WINNER - STORY
Rad ab! – 71.000 km with SPEEDHUB around the world
A tour always begins with a single step – regardless of how long the journey may take.
I would realise this on the second day, as I stopped to ask a couple walking hand-in-hand for directions just outside of Ulm. Before we parted company, the couple asked where my journey would be taking me.
To „Capetown“, I promptly answered simply because an around-the-world trip cannot possibly fail to include this location. But suddenly it dawned upon me that even this answer must appear a little strange. A German who cycles through Africa would normally be met in Cairo, in Kenya or in Namibia, but not on home soil in Germany! And so it dawned upon me as I stood there I do not differ from somebody who wishes to ride to Spain. „How long have you been on the go?“ he asked. „One day.“ - We all had to laugh.
But there it is: Even the longest tour begins with a single step. Many, many more steps would follow, and the next step will always seem much longer than those which appear in the distance. Distance – that is a strange term, which size is first defined as one approaches it.
Europe is finished for me after three and a half thousand kilometres. I would ride over the most southern of the two Bosporus bridges into Asia. I would pass the same lace again in four years time on my return to my homeland – something which I am still unsure about. The journeys route is just like the schedule, completely open. There are no planned routes or directions. Distant goal: once around the globe. Local goal: Southern Africa. Main goal: to be on the move.
The near East is as dangerous as ever – apart from the areas most affected by the boom in tourism where the peoples wallets are slightly fatter and their hearts have become a little colder. Mass tourism has thankfully not yet found its way past Syria and travellers are warm-heartedly welcomed. As a cyclist you hardly seem to move forward, feeling almost captured by the locals and dragged off the street to share a glass of tea and light conversation over your travels and adventures.
It seems that these conversations are only held with hands and feet, sometimes in almost understandable English and mostly in a combination of both. The questions however are almost the same: Where from Where to? Why? How old are you? What is your profession? The fact that I am still single at 40 years old irritated the most folk. What a strange European! Has got enough money to travel but not to find himself a wife. If I couldn't be bothered with explanations, I would simply invent a family: Wife – blond, 30 years old. Son – Michael, six years old. Daughter – Alexandra, four years old. That always seemed to fit their picture of Europeans.
The impossible Visa
"DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG SMUGGLERS" was written large and clearly at the top of the entry papers for Saudi Arabia. What a warm welcome! The only hope at this point was that no one had stuffed anything into my luggage shortly before the boarder.
Nevermind, I was still more than overwhelmed to finally have this document in my possession. I was forced to wait three weeks in Damascus for the Saudi Arabian Visa. Disappointment as well at the Embassy in Amman. Two weeks of hope and worry then in Cairo. The Saudi Arabian foreign ministry finally made the exception and granted a visa for the journey through the country with my bicycle.
The whole thing had escalated to a highly official affair: An employee of the welfare ministry was waiting for me at the boarder control to escort me to the next youth hostel. Every single youth hostel along the way to Yemen also had a Riad who had been informed to welcome me in.
I was forced to leave the motorway 20 Kilometres outside of Mecca – because I was not a Muslim. Huge signs littered the motorway showing the way. Just like we read signs on the motorway which read „London, straight ahead“, here they read „Muslims straight ahead, Non-Muslims turn off onto slip-road“.
A police patrol car seemed to attach itself to my pedal once I was on the diversion road, the Non-Muslim road. It would turn out to be the first of about 30 patrol cars which would – in alternation – accompany me down to the Yemeni boarder. A total distance of 800 Kilometres. Officially they were there to protect me from the speeding Saudi Arabian drivers. I believe however that there intention was also to make sure that I did not stray from the pre-planned route.
I had rather wished that I had had this escort in Yemen following the number of kidnapping reports that I had heard of over the last couple of years. But nobody kidnapped me. The locals are unbelievably friendly, the ragged mountain landscape was breath-taking (literally for cyclists), and the clay architecture was unforgettable.
A Sambuq, a small wooden merchant boat, brought me over the Red Sea to Djibouti – to Africa. Onto my favourite place on earth. It is a continent on which it is still possible to feel the earth under your feet. Hard but honest ground. The majority of African countries are considered „third-world“ countries, they are often referred to as under developed countries. But I ask, what is the benchmark? USA? Japan? My friends in Germany? Are we correct to think of ourselves as correctly developed? Or are we maybe a little over-developed?
My wheels cross the Equator in Kenya – Mileage so far: 3.350km. It is May. I cycle from one meter to the next and I have crossed from Summer to Winter. Riding over stony peaks, I cross the Massai-Steppe in Tanzania and further through Malawi and Zambia to the Victoria Falls at the boarder to Zimbabwe. The settlement becomes increasingly thinner, The last 4.000 Kilometres to Cape-town would be long, lonely kilometres through the Kalahari and through semi-deserts. There are just as many people living in Namibia as in Hamburg – in an area which is almost double so large as the entire country of Germany.
Just before Cape-town, a white African woman explained to me how I could take a short detour to safely come to the cape without having to use the N7 busy street. This would however mean that I would have to pass through a black colony She asked if I was fearful of blacks.
Fear of blacks? A good joke at the end of my journey through the continent of Africa.
Many South Africans wonder how I ever managed to come through. Were there no accidents? – No, nothing. Nothing bad happened. I did have some luck however: I was nearly stoned at the student uprising in Addis Abeba and attacked by an elephant in Botswana.
My unsuccessful search for a ship to lead me in the direction of South America kept me a week long in Capetown. I wanted to avoid flying – not due to flight fear but because I wanted to remain travelling slowly at my slow pace. After one has spent a year travelling forward kilometre for kilometre on a bicycle, a flight between continents seems somewhat disillusioned. You have desperately attempted to believe that the world is a large place and then, a quick step into an aeroplane breaks the enchantment instantly.
In the yacht harbour of Capetown a solution was found in the form of a sailing boat called "Bienvenido". Josef, the Swedish skipper, was searching for one more sailor to help with the stage to Recife. We would spend five weeks aboard in the sheer eternal breadth of the Atlantic. We would in this time only stop once to step ashore onto the island of St Helena (about half way across) before continuing our journey and arriving in North Brazil 15 days later. The mooring of Bienvenido marked the completion of Josefs sail around the world.
Following weeks in such crowded conditions - the "Bienvenido" measures only 12,50 Metres long and four Metres wide – the newly recaptured freedom appeared barrier-free. A vast continent lay out before me. I set off along the coast in the direction of Rio de Janeiro and then on further to the incredible waterfalls of Iguaçu. In Bolivia I then started my accent into the Andes. The sun which had tortured me with muggy heat for the past months, would suddenly become a well-seen friend. At an altitude of over 4000 Meters, she would care for plus temperatures during the day, nights however she would let the temperature sink to minus 20 degrees.
One of the most extraordinary natural impressions that I encountered along the entire journey would be the crossing of the Salar-de-Uyuni, the largest salt planes on Earth. They too lay 400 metres above sea level. This great white, empty space west of Uyuni measures approximately 160 kilometres by 130 kilometres. On the edge of the shiny white desert, the previous days snow fall leaves the water still ankle-deep. The high salt content of the water caused the snow to melt prematurely regardless of the icy cold weather.
After a kilometre through the lake, my bicycle could once again feel dry ground underneath its wheels. As far as I could now see, out towards the horizon, I was faced with just salt. I am steering towards nothing. The daily goal is the Isla Incahuasi, an island in the Salar somewhere in front of me – at present she remains hidden by the curvature of the earth.
The salt plane is stone hard and hardly any rougher than asphalt. The sharp, polyangular salt cracks are a little disabling, as if you were to ride along a road with many small, rough concrete slabs all pushed together. A steady, repetitive hobble accompanied the whir of the tyres. Otherwise the area is completely silent. Cycling as if on the moon.
It is especially these expanses which allow the thoughts of a touring cyclist to run free. This was exactly the case in the deserts and Steppen of Afrika and this held true in the Salar-de-Uyuni too. I guessed it would also be the same later in the Atacama and in the unimaginable expanse of Australia. With enough time, it is possible to process your experiences and use them to build your own personal building complex within the emptiness of the room.
In Chiles harbour I remained unlucky, in terms of how the journey may continue over the ocean. The last chance open was Valparaiso, but even this disappeared soon after. The few cargo ships which sailed to Australia were controlled by three agencies, which I quickly got in contact with. The answer was however always the same: We are not permitted to carry passengers with us. One of the agencies even answered my question formally quoting the legal guidelines to quality control "ISO 9002". So it has come this far then!
An aeroplane beamed me onto this next continent and into another world. The world is beautiful and extremely diverse, especially New Zealand, although the country is maybe a little too easy going for someone who is searching for adventure. There is a camp-site and hostels every couple of kilometres to accommodate backpackers. There are shopping facilities even in the smallest of settlements and the water supply in this rainy country is plentiful and therefore not at all problematic. This felt like a holiday. Yes – New Zealand and Australia would become my first holiday in more than two years.
Hornets and Chickens Feet
South-east Asia would become a culinary highlight: Alongside hornets and chickens feet was a selection of delicacies which near our usual palatable menu. Viewed from a communicational perspective though, this corner of the world was a real challenge. There is no wide reaching regional language like in Africa (English or French) or in South America (Spanish or Portuguese). Even in Thailand, English is only ever really understood in the tourist regions, a short 10 kilometre journey inland and Thai is the only language which will help you further.
I aggravatingly realised that many south east Asian languages are tonal. Where we raise and lower the tone of our speech to indicate a question or, an exclamation or an opinion, these tonal differences change the entire meaning of the word. There are 5 different types of these accents in Thailand, In Vietnam it was six! Due to these small complications, a word such as „mother“ (má) would turn into the word „ghost“, if you were to hit the wrong note, alternatively „horse“ would become crypt or rice-seedling. The sixth accent of the word "mà" meant the logical joining word „but“.
What a dangerous language! Mother or ghost – it really is too easy to put your foot in your mouth. A firearms certificate should be needed to use such a language!
The tedious negotiations lasted three months, until I eventually received my authorisation to travel through Myanmar – the former Burma – completely via country lanes. Since the abolishment of the military state 40 years ago, it has become almost impossible to cross the country boundaries. Drug production and smuggling are the daily grind here and the central government in Yangon has not quite managed to keep these zones at the edge of the countries under control.
Just as they did in Saudi-Arabia, the Myanmars accompanied my every step through the prohibited zones. Since my arrival from China, Mr San Win, a very friendly man in his mid thirties, has remained close to me. Usually he travels with public transport behind or ahead of me, sometimes a car is standing ready with chauffeur to escort him. San Wins most important task is to speed me through the many control points of the prohibited zones. Even for him, this task proves not always to be as easy as one would think. In these zones he is almost as foreign as I am as a German!
As bureaucratic and rigid as the authorities are here in Myanmar, so unbelievably friendly are the inhabitants of this country. Affectionately, the people of this country appear slightly shy at first, then their faces begin to light up as they start to see the shimmer of friendliness in the eyes of the strangers. I truly believe that the people of Myanmar have the most honest smiles of all folk in south-east Asia.
I astonishingly receive a visa for Afghanistan whilst waiting in New-Delhi. There have been many countries that I would have described as not so dangerous who have turned me down for a visa due to „safety reasons“. Or has peace somehow returned to Afghanistan as I was looking the other way? Are they therefore two countries like Albania and Yemen, two countries which the whole world warned me about? Two countries which each had received an unjustly poor image.
Afghanistan – most probably will also prove no problem! I think this anyway. Full of good cheer I leave Pakistan from just behind Peshawar on a morning in February. My destination is Kabul. My happy cheer does not let me deny the truth: In this case I have thoroughly underestimated the situation.
The first encounter following the Khyber-Pass left me feeing optimistic. The Pashtuns greeted me both enthusiastically and curiously. As I arrived in the "Kahlid Modern Guest House" in the afternoon, a son of the hotel owner was collected from another village and brought to the hotel because he was able to speak English. Asim, early thirties, studied the Koran in Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad and in the meantime, has returned to Jalalabad. A very intense and open conversation unfolded over the course of this evening. When the subject turned to the presence of the opposing forces, he answered „It is good that the Taliban have been forced away. That was a very difficult time."
The public display of the Koran through the Taliban was a step too far for the most strict believers amongst the Muslim community: irreligious music was banned, television, lip-stick, neck-ties, playing cards and chess-sets, human illustrations of any form regardless of whether it was on paper on coins or in the form of a sculpture. The results of these bans led to the demolition of the world famous Buddha statues in March 2001.
Girls were no longer allowed to go to school, women were forced to wear a Burqua, men had to wear a beard which was at least as long as a fist. These enforcements and restrictions alone were reason enough why the majority of Afghans were pleased that the Taliban was driven away.
We chatted over many hours throughout the evening before I fell asleep on the black mattress in the corner of my room. What a day! No problems when entering the country, not a single trace of hostility, I even felt safe in the darkness wandering through the streets of Jalalabad, and then this friendly, enlightening conversation. Yes, I am happy at the end of my first day in Afghanistan. I knew it: its not all that dangerous here.
This evaluation was going to extremely change over the next few days. As I arrived the following evening in the village of Sarowbi, I could immediately feel the hostility, the air was electric. Sinister looking men stared across from the house entrances, others were laughing maliciously, making viscous comments over me which caused the bystanders to start laughing despiteously. I paused at the end of the village where the atmosphere was slightly less tensioned to ask for somewhere to stay. I was immediately surrounded by approximately 30 people which forced themselves uncomfortably close to me. One of them could luckily speak English. I quickly reached out my hand to greet him. Even if he didn't realise it, he was now responsible for keeping the incalculable mass of people in check.
A hotel? You must go back, he said. - back to the sinister village with all the shadowy figures? I don't think so! As long as my bicycle is able to press on over the stony pass at a walking pace, then nobody can stop me from doing so. "Can I not find accommodation along the streets out of Kabul?" – "Yes, a few kilometres away is a restaurant. You could sleep there."
Even in these lonely standing buildings, there is a bad feeling in the air. A few of the men are making salacious remarks which seem to be somewhat sexist. Just earlier, on the road to the restaurant, a man reached out his hand from an overtaking lorry and grabbed my bottom. I am unable to ride further. It is nearly dark and riding further through the night would be even more dangerous than staying here. I bluff as well as I can and inform others in passing that it was the police from Surobi who had sent me here. The night passed by without any particular hiccups.
In northern Afghanistan, in Mazar-e-Sharif, David, who worked for "Ärzte ohne Grenzen", asked about my experiences in this particular country. I has to explain to him about the completely different atmospheres.- "Where did you find these bad vibes?" he asked. – "For example in Surobi between Jalalabad and Kabul, even in the outskirts of the capital city itself and also north along the Salang-Pass." – and David told me about the earlier politically motivated attacks, in which five Afghan employees of the charity organisation were pulled out of their car and shot. This was right next to Sarowbi.
Because a further route away in the direction of Herāt was also supposed to be extremely dangerous, the people from "Ärzte ohne Grenzen" desperately advised me to take a detour over Turkmenistan. Following a 7 day wait in Mazar, the Consulate finally granted me a 7 day transit visa to travel through the northern neighbouring countries.
Turkmenistan is one of the most bizarre countries through which I have ever ridden. Allah hat Saparmurad Nijazov, the egomaniac, had not yet withdrawn at this time from the land which he had reigned over since 1990. He is greater known under the name Turkmenbashi – "leader of the Turkmenistan". Turkmenbashi, wherever one looks: A large format portrait of him hangs on nearly every public building, even gas stations. There are statues of him standing in every square, he was even to be seen on the national currency during his lifetime. In the open landscape he even presented himself on large placket walls: Turkmenbashi smiled upon all viewers, behind him appear oil conveying systems and refineries. Or: Turkmenbashi appears with his sleeves rolled up and hand out bread to the passersby as if he himself had baked it.
Even through the whole theatrics, the President seemed to still be truly loved by many Turkmenistan. Yes, the wages are low – a school teacher earns approximately 80 US-Dollar each month –, but the cost of living is therefore also much lower. One US Dollar will pay for 60 Litres of Diesel, Electricity is free, Basic food is costs as-good-as nothing and the most important medicine (Vodka) is sold over the counter in half litre bottles for around 40 Cents.
Turkmenistan woke memories for me of Eastern Europe some years ago. Rickety cars from past communistic production roam the streets. Now and again, a horse and cart join them; The visage of the locality is monotone: Pre-cast concrete buildings in shades of grey, function dominates every aspect of the architecture; archaic appearing tractors work the fields, the expressions of the inhabitants seem East European – this could easily also be Hungary in the 1980s.
I still have the feeling that I have returned to a modern world. Following the journey through Afghanistan, which in many ways seemed medieval, life in Turkmenistan appeared to be the peak of progression. With this feeling of being almost home, a small amount of home-sickness suddenly hit me. I imagined the moment when the ring I had ridden around the globe was to finally close. A happy feeling – until recently the thought of returning had frightened the life out of me..
I will allow myself six weeks time for Iran and five weeks for the Asian section of Turkey before I cross the Bosporus and return to Europe. At the Black sea, a number of people (both tourists and locals) asked me if I really had cycled all the way to south Europe? Of course, until here. However, should I go to the trouble of explaining, that it has not been a 2000 kilometre journey, but rather 69.000?
Further and further to the west I rode. I took a left shortly before Linz to take me into the Czech Republic. This is a detour, however I do not wish to arrive directly in Erlangen, but rather let East and North Germany slowly grow on me before closing the circle.
Budweis, Pilsen, Komotau. Then the final exit stamp, the final boarder control, the final entry stamp. The entry stamp is only given to German citizens if especially requested. After the Hungarian/Romanian boarder, the boarder officials have only offered me this souvenir upon my request. Up until Romania, it was legal procedure to document with both the date and a stamp every country entrance that I made
Germany! – Has it changed at all in the past 4 years? At first I only noticed the superficial things. Being stingy has apparently become something good. At least that is what the billboards would like you to believe. Even the word cheap, which previously stood for poor quality, is now being used by food discount stores to promote their price structure. It seems as if the marketing departments have made one or too words more palatable. The Media-Markt even demands that over consumption is driven further by calling all shoppers to „March, March“! The economic growth has appeared to near its boundaries even further within the past few years. I still cant get it into my head why it causes such a problem when everyone is saturated.
I cycle over Berlin onwards to Hildesheim where I paid a surprise visit to my mother. Selective misinformation led her to believe that I was still in the vicinity of the Hungarian lake Balaton. Now she was standing on the porch needing a short while to recognise exactly who I was.
It is only a short stint from Hildesheim to the Rohloff-factory in Kassel. Bernd and Barbara Rohloff obviously were anxious to hear how the gear-unit held up to the 71,000 Kilometre journey. Everything is okay, I answered. The thing runs like a sewing machine. The SPEEDHUB is a brilliant marvel of engineering!
A hard days cycling brought me through the Rhön to Bad Königshofen. It is here, next to a mobile-home, that I pitched my tent for the last time.
The Last time. The 1433rd night of my journey. Following a 71.000 kilometre journey which took me across 5 continents and through 55 different countries, a huge section of my life reaches its end.
And then you suddenly arrive. You have reached your destination.
You have not arrived, you simply stop for a short while.