! Let's dive into the story and follow her on her ongoing journey on the path of tea.
Hi Vera, nice to have you here today for a tea chat. Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m Vera Regina van de Nieuwenhof, a Dutch art historian who has worked as a cultural event producer for the last 15+ years. I lived and worked in China’s Yunnan Province for the last five years – working not only on cultural events but also as a writer and editor. I love exploring culture and nature and am a Chinese tea aficionado.
I notice tea exerts a profound influence on some people – so much so that tea lovers tend to have their “before tea” and “after tea” life stories. Let’s start with the “before” – what was going on in your life before you discovered tea?
Growing up in the Netherlands, you grow up with a cup of coffee being synonymous with socializing. Tea is usually a tea bag with poor quality tea, often with an artificial fruit or flower taste. In my late teens, I did find an attractive little box of ‘special gunpowder’ tea in a dark and mysterious Asian shop in a city near the village where I was born. My curiosity was piqued – not just about the idea of different ways of drinking tea but also about Asia, and then particularly China. I never really got to love coffee, even though I found the caffeine rush quite addictive! About seven years ago, I had to stop drinking coffee for medical reasons. This more or less coincided with leaving the Netherlands.
OK, before arriving in Yunnan, you’ve had this remarkable experience of cycling through half of the globe. Tell us more about your journey.
The bicycle had been my favorite mode of travel for years already when I and my then-partner decided to give in to our urge to challenge ourselves and make a seriously long cycling journey. I hosted long-distance cyclists through WarmShowers, a platform like Couchsurfing but exclusively for world cyclists. My cycling guests were incredibly inspiring and gave me the itch to do the same. I felt I was still young enough to do it, so I decided to quit my job, rent out my house, and cycle from Amsterdam to Tokyo. Yes, there is a sea to cross on the way, and no, I didn’t do that by bicycle! I loved most of the journey – the changing landscapes, climates, people, and cultures. The hardest part was the Pamir Highway, which is more like a gravel track that crosses the 4000m altitude highlands of Tajikistan, with a couple of 5000m altitude mountain passes. I got really ill there, and we spent three weeks in Chengdu to recover from different illnesses.
…and then ended up in Yunnan. Why did you pick that place? What made you decide it would be the final destination on your journey at the time?
I had been to Yunnan before, during a backpacking trip in 2000. Back then, travel in China was romantic and off-the-beaten-track cool but still quite complicated. Without smartphones, it was hard to communicate and travel, and there were fewer facilities for tourists as the middle class in China was still developing. Imagine my surprise when I crossed the border from Kyrgyzstan into China by bicycle in 2016 to find a country that had developed at breakneck speed, with optimistic, friendly, and proud people and everything being easier to navigate via smartphone apps. Some of the romance of pre-internet travel has been lost, but in Yunnan, I found the best of both worlds – remote and wild landscapes that tourists hardly visit, minority cultures still visible. In some areas, tourism has been overdeveloped, but life remains untouched in many places. These are pretty easy to find, especially when you travel by bicycle. I finished the big bicycle trip in Tokyo and decided to base myself in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, for one year. I wanted to earn some money, study the local culture and Chinese language, explore the beautiful province and then cycle back to Europe. I ended up staying for almost five years.
OK, let’s go back in time when you were freshly settled in Yunnan. Tell us about your first encounters with tea?
Soon after settling in Kunming, I made a Swedish friend fascinated by the Kunming tea markets. He took another friend and me along, and we would end up sipping tea with the shop owners and practicing our limited Chinese. I bought the teaware to set up a Gong Fu Cha table at home, even if I still didn’t know the correct steps and gestures of the ceremony. Because coffee is not healthy for me, and because tea is such a lovely cultural expression and iconic product of Yunnan, I wanted to learn more.
Tea is deeply rooted in the culture and daily life of people from Yunnan’s tea-producing regions; they literally live and breathe tea. Have you had teachers? Who accompanied you on your tea journey?
I soon found my first tea teacher, Mabol Zhong of 'Discover Cha'. I did a semester of Sunday afternoon tea studies with her and joined her on a week-long excursion to the tea estates of Southern Yunnan. This was all theoretical, and I still didn’t feel confident in hosting a tea ceremony. Later, I found another teacher in my neighbor Zhu Liyuan, with whom I practiced Gong Fu Cha – we would brew different kinds of tea, and she would explain and give feedback on my ceremony. When I started contemplating leaving China, I thought a lot about keeping China close to my heart and decided to continue my tea studies. I joined an online course with 'Eastern Leaves' and hope to continue studying with them for a long time to come. The best teacher is the tea itself – I drink tea every morning and keep notes about brewing methods and vessels, the taste, of course, but also about thoughts and feelings that arise.
Yunnan is an endless, ever-changing landscape of minority groups and their ancient cultures’ remnants. Like living fossils, they slowly and inexorably vanish into the past. Tell us about the places and people that captivated you while on the (tea) road.
I lived in Kunming for almost four years. It is a city of millions but very laid back. Here, you don’t see much traditional minority culture visible in the street anymore, but a lingering essence is still definitely there, f.ex. in the wet markets. I loved going to the tea markets and hearing the shop owners talk about their plantations in Xishuangbanna or Pu’er. It is an excellent base for exploring the rest of Yunnan province.
Later, I moved to a small village near Dali Old Town. Dali Old Town is very touristy, but in my village, 10 kilometers away, life continued much as it had for hundreds of years. Every morning I would go to the market and sit down for mi xian noodles, with a view of Cangshan mountain rising up behind the market stalls. The village would go quiet and dark at 10 pm, and I would sit in my courtyard to look at the sky and see all the stars at night. At around 5 am, the neighbor’s rooster would start crowing, and I would wake up with the sun. Living the village rhythms of night and day and the changing seasons has had a profound effect, and I was glad to find out it still exists, despite the internet and smartphones.
I have made several bike trips around Yunnan Province, following the Myanmar border between Tengchong and Lincang. Here you see a lot of minority culture – Jingpo people with longyi dress, thanaka face decorations, and wearing machetes to work the sugarcane fields. In other areas, I met Yizu in beautifully embroidered garb. I’ve cycled around Honghe and spent time in a Hani village near the Yuanyang rice terraces. Many traditions will disappear as people seek study and work opportunities in bigger cities and embrace modernity. At the same time, I hope they will retain pride in their culture. There is a system of government-approved ‘cultural heritage guardians’ in place that will hopefully ensure that performances and crafts will not be lost to modernization. As an outsider who grew up in a developed society, I find it difficult to wish for areas or people to remain nostalgically frozen in time, as this in reality often means underdevelopment and poverty. I hope there can be a middle way of economic development with the preservation of authentic local cultural characteristics.
The journey in the outer world often proves to be a journey inward, a path of personal evolution. What was your most transformative experience(s) on your tea journey - the one that left an imprint on you and changed you from the inside?
It was a very sudden but straightforward moment – a lightning flash. I was doing my morning tea ritual and pondering how to keep Yunnan close to my heart after leaving China. I looked at the tea leaves in my gaiwan. All of a sudden, a whole universe opened up to me – I saw the minority ladies picking the leaves in Xishuangbanna, I saw the ancient trade routes of the Tea Horse Road, I saw the books written about tea culture over the millennia. I saw the craftsmanship and aesthetics of the teaware; I saw the community of tea growers, traders, and lovers. I saw an ancient unbroken tradition that is still very much alive and continuously in development. I wanted to be part of that tradition. I realized that I had found something that I could continue to learn about for the rest of my life. At that moment, I made peace with the idea of leaving Yunnan because I had found a way to keep it close to my heart. I have possibly found the reason why I wanted to come and live here in the first place. It very much felt like having come full circle. It was a profound moment of discovery, the discovery that I had been on Cha Dao for a while already and that I could continue to follow the way of tea for the rest of my life.
How about the most exciting thing that happened to you while in Yunnan - the one that gave you goosebumps and you’re bound to remember ever since?
After my first year in Yunnan was drawing to a close, I went on a small road trip with a Chinese artist friend. We traveled to Xishuangbanna, where he wanted to buy some land to start an artist commune. As we were driving, an elderly lady flagged us down. She got in the back of the car, saw me, and started laughing and chatting away at me. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I felt it – she told me I had come home. Later I understood she’s the shaman of the local minority. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to return to the Netherlands but to stay for the longer term. I have lived in different places around the world but connected with Yunnan on a much deeper level, and she recognized that.
Amid all the teas you’ve tasted, which one is your favorite? Why?
This is impossible to answer, haha! My tastes evolve, and I’m discovering new teas and new likes and dislikes almost daily. Right now, I’m really into Yancha (Wuyi Rock Oolong). I will always enjoy a high-quality Dian Hong or Sheng Pu-erh - Yunnan tea will always be close to my heart because it is ‘my’ province. I’m traveling quite a lot right now, and I always bring at least three different kinds of tea with me, together with my travel tea set and a big thermos flask.
Flash forward in time - you left Yunnan a couple of months ago. What’s next?
I recently moved to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to leave Yunnan, but the pandemic made it impossible to travel between China and the rest of the world for two years already, and it will likely not change soon. For me, Bulgaria is the closest thing to Yunnan I could find in Europe – mountains and nature, an element of being out of my comfort zone in a new country, local traditions waiting to be discovered beyond the outer layer of modernity and development, the cultural diversity of the region that has always been a conduit for cultures and trade, thousands of years of history, from magnificent empires to village traditions and crafts. I would like to restore a house in a village, have a tea room where I can welcome guests, and start an Artist in Residency program. I wanted to do this in my restored village house in Dali, but the pandemic decided otherwise.
Teatime near Alyosha hill, in the outskirts of Plovdiv, Bulgaria
While being on the road, alternating countries, cultures, and activities, do you manage to stay on the way of tea? What ideas and practices help you do that?
Yes, the way of tea is very much part of who I am now. I practice a daily morning ritual where I write, meditate, take tea notes, and generally enjoy my moment alone with tea. I like reaching out to and connecting with other tea lovers such as you 😊 I continue to study by reading and joining courses and mostly just drinking lots and lots of tea. There is so much more to learn, and I’m very excited about continuing my tea journey for many years to come!
When not hiking in remote mountains or cycling in the wild, Vera blogs on her personal webpage, wenlan.nl