Chaewon Yoo shares how she cycled from Seoul to London on a bike
Chaewon Yoo, a Korean writer and head of marketing at Ceeya, will be speaking at "Ceeya Weekly Talk" to share how you can travel the world with a bike. She cycled from Seoul to London on a bike. She. is a writer of three books - Cycling the Silk Road (English, https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0939ZG6BL), Cycling the Silk Road and the letters on the Road (Korean), and Do business like Chinese startups (Korean, Best seller on Naver Books).
Chaewon's Ceeya: https://www.ceeya.io/at/evayoo
How did you decide on this trip? Why did you choose this route?
After three and a half years working in China and as a reporter, I thought it was time for a change. I wanted to make a new start. I felt sorry for myself for being in one place for so long. I have itchy feet. I love exploring new countries and experiencing new things. Realizing that I had been here for over three years, I knew it was time to go, and set off for a new adventure.
Then I thought, if I went to a new country and started working, I would also take a flight, work on my laptop and cell phone, and there would be no difference. So I thought of doing a master’s degree or going on a cycling trip. I chose the latter because I thought the most precious thing I have in China is my network. If I choose to do a master’s degree, it’s like throwing away all my precious networks in China.
I also wanted to test myself. I interviewed a lot of CEOs, and I wanted to start something on my own just like them. Many people were nice to me because I was a journalist. Would they still support me financially if I’m not a journalist anymore? I was curious.
Most cyclists choose the South East Asia route. But I have already been to SEA, and it was very much a holiday and vacation feeling. I chose the Silk Road route because I was fascinated by the fact that it has an ancient history of trading and it was the traveling route of Marco Polo. It was also announced as a strategic "One Belt One Road" for China, and I wanted to talk to entrepreneurs in each country.
"Hello! I'm Eva. I want to cycle from Shanghai to Turkey this year.”
My goal at that time was to cycle to Istanbul, Turkey. Looking at my message, a French woman named Dominique added my WeChat. She invited me to her house saying she was going on a bike trip.
Initially, I wanted to cycle until Istanbul, Turkey. But there's a reason why stretched my goal to London. On March 11, 2020, I visited Dominique's house. Dominique said she and her British husband David would ride a bicycle from Shanghai to their home in England. The couple was 60 years old. Seeing this couple I thought,
“If 60 years old can do it, I can do it, too.”
So I stretched my goal from Turkey to London.
What was the most difficult part of organizing such a trip?
It was tough to find sponsors to fund the trip. As I worked as a reporter for 3 years and 5 months, I was more confident in networking than anyone else. At the time, I had business cards for executives from Alibaba, Tencent, and Huawei. Based on this, I sent a proposal for a PPT to be sent to 10 Chinese conglomerates with the appropriate content for the company and photos taken with the company's executives. I had Plan A through Plan D. Plan A was sponsored by a large Chinese company, and Plan D was to go at my own expense. I set every Tuesday as the day to execute the next action plan. That is, let's say you sent a proposal to Alibaba on Tuesday. If you don't reply by Friday, follow up on Monday and ask, "What do you think of my last proposal?" If there is no answer after asking, the next day, Tuesday, is again to find another corporate sponsor.
I continued to mobilize all my contacts in China and Korea to find sponsors for this project. I did not receive a sponsor until April. Kim Seon-woo, CEO of Chinatan, asked for a lecture in Korea and decided to travel to Korea. And I decided to get a sponsor from Korea, my home ground. A week before I came to Korea, I translated my plan into English, Chinese, and Korean and fully disclosed it to the outside world. I sent my proposal to Facebook, LinkedIn, Naver blog, and all WeChat group rooms.
After a lecture in Korea on April 25th, CEO Kim Seon-woo of Chinada, the largest Chinese language learning company in Korea, offered to sponsor me. In addition, Shin Dong-won, CEO of Neofly China, who conducted a podcast with me for 1 year and 6 months, and Jason Suga, a Chinese investor, made investments. Chinese investors are really cool. When he saw my proposal, he said that your courage was imaginary, and he just sent me 1 million won through WeChat Pay.
It also took a lot of work to find a travel companion. I was afraid to go on a bike tour alone, so I sent my proposals to about 10 girls and boys with good physical strength around me and persuaded them to go with me. But no one showed any interest in such a trip. To go on this trip, he has to leave his job and clean up his house. By the end of March, I had almost given up. “Oh, I must go alone.”
Then on March 28th, Alibaba Cloud's conference was held in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, I had a friend who I would meet up to have meal together. I called Jianan, as always. While eating, I secretly told him about my plans. He said that if I could get all the sponsors and cover all of his expenses, he could come. After two months, he left Shenzhen and joined me in Shanghai.
This is how I found a bike sponsor. In the first week of May, a bicycle fair is held in Shanghai. Thousands of bicycle companies from all over the world gather at the fairgrounds in Shanghai, and the scale is enormous. I attend fairs and share my ideas with bike companies.
"Hello! I'm going to ride a bike from Shanghai to England, please sponsor me a bike."
Everyone treated me like a strange person or looked for the person in charge with puzzled expressions on their face. Still, some people believed in my story. I spoke with the heads of 3 companies and the heads of 2 companies, and I heard relatively positive responses from these 5 companies. With these guys, I took a selfie. And after receiving their WeChat, I sent them a selfie I took with them and a PPT of my proposal. Chinese people say they can do it face-to-face not to lose their face, but as you talk on WeChat, you realize they cannot accept your offer. Instead, the representatives and managers of the Taiwanese companies responded more positively, and I decided to get two bikes sponsored from Oyama.
Was there a moment when you wanted to give up? Why?
Yes, it was on December 30, when my bicycle was stolen in Milan, Italy. I thought, "Should I take the plane home from Milan like this, or get a new bike?" I only had one more month to reach London. It occurred to me that the trip shouldn't end here. So I decided to buy a secondhand bike again.
Which country / place impressed you the most? Where would you never go back?
France is my favorite. It’s because any place I go in France, French hosts served me such a nice dinner and breakfast. I always had nice wine, cheese and dessert!
Then it’s Turkey. Turkish people love Korean people, and it feels like they are our family. I love Turkish food, especially Turkish breakfast. I love Turkish hamam.
I love Greece, because, since young, I loved Greek mythology. I love Greek food, the language, and nature, of course. I also think I always had very interesting conversations with the locals. Lastly, I love Georgia. I love Georgian food, wine, and Georgian bath.
France > Turkey > Greece > Georgia
I wouldn't return to some little cities and towns in Henan province, China. The roads were often unpaved, and dusty. With rain, there were deep puddles, and I fell down in a puddle and had bruises. There were so many trucks on the way, which made it more dangerous to ride.
You have met people with many cultural differences, with whom did you find it most difficult to communicate and with whom did you find the greatest similarities?
The country that was most difficult to communicate was in Azerbaijan. I tried Google Translate’s conversation fuction, and it couldn’t understand what they were saying.
Amongh 14 countries, I found the greatest similarities with Turkish people. Their kindness and welcome were like that of Korea.
Is there a country you have visited in which you would like to stay longer or even live there?
Yes, I'd like to live in Paris, France. I’d like to learn French and work in Paris. I love French people. Even though they had little knowledge about Korea, they loved and served me delicious meals.
What did this trip teach you? Would you do it again?
Yes, I would do it again, but on a different route. I’m thinking of cycling from Berlin to Capetown in South Africa within the next 10 years.
This trip taught me confidence. I think I never really achieved long-term goal. I thought I was just strong on temporary goals, but through this trip, I realized that I could make my long term and big goals come true.
I like that I stood out by myself. I’m not standing out for my university name, the company I work for, or the job I have, but for who I am. I’m Chaewon Yoo. Before the trip, everybody put attention to me because I was tech reporter at TechNode. But with the trip, people remembered me with my project. When I wrote an article, I needed a source of information and looked for the primary source. But with the trip, I was the source of all the stories. I was my source. I am my source.
I cycled 8567 km across 14 countries, interviewed 10 startups in 10 countries, and held 10 seminars in 10 countries.
While cycling from Shanghai to London, I organized seminars in the capital city or the biggest city of that country. I shared why I left my job to start cycling and how I found 13 sponsors to fund my trip. The participants were very inspired, and some changed their minds and challenged themselves to start their own walking or cycling trip. Now, even after I finish my trip, I hold seminars when I happen to visit another country or city for a vacation or for work. It was especially memorable when I held the event in Osaka, Japan. 23 Japanese people gathered to listen to my speech, and I prepared 10 days to share my story in Japanese. I also hand-wrote 25 postcards, saying “If you want to bring change to your life, you should do it now.”
After the sharing, people came up to me and told me how touched and inspired they were. It was when Korea and Japan’s relationship got very bad with the trade war. And I realized, no matter how the two countries’ relationship is, there still can be genuine friendship between its people. I also learned the power of sharing. With my story, I could send a message out to the world. It was a big change from the time before, when I thought media is sending me messages, and I should just absorb it as it is.
What was the most useful item you took with you?
A good phone and strong bike lock.
The only devices I took in the trip were my laptop and phone. With my phone, I used Google maps, a camera, and even flashlight.
A bike thief in Milan cut the lock of my bike and stole my bike. So you need a strong lock.
You travelled on you own for one part of the journey. Were there more advantages or more disadvantages of having a companion?
If it's a nice person to be with, then of course, there are more advantages.
Jianan, a Chinese guy who started the trip with me, suddenly left the project and blocked me from email, WeChat, and WhatsApp on October 17th, in Trabzon, Turkey. We were very different. I didn't mind staying at the gas station or tent, and I was cooking myself. However, Jianan always wanted to stay at the hotel, and always liked to go eat at restaurants.
You have met many people while passing through these 14 countries, do you keep in touch with some of them today?
Yes, I keep in touch with Boyuan from China, Alex from Kazakhstan, Leila from Azerbaijan, Archil from Georgia, Yilmaz from Turkey, Marilou from Greece, Alexander from Italy, Loik from Switzerland, Sebastian from France, and Jon from the U.K.
In Bulgaria we have a saying "My home is my fortress". You have lived in many places. Which of them do you accept as your fortress?
Seoul, where I lived for 24 years is a fortress. I miss mom’s food, my friends and Korean sauna. Shanghai, where I lived for 3 years and 5 months is a fortress. I miss the promenade in French concession. Berlin, where I lived for 1 year and 6 months is a fortress. I miss Techniche Universitat Berlin’s IMES friends. Bern, where I have been living for 4 months is a fortress. I feel at home here now.
What follows next? What are your plans?
I'm currently working at Ceeya as a marketing head. I plan to be in Columbia until Jan 23rd to learn about solar energy startups in Medellin and be in Seoul until Mar 24th to have a Korean traditional wedding.
I plan to work for the UN someday. I plan to write another book about my life in 9 countries. I plan to film a movie. I plan to write a novel. I plan to visit North Korea someday.
I want to see the reunification of Korea, and start a business in North Korea.
Chaewon's Ceeya: https://www.ceeya.io/at/evayoo