55. Chaewon Yoo: Cycling along the Silk Road

Sue Stockdale talks to Chaewon Yoo from Korea, about her adventure to cycle along the ancient network of trading routes known as the Silk Road, and what she learned about commerce and life along the way. Chaewon cycled over 8500 kilometres through 14 countries from Shanghai to London. Despite her cycling companion dropping out along the way, getting her bicycle stolen, and only confirming the major sponsor on the day before she left, Chaewon determinedly carried on, and successfully completed the adventure in 36 weeks, coming back with a new outlook on what’s important in life.  Chaewon previously worked as a tech reporter in China, Israel, Silicon Valley and South Korea and recently published the English book Cycling the Silk Road.   Find out more about Chaewon Yoo on her website and Instagram and YouTube channel and her book on Amazon 

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Key Quotes

‘When I started cycling, I didn’t even have a bike. I was using a sharing bike.’

‘I met this amazing couple in Shanghai who said they were cycling from Shanghai to London. I was so amazed because the couple were 59 years old and I thought, wow if they can do it, I think I can do that too’.

‘By observing how different countries are when I crossed each border – the people, culture, food culture, and the language that was very amazing’.

‘I would knock on the door and show in Google translate; I can give you this sum of money. Would you let me stay in your house overnight? And locals would invite us in’.

‘I think it’s very important that you set a deadline like your farewell party. Because if you do have the party, you must depart’.

‘I think doing this cycling trip made me realize now I can say that I’m at least the leader of myself. I can control myself.’

‘You don’t need money to have a good life.’

‘I think the most valuable thing I have is all my experience and whatever I have with myself that nobody can take away from me’. 

Chaewon Yoo Transcription 

[00:00:00] Sue: hi there. I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the access to inspiration podcast. Our aim is to provide you with inspiration through conversation. You won’t find celebrities on this podcast, but you will find amazing people, including adventures, aspiring leaders, and an astronaut. Each of that amazing stories has the power to strengthen shape and challenge our views of the world.

And I hope the conversation ignites new possibilities within you. Our podcast is also not for profit, but we do want to measure the impact that it has on our listeners. And in this series, we’ve created a short three minute survey, which you can link to it in the show notes. And we’d love to hear your thoughts.

My guest today is Chaewon Yoo from Korea who cycled a network of trading routes known as the silk road from Shanghai to London, which is over eight and a half thousand kilometers through 14 countries. Despite her cycling companion dropping out, getting a bicycle stolen and only confirming the major sponsor on the day before she left. Chaewon determinately carried on and successfully completed the adventure in 36 weeks coming back with a new outlook on what’s important. I couldn’t help, but admire her determination and resourcefulness and the one insight that stood out for me was when she said you don’t need to have money to have a good life. and that the kindness of strangers gave her a different sense of what’s important about having experiences over material possessions. I hope you enjoy it. Welcome to the podcast. Chaewon.

[00:01:46] Chaewon: Thank you so much for inviting me Sue.

[00:01:48] Sue: Well, I love speaking to adventurers being an adventure myself, so I’m sure it’s going to be lots to learn from you now. I understand you cycled from Shanghai to London and it took you over seven months to travel 8,500 kilometers through 14 countries. While that must’ve been amazing. Tell me more about that.

[00:02:09] Chaewon: People asked me the first question. Why did I want to do that? I was working as a journalist in China, Israel and us also South Korea, where Im from. And I’ve been always interviewing startup entrepreneurs. And as I’m writing down all their stories, I always had this wish that at some point I also want to start my business, or I also want to kind of start my story rather than writing other people’s story. So that’s when I quit the job and decided to embark on a project that I really want to pursue. And it was for me cycling on the silk road on the bicycle. So I had total three missions for this project to cycle, from Seoul to London and to, to [00:03:00] interview startup founders and each country and three to organize seminars in each country and which I did. Yeah, it was really nice.

[00:03:09] Sue: That sounds like quite an ambitious project. If I dare say with three objectives, nevermind. Just one. First of all, I’ve never been to South Korea. Is that a country where cycling is really popular?

[00:03:20] Chaewon: It is actually really popular, but people tend to think that to be a cyclist, you need to get all the gears. You need to have a very good bike. All the helmet uniform, like really full stack cyclist. When I started cycling, I didn’t even have a bike. I was using sharing bike, which is called a Mobike in China. And so I was just using normal city bike. And when I started this project, I started to actually try out the road bikes and I got a travel bike sponsored then, which I traveled with. And I really want to say that if you’re really newcomer to cycling, you don’t have to have this fear of, I really need to be a professional cyclist to embark on this kind of trip.

[00:04:15] Sue: So, if you don’t love to be a professional cyclist, what do you think is the most important characteristics for somebody that might dream up an idea like that and want it to be successful doing it? Do you think it’s mindset?

[00:04:27] Chaewon: Yes. I mean, it’s this determination. It’s always the people who inspire you. I met one Colombian guy in Shanghai. His name is Sam Cruz, and he told me he wanted to cycle from Shanghai to. And that was the coolest dream I ever heard in my life. And I personally also went on the first one hour cycling trip with him when he’s leaving Shanghai. And I thought, wow, I need to do that same thing. And so that’s how I started my trip six months after he left Shanghai. So I think once you’re amazed by other people’s story and you just dream about it. You just imagine how cool it would be if you actually do it, then it’s already half done. I think it’s all comes with their emotions and determination.

[00:05:21] Sue: And what made the silk road, your choice? Because he was cycling from Shanghai to New York. What was it about the silk road that was particularly of appeal to you?

[00:05:31] Chaewon: There were a couple of reasons. Firstly, people tend to go from China down to Southeast Asia because they just want to enjoy the cool and relaxed south Asian culture by wanted this to be challenging. And I was also fascinated by the history of how people used to travel 1000 years ago with camels to trade. And I thought, oh, why don’t I start a [00:06:00] 21st century silk road trip? And also because China was pushing this one belt one road project, and as a journalist, I was very interested in these one belt, one road on top of this also history. That’s how I also chose the route. And actually, since I just started cycling, my initial target was arriving in Istanbul in Turkey, but I met this amazing couple in Shanghai who said, I want to cycle from Shanghai to London or they’re home close to London. I was so amazed because the couple was 59 year old and I thought, wow, 59 year old can do that. I think I can do that too. So that’s how I stretch to go to London. I really owe a lot to this couple.

[00:06:49] Sue: It sounds like you’re adopting an agile approach to your adventures, you know, people these days in business. And I’m sure you’re speaking about that in the tech world all the time is that whole agility and adapting to what comes up is so important. It sounds like that’s what you were doing with your project as well. Wow.

[00:07:05] Chaewon: Thank you. I never put on that perspective, but thanks for mentioning that.

[00:07:10] Sue: And in terms of thinking about your highlights along the way challenges you faced the theme for this series Chaewon is curiosity. And I’m wondering what piqued your curiosity along the way on your adventure.

[00:07:23] Chaewon: So just by observing how different countries are when I cross the border, the people, culture, food, culture changes also the language that was already very amazing. And actually, I was very surprised by. Because as a South Korean we always remind ourselves that we are kind of victim of history. We were invaded in our history, I think more than 500 times, but we never invaded other country. And we also had a sad history being colonized by Japan. So we always thought, like we had a very sad history. Now we want to really develop to be a developed country. And actually not many countries know about South Korea, but I thought Turkish people are really interested in South Korea because they sent a lot of men to Korean war back in 1950. I was listening to these Turkish people saying, oh, my grandfather lost his leg or lost his arm. Or they tell very recent relative or family member taking part in this war. And I was deeply touched by their stories and I felt sort of responsibility also. Oh, what can I give it back now? It’s all a new generation looking back this history. So it was a very new realization. I thought there was only, I should give them information about South Korea, but there were also information flowing to me what I should realize.

[00:08:54] Sue: So it sounds like you’d already utilizing your curiosity and wanting to [00:09:00] give back and understand other countries and the way that those countries have had an impact on your country. As you were traveling along, and I’m imagining that as you crossed over the border and entered a new country there, you were saying you were from South Korea. Did people know even where South Korea was? How familiar were the countries and the people that you met with South Korea, or were you educating them along the way?

[00:09:20] Chaewon: To tell the truth I think French people in general, don’t know about South Korea. And that’s why from France, I think it was second city or third city. I started doing a presentation about South Korea, our food clothing, housing culture, and also a little bit of the history and what South Korea is popular for. But other countries in general, they were very much well-informed about South Korea, south Korean from. K-pop and Korean movies. So we always had a very deep conversation also about south and North Korea relationship.

[00:10:00] Sue: So it’s a little bit of education along the way as well. Where are you traveling on your own for the entire trip or were you doing it with other people?

[00:10:07] Chaewon: So I started with my Chinese friends Tianan and after four months he left the trip. So I cycled by myself later for. I got that point when he decided not to continue on.

[00:10:22] Sue: I imagine that that’s the sort of moment that you could have easily given up as well. What within you helped you to keep going?

[00:10:29] Chaewon: Actually, he left without a word. So basically we had a lot of arguments and he didn’t even cycle with me in a way. I was like a early birds. I would get to that destination by 12:00 PM because I was having sun stroke in the afternoon. So I had to arrive in the destination by 12, but Tianan didn’t want it to get up early. So he would get to the destination by 6:00 PM. And we would meet every night, just like that. And one day I sent him my location, but he said he wants to pursue other routes. And he said, don’t wait for me. And then he blocked all my contacts. So it was all of sudden it was a very big surprise that he left the trip and it took me two weeks to realize that he really. He actually left the trip. And so it may be even stronger. It was more like a survival mode now. And people were now much more taking care of me knowing that I’m the only woman doing this trip. Yeah. For other people. For example, I had 14 sponsors for the trip and that’s also the reason why I couldn’t give up. I told them I want to complete this trip and it doesn’t matter. He left because I’m going to continue until the end. And it always kept me going. I always had a very strong sense of responsibility about this

[00:11:54] Sue: You’ve reminded me we have an earlier guest we had on the podcast, who’d hiked on the Appalachian trail. [00:12:00] And then she said that one of the bits of research was the thing that distinguished people that were successful doing that hike versus those, that weren’t was the amount of people they told.

And that I think there is something about giving that sense of support. And when people are relying on you and you’ve made a commitment, it really does increase your desire to finish it. Yeah.

[00:12:21] Chaewon: That’s true. That’s true. And I was actually very touched because I had sent my travel plan to many of my friends in Shanghai, like 20 friends or more. And they all of course refused. I told them I can support you financially for equipments. I can support you everything. Would you like to go with me? Because I found all the sponsors. But still, they didn’t want to go. And later when I actually made it to London, they wrote me private messages. They said, I thought you would never make it. Then I was really surprised. Of course, I didn’t know I would make it, but I was just like, go for it. And so that was also very touching.

[00:13:06] Sue: Well, it just goes to show what determination can do. When you put your mind to something through what countries did you enjoy the most cycling through?

[00:13:17] Chaewon: I enjoyed four countries. So first France, Turkey, Greece, and Georgia always it’s the food wise and the people wise and the nature.

[00:13:30] Sue: How are you, or who are you staying with? How were you camping each night along the way? Cause I imagine you have to either know a lot of people or have a lot of money to be able to pay for your accommodation. How did it work?

[00:13:42] Chaewon: Basically, I feel a little bit shy to say I only count one day because one thing about was that he hated the idea of camping. And he always told me that we need to have a very good rest over the nights so that we could fully cycle tomorrow. So. That’s why we stayed in most the hotels and China and Kazakhstan. And then from Azerbaijan, I used websites like couch surfing or warm showers to find hosts. And also there are some moments that there is no hotel in the region like Kazakhstan, but still there’s snakes on the road. So you cannot really tent there. Then I would actually knock the door and show in a Google translate. I can give you this sum of money. Would you let me stay in your house overnight? And yeah, locals would invite us.

[00:14:37] Sue: The conversation continues in a few seconds after this. If you had a busy person and probably always feeling behind, then you may be wondering how you can get more done in less time. One solution is working with a virtual assistant. They can help with social media, graphic design, customer service, copywriting, [00:15:00] digital marketing, and many more tasks. iWorker is a social enterprise that connects you to talented remote workers from countries in crisis. Most of their team come from Venezuela country facing dire economic circumstances by hiring for my worker. Like we do, you’ll get back some time for yourself. And help to change a life. Find it more by listening to episode 20, where I spoke to cook founder, John Miles, or you can look at their website iworker.co to find out more, now back to the podcast. I think you’re sounding very entrepreneurial already with the way you found the accommodation. And one of the things you touched on there Chaewon was about having the money to do it, having the sponsorship behind you, and certainly on all the expeditions I’ve done over the years, sometimes getting the sponsors and the preparation is sometimes even more difficult than the adventure itself. How did you find that process of fundraising and preparation?

[00:16:03] Chaewon: Basically about fundraising. I had Plan A to E, to have my expectations. So since I was journalist and I had a lot of connections to Chinese top companies, my plan A was to get sponsored by Chinese companies and then B Korean companies and C crowdfunding then D with my money. So I kind of set my deadlines for going to the plan B and C. And so. And plan a didn’t work out. I sent to Alibaba, Tencent TD, or the C levels, but they didn’t even reply and then later, a lot of Korean companies helped me, not because of commercial reasons, but out of friendship. So I got, I think, seven or eight Korean sponsors. Then there were a lot of also new companies that I previously had no contact with. People would just refer to other companies and they would also sponsor me products or money. So it really was a word of mouth because it took me two months. I had like zero sponsors, but once I had two or three than other came with a word of mouth, and I think it’s also very important that you set a deadline. Otherwise you’re gonna wait until you lose the best time to cycle. For me, putting the deadline is putting your farewell party. If you do a farewell party, you must depart. And it’s really magic because just one day before the, there were party, I found the main sponsor, which was a blockchain company in Shanghai. And so I think the magic happens once you’re like, Oh, I must do it. This must happen. This helps.

[00:17:55] Sue: Absolutely. And it sounds like that determination really helped as well to make [00:18:00] that happen. So just turning to the attention to the second day that you had was around during the interviews with tech people along the way, startup entrepreneurs. Tell me about what did you learn from those conversations?

[00:18:11] Chaewon: Firstly, overall, I was very surprised that I previous Soviet countries, the very successful startup founder. Or they see how successful one business was in Russia. And then they go to these previous Soviet countries, like for example, Kazakhstan, Georgia, or Macedonia and so on. And then they start their business and become successful. It was not my intention, but somehow as I interviewed the startup founders in their country, I was surprised that they were actually Russian and overall. Actually I interviewed 10 companies out of all the companies. My most interesting company to interview was, um, French company called back market. So they’re refurbishing old devices and sell it in the secondhand market. And they’re very successful even during the COVID.

[00:19:08] Sue: And were there any other common themes that came through apart from the majority of people being of Russian descent? What do you notice about the tech market and entrepreneurs in these different countries and with your knowledge of what’s happening in Korea and China?

[00:19:22] Chaewon: I realized that first of all, even the country names that you’re not familiar with every country has a startup ecosystem. And I think the startup ecosystem starts with very basic services. And I think one of it is a food delivery. So it was not my intention, but as I interviewed these companies, many of them had somehow a relationship with food delivery or e-commerce. So those were kind of findings to grow as a big company. You start with the very basic needs with people. And other than that, I think if they’re fully grown, they start to develop subdivisions. Like how Alibaba grew up in. Alibaba group now, not only does e-commerce, but they do cloud so many different other services. And just like that one very big company in Kazakhstan, they also started very different divisions of service. So I could observe that after they grew up from there, very basic food delivery or e-commerce model, then they kind of branch out to different areas. Much more bigger as a group. So that was interesting to observe.

[00:20:35] Sue: And also with your interest in the Silkroad itself to China, one belt, one road initiative, did you get any insights about that along the way?

[00:20:44] Chaewon: I really hope to get insights about one belt, one road, but I guess since China is pushing the Instructure investment in these countries, Which does not really lead to startup investment. It was difficult to [00:21:00] get insights about one belt, one road, how it’s going. People usually didn’t know what was going on with one belt road project, or they haven’t heard about it. Or they had no real connection with China. So I was actually surprised only. The connection with China I found was that China’s shared bike the bike. I mentioned Mobike was in different countries in Europe, which was which I was very surprised. And also Ali-pay in Chinese phones very widely used in general.

[00:21:36] Sue: So now it sounds like you’ve got an even more global perspective of tech, startup ecosystems in different countries. You’ve got firsthand experience of these different countries. What are, you know, doing now?

[00:21:49] Chaewon: I’m working as a marketing manager at a Berlin start. We’ve actually, this week is my last week in this internship. And then I’m. Going to Korea one month to have a rest. And then I’m moving to St. Petersburg in Russia. And I think there as well, I will be working in the Russians.

[00:22:10] Sue: Do you think of yourself there was a global citizen Chaewon, or are you still feel yourself as being south korean?

[00:22:15] Chaewon: I really do feel that I’m Korean. I mean, I was brought up in Korea from kindergarten to university and I love writing and I can only write in Korean. I was very surprised that when I write a letter, if I write it English and Korean conclusion totally changed. It’s like, I get much more deeper thoughts when I write in my language. And also when a big trouble comes to me, then I first sit down and write, for example, when that on left me, or there were actually a couple of difficulties, like when my phone totally broke down and I had to cycle without phone for seven. For my bike was stolen in Milan those times that I would first write down, what am I going to do? And then it’s like a conversation with me.

[00:23:08] Sue: Well, I must say that you’re even, although we were speaking in English and I would never be able to speak to you in Korean, you’re giving us pretty deep answers. So I really appreciate you communicating with us today in such an effective fashion.

[00:23:20] Chaewon: I think I really love speaking in English. It’s so direct, which I love.

[00:23:26] Sue: How are you going to cope? When you get to St. Petersburg,

[00:23:28] Chaewon: then I’ll be learning Russian, actually learning a new language is my biggest passion. And I speak five languages at the moment and I’m happy to learn even more.

[00:23:39] Sue: Wow. So with that success, having cycled all the way to London and taken over seven months to do that, I’m imagining your ambitions. Your goals might become even bigger now because you’ve completed such a success. What do you have as your near term goals and ambitious?

[00:23:56] Chaewon: Actually, I think my life got simpler as [00:24:00] I moved to Europe because I think I really had the best career in China because I was almost only Korean journalists working in Chinese media company in English. That made my position really special. And all the people somehow knew me all the big corporates from Korea contact me because they think I’m an insider. And I wrote a book about China, which became a bestseller in Korea. So I still do a lot of public speaking about how to start businesses. And actually, I didn’t want that position. I thought I shouldn’t be stable at this age. I was 28 at that point. And I didn’t like being in that high position and getting that attention. I thought, ah, I need more challenge. I’m not comfortable with this. Now I’m being very simple person. Like I’m just an intern in a startup, I’m just learning. And I’m also wanting to ground myself. Now I want to take responsibility for the company I work for, or maybe starting a family, because I think doing the cycling trip made me. Now I can say that I’m at least leader of myself. I can control myself. I can achieve the goal I want to achieve as a person, as an individual. Now I can say I’m a self leader and now I want to have this responsibility for. Little bit bigger community could be as small as a family. It could be for a company I work for, or for my country. Actually I started bike rides, demonstration in Berlin for Korea reunification, and actually that’s new thing that I started in Berlin.

[00:25:49] Sue: You’re just so entrepreneurial Chitwan and I just love the way you describe how you are a sales leader, because these days it’s so important for any of us. I think, to have that sense of self-leadership if we can lead ourselves well, we can lead other people. Well, I always think, yes, I think so. What would be your top tips or advice for any of the listeners that might want to do. The challenge themselves and perhaps try something that they never imagined what’s possible.

[00:26:14] Chaewon: Im just a very simple person. If there is an opportunity to let me travel to a new country, live there, work there then I don’t even look at the salary. And actually that’s how I came to China. Even when I didn’t speak the language. I met a Chinese CEO in Korea. And he said he is a CEO of little media company in China. And after having that conversation, I just joined his company. I mean, for me, nothing mattered. If I could live in China and see this country with my own eyes, I didn’t really care. It’s not having so difficult thought and just know what you want. I don’t really care about money or being stable or anything [00:27:00] because actually if you choose the right platforms or if you know how to make friends that you have discovered to just knock the door and ask them to let you stay overnight, then actually you don’t need money to have a good life. I feel like I don’t need to have a good house because I have so many friends who live in a very luxurious house. I’m invited there. So now I’m having this mindset of minimalism and it’s experience that actually makes me have this sense of fullness and this nobody can deprive. I realized when someone stole my bike or my friend went away or something that happened, I realized the outer conditions cannot impact me because I think the most valuable thing I have. All my experience and whatever I have with myself that nobody can take away from me. So just know yourself, just be simple. Well, maybe you don’t need all those things that you say, oh, I should live with my family or friends, or I need to our money and be stable. Well, just take time to consider what you really want.

[00:28:13] Sue: And you said it very eloquently. There Chaewon in terms of perhaps reflecting on the important things in life. It’s been absolutely fantastic to speak to you. And if our listener wants to find out more about you and your adventures and the things that you do, how might you do that on social media?

[00:28:29] Chaewon: I think my website is the shortest way. It’s called seek road. It’s S E E K R O A D dot C O. It’s not.com. Dot co and there you’ll find many other social medias, but basically my email or my Instagram bar is a ever you Eva, Y O O and then A R E. So it’s like ever.

[00:28:56] Sue: Fantastic. Its been again. Brilliant to speak to you today. I wish you all the best in your next adventure in St. Petersburg and good luck with any future adventures.

[00:29:06] Chaewon: So it’s been a pleasure and thank you for throwing this questions. I very much enjoyed it. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk to bigger audience. I very much enjoyed this conversation. Thank you. Thank you for your.

[00:29:21] Sue: Wow, what an adventure Chiwan shared with us. I can’t imagine suddenly realizing that you’re on your own midway through an adventure and that she just continued on, despite this setback. I wonder what it caused you to reflect on. As you listened, remember, you’ll find transcriptions of this and all the other episodes on the website, access to inspiration.org, and you can go to the bottom of the homepage and sign up for the newsletter to keep up to date on everything that’s happening with. You’ll also find us on social media, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. And remember, before you go take a minute to complete our impact survey or leave [00:30:00] us a voice note about the effect that this podcast has had on you. Details will be in the show notes. Our final episode in this series on curiosity, next time is another conversation with an adventure. Mick Dawson. This time we will turn our attention from cycling. and hear how Mick and his teammate became the first and to date, the only crew to have successfully rolled over 7,000 miles across the north Pacific ocean from Japan to the golden gate bridge in San Francisco. I hope you can join me then.

Copyright © Access to Inspiration 2021
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)
Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)