Sometimes, you just have to walk. With this idea mind, Christoph Rehage set out on November 9, 2007 with the goal of crossing 4646km through China. Almost every day, he snapped a photo to document the journey (and his beard growth).
After a year and roughly 4500km, in the desert of Gobi, Chris decided to stop walking. He boarded a plane, shaved his facial hair, and went home.
I caught up with Chris to talk about the journey, the biggest challenges, and the existential feeling every traveler has when they look at a snapshot of themselves “before” their life-altering experience.
BNT: What compelled you to go on this journey?
I am thinking about this question as well. I think it has to do with a spontaneous walk I did in 2003, from Paris to Bad Nenndorf in Germany. The memory has been with me ever since.
Why did you choose foot? What are the benefits of a walking journey?
It is nice to walk towards the horizon, not knowing what’s ahead. The good thing about walking is that it is a rather slow method of movement, so I imagine you have more time to take in more of the details on the way.
Did other famous (or non-famous) long-term foot travelers inspire your trip?
Well, my original walk from Paris to my home was inspired by an article I had read about the Roman armies, who had to walk all around their vast empire back then. That’s when I kind of got the idea. There are two more influential people though: the first one is early 19th century German traveler J.G. Seume, who traveled to Italy and did quite a bit of walking there.
The second and maybe more important one is German journalist M. Holzach, who walked around Germany in the early 80s – without a penny to his name, and wrote a brilliant book about it.
What were some of the biggest challenges of long-term travel on foot? What were your biggest surprises?
The challenges come in different stages, foot-pains being the first one. Then there are all kinds of different pains to follow, hopelessness and self-doubt being the most difficult to overcome. It sounds a bit tacky, but the biggest obstacle is always within ourselves.
You dedicate the film to Teacher Xie; how did you come across him and how did he influence your journey?
As fate would have it, we crossed paths somewhere in the Gobi desert, after I had already been walking for more than a half year. I was then to find out that he had already been walking for 26 years! Teacher Xie taught me something very valuable: “you set the rules yourself” he said, “and you are always free to change them. You only have to know what it is you want!”
You never completed your original route; does that affect your definition of a successful journey?
I don’t know. I have never really thought of it in terms of “success”, I guess.
At the end of your film, you ask the question “was it really me?” which can mean a number of things. What does it mean to you, and how have you changed from the person who started the journey?
I remember it very clearly, when I was about to start walking in Beijing, this whole thing had an immense importance to me. I was ready to put everything on the line for the walk, and I got into huge fights with my family over this. Looking back now, I think that maybe it had to be that way, but I am looking at that face on the starting day, and I recognize something strange in those eyes.
What’s the best part about having a wacky beard?
Finally a question that’s fun! Well, the best part about having a wacky beard is of course the look! I don’t think it made me very attractive at all, but I have always had a strong kind of sympathy for that goofy hairball in the mirror!
Read more about Christoph’s journey on his site The Longest Way.