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Christoph Rehage – across China on foot

Christoph Rehage began his hiking tour 15 years ago in Beijing

Christoph Rehage is a hiker, travel blogger and author. For 15 years, he hikes across Asia and Eastern Europe. And he records his experiences. His first book, “The Longest Way,” tells of the mosaic of a multi-layered China and the curse of wanting to keep walking, whatever happens.

The journey began on November 9, 2007, on his 26th birthday. Rehage had previously spent two years studying in Beijing. He wanted to return to Germany on foot. It was the beginning of a journey to find himself, which still hasn’t come to an end. He only takes the plane or train to Germany when there are urgent personal reasons – family matters, doctor’s appointments, book tours. Once those are done, it’s back to where the trip was interrupted.

China has always fascinated him, he says: “The food culture was great, the people incredibly creative, hospitable, helpful.” And the longer he walked, the more he got to know the country and all its contradictions.

‘They always know where I am’

Wherever he went, the man was welcomed with open arms. While his beard kept growing, he stayed with families, slept in fields, in temples, or in the backroom of a restaurant. While hiking, he got the chance to intensively talk to monks, police officers or sex workers who crossed his path. He could perhaps have met these people on well-trodden tourist paths, but the opportunity for deep exchange would hardly have arisen.

Rehage experienced the cosmopolitanism of the Chinese on the one hand, and their caution in their own country on the other, at first hand. “I always had the feeling that there was something tragic about China, that the people there trusted each other less than they trusted me.”

In 2010, Rehage first came into conflict with the local and social surveillance that ordinary Chinese have to live with every day, when he got into a fight with the local police in Kuytun and Wusu. “My passport was taken away, and I had to stay in a hotel for a few days. At that time, I realized: They always know where I am.” Control and authoritarianism have steadily gotten worse since 2010, he believes. “When I first arrived in Beijing in 2005, people were still talking openly. That’s completely gone.”

When his books made him a public figure in China in 2012, he felt this more than ever. “I suddenly had glimpses behind the scenes that you don’t get as a tourist. I got the feeling there are a lot of tag-alongs in China who don’t like the system themselves.” He has long adhered to the red line of censorship. But when Xi Jinping came to power, it became more and more restrictive. “I could not, and I did not want to stay silent any longer. That’s why I started talking.” About Taiwan, genocides, “everything they didn’t want to hear.” But things that were on Rehage’s mind.

Contact with China has been severed

Nowadays, Rehage’s channels are blocked in China due to his political opinions. He is no longer in contact with most of his acquaintances there. “I don’t want to put them in danger.” Three of his friends, whom he talks about in the book, have died. Another – he later learned – spent two years in an internment camp in Xinjiang. “I always carry China in my heart, but the bridges are burning behind me.”

As ambivalent as his relationship with China is his relationship with running. He would like to arrive somewhere, he says, “but so far I’ve always had to leave again. After China, he wandered through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Turkey and Georgia. Neither the pandemic nor a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis has stopped him from continuing to walk for long. At the moment, Rehage is in Serbia. You can follow his journey on Instagram.

But by now he is looking forward to finishing his journey soon and arriving in Germany. But at the same time, he says, he’s afraid of it. “I’m afraid that the satisfaction won’t set in, and I’ll have to move on again.” But perhaps he will end up settling down in Georgia. “It was the first country where I felt like there is freedom here.” Lisa Marie Jordan

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