Losses and life lessons on a walk from Beijing to Germany

Adventurer's walk from Beijing to Germany cost him his girlfriend but gave him a lot of joy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 June, 2013, 7:45am

Christoph Rehage definitely took the path less travelled - all 4,646 kilometres of it. The 31-year-old Hanover-born university student started walking from Beijing, across deserts and mountain peaks, to Xinjiang in the autumn of 2007.

There his journey ended - when his girlfriend in Germany, his original destination, called him to say goodbye. It was a crushing blow after such an arduous trek.

Having grown a mighty beard, he stood in the woods, surrounded by white birch trees in late autumn 2008 and said farewell to the loyal followers of his blog: "I had always believed that I would be able to figure out some things during this walk … but now I'm not so sure anymore. I think I have to go and think for a while."

He took a train home to Hanover and continued his China studies at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Later, he went on to document his adventure in a book, The Longest Way, which was translated and published in Chinese this month. At a coffee house in Beijing, Rehage opened up to the Post about his joys, pains and love.

Why did you start walking?

When I was a 21-year-old high school graduate, I worked at McDonald's and various bars and museums in Paris. The novels I had read since my childhood sparked my aspirations of living an unconventional life, instead of following the traditional path: seeking a university degree, joining a big company, and then climbing the career ladder to a senior position.

But my father, who is a professor, said wandering in Paris as a waiter would bring no future. He asked me to come back to pursue university studies. I agreed, but I chose the slowest way to go back - walking, bringing my dog as company. It took me 23 days to walk home, about the distance from Beijing to Zhengzhou [the capital of Henan].

Did you enjoy the trip?

With the modest salary I earned from McDonald's, I couldn't afford to stay in hotels or even buy myself a tent. I slept outside, in the woods, or at railway stations [when it rained]. Fruit and canned corn from supermarkets were my food. I became so thin and worn out by the time I arrived home.

But all of the pain would be left behind, and only those beautiful, golden memories would remain. Those pains during my walk stimulated my nerves and allowed me to sample the strongest taste of life. When I needed water, the desire for water was so real. My body woke up in the early morning wet with dew. The little insects or snails would sneak into my sleeping bag - a little bit disgusting - but that made me feel alive.

Did those golden memories make you want to walk again in China?

Yes. I was doing a two-year exchange programme in cinematography at the Beijing Film Academy. It's a good, open-minded school. But I didn't want to be bound to a classroom. I wanted to chat with people in China and learn how they think. My girlfriend, Xiao Xiang, was studying statistics in Munich. I told her: wait for me in Germany. I will walk to you.

Did she support your plan?

As a person who really loved me, she didn't want to change my mind, because that was my dream. She didn't say yes or no. But she may have been hoping that I would put her first, ahead of the walk, which might have lasted two or even three years.

As a young girl, she wasn't sure what would happen after such a long journey. She visited me during my walk. I also flew over to see her when I got a bad feeling that the sky would come crashing down on us. I tried to comfort her and convince her that she was very important. But that worked less as time went on.

Did you ever allow yourself to take a break from walking?

Yes, occasionally. I thought it was OK as long as I stuck to my principle that every step of the journey be walked. There was only one exception, when I took a ride on a tricycle for four kilometres because of a dangerous situation.

Many people thought it was my strong willpower that made me persistent. That's wrong. It's because of the principle - something that, once set, you don't think about breaking.

Did you have any other principles?

One is that I would keep taking and sharing photos and videos, writing travel stories and replying to every comment on my blog posts. It wasn't for commercial purposes. And how many people were reading my posts - 100 or 1,000 - didn't matter. All I wanted was to remind myself I was working, instead of being on vacation.

It's hard sometimes. Just imagine, after walking through the Gobi Desert for four days with no access to the internet, I turned on my computer, only to find so many things waiting for me [to work on, such as blogging and replying to e-mails].

Another principle I followed was that I wanted to make sure what I wrote and posted was real - not just presenting happy moments and beautiful scenery, but also my tiredness and low mood.

Also, I don't drink alcohol. I washed my feet and changed my socks every day. I washed with snow when it was minus 20 degrees [Celsius].

After walking for a month or so, I developed one more principle: grow my beard.

I saw the photos with your beard at the beginning of the book. When did you cut it?

When my girlfriend was gone, I stopped walking and cut my beard.

What did you take away from the experience? What did you lose?

I got stories. They are precious. Life with stories is more beautiful. I've never regretted doing the silly thing of walking. When I become old, I will have tasted lots of fruit, walked along lots of roads, got to know lots of girls, and had lots of stories to tell. Without these, I wonder what life would mean.

As for what I lost, it's hard to say. I didn't stick to my plan to walk to Germany. At that time, it seemed to me that it was the walking that made my girlfriend leave me. Something was wrong; I needed a rebalance.

Like every other lovelorn person, I attempted to stay close to her [after the break-up], wishing she would ring me one day.

The most important thing I learned was how to give up. Walking had been the way I existed. It was my signature. I had been very afraid of giving up. I thought nothing would be left if I stopped walking. I had also feared losing my girlfriend. Finally, I lost both. But I am still who I am.

Will you take a long walk again?

I should get a job that I can depend on before I think about walking again. It feels good to be a writer, as long as people don't get bored with what I write.


Rehage spoke to Victoria Ruan