I saw it, seen from Europe, as a short distance alternative to Patagonia or New Zealand. Iceland has vast volcanic landscapes, glaciers, and icebergs. But it does not have the grandness of the other landscapes. Nice, but not Wow.
Friends ask me to write a book on it, and I think I could. But there are other books which wait to be written. And I also think the current bibliography of travel books is already quite oversupplied. Traveling the world for a year is these days the standard repertoire of many young lives, and it is a “must” before enrolling into a University. How often did I meet young lads from all over the world in Australia working in a bar or harvesting a field? But I am going to be 50 years old next week. So, I was not going on that kind of trip.
Also, I was not hating my job, looking for a meaning, wanting to make a change, give back to society (blabla). Neither was I stressed, suffering burn out, getting gluten intolerant or anything which could fill a self-help book. I was also not bored. But I was starting to experience a shift in my interest. So, I spent three months training up my successor, and left my office. Shortly after, my wife Feibai and I left our home in Beijing and embarked on our journey.
Let me not summarize what we did during that journey, because it is already covered in this blog. But do let me share some things, and write a few lines for those who are considering an extensive journey themselves. It goes without saying that Feibai made different experiences, and if you read Chinese, you may have a look at her website: www.ispywithmylittleeye.info
I started preparation about a year before actually leaving, as I had twelve months notice period with my employer. Perhaps it is interesting to know, that I did not have much of finding period before I resigned. But as I had the experience of a sabbatical before, I was very sure that I will figure it out and manage. So, I regard my resignation from Volkswagen as the first milestone and the start of the process itself. I told myself: if I can’t figure it out in a year, then I would be an idiot anyways and also useless for the company. Some colleagues told me, that there are smarter ways to leave and negotiate a more “golden handshake”. First of all, that’s not my style. And secondly some of them are still negotiating while I read of them in the Financial Times and hear from their lawyers.
Today I would say, starting planning a year before is too much. The reason is, that you have to work with other people’s schedules. And they simply don’t plan that long ahead. In my case, I wanted to spend my time in the academic community of different Universities around the world. And before they have made their plans for the academic year, there is not much concrete you can plan together. For the academic engagements, it was of course very useful that I have been able to split my time between corporate and academic activities since 2005. It would be impossible to start this from a “cold call”. So, if you will, I have laid the foundation for our journey already during a period of a decade before.
I remember one evening at our home in Beijing in 2014 with our dear friends rObin Golestan, Curtis Schmitt and Felix Sommerville-Latte. Beside dinner, the question was: where would you go if the world is a village? This was a great starting point, with the character of a brain storming. But the world is not a village and we narrowed it down very quickly. To travel the whole world, one year is not long enough. A good pace is, to stay a month in a place. Two weeks is the absolute minimum. Otherwise you are just packing and traveling again and never arrive. I found that a week is a very human time unit to think in: arriving a week, staying two and leaving one week, makes a month already.
The idea to do it all on one “Around the World Ticket” looked as a tempting budget option, but was not feasible, mainly because Feibai holds a passport of The People’s Republic of China. Visa and residency rules make it virtually impossible for her to travel the world in one go. And on the way, I also figured out that it would be very hard for me (holding a German passport) to do so. It is not just that you get the right of adobe in a country or territory. But it becomes quickly a very complicated mosaic of visa types, work permits, insurances, taxation rules and residence permits. Most of them are results of national legislation, bi- and multilateral agreements, protection of local employees, national interests in skilled workforce, protection of intellectual property and more and more unfortunately also national security. It is a mess. And the information on it is not clear either. Try the Internet? Great thing to book tickets and accommodation. But for most things beyond that, it is overrated.
We did not really need to fix a travel budget. But still I decided to follow our cash flow in an Excel sheet. After we left from China to our starting position in Germany in December 2014, we were unlucky enough to find our inventory which was shipped from Beijng, was destroyed by sea water. This was a bit of a shock. The insurance settled our claim with a bulk sum and we decided to add this to our travel budget for 2015. Quite often we heard the comment, that we must be “very rich” that we can afford a year of travel. Luckily we prefer a traveling style which is modest and we do not like staying in hotels. This is why on the cost side of a year of travel, it adds up to the equivalent of the purchase of a Volkswagen Golf GTI. Not sure, whether all these deciding for that car are “very rich”. It is just a different choice made.
There are quite a few changes you have to make during the transition from an automotive manager to a traveling scholar. Power corrupts. As a small preparation exercise: why don’t you pick up your secretary’s office phone for an afternoon and pretend to be her holiday substitute? Yes, that’s all the “rubbish” she is dealing with. Soon you will do all this yourself. You will feel surrounded by idiots. You may want to “fire them all”, but you can’t. People might not even pick up the phone when you call them, they will not respond, they will come late. Students will play with their phones and computers while you talk to them. You will think, they do not give a shit who you are. But that’s not true. That’s just who you are. And that’s how they are. Live with it.
Finally, because I want to keep the initial promise not to write a book: what happens after the travel? Will you start splitting your days again in 15-minute time slots again go back to “meetings”. No, but now I do the things we actually like doing myself and don’t delegate the fun part to somebody else. And we both have a full project list for 2016. It will be a year with more reflection and less exploration. There are a lot of things to write up, except the book on the travel of ourselves. We keep that until we retire. And I guess, if so, it will only make a chapter in something else.
Again, if you like to browse through more of what we have seen during 2015 and beyond, have a look at the entries of www.marcusschuetz.org or www.ispywithmylittleeye.info. And then when you really want to do a journey like this yourselves (and not just talk about it), then you are welcome to get in touch for any practical advice.
"One country, two systems" was one of the mantras and rules of the hand over of Hong Kong, a former British colony, to the People's Republic of China (PRC). One country, two systems means Communism (with Chinese characteristics) and Capitalism in a special administrative region. This gave the PRC a capitalist experimental zone, and it gave Hong Kong the chance to develop into a model zone for application in other Chinese cities. But while the Mainland's development breathtakingly performed the largest economic development in human history and dragged hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, the autonomous Hong Kong failed to deliver many of the results expected. It could not translate its prosperity into quality of life, did not develop models showcasing applicable examples to PRC. Instead, it turned into a frightened local society, with no significant culture, a one cylinder economy, a lack of entrepreneurship and an overall fading capability to lift itself out of this situation. In the best case, Hong Kong is a well managed high density storage and logistics system for about 7 million life human bodies - or a free trade zone in the Southern suburbs of Shenzhen. Given the expectations, what can be achieved with the experiment of Hong Kong, it is a compete system failure. Now some Hong Kongers might ask: what about the rule of law, the low levels of corruption, the superior education system ...? Sure, that's good. Make something out of it. And do not just maintain it, but bring it to the next level. Other Hong Kongers will blame it on the Mainland China. But the simple reality is, that non of the problems of Hong Kong has been induced by the Mainland. All self made problems. Just the opposite: without Mainland support and good will, Hong Kong would be gone by now. Hong Kong has nobody to blame, but itself.
We have spent the last two months in Hong Kong. I have lived before in a remote corner on Lamma Island, a small island in the South China Sea. Here there are no cars and no greed. And from there I watched Hong Kong and five years of my life passing by. Sometimes, back then sitting at the waterside with a cold bottle of Tsingtao beer, we joked that we are the third system in the one country, two systems debate. Now, when we return to Hong Kong, we stay on campus of The University of Hong Kong. The faculty guesthouse is again an island, remote from the reality of the buzzing city: on the slope to the Victoria Peak, hidden behind large Bauhinia trees. From here ambulated in the Academic Bermuda Triangle, spanning between library, lecture hall and long walks. And we got lost there for two months. It is always enjoyable and interesting. And more so, it feels like an important contribution to one of the last outstanding strengths of Hong Kong, which is education. So, we will return for that next year.
A few months ago, we received a surprise invitation to do some work in the University of Tilburg, teaching a course in the Master in International Management. It is a small University with a very academic focus in social sciences, and it's Faculty of Business and Economics is now expanding its education stronger into practical matters. I enjoyed my time in Tilburg a lot. The city is the former "Wool Capital" of the Netherlands and went through changes away from its textile industry heritage. Seen as a resident, it is one of the successful examples of such transformations. It is a very livable city. Small enough to reach any spot (by bicycle) and big enough to support a fully fletched University and some cultural life in town. It is well located also, to hop over to Antwerp in Belgium for example, or to the other cities in Holland. My overall impression of the Netherlands was, that it is a calm and well organized place, with a practical mindset. It is not generally "entrepreneurial" though and sometimes feels a bit like an "island" in the buzz of the world. However, there are many cultural "entrepreneurs" in the Netherlands and we got an impression of that through meeting friends who are for example documentary movie producers. It is sometimes good to have a completely non-challenging environment to get some work done. And then again you need to go out. Now we are in Hong Kong. Another kind of "Island". I already taught my first EMBA Global Asia Block week on "Turn Around Management and Corporate Restructuring", and I enjoyed it a lot.
We have spent 6 weeks in Great Britain (not really that great), also called the United Kingdom (neither really a kingdom, and not united at all). For that period we have been splitting the time of our stay about equally into a hideaway period in Western Scotland and a very active one in London. In the latter, Feibai joined a Summer School at The London School of Economics (LSE) for qualitative research methods. It is very interesting and being a "number person" and seeing how artificially sometimes quantitative methods are applied to problems in social sciences and business. Good to learn more about better methods that make sense of data which does not mathematically add up. I spent most of my London time in the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) and worked in the reading room, or strolled around the University Campuses, where during the summer break I often had the library nearly for myself. In a lively and vibrant city like London, you need to know your islands of solitude. Otherwise it gets tiring. London is a great cultural place and one of my favorite cities. But we only like visiting it, and living not here.
We also spent 2 very remote weeks in Kilberry, in an old stone cottage called The Gables. It is located North of the Mull of Kintyre in West Scotland, and was part of the Kilberry Estate, which still has the remains of a castle. It is a wonderful place with a rough coast line. No no sand beach, few tourists, no mobile phone network, no internet. The next grocer is a 20 kilometer drive to the South. That's what I call being offline. But there are dolphins, seals, and even whales, in a beautiful and wild landscape. We enjoyed that a lot. It was nearly like a retreat. Also we spent a week in Glasgow, for ambulating on paths of memories when I did field work there in the Motherwell coal mine, about 25 years ago. The mine is closed. But Glasgow has still the same character of a broken city. When the retailers become the largest employers, that usually is the end. And that's what it is there: my true and only friend, the end.
Since June 21st the nights are getting longer in the North again. But still in Tallinn ours were short and only very briefly around midnight to three in the morning, it fell dawn (not dark). Now is July and we spent a week in Estonia. Holidays, festivals, cultural events, eating out in the mild sun and being out with friends in the white nights of Tallinn - all this is concentrated in this month. When the wind turns North again, then the temperatures will drop sharply and another long, freezing and dark winter is ahead. That's pretty much true for every Scandinavian country. But here we felt it most. Now you might think, this sounds harsh. But somehow it isn't. We have met the most wonderful and kind people, experienced warm hospitality, and have seen a great and defiant culture.
Estonians generally don't talk much. But if they do, they know what they say. Reaching independence from Soviet occupation in 1991 by what is called the Singing Revolution (have a look at the trailer of a documentary), was a start for everybody with empty pockets. Now Estonia is a prosperous little country, member of the European Union and the Eurozone, and has one of the smartest governments when it comes to economic policy and public administration. From the beginning everything was set up paperless. And in 2011 Estonians even the first time has elections where you could vote by SMS.
Tallinn, Estonia's Capital, has a very pretty old town which shows traces of all the powers which came here and left again. Only the Soviet occupation luckily did not leave many traces in the old core of the city. But it did, in the suburbs where you find the kind of architecture which was left by the communist rule. However, the buildings are made good use of. And of course the housing capacity is needed. So Estonia made the best out of it. A few years ago, there was a discussion whether Tallinn would be flooded by Casinos and franchise and chain stores destroying the pretty atmosphere. But the main Casinos integrated quite well, and so did the CI of the stores. The centre, which is also UNESCO World Heritage is protected very well. Even after 10 a.m. cars are not allowed in.
By invitation to visit Silport, we also had a quick visit to Narva Castle, which was founded by Danes in 1256. In 1346 it was purchased by the German Livonian Teutonic knights order and converted into a stone castle. It stayed Teutonic German for most of the time. It is a very nice place to visit, around two and a half hours by train from Tallinn.
Just across the Narva River, which marks the border to Russia, there is Ivangorod Fortress which is a medieval castle established by Ivan III in 1492. Borders to Russia often look quite empty on the other side. But here you see the town of Ivangorod which is the partner city of Narva in many respects, when it comes to the well organized border crossing. However, this border is heavily observed and guarded, not just since the Ukrainian conflict. Similar to Easter Ukraine, there are Russian speakers living in Estonia. But unlike Ukraine, they have a much better economic conditions in Estonia, than they would have in Russia. So there are currently more Russians who would like to immigrate into Estonia, than those who have a radical urge to return to their motherland - luckily.
A few weeks ago, thinking about where to potentially settle for a while, I drew the preliminary conclusion, that there are places where you can work productively, and distinctly other places where you can trade. "Nylonkong" (New York, London, Hong Kong) would be the kind of market places: busy, expensive, noisy, high demand, but also high competition. By contrast a mountain village in Sicily could be a production base: quiet (well not so, always), timeless and slow. One aspect missing in the mountain village, would be inspiration by others who are in the same trade. This is something New York and London definitely have, just by the fact that they attract a lot of talent. Hong Kong not so much, because it is only a hub between the worlds. Now all these thoughts, as said, were preliminary. And there seems at least one place, which has it all: Stockholm.
I actually also liked Copenhagen during our visit in December 2014, dropping by the Copenhagen Business School, where we met friends who inspired us to explore Scandinavia a bit more. And this was a brilliant idea. I can well imagine that Stockholm is "one of a kind", and other Scandinavian cities have similar qualities - or Baltic ones, which we will explore next week.
We are staying in the South of the city of Stockholm in the flat of Karin Skelton, a yoga teacher who is out of town, and kindly let us her home. It is a very nice place and we spend many hours of exercise and work here and around the nearby lakes, before we sometimes take the short subway ride to town.
Earnest Hemingway once said, that he can work anywhere, where people don't interrupt him. And in Stockholm nobody bothers you. But people are very friendly. Just they don't talk more than necessary. That was something, I also enjoyed in Amsterdam: the minimalistic directness with a very low "power distance" (which means competence goes before hierarchy). But here it has a bit more nonchalance than in the Netherlands. What I professionally really like here, is that people know their stuff. Even amateurs reach levels, which you don't see many professionals operate on in other places. And I see people having very (very!) good ideas. Perhaps this is because they actually can think cross disciplinary, as they know more than just one thing. It is a "no bullshit place". Of course my impression might be a bit superficial, in such a short time and with limited exposure. But then let's just call it "my first impression".
The only thing which would scare me a bit in Stockholm, is the darkness in winter. Not the temperatures. They are fine. But the long darkness. The winter is very different from the summer (you may take the sunrise equation to make your own calculations). But then, while we walked along the inner city harbor, it suddenly made click. There was anchoring the large sailing ship Sea Cloud II from Valletta - another city we like very much. A sign, haha. Perhaps the combination can work. And we thought, should no other obligations arise during the year, then we could try it out. Sounds like a good plan. Let's see, how the year proceeds.
We have spent a month in Italy, out of which three weeks in Sicily. A week in Rome, was a nice start. Always good to have a stop over in the Eternal City. Then we took the train to Palermo and stayed there for a week, spending a lot of time in the magnificent library. But the major part of our escape to Sicily we spent in the island's South, in the village Cianciana. We were kindly invited to stay in the studio of our friends Elizabeth Briel and Roy McClean, who have been refurbishing the old village house into an artist's studio. It is a wonderful place and here I got more work done, than in the months before.
There is a lot to learn from an artist's life style when it comes to productivity, not just creativity. When I think of the dimension, in which I will create my future work space, it will be a blend of a studio, a laboratory and a library. I have learned in the last two weeks what a studio can do to you. My summer project is to sort my photos. Not quite finished yet, but I am working on the photos every day. It is a very long and deep journey back to far away places and far away people. Also this website had quite a make over, and I prepared lectures and laid the foundation for a research project on what some people call the "Silicon Valley Business Model" - but this time from a quite different angle.
Cianciana is located in the South of Sicily and North of Agrigento, and is part of the province called after that town. You can actually reach it by bus, but we decided to rent a small car for our time here. This allows also to see the little corners around, and the other lovely mountain villages here, like Sant Angelo Muxaro.
One place to visit for sure, is the Valle dei Templi at Agrigento. It is a Doric style temple cluster founded 580 BC which is in the United Nations World Heritage List. Another site with Greek remains is Selinunte, which is about 90 minutes drive of Cianciana. It is based on population of the Sicilian Greek colony Megara, daughter city of the Greek Megara. Founded between 628 - 654 BC. Captured by Carthage in 409 BC and destroyed around 250 BC. There were later Arabian fortifications and even use of the Acropolis by the Barbary Pirates in the 16th century. But city has never been rebuilt.
We will not drive over to the Etna this time, as it is a three hour drive and we have many things to do in our village. But we are very confident that we will come back to Sicily and have other opportunities to do so. Perhaps later this year, when we also stay in Malta.
Travel became so much the norm for me now, that most of the path is described in my normal blog. There is no base from which I do "trips" now. But it is all one long journey, since the end of November 2014. Starting from Beijing, first some places Germany, then Amsterdam, Copenhagen. Then one month in Hong Kong, 6 weeks in Australia and New Zealand. Back to Germany. And now as I write these lines, I am sitting in London.
Sometimes I try to make an analytical judgement on which might be a place to settle. But there are so many factors, which are completely random, but still making a deep impression. In the end it is more the what than the where, on which the decision will be based.
But a few things, I learned about travel itself. For example to stay in every place at least a week, if not a month. If you move around too much, you don't find the time to get things done, and you stay a tourist. Also it became quite conscious, that I don't like winters. They are cold, dark and you have to carry a lot of clothes. Traveling light is important: rather 15 kilograms, then 20. Also when you mix urban and real outdoor trips in one bag, this will get quite bulky and not appropriate for any of the two purposes. As we had to repurchase a lot of things, after our destroyed container from Beijing to Germany, this also lead to quite a "modernization". There are no heavy leather good or business suits any more. And when you live so minimalistic, you think twice, whether you buy a book on paper or electronically. I even have a luggage balance, with which I scale a pair of socks before I buy them.
After heading for Europe from China, and enjoying the Christmas month in a traditional environment, we were heading for a month to Hong Kong. I have lived on Lamma Island for five years. Not surprisingly, this felt more like coming come than Germany. But also some things have changed since I left for Beijing at the end of 2011.
One remarkable change is the impact which the Occupy Central demonstrations had on the consciousness of many people I spoke with. No matter whether the person actually supported or disagreed with the initiative and its targets, it left marks in the understanding of the status quo. For example, a few years ago, when you asked people where they come from, they often quoted the origin of their family, for example: "I am from Guandong/Shanghai/Yunnan". Now, when you ask the same question, you mainly get the answer: "I am from Hong Kong". There are many reasons for this, which have nothing to do with the targets of the pro democracy demonstrations. But no matter why, this is not good news, as the identity gap between Hong Kong and its mother country has widened. Many people in Hong Kong are worried about the city's future. Economic reasons are prevailing for one group, as Hong Kong's economy is running only on one cylinder, which cripples most others. For others, the special rights Hong Kong has, are under threat. It is naive to believe that in a China where the Government consolidates its power and the country goes through a major transition with uncertain outcome, Hong Kong can really expand these rights. It will be hard enough, even only to preserve the status quo. Often I heard that Hong Kong would like to be the "democratic experiment" for China. But back when the agreement of "One Country, Two Systems" was formed, what was meant with two systems was Capitalism and Communism, not Democracy and Dictatorship. And as a "Capitalist Experiment", Hong Kong has failed, as the so-called free economy here, still tied up Adam Smith's invisible hand. So why should the "Democratic Experiment" work any better, in the eyes of the Beijing Government?
My life in the University of Hong Kong, and as a guest on its campus, is of course very different from most people here. I enjoyed very much starting the days with breakfast in the company of other visiting faculty. As as friendships grow and old ones re-connect, I gathered again a sense of home here. Still very different from living on my island in the South China Sea, but close. Also, the very friendly welcome and the many helpful hands, made this stay very nice. Last but not least, I had a great class of postgraduate students to teach, which I really enjoyed. Still I also got reminded of the downsides of Hong Kong, specially the incredible noise pollution, and the often very closed mindset. I never understood how a city which is technically so open, can be so self centered. But as a short term visitor, surrounded with the forefront of Hong Kong academics and entrepreneurs, these downsides vanished into the backdrop and were easy to be ignored.
I like Hong Kong. Not every part of it. But I like the country parks, as well as the narrow street canyons. It is a city that works, and people make the most out of their limited resources. In the end Hong Kong, is a city "on the rocks" - where no city would have been built, was there not an anomaly in history. It is a city that exists against the odds. And as long as it keeps its skills of doing so, it will be an interesting place to visit.
When I was a child, anything coming close to Vladivostok, was at the end of the world. Today, I know that the main difference between the far Northern East and the extreme American North, Alaska, is the narration I received. Alaska was told to me by people like Jack London. They were stories of gold rush and adventure. The stories of the far Northern East, were told by my grandfather. They told about displacement, gulag, starvation and insane dictators (responding to our own insane dictator). Last week we flew into Hailar and made it to Shiwei, then up the Chinese-Russian border close to the most Northern Chinese tip. It is a region, which was been signed over by Heilongjiang to Inner Mongolia. It is the end of summer. And it is beautiful.
Inner Mongolia is for me the synonym of endless grasslands, but heading North these very soon change into a birch forest vegetation and then into the Greater Khingan Forest. The border to Russia is perhaps the best protection of the Yalu River, as it is fenced by barbed wire and marks the National Border just in the middle of the stream. There is trade of building material, wood and stones between the countries, but not much of an interaction, except the exchange of money against goods part. The few towns are like Jack London's gold digger towns. Just, that there is no gold.
Heading for a peak, to get a good view over the forest, suddenly Jack London came much closer than expected. We walked up a steep slope, with bushes to our right. Feibai was sick of the height and was wondering how to get down again. I was wondering what was following us in the cover of the dense forest and saw with suspicion grass pressed down by some really big creatures lingering there. Kind of naively, I asked: "Any wolves reported here?"
It did not take much longer, until I saw who was looking over the hill ahead, ready to block our way: at least two bears. Shit! I have never seen bears in wilderness, and they were obviously more than our size. I wanted to turn back over the rocks, staying at distance of any bush providing them cover. But I was also aware that they would not really need to hide from us two little creatures. I requested Feibai, please to walk like a healthy animal in the eyes of a bear, and I was not sure whether she got the message what that means. At least she was not afraid of the height any more. We still had to cross a dense forest band, back to the "road" and were completely venerable to meeting the bears. There are no firearms allowed in China, so there is no, what so ever, chance to survive the attack of bears. But they did not attack. Don't know, whether is was our "supreme tactics", moving in the forest, or whether we were just really, really lucky.
There is another thing about Mongolia, which I nearly forgot: the Mongolians. They make only about 10% of the local population in Inner Mongolia, and have their own language and writing. They are nice. But actually, everybody up here is nice, no matter which ethnic. When winter drops down to -50 Degrees Celsius and summer is short, you better treat your fellows well.
The far North-East is a "no bullshit country". And there are not many left of it. They had no Jack London, but I think they deserve one. Even there is no gold. There was also not much in Alaska, lets face it.
Even the group of islands is located very near - just off the coasts of Italy, Tunisia and Libya - I never before went to Malta. Pre-history started in Malta about 5200 years ago, with hunters from Sicily. Since then it had a lively history, which is exciting to study. And nearly anywhere in Malta you see its history and culture at such high density, that it would take you ages to explore the small country really in depth. I had the honor and pleasure to give a research seminar at the University of Malta, which itself was founded by Jesuits in 1592. The seminar itself, I enjoyed very much, and more so the hospitality and good humor of my kind hosts. Malta has an indigenous breed of bees which gave the islands the nickname "Land of Honey", and actually there are a lot of aspects which make the lands biblical. Powers have changed often, and the last scares of siege (but not invasion) are from the attacks of Italy and Germany.
I was very much surprised by the size of the fortification of Valletta. It is an amazing city and current construction activities are developing it into a perfect blend of history and modernity. It took me a long time to make my first trip to Malta. But it won't take me long to come back.
Seville is in many ways a contrast to Lisbon, where I came from before landing here on a small Turboprop. It is really like a Fado club versus a Flamenco performance. The Cathedral is enormous and I enjoyed seeing Christopher Columbus tomb there. It remind me of old maps, sailing ships, canon balls and mystical stories of exploration and the sea. Alcazar is impressive too and was the first large scale witness of the ancient Arabian civilization on the Southern tip of the Iberian peninsula. But then driving over to the Alhambra on top of the city of Granada was another marvelous example. The snow covered mountains at the fringe of the Sierra Nevada reminded me of one of my first interests in Solar Energy, as the first large scale thermal solar power plant is on the Almeria plateau. From Granada heading strait South gives a nice drive along the Costa Del Sol towards Malaga. And again the distance back to Hahn Airport was only 29 Euros. A long flight back followed from Frankfurt/Main to Beijing. I did not get sleep on that one as I had to provide first aid to a collapsed passenger. The only assistance provided by the Chinese fellow passengers was to block the way and take videos with their smart phones. Welcome back to the People's Republic.
I have not been to Lisbon for more about 15 years, and this time it was only 29,- Euros away from the Airport Hahn, which is the civil successor of Hahn Airbase, which was during my childhood the home of the United States Air Force 50th Fighter Wing. Lisbon I always found a bit melancholic, and I liked it a lot. And these impressions stayed during and after my recent visit. A charming city, friendly and down to earth people, and the atmosphere of Fado and red wine make me want to stay longer. This time, it were only a few days. The city wakes up late and I enjoyed strolling through the narrow and steep streets in the early hours as much as taking Tram Line 28 from terminus to terminus a bit later. It is a city not just to visit, but to indulge. You can stay in Lisbon with no purpose or plan, and the city will play its stories to you by itself.
Most journeys have the purpose of exploring something new. Not so my travels during the last few weeks, which brought me to the parts of the Europe in which I spent my earliest works aboard and learned my first foreign languages, namely English and French - as German is my mother tongue. I was surprised that my French still worked reasonably well after so many years. But more so, I was surprised that more and more French speak English now.
Though the purpose of this journey was not just personal nostalgia, but also to get an impression of Universities, Colleges and Schools on the way. Specially in England the route went along such sites like London, Oxford, Bath, Bristol, Manchester and Cambridge. I was surprised about Bath, which has developed into quite a campus. But it had the handicap of a place which markets itself with student's satisfaction instead of academic merit - an understandable positioning in the "education business", but not hugely inspiring. All other places, and the small ones in between, were of nice character and some spirit living in the walls. I enjoyed a lot my visit of the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Grove, which I am a fellow of, and seeing the places where the famous explorers of the world reported about their journeys. I will for sure spend some more time in London and make use of the Society's library for a month or two. In Oxford I was also reminded of my time lecturing there in the School of Geography in the mid 90s. It was one of the last things I did in that field, and it felt like the best place for a farewell to science. The German University and education system back then felt like a waste of time and I did not pursue an academic career, but went out and looked for a "proper job". Ultimately, a lot of this ended up being a waste of time too, but a lucrative one, which still opened me a lot of opportunities. By now, I understood, that "career" is just a way to integrate into society and explain to HR departments and the tax office that what you are doing actually makes sense.
A nice little stop at a nearly unknown academic location was the one at Keele University in Staffordshire. It is a small University campus, just a bit North of Shakespeare's city Stratford-on-Avon and Birmingham, up the hill of Silverdale in the suburb of Newcastle-under-Lyme. This was the place where I gave my first academic talk at the School of Earth Sciences, while I was working at Wardell-Armstrong in Newcastle. I always liked the messy old office in one of the corners of Keel Hall, which is overlooking the park. No idea whose it is, and what is done there. But back then I though, if somebody gives me an office like this one day and a lot of time, I will be happy.
Of course, I also dropped by the place where I lived at that time, which was not in Newcastle, but over the hill and just over the border to the neighboring city called Stoke-on-Trent, in Victoria Street. I am not sure whether my former landlady, Frances Griffith, still lives there. It is about 20 years ago. I have been still writing to her a few years after. But finally letters stayed unanswered. Lucy, the old lady living next door must have passed away. Her place looks abandoned. Frances and Lucy always shared their flower seeds and were growing them in their gardens towards the back alley. It was a recession in England. And then there was Pauline, the hippie, which lived next door of Lucy. I think she went to Australia.
Stoke-on-Trent is a conglomerate of smaller places which once were the heart of the English pottery industry. It is the place of "Bone China" called the Potteries. Most of the old bottle kilns have been converted into museums. What also reminds of that time, are the canals which were a means of transportation for fragile goods and span over large parts of England. Today they are still operational and you can use them with longboats, also called arrow boats, for recreational purposes. From the marinas you see England not from the road side, which is always the more interesting perspective.
A few miles North-East of the Potteries is the Peak District, and the landscape changes dramatically with steep rocks and moorlands. I often went there on the weekend to go hiking or caving in the karst caves. The caves inspired me in 1990 to try and model the development of them using a Monte-Carlo approach simulating the dissolving processes of the limestone. I discussed later with Tim Burt in Oxford on it. My simulated caves looked really beautiful, but the structures I calculated had nothing to do with reality. My idea to use the model and identify the age of the caves did not work out at all. In the end I scrapped the plan and changed my master thesis topic with Helga Besler at Cologne University to mathematical modeling of particle dispersion, which was related to my work and much easier. In the Peak District, just beside the National Park, is a nice little town called Buxton. It has some springs, and people came here for them in the past. There is still a pretty little opera house and a green house. It is a good base to explore the karst and the moorlands around.
Stopping over in Manchester re-confirmed that most cities which are proud of their soccer club, have not much more to offer (Madrid and Sao Paulo are obvious exceptions).
In Cambridge I met a friend and former colleague from Wardell Armstrong. It has been about 20 years and was nice to "catch up" in the way, as if the 20 years actually did not happen. We enjoyed it a lot over dinner in Midsummer House. I rarely mention restaurants, but this one is quite special and should not be missed when staying in town. The University of Cambridge is similar and different to Oxford. I never did anything academically in Cambridge, so I do not really have an insight. But from my impression Cambridge is more lively and connected than Oxford, without compromising on heritage and ability to focus. But this is really just an impression gathered in a few hours.
Arriving Dover via Canterbury I had a surprise: there are no ferries taking foot passenger to Ostende leaving from here. Also the Hovercrafts are gone. The tunnel really changed the world here. Dover, not long ago the focus point of traffic between England and the continent, has become sleepy. The only ferry went the short way to Calais. On the French side, Syrians were camping and hoping for a chance to go over to the UK. Also Calais changed. It became sleepy too, but it is better not to gaze, but take care of fellows waiting for a chance to hit and run at least for your bag. Good reminder to put the pocket knife back in reach for quick reach and adequate response. The train to Bruxelles leaves every few hours from Calais. The one to Paris more frequently. This time going via Bruxelles was the train to take back "into the continent", as the English sometimes like to call it.
Willian Gibson traveled to Singapore in 1993, to explore whether the future of technology would be coming the small city state south of Malaysia . He summarized his impressions in the Wired Magazine in an article under the title: "Disneyland with Death Penalty". He starts: "It's like an entire country run by Jeffrey Katzenberg," the producer had said, "under the motto 'Be happy or I'll kill you.'"
Yes, Singapore is a strict place. But perhaps Mr. Gibson, at the time he wrote his article, never really experienced how to live in chaos and corruption. It is definitely not making you more progressive. I admire Singapore for firstly for surviving at all, and for becoming a prosperous place to live for everybody who wants to contribute. On the other hand it has no tolerance to people who do not want to contribute or disturb the system which has proofed to be successful. This is why, I was told, there is a lack of "creative destruction". I know what this term is meant to say. But most destruction I have seen, was simply destructive - and not creative at all. This is why I understand, a place like Singapore is only experimenting carefully with it.
I enjoyed escaping Beijing for a few days, breathe clean air, eating un-poisoned food and meeting nice people. Like in Hong Kong, most people who come to Singapore have an interesting story to tell and experiences to exchange. And also like in Hong Kong, the local people, are very much occupied by making money - and that's it. Singapore in contrast to Hong Kong, has not beed a refugee for people escaping from Chinese Communism. It has attracted people by the model itself and offering an alternative not just contrasting one big oppressive neighbor. There are many other differences between Singapore and Hong Kong and the closer you look at it that the often made comparison between these two places is comparing apples and oranges.
I was also looking at Singapore from the perspective of moving there myself one day. And of course, I am just at the beginning of my exploration of terms, but it is definitely on my short list.
The first time I heard about Jeju was about 10 years ago, when I saw an advert in The Economist to invest in the self governed Pacific island province of South Korea. I remember there was a map showing how good it is located and which places you can reach in a radius of three flight hours. And there were ambitious plans to develop it into a "Second Hong Kong". Today Jeju is a very nice weekend escape for me from Beijing. It is a self governed province of South Korea and also Nationals of the People's Republic of China can enter on a landing visa. First I thought then there is the chance that the island might have already deteriorated into a "Chinese Mallorca". But not at all. Most Chinese travel companions coming from Beijing, strait went to the Casino and the shopping malls and do rarely appear in the rest of the island, except in the form f a few tour busses which are easy to be spotted from far and avoided.
The island itself is very pretty and mainly shaped by Mount Hallas, a very picturesque shield volcano and many other volcanic structures. The sea is clear and has some nice dark sanded volcanic beaches. All together the island is a very good destination for hiking, swimming, cycling, or just to get away to a quiet place. Historically, Jeju received unfortunate fame for the 1948 massacre, and the violent confrontations with communist insurgence. The society has been shaken, by troops and paramilitary units killing men and forcing the widows to marry the murderers of their husbands, so that they take legal ownership of the land.
Jeju also has a University and a Science Park and it makes a very good diaspora for example to finish up some writing in a nice environment. I have not made further plans yet, but I keep the option in mind for now.
In times of chemical fibers, shipping and air freight it seems incredible that a textile once was of such value that it justified the terrifying hardship to transport and trade it from China to Europe, crossing Central Asia. For me silk has always been a beautiful material and it is a metaphor of romance, grace and elegance. In ancient China only Emperors had access to it. During times of pests, healthy silk worms were still contained in Japan. This is the setting in which Alecandro Barico's novel Silk is narrated, which is the story of a French Silk worm smuggler. It is a very mystical book, which I liked a lot. There has also been a movie produced, which follows a pattern you often see when people work on this material: brilliant material and bad cut - applies in fashion as well as in directing this movie. I am frequently suprised why silk dresses actually are made so lousy. They count on the material to compensate for bad design and craftsmanship, I guess.
My own first contact with the Silk Road, was when I found Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen'sFuehrer fuer Forschungsreisende as a discounted reprint in my favorite hangout as a Geociences student in Cologne: the Goertz Map Shop. Ferdinand von Richthofen is not to be mistaken with Manfred von Richthofen, commonly known as The Red Baron. It was Ferdinand von Richthofen who first coined the name "Silk Road" for a system of trading paths which never were, nor are, one road.
The trigger to make a journey along the Chinese parts of the Silk Road came from Judy Bonavia's book The Silk Road from Xi'An to Kashgar which is published by my friend and former neighbor on Lamma Island Magnus Bartlett and is a brilliant historical and cultural guide. A very interesting account of the early explorers which found and took many mural paintings and treasures from Central Asia back to Europe, is Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. It is one of the constant allegations by Chinese that there were not explorers but robbers, and I have sympathy for that argument. On the other hand they are sometimes defended, saying that they actually secured the works from grave robbers and rescued them from the communists, who destroyed many art works and temples in the Cultural Revolution. The latter argument does not hold for the German collections though, as they have been to 40 % destroyed in the allied bombardment of Berlin at the end of World War II. The British Museum is more lucky, but keeps the collects at very low profile not to provoke anybody. Anyways, world cultural heritage is as the name says "world cultural heritage" and it does not really matter who is taking care of it, as long as everybody has access.
The better starting point for a journey along the Silk Road tough turned out to be not Xi'an but Loyang. This is a city south of Xi'An which states its claim to be included into the Silk Road and which was one of the four ancient capitals of China and the place where the legendary Journey to the West took its start. The famous Longmen Grottos are UNESCO world heritage site.
Xi'An is one of of the places of which people say you should go there once in a life time. I agree, in the sense of: if you happen to go there once, you will definitely not go there a second time. Xi'an holds one of the best known historical treasures of China: the Terracotta Soldiers. They are really very impressive individual art works and not mass production. However, not just that I have seen too many cheap replicas of them as garden decoration and flower pots all over the world - but I am also tired of these kind of tourists which fall in thousands into the site. Xi'An is a place where tour busses dump they human cargo. It is wise to start a Silk Road Journey not in Xi'An, but in Loyang. Otherwise your will change your mind, and strait away book a ticket to Thailand instead, because you already had enough.
The journey further West through the Hexi Corridor brings you to Jia Yu Guan, which are the remains of the most Western large Chinese fort and also has the last remains of the Western part of the Great Wall. It is here not a unified structure any more, but only blocks the valleys from potential ancient enemy penetration. Jia Yu Guan was also the place wehere many goods changed their ownership from Chinese hands into Central Asian tradesmen. The fort it really impressive, but unfortunately surrounded by a heavy industrial environment. The mountains in the background inspire the imagination, but the reality on the ground is that of a historical marvel in a complete trash environment. Also Jia Yu Guan is still in the reach of tour busses and their load, and a useless management of the site ruins the rest. This experience will stay when traveling further West through the Gobi desert, where all kinds of industries received cheap land to do anything (which they do) with no or only few laws implemented.
When you arrive Dunghuang, you see a marvellous landscape of large sand dunes, which is entirely spoiled by tourist development. The Dunghuang Grottos are wonderful though and it is a very well managed site. You can only join guided tours, and as a positive surprise the guides are really knowledgeable and of course necessary to stop our neocommunist comrades to pi on the mural paintings or scratch them off as a souvenir. As Tulufan (Turpan) is also still in the range of organized tourism, it is just a stop over. But as soon as you leave from here further to the West, things slowly become interesting until you finally arrive in Kashgar. Even the Han Chinese behave better, as if they would bully people here, I guess three brothers will take care of them. Seeing the livestock market on a Sunday in Kashgar is really a must.
Even more interesting becomes the journey further West to Tashkogan and along the Pakistan border. The Tashiks are, like the Uyigurs, very nice and friendly people. The landscape is one of the most beautiful I have seen in China too. From Tashkogan you can drive to Hetain in two days and from there cross the world's second largest desert, the Taklamakan. The Western, and new, desert highway is going along some river beds and here the desert is not that arid. I enjoyed learning about the trees changing their shape when they have more water available and the geomorphological spots which allow them to survive under such hard conditions.
On the way to Urumchi, do not miss to drive through a part of Northern Xingjian. Here are again, where scenic spots, and wonderful grassland, populated by utmost friendly Kasak nomads.
It is really not easy for me to draw a conclusion on this Silk Road Journey. There are places which become even more mystical when you see them and your interest grows. These are actually most places I visited. The Silk Road is not one of these. Seeing the places along the Silk Road, de-mystifies the whole concept very solemnly. Yes, there are beautiful landscapes and wonderful people with minority cultures which are very appealing and interesting. But up to Dunghuang and Turpan, they are just covered by a landscape of industrial trash. It is really hard to ignore that the "factory of the world" is turning them into the world's trash can. And further there are cities like Kuche and Aksu, which are purely functional places, some of them set up by former army units. These cities easily compete at the low end of urban appeal and cultural heritage. Last but not least, I would recommend to avoid even some of the most famous sites, and sites which are convenient to reach.
Once again, what is right for the Terracotta Soldiers, might be right for the whole Chinese section of the Silk Road (North and South): you might want to see it once in a lifetime, but in the sense of that you will not go there a second time. However, I am personally curious how the further Central Asian section up to Turkey looks like. So, my personal Silk Road exploration is not over yet.
I was on a business trip to Wolfsburg and you might think that this is not worth mentioning. But I liked being there and actually the former "Kraft durch Freude Wagen"-Stadt has an interesting history. Long before the settlement became a city, it was mentioned first in 1302 as residence of the family von Bertensleben. And close to today's Volkswagen Management Guesthouse Rothehof, you can still see the remains of an older small castle in the forest, which might have been built around 1200. With the ending of the von Bertensleben family in 1742, the property was inherited by the Dukes von der Schulenburg.
On May 26th in 1938 the factory for the production of the "Kraft durch Freude Wagen" (Strength through joy car), short KdF-Wagen, was started in construction. To accomodate the workers a new city was built, which was called "Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben" (City of the KdF-Car close to Fallersleben). US Military Intelligence pictures showed very early that the factor which was claimed to have a certain capacity for the production of cars, did not really have much parking space for storage. It became clear that given the strategic location at the Mittellandkanal, it would produce weapons and military equipment to support the Eastern Front in Wold War II. Besides military vehicles and ammunition, it was also a production base for components for the first ever Cruise Missle, called V1 for "Vergeltungswaffe 1", or Fieseler Fi 103. In principle it was a long range missile in the shape of a plane, which was used against long range targets in London and Belgium. In the words of Nazi Propaganda, this was one of Germany's "Miracle Weapons". POWs and forced labor was contained in the concentration camp "KZ Arbeitsdorf" during that time.
On April 11th 1945 the plant became target of an allied air strike and was distroyed. After capitulation the young British Major Ivan Hirst was in command of the facilities and on May 25th 1945 the city was renamed "Wolfsburg". Hirst found a few "Beetles", painted them green and offered them to the British Forces. They were amazed by the little robust car and asked for production of 1000 units. Hirst rejected the disassembly of the plant and managed basic reconstruction, restarted production and started export. By proposal of him, Heinrich Nordhoff became then General Manager of Volkswagen in 1948. It became clear, the company has a future. Volkswagen has an excellent archive and if you are interested to read more, you can download Ivan Hirst - Britischer Offizier und Manager des Volkswagenwerks. I was planning to try and meet Major Hirst in his retirement domicile in Manchester, but he unfortunately passed away in the year 2000 before I could get through to him.
Today Wolfsburg is a small town, which is trying but struggling to break up the monoculture which has developed around the Volkswagen Plant in its post war history. Many initiatives have made the city more attractive and the list would be too long to write about them all. It is not a lack of architecrual hardware, which still keeps Worlfsburg provincial. Also the list of people who shaped Volkswagen and the city is too long to be lined up here. Sure, Ferdinand Piech, who is our chairman of the board and has lead the company to great success, even beyond his time as CEO. But for me, one man has to be mentioned who with his vision has not just made Volkswagen a real Multinational Company, but also started our China Business in 1983 - Dr. Carl Horst Hahn, truly beyond an auto manager a pioneer of globalization. I was very honored that my request to meet him in his office was accepted and without talking much about cars, I was stunned by a charismatic and visionary gentleman, who understands the full complexity of the world we live in. Such a discussion I did not have in 13 years Volkswagen. If there is anything like wisdom in our industry, now I know one place to find it.
I also traveled on the weekend to Podsdam and Berlin and I hope you forgive me, that I do not mention them on my travel blog. It would have been too much to write. After returning to China, I also was in Shanghai and taught a few days at Tongji University, before returning to Beijing and now preparing for a long haul along the Silk Road into the very West of China.
I took it as a positive sign of my ability to adapt deeply into neocommunist manners, that when I arrived in Japan coming from Beijing, I first felt like a caveman. But it luckily did not take more than 30 minutes to switch back to normal. So no permanent damage done. Japan is often described as a "cultural Galapagos" of East Asia and even it is a highly modern country, it preserved a lot of uniqueness. And I like it a lot.
It has been my third time being in Japan and the second time in Kyoto during the "Sakura" which is the time when the cherry trees blossom. Flying into Osaka, Kyoto is only a short local train ride away. In the high speed train Shinkansen you even shoot from one city to the other in only about 15 minutes.
When Kyoto was established as Heian-kyō (平安京, "tranquility and peace capital") is was modelled as a copy of the Chinese Tang Dynasty capital Chang'an (西安, Xi'an). Kyto remained the capital until the Emperial Court moved to Tokyo in 1896 as a consequence of the distructions during the Hamaguri rebellion. By contrast to Xi'an, Kyoto has preserved a lot of its charm and beauty. Kyoto is an important academic, philosophical and cultural center of Japan, has 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites and is definitely a region to explore with more time.
I was reading Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living on the way and had to burst laughing when he refused describing Buddhism in his book, because it is "too sad". Sharp observation, wise explanation and the good humor of Lin Yutang makes this book together with My Country and My People two absolute must reads for any Westerner who comes to China. I took a few chapters on Taoism (道教) twice and remembered my hopeless attempt to read Laozi in a German translation when I was a teenager. But now perhaps is a good time to catch up on it. In terms of Zen please be reminded of Eugen Herrigel's short essay Zen in the Art of Archery (I did not find the German original in electronic format) and D.T. Suzuki's An Introduction into Zen Buddhism.
Taoism is for me a very sympathetic religion. First of all they don't set people on fire for believing in something else, don't blow themselves up in crowded vegetable markets and are also in other respects far less aggressive than for example the Abrahamic religions (Christians, Jews, Muslims). They don't believe in an old man in the sky who watches every move you make, but simply have an harmonious philosophy with their natural environment, themselves and other people. They don't even have dogmatic suppression of scientific research, do not burn books or pictures - and the best thing is: they have sex! Philosophical Taoism is a nice and colorful way of "explaining" the world around and makes undoubtedly good suggestions how to live in it happily and without annoying others. That's for me as good as a religion can get anyways. Also in the People's Republic of China Taoism is still quite common and under government supervision of a state bureaux called the China Taoist Association.
Zen is a derivative of Mahayana Buddhism which goes back to the Chinese Tang Dynasty and is actively practiced mainly in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, China and also in some Western Regions. It practices a lot of meditation and tries to achieve enlightenment through "emptiness". Enlightenment or not - an interesting experiment has been undertaken by Richard Davidson by examining people with meditation experience in a MRI scanner. It shows that meditation changes the mind and increases attention.
Opposite the Kyoto Museum (which I do not recommend to visit) I bumped into "David's Gallery Cafe". In the back part of the gallery leading to a small workshop I saw a painting of David Kidd by Claire Trevor. David Kidd started his time in Asia in 1946, aged 19, as an exchange student in China where he taught English at suburban colleges. He married Aimee Yu, the daughter of the former Chief of Justice of the supreme court of China and he experienced first hand the Communist Revolution in 1949. The New York Times wrote in his Orbitary in 1996 the he might have been "perhaps the only American in Tiananamen Square for the formal Communist takeover". He published his account in the book Peking Story: The Last Days of The Old China. Another book he published is All the Emporers Horses. After his devorce in the United States he moved to Japan in 1956 and established himself as an art collector and taught at various Universities and Art Institutions.
Traveling by train less than one hour you reach the small town of Nara, which was the capital of Japan before Kyoto (710-784). Nara is a very pretty small town with huge parks. One of the attractions is the Todai-ji Temple, of which the Daibutsuden Hall is the world's largest wooden building. The whole city is full with ancient treasures and relicts, and it needs more than a day trip to explore it. For that case, the 1910 built Nara Hotel is a very nice place to stay over night.