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- Walking, okay, I get the idea. But I'm still a bit confused: from where to where did you actually walk? I started walking in Beijing on November 9th 2007, and I stopped in Ürümqi in northwestern China almost one year later, on October 25th 2008. Two years after that, in the summer 0f 2010, I walked a few hundred miles more, from Ürümqi to Usu. And in 2012, I went from Usu to Khorgas, the border checkpoint between China and Kazakhstan.
- How did you get the idea for the walk? I had walked from Paris to my home in Germany before – a walk of about 800km that took less than a month. There were no metaphysical questions, no big worries, just pragmatic problems to solve: where to sleep, what to eat. It felt good, and it felt meaningful.
- Can you describe the process you undergo to prepare for a walking trip? I prepared for a year. Basically, it’s all about getting as smart as possible. I talked to German embassies all over the world, stumbled through map archives in several libraries, and read books, books and more books. Then I got equipped. Then I got vaccinated. Then I walked.
- What state of mind were you in when you were walking? It was just the way it would be on any normal day. Sometimes you think about stuff. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you worry about passports, dangers, pains, relatives and loved ones, and at other times your steps are light and you sing songs in the desert. Sometimes it's boring. And sometimes you feel at peace.
- How many hours did you walk each day? I would usually feel comfortable walking 20 to 30 km in one day. That means I would have to be constantly moving for about 4 to 6 hours. Put in some breaks for picture taking, eating, resting, peeing, talking to people, wondering about the way, and I am on the road all day – but I didn't walk every day.
- Why did you stop walking? I wanted to gain back my life. I had to regain control over myself, eliminate the inner boss that was telling me to keep walking. A lot of people look at the video thinking “I want to be free like that guy!” – but they don’t realize that I was driven by something, and maybe I was losing control over it.
- Did you really walk ALL the way? Yes. However, there was one instance when I had to jump on my brother’s bike for a few minutes.
- Why did you seem to be sitting on a plane in the video then? I had to take care of a few things. Mainly passport problems.
- Will you ever finish your walk? Or maybe walk through Southern China/India/the US/Africa? I don't know. I would like to continue my walk from Khorgas to Germany, but I don't know if I can. We'll see. But I can tell you one thing: I don't wan't to walk anywhere else right now, it would be like betraying my original way.
- I didn’t see the names of the songs used in the video. Could you let me in on them? The first song is “橄榄树” (“Olive”) by 朱逢博 (Zhu Fengbo) from China, and the second one is “L’Aventurier” by The Kingpins from Canada.
- Did you know you were going to make the video when you started walking? Yes. I had seen Noah Kalina and Matt Harding on YouTube, and I had gotten the idea to combine the two ideas into something new.
- Who is Teacher Xie? Why did you dedicate the video to him? 谢建光 (Xie Jianguang) is a brave man who has been walking all over China since 1982. I ran into him somewhere in the desert, and we have been friends ever since. He has taught me some valuable lessons.
- Why is the video also dedicated to love? I think it is important to know what we value most in life.
- Why did you name your video "The Longest Way"? Why did you use Olive (橄榄树) on the soundtrack? Actually, I wanted “A Long Way Home” - but that domain name was already taken. So I took on “The Longest Way”. I used Olive on the soundtrack because it was the first Chinese song that I really liked, and also because I related so strongly to its lyrics: “why drift around?” (“为什么流浪?”).
- Which camera did you use for the video? A first generation Canon 5D with a 16-35mm 2.8 lens.
- How did you make sure the pictures were all perfectly aligned? Did you use some sort of stabilizing software? I did it by hand in Photoshop. I used the first picture as reference, then copied the following pictures into it. Then: 1) set the transparency of the top layer to roundabout 50% 2) manually adjust the size of the top layer and drag it around until the areas around the eyes and the mouth of both the top layer and the bottom layer are matching 3) set the transparency back to 0% 4) merge down the picture 5) export a jpg and name it with a consecutive number. Repeat for all following pictures.
- In what situation would you stop and take a selfie? How did you choose the background? Random situations. Whenever I felt like it, I snapped a picture. Or several pictures.
- How many photos did you take in total - and how many of them are used in the video? I took more than 30.000 shots, and I used 1.400 in the video.
- Did you get a lot of feedback after you put up the video? What did people say to you? Yes, a lot of feedback, and a lot of it very touching. Sometimes I have contradicting feelings though, because I can sense that people are seeing something in me that I am really not. I am not some sort of cool, free-spirited, outdoor guy. I am probably just someone who felt like there was something he had to do.
- Your beard seems to be the main character in the video, after you. What came first, the idea not to shave your face, or the idea to take a photo of yourself every day? The photo idea was first. The beard then came naturally, I was too lazy to shave at first and proud of my fuzz later!
- Many people from all over the world have seen your video. How did you promote it? I did not promote the video at all. I am very happy that so many people seem to enjoy it though. :)
- Where can I get your book in English? You can't, yet. "The Longest Way" is out in German and Chinese, and we just signed an agreement for a Russian translation. We'll hopefully get an English edition out there soon.
- A German book with an English title, why? I don't know.
- What's the difference between your two books "The Longest Way" and "China Zu Fuß"? The first one is a travelogue, the second one is a coffeetable book (more photos, different text).
- Okay, so it's the same text, just the photo book is shorter? No. I wrote a different text specifically for the photobook. The style is very different from the travelogue.
- Why did you write the books? After the video got viral, a number of publishers approached me about the possibility of making a book. I was intimidated at first. But I liked the idea.
- How long did it take for you to write the books? 2 years.
- That new book you published in Chinese, what is it about? "Chinese Characteristics" (only out in Chinese) is a collection of newspaper columns I wrote for Chinese publications over the last year. About China. About Germany. About all kinds of stuff.
- How much did the trip cost? One year of walking, not including plane tickets, visa cost, vaccination and equipment, cost me about 5000 Euros.
- Okay, so how much does a hotel or a meal in China cost? China is getting more expensive by the day. At the time when I was walking, it was like this: In the big cities, I need about 5 to 7 euros a day for food, and I will try to find a good hotel for 15 to 25 euros. This means internet and a hot shower. There will be extra expenses if I’m going to ask the hotel staff to take care of my laundry, if I want to mail something home, or if I feel the urge to do some sightseeing. Life in the countryside is much cheaper: I spend 3 euros on food, and maybe another 2 euros on a room in a guesthouse. There are small hotels all over China. Their service is very basic though – you probably won’t be able to take a shower.
- How did you pay for this? I got a small heritage which was just enough to sustain myself during the period of walking.
- How do you handle your money on the road? I keep two credit cards in different pockets, though I hardly ever make use of them, except maybe in some hotels. I usually try to carry about 500 euros in Renminbi. Virtually every large city in China (300.000+) has an ATM that takes international Maestro or credit cards.
- Is it safe to walk around China with this kind of money in your pocket? Yes, I think so.
- Do you have a list of what you were wearing? 1 pair of boots / 2 pairs of orthopedic inlays (arch support) / 1 pair of plastic slippers / 8 pairs of socks / 1 pair of gaiters / 1 pair of long pants (make sure they don’t rub on the insides of your thighs, and you don’t want too many pockets in them either!) / 1 pair of long thermo-underwair / 2 pairs of underpants / 1 pair of loose fit shorts / 2 tank tops / 1 t-shirt / 1 thermo-longsleeve / 1 fleece jacket / 1 wind breaker jacket (light-weight, high water resistance, zipper pockets) / 1 wool hat / 1 pair of thermo-gloves / 1 clean shirt for special occasions / 1 belt bag / 1 all-terrain money belt.
- Any other tips? I think it’s most important to be able to respond to a wide array of different climatic conditions. That’s why I like to use a thick fleece and a thin wind breaker jacket, because it might not always be cold when it’s raining.
- What are the best shoes for a walk like this? First of all have an orthopedist check out our feet, legs and spine. The last thing you want to do is to ruin your knees just because of some silly walking thing. I got two pairs of orthopedic inlays. Socks are important too: quality outdoor socks are going to have extra padding for the heel and the toes. About shoes: go to a store and try on all kinds of different models. Remember to bring the socks you are planning to wear on your trip. Do a bit of walking, jump around, run up and down some stairs. I personally prefer large boots that have a tight fit around the ankle, because I'm always afraid of torn ligaments. I go with Gore-tex most of the time.
- What else do I need for my feet? You need a pair of slippers for indoor use. You might need gaiters for heavy snow. And you need a needle and some disinfectant to be able to drain the blisters that you are going to get on the way.
- How about your backpack? I opted for a relatively large and heavy model (3,3kg unloaded), because I trusted its toughness and stability. Back support is really important when you’re carrying up to 30kg. There’s no general rule on how to buy a backpack, so you just have to go to a store and try out a few. Make sure they are loaded though (the backpacks, not the store clerks). A small daypack can come in handy to keep your computer, passport, and other valuables safe when you’re camped out or staying in a hotel.
- Any tips for packing? I like to get some packing cubes to divide up my clothes (and I also use them as pillows). The idea is to not have any individual items floating around in the depths of our backpack – everything can be nicely arranged in different daypacks and packing cubes for easy access. I had a fixed packing order while I was on the road – and I never lost anything.
- What kind of sleeping bag do you use? I use two: one for summer and indoor use (synthetic), and the other one for winter camping (down). If you are lucky enough to have only one climate to choose from, then you might only need to carry one sleeping bag as well. Note that my summer sleeping bag is oversized and has a centrally arranged zipper, so I can put the winter sleeping bag into it and use both at the same time if need be.
- How about electronic equipment? Laptop computer / external hard-drive / handheld GPS / spare batteries / battery charger / travel adaptor / multiplug / card reader / mouse / cell phone.
- What kind of camera do you use? I like to use DSLRs. The only downside is that they are heavy. Changing lenses outside is a hassle, so I use 2 camera bodies, one with a super wide angle lens (15mm), one with a regular lens (55mm).
- Why don't you use zoom lenses? I did in the past. But I found out that I rarely used the full focal spectrum of the lenses. With the 16-35, I would either shoot at 16 or at 35, never at 20 or 25. And there is another thing that is great about fixed-focus lenses: they offer better picture quality and larger apertures.
- How about batteries and memory cards? I have 2 spare batteries for each camera. And 4 cards of 32GB each. I do backups on my hard-drive as often as possible.
- How do you carry your cameras? I like holster bags that I carry left and right from my shoulders. They give me the most flexibility.
- Filters? I used to like polarizing filters a lot. But I have stopped using them altogether. Now I just use a UV on each lens for protection.
- Tripod? Yes. I used to have this philosophy of virtually not spending any money on tripods, but I have given up on that now. If you want to shoot a decent time-lapse, you need a good tripod.
- So you use Canon, is that better than Nikon (Sony, etc.)? No. Most photographers are just used to the brand that they work with. The best photos in the world have been captured with cameras from all kinds of manufacturers. No need to be a fanboy.
- Which format to you use? I shoot in RAW, and I process the pictures in Lightroom (you could also use Aperture or CaptureOne, same thing).
- What were you doing in China before the walk? I did one year of Chinese and one year of Cinematography at the Beijing Film Academy (北京电影学院).
- What was the most beautiful place you saw on your way? I think I would have to say it was the Tibetan highlands of Tianzhu, the place with the white yaks.
- Best food you had during your journey in China? Most of it. I love Chinese food.
- The best Chinese word in your dictionary? Please translate in English for us. I like the character 蛊. It’s almost completely useless, but I love the concept behind it, as well as the sound „gǔ”. It’s about some sort of voodoo, involving poisonous bugs who eat each other to find out the most poisonous of all. Awesome stuff.
- I suppose walking in China would be extremely hard without knowing the language? I don't think so. It all depends on whether you are flexible or not. China is a very friendly and safe place. If you don't know the language, stick to school kids, and if nothing works, find their English teacher - every village should have one!
- Can you describe us a little further how bureaucracy affected you? Oh, it was mainly passport issues that could have been avoided. It was difficult to get a visa renewal, so I had to take a few trips back to Beijing. Besides that and some photo restrictions and forbidden hotels, bureaucracy wasnt really that big of a deal.
- What did you use to think of China before the journey, and what do you think now? Did something change? Well, I had been living in Beijing for two years when i started my walk. So the walk really didnt change much of my perspective on China. Except for the fact that I got to meet so many fantastic people out in the countryside, out on dusty roads, and in the mountains of China. They are the best!
- How old are you? Check the About Me section at the top. :)
- Does walking have some kind of spiritual meaning for you? No. Maybe some people like to travel in their minds, while others feel the need to walk around. But it's still just a journey.
- How did the walk change your life? I learned how to walk, and how to stop walking. What more could I want? :)
- Most beautiful experience? Group of maybe a dozen kids weaving beads of flowers for my hair – in a small village in the desert, an oasis of happiness.
- Is your beard a symbol of some sort? No.
- I want to get a website like yours! How does that work? It’s an adapted WordPress theme hosted on a private server. I had someone help me with design and coding.
- Are you planning another walk in the future? Will you continue walking home from China? No plans right now. I did continue my walk for a couple of hundred kilometers in 2010 and in 2012, but I don’t have any new plans right now. Gotta do things individually, one at a time.
- Were you more popular with the men/ladies, children or old folks during the walk? I like kids, and I think I got along best with them. And with the older folks.
- Will you accept a walking companion? If yes, what are his/her pre-requisites? I’d have to think about this one… but the answer would probably be no.
- Do you hold to any political ideology or religious belief? I vote green, and I am a Roman catholic. I like going to church when there is no service going on. Just sit there, with the big guy.
- Do you really have some sort of inner peace? One of your blog entries suggests that you do. Please read that post again.
- If you had a time machine and could do the trip all over again AND know everything you know now, how would you do it differently?
I would definitely try to be more relaxed about it. I would try not to get into senseless arguments with people, and I would make sure I am not hurting anybody. Sounds easy, but sometimes it’s not.
- I want to do the same thing as you, but my parents don't like the idea. What's wrong with them? They are right. Your parents and friends love you, so they want you to be safe. Not necessarily happy, but safe. If you really want to do something like this, I recommend you start somewhere around your house, walk for a few days, see if you like it. Remember: you don't have to go to faraway places to have an adventure. Take the unknown road around the place where you live, and you will see!
- Can you say something to encourage me? Not really. You don't need anyone's encouragement. Ask yourself: do I really want to do this?
- One tip to take from your experiences? Take it easy and remember: you are your own boss!
- If you were put before a committee to convince non-traveling people to travel, what would say to them? I wouldn't try to convince them to travel. Everyone is different. Maybe they are perfectly happy where they are?
- Do you have any tips for people who are on their own search for peace? I am not very good at this. There are brief moments when I am feeling at ease, but they usually don’t last very long, and then the wolf starts howling again. However, I think age and experience probably helps with this. You have to know your priorities.
- It seems like Teacher Xie really helped you on your journey. How important do you think it is for people to have a teacher in their lives, and do you have any advice on how they can find someone to really move them?My dear Teacher Xie was and still is very important to me. The ability to learn from others is a great gift of humanity. So yes, I think that teachers are very important. Not every teacher will stand out as clearly as Teacher Xie though, and we probably might not even realize that a person is about to teach us something important. But if we keep our eyes open, then maybe we can find out more about each other.
- You obviously met a lot of strangers as you traveled. Do you have any tips for travelers who want to meet people and make friends in new places? I try to go by the rule: NEVER DECLINE AN INVITATION. You know how, when someone is offering you something, like a cup of tea or whatever, you are almost always inclined to politely shake your head and say “thanks, but no thanks”? I tend to do this a lot, but it’s not a very good way to make new friends, and most people will probably not even consider it very polite, but rather cold and distant. So the rule of never declining an invitation is definitely a good one. Of course you can’t possibly accept every cup of tea that comes your way, but you can at least try to, right? And that, my friend, is the start of being a happy traveler.
- What major advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue his or her own dream? Sounds tacky, but here it is: Take the first step!
I prepared some photos. If you want to use them in an article, just go ahead and download them! ↓
Bad haircut and Lokalmatadore T-shirt by me. Photos from Lichtbildarena by Sebastian Reuter (you are free to use them as illustrations).
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