A ride north to south gives German student new insights into real China

By Xu Ming Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/21 19:25:01

Hoefer on the road Photo: Courtesy of Hoefer

Joerg Hoefer's research for his graduate thesis wasn't conducted in the quiet, dusty confines of Zhejiang University's library. The German Master's student took to the road for a "mind-blowing" adventure of a lifetime, riding his bike across 12 Chinese provinces to learn firsthand the meaning of the "Chinese Dream."

Hoefer, 28, cycled 5,800 kilometers in 100 days. He rode from Mohe, the northernmost point of China in Heilongjiang Province near the Russian border, to Sanya, the southernmost point of Hainan Province across the sea from Vietnam.

Riding a collapsible bike, Hoefer traveled wherever he wanted and interviewed local people about their Chinese Dream, which formed the basis of his 85-page graduate paper.

Hoefer once told people.com.cn that his impression of the country used to be clouded by the stereotyped view he had in Germany, which emphasized China's battle againt air pollution and overly crowded cities.

"We all think in boxes. I encourage people to go out as much as you can and talk with locals," said Hoefer.

An adventurous trip

Along the way Hoefer's bike had many break-downs and flat tires, which he repaired himself using his handy toolkit that all serious cyclists carry.

Hoefer was extremely frugal on his trek. To save money, he found free accommodation, sometimes sleeping in his tent. Despite the hardship he calls his trip "rewarding."

It was curiosity that drove Hoefer to China the first time as an exchange student in 2011, because few of his peers had been there.

He fell in love with the country and focused on learning Chinese during his year-long exchange in Chengdu. He decided to dig deeper into the country and language and returned to China in 2015 majoring in Sinology at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.

Hoefer wasn't content with the classroom knowledge he was learning and so he came up with the idea of cycling around China.

His "crazy idea" got support from his school which encourages its international students to learn about Chinese society, reach out to ordinary people, and spot problems in society. The school even provided him 3,000 yuan ($455) a month to fund his research.

Two months before he set off he began a training regime. He started off cycling 30 kilometers, then 80 kilometers and finally a 170-kilometer trek from Hangzhou to Shanghai.

Hoefer finished all his course work in his first year. He mapped out his 5,800-kilometer route to not only take him through big cities like Beijing and Wuhan, he also cycled to many historical sites such as the ancient Shaolin Temple, famed for training Wushu masters past and present.

Wherever he went he would try his best to tune his ear to the local dialect and engage people in conversation to learn about their local culture.

"It was rewarding for both sides," said Hoefer. "That was the motivation to do that trip, getting in touch with the people and inspiring others to do so as well."

Hoefer poses for a picture with a Mongolian family in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Photo: Courtesy of Hoefer

Decoding Chinese Dream

Hoefer was curious about the often-used term "Chinese Dream" and he set out to find out what it means to people in urban and rural areas, to people of different ages and positions in society.

Sometimes he would just stop someone on the street and ask them for their thoughts. He says his question got some weird looks. He asked several hundred people the question during his 100 days of cycling.

"People usually started smiling and laughing. When they realized that I was really interested in understanding the concept, they started to really think about it," said Hoefer, who goes by the Chinese name Yue Ge (Brother Yue).

An owner of a restaurant in Mohe told him her dream was for the government to help improve the quality of life of the elderly. A migrant worker in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region dreams of living a well-off life. A college student in Changchun, Jilin Province hopes to realize his own value in society.

Most people's dreams are related to the improvement of the social environment and the wealth of the country.  Their Chinese Dream involved practical improvements that centered on the revival of the country, and few people expressed grand hopes and wishes for themselves.

"Most people answered in a humble way, wishing to improve their lifestyle and care for their family and just be happy. Some of the young people looked at me saying that they would love to travel around the world," wrote Hoefer in an e-mail from Germany where he is now working.

"This concept of individualism, like thinking about self-fulfillment and dreams is very present in Western culture. Thus, it was most interesting to see that this idea of chasing one's own dream seems to be less prevailing in China," Hoefer wrote.

Hoefer arrives in Sanya after cycling 5,800 kilometers. Photo: Courtesy of Hoefer

Knowing China better

Hoefer said he tried not to be biased about China before "seeing something with my own eyes," even though in Germany most of what he read and heard were stereotyped ideas with discussions centering on the economy, foreign policy and politics.

Hoefer says his trip debunked many myths about China. He was impressed with the sincerity, enthusiasm, hospitality and honesty of Chinese people.

He recalled how one day he became frantic after discovering he had lost his knapsack while cycling in Tangshan, Hebei Province. A man kindly picked him up and they spent an hour retracing his route before finding his bag - untouched - in a small store.  This was just one of many stories of kindness he encountered. 

"I can say that the areas that I covered with my bike were completely safe and I was treated with lots of curiosity and open arms by everybody," says Hoefer.

Hoefer also posted short reports of the many problems he encountered on his social media WeChat account. He used black-humor cartoons to record the days he spent riding through heavily polluted Hebei Province. "A German was suffocated to death in Hebei," was the satirical headline to one of his posts.

He also lamented the commercialization of cultural heritage sites such as the Shaolin Temple, and the huge difference between the urban and rural areas amid rapid development and transformation.

The adventure was filled with so many interesting events and life lessons, Hoefer says it is a pity his trip is "already over," adding that he's planning more China adventures in the future.

Newspaper headline: Journey to the dreams

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