I wander around on the beach in Dalian and check out some delicious Chinese food. I also wrote an email to Jibin – my Chinese successor at my former workplace in Germany – to help me find a proper bicycle shop downtown, because the Chinese equivalent of google maps shows no results for „bicycle shop“. The next day I go check some of Jibins proposals. The second one looks promising. Some guys are drinking beer on a bench under an umbrella. One is the owner of the bicycle shop. They offer a beer and then take care of everything. The shop is very well equipped. They sell German bicycle brands and they even have the right chain rings in stock. The bicycle is fixed, no more noise coming from anywhere. One less problem to worry about. Priceless.
I cycle out of Dalian: Big roads, big bridges, noisy traffic, many people. I want to take the smallest road on my map. It is still a four lane highway, most of the time build on columns. No exit for kilometers. I feel caged, isolated in a grey concrete world. In the fog a city appears in the distance. I come closer. It’s horrible.
In my mind I go back to India, hug it and tell it:
„Please stay the way you are. Stay dirty, stay loud, stay colorful, stay full of waste. Stare at me, touch me, annoy me. Let animals run around in your streets, be crowded, honk, have loudspeakers everywhere and millions of gods. Just, please, never ever develop into this clean, grey, dead, frightening nightmare of human civilization.“
I’m starting to get desperate. I can’t take that for another week. I am close to taking a train,but that’s another thing I want to avoid as much as possible. I just want to cycle and let the landscape pass by. But I need a landscape for this to work.
„God knows. God knows I want to break free.“
Behind the city I see huge harbors with big, rusty cranes. Then an amusement park and suddenly it feels like I have reached the edge of the drafting table. Some empty four lane roads are waiting for another series of apartment complexes. Right now there is nothing. Soon I hit completely rural area. People have small houses, nice gardens with colorful flowers. The road is usually well paved, but narrow and without any traffic. Sometimes mud from recent floods is all over the place.
In between the houses they grow a lot of corn. Paddy is rather rare. The fields are small, it is more like every square meter is used to grow something. It looks like little patches of land put together. I like it.
In the evening I get invited for dinner by Nazoom and Ginger, who just started talking to me when they passed me on their scooter. We eat in a little street kitchen that offers a lot of things I have never seen. Most of them are delicious. Some are rather challenging.
But in general Chinese food is absolutely tasty and diverse. If you – like me – love sea food and mushrooms, you definitely are in heaven here. They also sell it along the road in little stalls.
The weather is still foggy and I am close to the coast. It is humid, but rather cool.
My right pedal makes a loud cracking noise and is sometimes blocked. Funny enough I just got an email two days ago from Jerome, a fellow world cyclist who had to take the train because of a broken pedal. Same model and he started around the same time as we did. I make it to Dandong and get it replaced.
I also hit the border to North Korea now. I don’t cross it, but cycle along the border for roughly a hundred kilometers. You can take a boat that takes you to the other side so you can set foot on North Korean ground for a few minutes. I don’t need that, it’s not the moon. They also sell some souvenirs here on Chinese side: North Korean cigarettes and clothes. A big suspension bridge – the friendship bridge – crosses the river, but no car is driving on it. North Korea, however, is a tourist attraction with a remarkable marketing strategy: People pay thousands of dollars to spend a week there, just because it has such a bizarre reputation. North Korea is to tourism, what bungee jumping is to sports. When the sensation-tourists stop comming, they just threaten the world with a nuclear bomb. Well done, North Korea.
I can spot several guarding towers, but also a temple and some villages in the middle of big corn fields. Just across the river from Dandong there is a city with some big buildings. Some people move around in the harbor, but not much is going on. On Chinese side it’s the exact opposite: They build high buildings and a beautiful promenade, where half of Dandong is gathering. It’s a big show off.
I feel an urge to cycle over there. I would like to get in touch with the people of North Korea. It must be interesting. And I would like to de-mystify it. So many times when people talk about these kind of countries they actually talk about their own fears. They are pointing at something evil to make sure they are part of something good.
Several times people told me North Korea builds fake buildings and fake cities, especially close to the border and in areas where tourists are allowed to move. Allegedly they do this to fool us into thinking they have no shortcomings. So yeah, you can believe they fake a perfect world. Maybe they do. But honestly, where is the sense in building fake houses and water fake corn fields and let hundreds of workers work there to maintain the perfect fake? Doesn’t it become reality then? I mean they are real people and they are really building something that looks pretty good to us. I mean no-one would say Steven Spielberg fakes life. Yeah, the movie is not reality, but the work is. So if North Korea wants to show the world nice facades, what’s the big deal? Hollywood does that all the time. And a lot of women wear push-up bras and make-up. I admit, they usually don’t have nuclear weapons. But some might call them sex bombs.
If you want to see reality you have to lower you expectations. If you run around telling people how poor, ugly and underdeveloped they are of course they will put up a show to avoid your harsh judgement. And look at South Korea. They don’t even take off their make-up at night. They have already undergone cosmetic surgery.
It actually reminds me a bit of Bulgaria. Bulgaria is one of the poorest countries in Europe, but nowhere else was it more important for people to pretend not to be poor. It is really interesting. People don’t pretend in order to make themselves feel good. They pretend in order to alter other peoples judgment. They hope that way the constant criticism stops for a while. However, this behavior is toxic, because it occupies resources that could be used more sensible. And it destroys identity, no matter if you fail or succeed in fooling others. Korea so perfectly illustrates that: The north failed. The south succeeded. Both lost.
I like that about China and also about India. These countries are big enough, so they don’t care about how the world judges them. And honestly keeping out western media might also help.
I continue along the border and leave Dandong. Soon it is quiet, some people sell peaches along the road and it gets more mountainous. I pitch the tent at a lake. On the other side another small North Korean village. You could swim across the lake. The landscape of North Korea is very beautiful.
I finally calm down pretty much within the next days. Beautiful hills, little villages, well paved roads are just what I needed. But it is getting hotter. Luckily it is still cloudy most of the time.
Even in the mountains some towns are incredibly unattractive, inaccessible apartment fortresses. But due to the heat and the cheap prices I usually stay in hotels in these towns.
We had a lot of attention in India and also in Iran. But China is a different story. I am Matt Damon with all the pros and cons of being a celebrity: The pros are invitations and sometimes I just don’t have to pay in restaurants, because my appearance already increases the revenue. If you like being the center of attention (I don’t) you could also enjoy the complete hotel staff waiting for you in the morning („Hush, he’s coming!“) and all smiling and everybody wants to do something for you.
It is usually not intrusive, they are just very happy and everything I do is great. After all, I am a stranger. I am the white canvas and everybody can project all his/her expectations on me.
For the men I am the German engineer. I – personally – build all the Mercedes, VW, Audi and Porsche cars. I am the law and order. I am the strong economy. I am the quality. I am unbreakable. After all I am „Made in Germany“. Funny, how I don’t even have a job right now.
The rather mature women take pictures of me. Then they stare at the picture with this dreamy, wishful smile. The way my mother looks at Richard Gere ever since she has seen „Pretty Woman“. Slightly irritating, but I am Matt Damon, so I put on my Matt Damon smile and move on. They only want to see Good Will Hunting on the canvas. They don’t see The Talented Mr. Ripley.
By the way, I found out smartphones are actually delayed staring devices. We use them to stare at pictures of others. There is a little Indian in all of us. But we are cowards, because we avoid the reaction of the person we stare at and therefore we hide our affection.
Anyway, for the young women I am Matt Damon. And for the young men, well, Matt Damon is either their best friend or an arrogant asshole as soon as their girlfriend smiles at me.
I move out of the mountains. A 250 km wide plain is ahead of me. The clouds are gone. It is getting very hot, but it actually doesn’t feel hot. My body has a different opinion and one afternoon I check in and find myself lying on the bed but my heart rate doesn’t slow down even after an hour. I also have some tiny red dots all over my body. The next day I continue. After 40 km I am almost collapsing. The blood pressure must be very low. I feel absolutely weak. I take long breaks every 10 km. Then another day like that and again I only make 70 km on plain paved road. I sleep 12 hours. The next evening I watch TV and see this: Hulunbuir is the northern most city in China. 44.1 °C
Hot or Not
Every year Germans are looking forward to having a hot summer, but then they complain about the heat when it finally arrives. But is it actually hot or not?
Here are three heat levels to make it easier for you to decide whether it is actually time to complain.
Heat level Germany
Oh, that’s hot. That can even be almost 40°C. But hey, there is a bench in the shadow of this big tree. And look there is a shop that sells cold beverages. Do you hear that bell? That’s the guy selling ice cream. Why not go to the swimming pool or just jump into a lake or river? Then let’s watch a movie in a fully air-conditioned movie theater and take a walk when it is cooler after sunset. Oh and look the weather forecast predicts rain for Thursday.
Heat level Caspean Sea
You can also call it level „Southern Laos“ or level „Manchuria“. It is a humid heat exceeding 40°C. It doesn’t cool down much at night. All rivers, lakes and the ocean are too hot to cool you down. Some bugs love it and decide to have mating season. That’s why you can hear them making this incredibly loud alert-like sound that wants to tell you „critical temperature“. You sweat more than you can drink and even the strongest air condition has a hard time to cope with that. There is little shade and only some shops have cold beverages. Maybe it even rains, but that only means more humidity.
Heat level Turkmenistan
The temperature must be around 50°C – in the shade. Unfortunately there is no shade in a country that has almost no vegetation. You sweat, but your clothes don’t get wet, because the sweat is just vaporized the moment it leaves your body. You are in a desert, there is no water, let alone someone selling cold beverages. You wear long sleeves and trousers and cover your face completely, because the direct sunlight is so intense. The only working sunscreen is aluminium foil. You feel like you will die sooner or later, because that’s exactly what will happen if you stay there for too long. Your body is unable to fight this kind of heat. It is July, the weather forecast predicts rain for October.
The next days my condition improves. The red dots apparently are called „sweat bumps“ and are caused by wet clothes covering your skin the whole day. The skin then gets slightly damaged and is no longer capable to properly sweat and to cool you down. The result: Fatigue.
I admit I am not 100% sure whether this is the right diagnosis, because as I said google is blocked.
Some clouds and a little wind cool me down enough to get back to a normal performance. The red dots soon disappear.
The plain is rural and I see donkeys, horse carriages and herds of sheep. Things I haven’t seen for quite some time. I am quickly approaching the mountains around Beijing.
Once again it’s an amazing landscape. Big rocks reminding me on the Monument Valley. But here everything is green. So many trees, also many creeks and rivers.
I enter a national park and the map shows a little town close to a lake. Sounds good. When I arrive I imagine how beautiful the landscape must be – behind these apartment complexes. It’s actually a big city, where people go on holidays. I get offered a „cheap“ room for 45 Euro , but I had to use the public showers in another street. A room with a shower and air condition is usually around 7 Euro. Alright, I move on and pitch the tent a little outside the city.
Isch hab Bauaufsichtsbehörde
In Germany we have something called „Bauaufsichtbehörde“. It makes sure that you cannot just build a house the way you want and where ever you want. It has to fit in its environment, the overall concept of a city or even of a particular neighborhood. Look, if Angela Merkel decided to build the highest flag pole in the world, the Bauaufsichtsbehörde would stop her. Golden Angela Merkel statue? Nope! It just doesn’t fit into the overall concept of Germany.
Also it wouldn’t allow to build 15 copies of the exact same 30 story building in the middle of the mountains. Who the hell approved that? China, you need a Bauaufsichtsbehörde! Maybe Ai Weiwei would make a great chairman.
These cities just look like people build them to be safe from the wild nature so they can start being scared of each other. People are harsh here. Everybody is honking and in a hurry. They all worked hard to have the privilege to visit such a beautiful lake and now they are annoyed, that all the others had the same idea. You buy an apartment with a beautiful view and when you return the next year another complex already blocks the view. It’s like at the railway crossing in India.
And this guy just sells peaches, has a perfect view and somehow doesn’t seem too stressed.
One early morning I climb another pass and roll down, when suddenly the mountains look different. As if God himself left the zipper open.
It’s the Great Wall of China. By the way, it is not the first time I see it. There was another part of the Wall close to the North Korean border, but it was full of tourists, so I just moved on. This part is not open for tourists. However, that doesn’t stop locals from letting me walk on it for a little entrance fee (only 80 cents). I walk around on the Great Wall of China, with no one else around me. The Wall is not perfectly restored in this section. So some plants are growing on it and some bricks are missing. It is very steep, that’s why it is probably a good idea to keep tourists from hurting themselves. It’s just amazing. It is exactly what I was hoping for: The Great Wall of China, just somewhere in the mountains. No perfect restauration, no souvenir stalls, no ticket counters, no queues, no parking lot full of tourist buses.
Just the Wall for kilometers in both directions. Incredible!
The same day I continue to Beijing. It is getting unbelievably hot. I have to take several breaks and feel again very weak. I cross the Olympic Park and „The Nest“, the huge stadium. Beijing is surprisingly green. Of course you know why: Because they paint the grass green. Really? Where do these stories come from? Everbody was talking about that in 2008, remember?
No need to do things like that. And Beijing has the worst air pollution? Well, then the sensors in Delhi probably just stopped working due to the acid. I can only tell you right now it is not bad.
It is the capital of the biggest nation on the planet. However, it isn’t very crowded. I head towards the guesthouse. I enter small, busy streets with red lamps and many street kitchens and think to myself: „Hey, I found Chinatown“. Wait a second. I am in China.
All together I stay three nights in Beijing. Tomorrow I will visit the Forbidden City and then leave. I have only 8 days left on my visa. It’s time to push the pedals again.
I will leave you with some pictures I took the last two days. Beijing is a very beautiful and green city. For me the ultimate Asian city with its hutongs, temples, parks and the Forbidden City just opposite of the Tiananmen Square in the absolute center of Beijing. My guesthouse is just a few hundred meters from the Lama Temple and around 3 km from the Forbidden City.