A Long Way Far, Far East (Germany to Taiwan)
A Long Way Far, Far East (Germany to Taiwan)
In spring 2016, I started a cycling tour from Germany with the goal to reach Taiwan where I had been approved for a semester at the National Taiwan University in Taipei to finish my bachelor in agriculture. I had a long way through Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia and China ahead of me. Since this was going to be my first long distance tour out of Europe, preparations included getting a new bike with strong, durable components, the whole gear of outdoor clothes (tent, sleeping bag, water filter, sunglasses, cooker, …) as well as a dynamo-powered electric power supply to be able to charge my devices on the tour.
A Long Way Far, Far East
Part I: From Germany
From Germany to Ukraine
Starting in the German city of Leipzig, I cycled eastwards, passing through Dresden (D), Wrocław (PL), Krakow (PL), Oświęcim/Auschwitz (PL), Krakow (PL), Tarnow (PL), Львів/Lviv (UA), Почаїв/Pochaiv (UA), Житомир/Zhytomyr (UA) and Київ/Kiev.
A lot of things on this trip didn’t work out as they were supposed to, but cycling in Ukraine was a really priceless experience through vast landscapes of Ukraine, on horrible roads and meeting so many hospitable and interested people. I also believe it gave me an authentic impression of the poverty that reigns for many in Ukraine. Houses in the countriside often don’t have running water, only extremely simple sanitary installations outside and subsistence farming is the main source of survival. The condition of buildings, roads and lakes tell their own tale. Yet, from many abondened buildings and factories on the way, I could tell that Ukraine had probably seen much more prosperous and times.
Getting in touch with people of my age made me realize, how different the social, economic and institutional environments we are used to shape our dreams, fears, opportunities. Hearing awful stories about not working legal institutions in Ukraine made me deeply contemplative – be it about well elaborated bribery systems in schools and universities to pass exams, be it about crash drivers bribing eye witnesses and policemen in order to make the innocent victim bear the costs of medical treatment or be it about inconvenient communal politicians who are muted by experiencing burning homes and shootings at their little children. What do I take for granted? Many things came to my mind, e.g. intact legal institutions, health insurance, access to good medicine, being able to take a “gap semester” in order to travel for several months, the opportunity to come back to the “safe harbor” Germany whenever I want. What is justice/fairness regarding this? These institutions seem to be so randomly determined just by birth or nationality.
A robbery of a large sum of money by credit card tricksters due to my own carelessness forced me to stay in Ukraine for much longer than originally planned. In the end, I decided not to cycle further east, but to turn southwards to Одеса/Odessa (UA), where I spent one month taking Russian language courses.
- distance: 2311 km
- time: 25 days
- accumulated altitude difference: 26.059 m
Part II: From Ukraine to Taiwan
Part II: From Ukraine to Taiwan by train, bus, boat
In Odessa, I decided to continue my journey on with busses and trains. However, it was clear for me, that I would not go anywhere without my bike. I packed it in a giant bike bag, tied up all the bike panniers and started with ewww… 60 kg of luggage. I first took a long distance bus to Moscow, where I had the great opportunity to stay with a friend of friends of my family. From Moscow, I caught a regular train going all the way to Irkutsk, Siberia. Four and a half days and about 5000 km in a train for little more than 100 Euros. Amazing!
I was told before that during my ride on the Transsibirean railway in “platskartny class” (3rd class = open beds) I would meet amazing people again with a lot of time to talk. This turned out to be true! Among others, I made acquaintance with a wonderful French couple doing a tandem cycling tour around the world and a guy from Thailand going all the way back in trains and busses from his travelling trip in Europe. These three guys just made me forget about all the inconveniences such as no air conditioning or at least ventilation, in my case having a bed very next to a 6 headed family including two babies in pampers age with one of them regularly throwing up. The French guys Virginie and Benoît had quit everything in France for this journey. They were overthinking what they have been doing in their lives so far and wanted to broaden their minds to do different – better – after. It was a great feeling to find some soul mates (some months ago Benoît even owned the velomobile WAW, that I had dreamt of when I was younger) and we had many opportunities to exchange what was on our minds. You can check their blog page here.
Since Virginie, Benoît, and Hilme (the Thai guy) and me all had the same destination, Irkutsk, and all wanted to see Lake Baikal, we decided to go to the island Ольхон/Olkhon together. We spent a day in Irkutsk and then took a bus together to this island. The six hour bus ride northwards, that covers not even half of the way up to the top of the Lake, gave a first impression about the dimensions of the Lake. It is all in all nearly 700 km long (so more than ten times longer than Lake Constance at its longest extend) and down to 1600 m deep – the biggest fresh water reservoir on earth with a fascinating geological history and home to many endemic species as well as myths and even some shaman traditions. This place makes the term “Russian soul“ manifest, referring to a strong attachment to homeland (Heimatverbundenheit), melancholiy, the ability to patience as well as a tendency to superstition. With its rough Siberian beauty, the intangible width, the clearness of the water an overwhelming and at the same time calming place for me.
On Olkhon, Hilme, the Thai guy, and me decided to travel together through Mongolia to China. Virginie and Benoît stayed some more days to catch a boat to the other side of the lake. Due to the higher price for the Transmongolian train to China Hilme and me took several busses, trains and even hitchhiked for some kms.
Among the encounters that made me the most happy on this journey are the ones with the people, who seem to be so far away from me and my life on the first sight but prove to be so real, free and direct in the next moment. I was thinking if these situations could be the ones in that we can feel the most detached from expectations, obligations, social constraints and given models of behavior, since it seems to be only the openness and creativity of the actors that counts and that allows to evolve something completely new, something that often has nothing to do anymore with what I believed to know about my counterpart before. Interaction being so open that not even a common language is necessary renders me a feeling that something is happening, which may in its meaning be of greater relevance than just for this situation. I feel that it shows that a joint future, in which real comprehension and sympathy between cultures, races, religions and social origins are a real chance that everyone can help to foster.
Beijing was not pleasant: Dirty and the air pollution is really SO bad there, that we could barely saw the sun on a sunny day. I decided to flee from the city and Hilme divide up with Hilme who was going another direction. Shanghai was next for me. Hilme helped me one last time to get the entire luggage at Beijing main station. The controls at the Chinese train stations (as well as in the metro) were ridiculously strict, so that after having passed through all of them with the entire luggage (still 60 kg) I missed my train and had to take the next one with sold-out seats, so that I ended up sleeping on the floor for this 15-hour train ride. Shanghai impressed me more. I spent four days there and besides the usual sightseeing, I spent some time with a friend of my grandfather. This friend was a student in 1999 when he met my grandfather accidentally at the train station as he was on a business trip in Shanghai back then. They kept in touch over all the years. It was great to meet him in person finally and it turned out that we would meet several times again n the next years in Taiwan and China.
My last stop before finally arriving in Taiwan were the Matsu islands. I reached these with a super convenient sleeper bus (really a bus with beds!) to Fuzhou and then by a 2 hour ferry ride. As these islands are quite near to the Chinese mainland but already belong to Taiwan, they are home to an eventful history that makes one feel the atmosphere of the Taiwan Strait conflict. Besides this, the Matsu islands are a very calm place with only few tourists and a lot of beautiful nature to see.
Though failing the goal to do a major part of the journey by bike, I still managed reduce the ecological footprint of the journey considerably by not taking any planes. By taking only busses, trains, ferries, I produced approximately 14 % of the climate impact I would have caused in a plane, namely about 750 kg of CO2 compared to 5500 kg of CO2 (mix of bus, train, ferry vs. airplane). These are abstract numbers, therefore one other figure to compare: The average annual budget that is in line with the Paris Climate agreement to keep climate change “well below” 2°C in order to prevent “dangerous cimate change” is considered as somewhere around 2000 kg of CO2. (Data according to the environmental organizations Germanwatch and Atmosfair.)
From Matsu, I took a larger, 6-hours boat to Taiwan, very convenient with beds. It arrived to 基隆/Keelung, which has a big cargo port and is connects to the Taipei Metro system via train. I started to discover what Taiwan was going to be like for me for the next two and a half years.