Friend or Foe? The Role of Criticism in China

A central aspect of democratic practices in whatever type of democracy we are thinking about is the role of criticism. How does criticism work in the Chinese situation of socialist democracy? A common international perception of China is that nearly all criticism is simply squashed down; it is censored and you cannot engage with it. This is actually not the case.

Criticism works in a number of ways in a Chinese situation. First of all, there is a long socialist tradition of what is called ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping yu ziwopiping]’. This tradition also meshes with Chinese culture in a way that is pervasive and productive. But there is a fundamental distinction between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Or to put it another way, there are certain boundary lines. So it is very common to identify a particular problem, a shortcoming, and propose a constructive solution to that problem. But what is not accepted is a solution that would lead to the destruction of the current situation in China. So the boundary lines are there: forms of criticism and constructive criticism that are very much encouraged and fostered.

My experience in China as a foreigner, who spends more and more time in China, is that the range of criticism and debate is incredibly wide. But there is a really experience in China. Chinese people are extremely sensitive and can pick up very, very quickly the following: if a foreigner disdains or looks down on China and Chinese culture and Chinese people, they pick this up immediately. As a result the mode of engagement will change. You do not have to say anything, but they can sense it immediately. And you will certainly not get access to many dimensions of Chinese life.

But if people can discern that you are what they call a ‘friend of China’, then everything is different. The range of debate is much wider, the possibilities of constructive criticism are much greater, so much so that contributions from foreigners too are fostered and encouraged.

For anyone who is thinking of spending some time in China, it is very important to be aware of whether you are going there with an implicit attitude of looking down on China, or disdaining or dismissing it, or whether you want to go to China to understand, and at least to try and come through as someone who is open and is a friend.


The Melancholy of the United States

What a difference a year makes.

Last year in October (2016) I had taken a railway journey from east to west in the United States, this time on the beaten-up old ‘Empire Builder’. Travelling from Philadelphia to Chicago, and then to Portland in Oregon before the final run on the Coast Starlight to Los Angeles, I was in the United States in the last days before the presidential election that Donald Trump was to win.

On the trains from Chicago to Los Angeles, I met and talked long with a retired lawyer. A staunch democrat, he was full of foreboding. He and many of his Democrat friends were suspicious of the opinion polls that gave Hilary Clinton a comfortable lead. They would be voting, he said, holding their noses. Afterwards, they preferred to hide under tables awaiting the result.

Still they hoped. Obama had promised them hope, although it always seemed a hope for a Golden Age now past. In fact, the very idea of a Golden Age indicates an emerging consciousness that it is past. But Obama offered to recover it. As did Clinton, suggesting that ‘America’ was still great but that it needed to made whole again. But Trump captured this desire best: ‘Make America great again’ was his slogan. Industry would return to the United States, jobs would reappear, the economic might of the country would arise once again. But now it would be done by retreating from the rest of the world.

A forlorn message it was, for Trump has – not unexpectedly – failed to deliver. Or rather, he has failed to deliver on making ‘America great again’. Instead, he has delivered spectacularly in the ragged retreat of the United States from the world stage. But this is to give Trump the credit. In many respects, he is the symptom of a much longer process that began at least after 2001. Meanwhile, the Asian countries have begun to sort out their own problems, blocking the United States out of the process. Europe and China engage increasingly in cooperation, with the Belt and Road Initiative opening more and more paths of contact and exchange. The Chinese-Russian integration moves ahead vigorously, resetting geopolitics. And Xi Jinping has laid out a global roadmap of a common destiny for humankind, based on win-win cooperation.

Back in the United States – where I was again recently – many of these developments lie on the periphery of consciousness. For the few still continuing in privileged cocoons, what is outside the cocoon does not matter, whether in the world at large or in the United States. They perversely assume that what they say and do has world-historical significance. Except that the world is no longer listening or paying attention. Indeed, the majority in the United States has also ceased to listen.

But for those who had hoped with Obama or Clinton, another mood is upon them. A year ago, after the election, they were too shell-shocked to register anything but bewilderment and outrage. Now the mood is a growing melancholy. Hope has all but faded and Trump has brought the melancholy home to them. I mean not so much that Trump is their president, but that his victory had made it all too clear that this fractured and disintegrating society – with increasing class conflict, obsession over external interference, lost jobs and spreading rural poverty, rampant homelessness and endemic drug abuse – cannot be denied, cannot be repaired in the ways they had assumed.

Are there any alternatives? One suggestion struck me: while Trump may have given voice to those who feel the system has ignored and exploited them, he has also energised right-wing activity. Bring it on, was the comment, for this can only lead to a real and viable left outside the present political system. At last, they may have some relatively real political conflict instead of the sordid business as usual.

Xi Jinping Thought

What a time to be in China! What a time indeed.

Happenstance would have it that I was in Beijing for the nineteenth congress of the Communist Party of China. Usually, such events barely raise interest outside China, except perhaps for the rare Marxist actually interested in the place or – that ambivalent term – a ‘China hand’. And if some foreign commentator happens to notice, they will trot out some rusty formulae concerning arcane language, obtuse signals and look for signs of a ‘totalitarian’ state – without trying to find out much real information.

Not this time.

Something big was afoot. Everywhere I went in China in the weeks leading up the congress I encountered banners, signs and posters. ‘Welcome to the 19th congress of the CPC’, one said. ‘Study carefully Xi Jinping’s writings’, said another. ‘The 19th congress will lead to a better life [meihua shenghuo]’, said a third, invoking an ancient Chinese saying.

Security was tight, very tight. Internet systems were down or slow. Foreigners found themselves asked for passports and even urine samples if they happened to frequent expat bars (I avoid them). Almost one million citizen groups in Beijing were mobilised to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Let alone the party members in town who had plain-clothes guard duty rosters for the lead-up and duration of the congress. Even social networking was tightened up: you could not change any item on your profile on wechat until the end of October.

In this buzz I zeroed in on the many levels of information available.

On the 18th of October, the congress began, with Xi Jinping slated to give a speech. And what a speech it was: 205 minutes non-stop, or 3 hours and 25 minutes. Clearly, the most important speech in his 63 years.

But what did he say?

Marxism has roared back to the centre of Chinese thought, policy and direction for the future. Not a mean achievement, especially after it seemed to be somewhat soft-pedalled not five years or more ago, before Xi became chairman (zhuxi, also translated as ‘president’). Marxism would be – no, is – the guiding light, the beacon to the future.

Marxist political economy is setting the agenda for a very different economic approach. This is called a socialist market economy – and the Chinese are very serious about what is an increasingly clear alternative to a capitalist market economy. The speech outlined five main factors: 1) furthering supply-side structural reform; 2) fostering innovation at all levels to increase China’s global leadership; 3) rural revitalisation; 4) coordinated regional development; 5) further opening up on all fronts. And the institutional mechanisms for each are already established.

But let me emphasise the following dimensions underlying this socialist market economy. The model clearly being followed is an alternative to neo-liberalism, which loves financial speculation and estimates based on short-term profit yields. Instead, the Chinese model takes the long view. Infrastructure is the key, within China and without. Think of the Belt and Road Initiative, already to reshape the world, let alone seeking to reshape the uneven development of China internally (focused on the western parts).

Further, the simplistic opposition between ‘public’ and ‘private’ sectors of the economy is now obsolete. For example, any ‘private’ company of over 100 employees has a core communist party cell. Each multinational company that wishes to engage with China – and so many do – must have a communist cell within it. What do we call this approach? I prefer to call it an ‘enmeshed’ economy, in which the CPC is interwoven with an equally interwoven ‘public’ and ‘private’ sector. What appears initially to be a ‘private’ economic project is inescapably enmeshed with the CPC, while the ‘public’ companies (SOEs) are being revitalised by active interaction with the ‘private’ ones. Even more, the mighty SOEs, revamped and more efficient, are starting to become multi-nationals themselves through many projects. Obviously, this has significant global implications.

But Marxism is much more than economics. Let me give a few examples.

  1. The speech calls for an ‘ecological civilisation’, drawing deeply on cultural assumptions concerning the harmony of nature as ‘shanshui’, ‘mountain-water’, but also modern Marxist approaches.
  2. ‘Core socialist values’ is a key, stressing the fact that ethics is a crucial component of Chinese Marxism, which should permeate all levels of society even more.
  3. Strengthening the mechanisms by which the people run the country, which means developing further a distinctly Marxist tradition of socialist democracy.
  4. A ‘socialist rule of law’ (shehuizhuyi fazhi), in which everyone is subject to the law. Obviously, this has affinities with a European-derived ‘rule of law’, although that tradition really means a whole structure developed to buttress capitalism. This is why the speech emphasised a socialist rule of law. It is being developed as system to ensure the development of socialism, while at the same making it clear that no-one is above this law within this framework.
  5. Bold innovation by artists, writers, journalists, philosophers, social scientists and scientists, so that they not only contribute decisively to the country but also to the world.

Apart from the details in the speech, one of the more fascinating aspects for me was that it followed in its structure a familiar pattern from the Marxist tradition. Look back at Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Deng and others, and you will find that important speeches like this begin with an assessment of achievements (this one since the eighteenth party congress five years ago). While it identifies significant achievements, it also stresses – in the tradition of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ – where problems have arisen. The next two parts deal with national and international concerns. Xi’s speech on this occasion focused more on internal concerns, which is to be expected. But he certainly did not neglect the international picture: the armed forces would continue to be modernised for the country’s own security in an international context and China would continue to pursue the peaceful policy of a ‘shared future for humanity’.

In all these speeches, the last part deals with the communist party itself. Xi’s tenure began with a strong desire by party leaders that he would deal with significant problems: corruption, factionalism, brewing coups, lack of unity, inadequate theoretical knowledge. On all fronts, Xi has driven through major reforms, so that his statements concerning the party’s ability to govern and lead, and the need for full, rigorous and strict governance over the party were certainly not empty phrases. More work obviously needs to be done, which he stressed, but the communist party has begun to emerge as stronger, more disciplined, unified and confident. It will be even more at the centre of power. As Xi put it, the ‘defining feature’ and ‘greatest strength’ of socialism with Chinese characteristics is the leadership of the communist party. The party is the ‘highest force for political leadership’.

For some time now, Xi Jinping has been emphasising the ‘two centenary goals’ (2021 and 2049), the ‘Chinese dream’ and its concrete manifestation in global projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. These were in the speech as well, but with greater clarity. The first centenary goal – of the CPC itself – is still there, of building a xiaokang shehui, an old Confucian term infused with Marxist meaning and translated as ‘moderately prosperous society in all respects’. Given that this is around the corner, Xi’s sights are set further in the future. To achieve the second centenary goal, he laid out two steps.

2020-2035: Full ‘socialist modernisation [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua]’, or more fully a ‘socialistically modernised country’ [shehuizhuyi xiandaihua guojia]. This phrase captures all of the policies outlined in the speech, but it also marks a shift from his earlier pronouncements. He used to speak of socialist modernisation being achieved by the second centenary goal, marking 100 years since the establishment of the people’s republic. Now the aim has been brought forward to 2035.

2035-2050: building on the previous achievement and developing China into a ‘great modern socialist country’. This country will be strong, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful. Only when this has been achieved can China begin moving beyond the ‘primary stage’ of socialism in which it still finds itself.

A tall and ambitious agenda indeed, but Xi and those around him as ‘the core’ have a reputation for getting things done. Crucial for understanding this revised plan is the observation, ‘based on a comprehensive analysis of the international and domestic environments’. Clearly, the rapidly shifting global situation, with the accelerating decline of the United States and ongoing turmoil and instability in Europe, along with world-shaping projects like the BRI and China’s increasing involvement around the world, the time has been judged right for the emergence of a ‘great modern socialist country’ by the middle of this century. It also means that China would become the most powerful country in the world, and thereby the most powerful socialist country in human history.

This is not to say that road ahead will be easy – far from it!

A crucial part of the speech identified a new primary contradiction: ‘What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. This is straight out of the ‘contradiction analysis’ approach that Mao first elaborated in Yan’an in 1937, showing that Marxist dialectics in a Chinese frame is still front and centre of government policies. Not only is there a primary or most important contradiction in any situation, but this contradiction may shift in terms of the weight given to either side, or it may become secondary as a new primary contradiction emerges. Thus, the earlier primary contradiction, articulated by Deng Xiaoping, identified a tension between the people’s social and cultural needs and the backward economic forces. With China’s forty-year reform and opening-up, it has been decided – through careful analysis – that this earlier contradiction has become secondary.

But what does the new primary contradiction mean? Unbalanced and inadequate development signals the complex problems of world-leading development in the more eastern parts of China and the lag in western parts, with resultant gaps between rich and poor, city and countryside. Obviously, the new contradiction targets these issues more directly. And the people’s every growing need for a better life – an old Chinese term meihua shenghuo – applies to everyone, especially in western parts. Hence the targeted poverty alleviation program that has been accelerated, hence the BRI, hence the focus on the full range of what a ‘better life’ means. But the need for a better life also identifies with the core idea that socialism is primarily about improving the economic, social and cultural lives of everyone. Until this contradiction is resolved, China clearly remains in the primary stage of socialism.

At the same time, it signals a profoundly new era. This theme came through again and again in the report: China and its socialism have entered a new era. The trick here is to indicate profound continuity with the past, while also taking it all into a new stage. It is not for nothing that it has been called ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era [xindedai zhongguotese shehuizhuyi sixiang]’.

Or ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ for short. Only Mao’s thought has until now been designated with the description sixiang, thought. Even Deng’s important but briefer reflections were designated only as lilun, theory. Xi Jinping Thought has now been written into the constitution of the Communist Party of China.

I have spent some time with all of this, not least because foreign ‘China watchers’ have tended to focus on international relations, the strength of the communist party, and above all Xi’s own power. Obviously, this emphasis skews much of what the speech contained, both in terms of continuity with Xi’s earlier elaborations and the new directions. I leave aside the silly tropes of ‘jargon’, ‘coded’ language, or ‘grand theatre’ that are routinely trotted out.

But what was the response of people around China? I could mention the millions that watched the speech live, or the flurry of wechat and weibo posts about it. But one experience said it all for me. I decided to go to the local Xinhua bookshop, the official government one. At the front desk, I asked where Xi Jinping’s works were kept. The woman at the desk smiled and pointed upstairs.

There before me was a massive table laden with Xi Jinping’s publications. And at the forefront were various editions of the speech itself, only days after it was delivered. I struggled to find room to look at the publications, so crowded was the table. Eventually I managed to get hold of one copy, as well as a number of Xi’s other publications. For whatever reasons, people were snapping up the printed form of the speech. I simply could not imagine this happening anywhere else.


Mittelland Radfernweg, or D-Route 4: The Full Story

The plan: a long ride at least once a year. By long I mean at least 1000 kilometres on a bicycle.

The place: Europe, preferably Germany, with its long overland routes.

Over the last decade or more, I had enacted the plan intermittently. A long ride would be followed by an even longer gap. Sure, I ride daily, and at times I have ridden for a few days or even a week, along quiet tracks or through the mountains, camping on the way. But serious long rides had been too few.


What changed?

During a quiet summer month I found myself buying a Brompton fold-up bicycle. I seemed to be a symptom of a shift of which I was only dimly aware at the time. As one would expect with such a unique bicycle, it has its appealing quirks, all the way from loving my company to hating cobbles.

But it is a strong, strong bicycle. It stands up well to nearly all conditions, from muddy forest tracks to occasional busy roads. Its six gears are more than enough for steep climbs and breath-taking drops. And the limit of 10 kilograms front and back means that I ride light – as I prefer to do. So compact and simple is its fold – in 10 seconds – that I can take it on a bus or a train with no fuss. If I could do that, then why not on an aeroplane to Europe. I began to imagine what it would be like to ride such a bicycle across Europe.

The next moment – or so it seemed – I was in Liège/Luik in Belgium, the country with a split personality. The bicycle was a still somewhat of a mystery to me. How does one remove the front and rear wheels, with their idiosyncratic constructions, to change a tube or tyre? What is the best setting for quirky gears? How would it handle the mountain climbs, the rocky tracks, the long quiet forest paths or the city routes? I was to find the answers to these and many other questions as the ride unfolded.

I arrived before the route had been decided. A rough idea perhaps, but nothing firm. Until I found the Mittelland route, or D4 – from Aachen to Zittau, west to east. It would take me through places I had longed to see, through the middle of Germany along the Mittelgebirge. It seemed like my route, but I was yet to find out how much.

Eighteen days I would need for the ride and often I would be the only one on this route. Germans love their river routes, understandably, for they are not so hilly and the paths tend to be better formed. Occasionally I would join them for a couple of hours on a river run, but soon I longed for the mountains and forests and the route would take me there once again.


Liège to Aachen (Germany): 67 km.

But first I had to get to Aachen, the ancient seat of Charlemagne and where the Holy Roman Emperors were crowned many hundreds of years ago. Leaving Liège, I was drawn to a well-signposted path that told me it would lead to Maastricht, where I had been many years ago in a different life. The path was all promise! Soon enough I was in the Walloon countryside: the signs faded and disappeared among the fields. I was lost. Frustrated and cursing, I aimed eastwards, in the direction of the Mass/Meuse river. Eventually, the river found me and I could pedal along its banks into The Netherlands. There, in the southern province of Limburg, I found bicycle paths everywhere, with maps at every intersection. Initially it felt like an immense relief from the haphazard approach in Wallonia, but I began to find it a little too easy – a little like a retirement village garden. I longed for more of a challenge.

Aachen to Heimbach: 65 km.

It would come soon enough, after this first day’s ride. Rain greeted me on departure from Aachen, and it would stay with me for the next three days. In itself, rain is not a problem. Wet weather gear sees to that, and the trees produce extra sap so the smells are wonderful. But add to this the German proclivity for running bicycle routes through forests and farmland. Often, the paths are paved radwege, glistening in the rain as you glide along. Equally often, they can become dirt tracks, through a farm or over a mountain pass. Mud and puddles soon appear and the bicycle has a distinct liking – even with mudguards – to gather as much of it as possible. At these moments, I gain the impression that my Brompton had a secret desire to be a mountain bike, given its love of mud and grit. So it was from Aachen to Heimbach, my next stop for the night. I was peddling through North-Rhine Westphalia, with some of it along the swollen Rur River, a tributary of the Rhine. Indeed, the weather over the summer had been unsettled, with much rain and flooding in parts. And with the rain came cold, so much so that at times my fingers tingled and threatened to become numb. After a day of rain, mud and cold, the sight of the Pension Dobrunz in Heimbach was heart-warming. A large dry room for which I paid very little welcomed me. As did the shower. Then I thought: why not give the bicycle a brief shower, washing away all the grit? I was to find that the bike did not appreciate my efforts so much – but only after a dinner that only the Germans in the countryside can produce. Vast, body-restoring, energy replenishing. On this kind of food I could ride a long way.

Heimbach to Bad Godesberg: 73 km.

In the morning my bicycle told me exactly how it felt about the previous evening’s wash: the chain had rusted up! It moved under protest, but I would really need to work much harder today unless I found oil. In a pattern that would stay with me for the ride, I found a shop down the road which happened to sell precisely what I wanted: good old-fashioned household oil. Soon enough the chain was glistening with oil once again. I would need it, since the rain and cold stayed with me for another day. Up mountain tracks in dripping forests, along rain-swept paths that marked the shift from forest to field, bumping over slippery cobbles in one village after another – for 73 km I pedalled my way from Heimbach on the Rur River to the outskirts of Bonn on the Rhine. With more than 200 km covered by now, I felt I was starting to settle into the ride somewhat. One reason was that I had managed to solve a curious German problem. While there are plenty of places to buy beer and baked goods, there are remarkably few toilets. But with their great emphasis on nature and the need to enjoy its simplicity, this problem was easily solved.

Towards the end of the day, another problem needed attention: my fingers were threatening to become numb from the cold! I needed a warm room and dry clothes, which became all the more desirable the longer it took to navigate the outskirts of Bonn. Turning a corner, I saw warm lights, glowing and urging me to enter: Hotel Adler in Bad Godesberg … But no, I had booked ahead to stay at the intriguing A&S Ferienwohnung up the street. Passable it was, but I realised that seeking an affordable bed in a city was not really the way to enjoy Germany. With the memory still fresh of the previous night at Pension Dobrunz, I resolved to seek out quiet villages.

Bad Godesberg to Niederhausen: 79 km.

Rain again for the fourth day’s ride … but now it seemed the norm, so much so that I would not be surprised if it would rain for the whole ride. Keen to get out of the city, I pedalled from the province of North Rhine-Westphalia into the Rhineland-Palatinate. But there was no let up on muddy tracks, swollen rivers (Rhine and Sieg) and flooding in parts – so much so that ducks were the only ones who could enjoy the bicycle path at certain points. In the meantime, I also found that my gears do not like oil all everywhere. The quirky shifter on the rear wheel simply clogs up with oil and refuses to move; I eventually learned to wipe it clean regularly and it responded gleefully with smooth shifts.

Like the bicycle, I too had my moment of glee: I had heard of a place called Landhaus im Kühlen Grunde, in a village simply named Niederhausen, a common enough name in Germany. Turning off the bicycle route for a few kilometres, I found myself on bumpy farm tracks, increasingly unsure of my direction. The Landhaus eventually appeared: 27 euro for the night, a large room, sumptuous food downstairs. To find it on a quiet country road after a long, long day in the rain was pure delight … as was the manager, Gisela.

Niederhausen to Lützel: 25 km (plus 50 km by train and 5 km walking)

I woke to blue skies with traces of cloud. The rain had passed, for now. I was – according to the map – to ride along the Sieg River for a while to the town of, yes, Siegen. But after only a few kilometres I was pulled up by a large sign: no safe route between here and the intriguingly named Niederschelderhütte. Given that main roads in Germany have no shoulders, bicycle paths prefer to stay off them. In this case – due to mountains and the ruggedness of the terrain – there seemed to be no viable alternative. Take the train, said the sign.

I will show them, I thought, so I set off into the hills, sweatily hauling my bicycle up a steep track into the forest. At the top of the climb, far from the main bicycle route, I found the same sign …. As if to say, ‘well, we knew you would try something like this, but it is really not the best route, so why don’t you give in and take the train for a while’. The Germans seem to have everything covered, or at least want to give the impression. So I took the train to Niederschelderhütte and rode into Siegen. There again, I faced a similar problem, so I opted to take the rail motor to Lützel, where I stayed at the small Pension Vogt – the only person there. But what to do about food? They did not serve an evening meal and the only place was out in the forest, more than 2 km away, I ended up walking about 5 km there and back for the sake of a meal. Total distance travelled: 80 km, but of this 25 km was ridden and 5 km walked. A rest day of sorts.

Lützel to Cölbe: 71 km.

Travel stories like to enhance the difficulties, making the day worthy of memory. But what of the days that run smoothly? Away early on a track well signposted, a bike enjoying the run, the sun shining, the forest completely absorbing, only villages along the way, accommodation easily found (and even upgraded), a meal and beers you can find only in the German countryside. So it was on the 71 km ride from Lützel to Cölbe (near Marburg). The signal of a good day was already there at breakfast: a whole table laid out – and I was the only guest!

The catch was that the ride went so well I began to push myself, as used to be my wont when my legs were slightly younger. I fooled myself a little with the thought that my old fire was back, forgetting the pleasure of a gentler, reflective pace that suited the bicycle and myself in these times. I was to pay the cost of this self-deception the following day.

Cölbe to Oberaula: 111 km.

Oberaula, now in the province of Hesse, was my destination for the day. I told myself that 80-85 km would be doable, assuming the clear signage and smooth passage of the day before. And so it began … until I arrived in the town of Neustadt: a dreaded sign told me that the route ahead was unusable due to major roadworks. What to do? The sign suggested a number of detours, each of which was somewhat of a puzzle. To make matters more intriguing, my online map was not working at this moment. I opted for a regional route detour, which seemed to be well-marked – the R2/R4. The result: a massive loop to the south.

By the time I felt as though I had ridden through all the villages in Hesse, I came upon a brand new D4 sign, except that it pointed in the opposite direction to the one I had been following. With a sigh I turned the bicycle around and set off, wondering how far I had to go. At the 86 km mark I found out: there was still 25 km to go! Late it was already and I had run out of water. It may not have been raining today, but there was plenty of mud on the track from previous flooding and over-full dams. Fortunately, the last 25 km followed a rail trail (an old railway line converted to a bicycle path). Drawing on my last reserves, I raced the setting sun, finally arriving at the Hotel zum Stern at 8.30pm. I laughed out loud in relief, staggered inside and refilled my empty stomach.

Next morning, I limped down to a late breakfast and my legs told me very clearly that I was not to be riding that day. After my burst of youthful vigour yesterday – 111 km on a fold-up bicycle – I realised on this morning that youth can be over-rated. A more sedate pace, a day of rest – these were more appropriate ways to enjoy a ride. So I relaxed, walked around town, washed the clothes I had been wearing for the last week, cleaned and maintained the bicycle and got some early sleep.

Oberaula to Dankmarshausen: 75 km; Dankmarshausen to Schwabhausen: 84 km.

Thuringia – on this day and the next I rode deep into the former DDR (East Germany). Initially, it required 75 km to Dankmarshausen and then another 84 km to Schwabhausen. Trouble-free on both days, with a bike now fine-tuned as I had become thoroughly familiar with its workings and settings. And I was familiar now with the search for village accommodation: Hotel Waldschlösschen in Dankmarshausen with fields and mines for a view, and Landgasthaus Schwabhausen, still being redone so it felt bright, airy and quiet (the owner here was perhaps better at renovation than cooking!).

Thuringia – the beginning of a far more interesting part of Europe. For hundreds of years radical politics have arisen here and in Saxony. The traces are everywhere. From more recent times, I encountered street names such as Karl-Marx Straße, Friedrich-Engels Straße, Clara-Zetkin Straße and Karl Liebknecht Straße – heroes of East Germany. The architecture here still represents the spatial efforts to construct a new society, with occasional samples of Stalin baroque and the clean lines of modern apartment buildings for workers. Of course, efforts have been made to recast this story as a negative, especially when I came across the ‘Iron Curtain Trail’, which runs all the way from the top of Norway down to the Mediterranean. Some 6000 km in total, although I was touching on only a small part between West and East Germany, before the former colonised the latter.

Dig a little further back and the town names themselves become part of this radical history. Erfurt was where the famous Erfurt Program was agreed upon by the powerful German-Democratic Party in 1891. Karl Kautsky’s commentary on the program formed the strategic basis for the Russian Revolution. And then there was Gotha, made famous by Marx’s late piece, ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ from 1875. Further back still and you find the towns where Thomas Müntzer, the ‘theologian of the revolution’, sought to inspire and organise peasants and miners for the Peasant Revolution of 1525 – Allstedt, Frankenhausen, Mühlhausen and so on. Of course, this part of Germany was where Luther also fomented his version of radicalism (protected by the Elector of Saxony), although he backtracked when he saw the implications.

Why this part of Europe? Mines past and present told part of the story. In many towns were memorials to their mining past; in others mines were still operating, such as the salt mine I could see around Dankmarshausen; or mines closed down after 1989, bringing economic recession into eastern Germany. Miners have a history of radicalism and militancy. But also weavers, given to communal organisation and efforts at alternative social formations. In other words, the early inroads of capitalism and its patterns of exploitation also produced some of the earliest and perhaps most radical forms of European socialist politics. It is not for nothing that Karl Kautsky searched for the forerunners of modern socialism in these parts.

Schwabhausen to Kipperquelle (Weimar): 67 km.

Despite my best intentions, the previous day’s ride to Schwabhausen – of 84 km – was longer than I had intended. Ease up, ease up, I kept telling myself. Yet the temptation to push a few extra kilometres was always there – like so much of my life, in which I tried to fill each day with more than was feasible, feeling the weight of tasks but also getting a buzz out of it.

So on my ride to Kipperquelle (just past Weimar) I managed to ease up. After all, a Brompton fold-up is happier when one pedals at a gentler pace. As I did so, I was able to savour some fascinating countryside. Early on I realised I was in a village that claimed to be Bach’s stamping ground (although he was officially born in Eisenach, through which I had passed a day or two earlier). Of more interest was the village of Neudietendorf, established by the Moravian Brethren in the 1700s (my final destination was to be the spiritual home of the Moravians, where their refounder, Zinzendorf, did his thing). And I paused long in Weimar, which turned out to be still a centre of radical politics, German style. Many were the dreadlocks, the tousled-hair children, the unkempt and baggy clothes. And many were the cobbles, of a particularly rocky kind, so the Brompton and I walked much of the town. Indeed, in the centre was a vast mural celebrating 100 years of modern communist revolutions, since the auspicious moment of October 1917. Of course, the small hotel at Kipperquelle was not only devoted to all cyclists, but also to wellness, organic food and meditation.

Kipperquelle to Bad Köstritz: 77 km.

The appeal of Weimar is not to be denied, but I enjoy more the radical history of these parts. The next day, to Bad Köstritz (77 km), revealed another aspect – plenty of renovated communist era architecture. But I also spent much time peddling through paths in forest reserves. These reserves are rarely recognised as achievements of the government of East Germany, which set about establishing widespread nature reserves in the 1960s and 1970s.

By the time I arrived in the village of Bad Köstritz, which is also – I found out on a late evening walk – the home of Köstritzer beer, I longed for another rest day. Not what I was used to, I must admit, but I was learning to enjoy them! My brief home for two nights was to be Pension Egerer, in a quiet corner of the village.

But what do you do on a rest day? Rest, of course. A long sleep, a snooze in the afternoon, a walk to see a dentist up the road – for I had an aching tooth that had arisen after the 111 km day. Nothing to worry about it seemed, except not to push myself to extremes. Ah yes, I also like to eat, to build up my reserves again. Massive country breakfasts, amazing German salads and solid dinners, anything you can get your hands on at lunch. And German küche. One is a meal normally, but on a ride and even a rest day I can eat three or four.

Bad Köstritz to Meerane: 56 km.

By now I had a week of riding to go, and I began to think both of its end and how I did not wish it to come. After my rest day, I was on the road again, on a relatively short ride – 56 km from Bad Köstritz to Meerane. More radical religious history, with my route criss-crossing that of Thomas Müntzer (‘theologian of the revolution’) almost 500 years ago, as also Martin Luther’s. I must admit that the latter was of less interest to me, but far more to the German authorities of these times. At every turn, it seemed as though he was following me – but then I realised that this year is the 500th anniversary from when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg and sparked the German Reformation (the Bohemian one, further to the east and under the inspiration of Jan Hus, had begun 100 years earlier). By the end of the day, I found myself in the matter-of-fact town of Meerane, staying at another great (and cheap) place, Pension zum Bauernstübel.

Meerane to Augustusburg: 66 km.

Leaving Meerane the next morning, the signs disappeared almost completely. I had been warned by one or two who had ridden this way before me, so I had scanned detailed route maps the night before. To be sure, there were signs for horses and walkers, but the only bicycle sign had been thrown down in frustration by some previous cyclist. All of this was offset by the serious climbing, usually in forests, and above all the last 2 km up to Augustusburg. The Jagdschloss or hunting lodge – really a castle – sits on a peak in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains). I had already managed quite a few climbs, only to roll down a long slope into a village by a stream. This is Augustusburg! I thought. But no, towering above me was the last challenge. Part of me said the dirt track up, up, up to the top was too much. The other part, fuelled by adrenalin and the prospect of a beer at the end, said otherwise. Halfway up and pouring with sweat, I was overtaken at some speed by a mountain bike. Wow, I thought, what fitness, what stamina! Then I saw the electric motor. Surely, a mountain bike with a motor is somehow a contradiction, cheating perhaps. Is not a mountain bike designed precisely to enjoy tough tracks? Why put a motor on it?

The top at last, under my own steam! After 66 km I had arrived at the Hotel Morgensonne. I was the only guest, but my host – an energetic septuagenarian woman who spoke German very loudly and slowly for my benefit – welcomed me warmly and even took me to a Czech restaurant for dinner.

Augustusburg to Tharandt: 68 km.

Still the route continued sans signs; still I puzzled over the route from time to time. It may have been a stony farm track upon which no bicycle had ridden for many a long year – I turned back and took a moderately busy road through the hills, thankful for a smooth surface and German care with bicycles. It may have been a path through the forest that began well but soon became in indentation in the grass of a farmer’s field. I had realised by now that the route was at times more of an idea than a reality, a plotting on a map that avoided main roads without actual surveillance of the route. So I learnt to make my own way when the route become a little impossible. But I had plenty of quiet corners on a sunny day, plunging into the forests of Tharandt – to find Altes Wirtshaus Tharandt after 68 km, where I was greeted on arrival in Dutch!

Tharandt to Stolpen: 68 km.

Passing through Dresden the following morning, I marked 1000 km on a fold-up bicycle. I felt as though I had covered a reasonable distance. Rather modest if you think of those who tackle rides of thousands of kilometres, but significant enough for me. Somehow, the four-digit number means it is a serious ride. And at the end of the day, at 1052 km (after 68 km for the day), I had ridden further on one ride than ever before.

Today’s ride was a mix, with some slow city riding (not my favourite) soon after I left Tharandt, a fast run – with many others enjoying a sunny day – down a section of the Elbe, which divides most of east Germany from the western parts. Later in the day, I rode into the mountainous sections of eastern Saxony. Now I was on my own again, quietly enjoying the pattern of forest paths, villages and farms.

Suddenly, an old castle rose out of the quiet fields! Stolpen. Cut out of a basalt outcrop, the castle dates back some 8 or 9 centuries, for long occupied by a bishop or two, as bishops did in those times. Somehow, it drew me, beckoning, full of promise. Dismounting on the sloping cobbled streets of the village, my feet felt the pull, past the pensione to the oldest hotel thereabouts – the Burg Hotel, right next to the castle gate. After more than two weeks of riding, I had become adept enough to communicate in broken German. I had to, since languages other than German were barely spoken. A room was available and the country luxury inexpensive. I sat outdoors looking over the cobbled streets and castle walls, savouring local beers and country fare. A late tour through the partially ruined castle reinforced the isolated peace of these parts. One sleeps well in such an environment.

Stolpen to Herrnhut: 85 km.

The last day comes sooner or later. And a tough one it was. Skirting the Zittauer Gebirge – which straddle the Czech border – I had climb after climb after climb. Much of the day was spent in first gear or pulling hard on the brakes. When a downpour hit soon after departure from Stolpen, I was preparing myself – reluctantly – for a wet day. But it cleared and the sun bore down upon me. By the time I was pedalling along the Spree River, close to its source (the river runs to Berlin), I was on tracks I knew. More than four years ago, I had ridden these parts, and the closer I drew to my destination, the more I remembered. Barely four years ago, but it felt like a very long time ago – almost another life out of many. The day would not let up. Forget a gentle and short ride to celebrate: this was 85 km of hard work. Perhaps this added to the inescapable mingling of deep weariness and sheer elation at the end of the ride, which of course produces thoughts and talk of the next ride.

After 1137 km, on a Brompton fold-up bicycle along what is regarded as the toughest long-distance route in Germany (and I vouch for that), I arrived in the village of Herrnhut to a very warm welcome indeed.


Day to day accounts of a ride can be – for those not into rides – a little bit of a drag. The routine is largely the same: wake, eat sumptuously, pack, set off, ride 60-80 km, arrive, eat, drink a few beers, shower, bed. To be sure, each day’s ride has its own variations, with signs suddenly disappearing, steep mountain climbs, missed turns, forests, villages and cities.

But what is a ride like this, what does it do to you? On the first few days, I imagine I might keep up with email, or perhaps keep up with the news, or productively use the quiet evenings to develop my next book, or study Chinese for a couple of hours. After about three days, these thoughts simply disappear. All that concerns me is the route, food, water, the state of the bicycle, and my next bed for the night. It helped that I was deep in the countryside, getting through cities as quickly as I could and staying in small villages. The wider world does not seem to affect such places as much, so you can in a way forget that world. A great forgetting, which is wonderful for unwinding and relaxing. Of course, this sense is a fiction to some extent, for all sorts of outside developments affect the countryside, and I have lived long enough in the countryside to realise its shortcomings. Better to pass through, with but few things to one’s name, enjoying the great forgetting in passing, thinking about the next bed for the night.

Riding each day seemed for a while to become a way of life, one that I imagined continuing day after day, week after week, month after month. Being a hermit and nomad all at once has an extraordinary effect on one’s mind and body – as if the two can be separated. For weeks afterwards, I had a truly clear mind, slept deeply, talked and walked the forests and farms of the Oberlausitz. The ride was far too transformative to do only once in my life.

Riding a Brompton on the Mittelland Route (D4 Fernradweg): Day 16

Day 16: Stolpen to Herrnhut, 85 km. End of the ride, total 1137 km

The last day of riding and a tough one, with mountain after mountain in the Zittau range. I spent much of the day in first gear or pulling hard on the brakes. And when a downpour hit soon after departure from Stolpen, I was preparing myself – reluctantly – for a wet day. But it cleared and the sun bore down upon me. By the time I was pedalling along the Spree River, close to its source (the river runs to Berlin), I was on tracks I knew. More than four years ago, I had ridden these parts, and the closer I drew to my destination, the more I remembered. A warm welcome in Herrnhut!

The end of the ride: weariness after a long, long day ( I arrived at dusk); elation at completing the ride; a sense that I wanted to pedal on after a rest … which always leads to me to look forward to the next ride.











Riding a Brompton on the Mittelland Route (D4 Fernradweg): Day 15

Day 15: Tharandt to Stolpen, 68 km

Passing through Dresden today, I signalled two achievements: at 1000 km I felt as though I had covered a reasonable distance. And at the end of the day, at 1052 km, I had ridden further on one ride than ever before. By now I had been following, on and off, the D4 sign for quite some distance. I was also beginning to believe what I had read: it is regarded as the hardest long distance bicycle route in Germany.

A mixed day of riding, with city riding (usually not so enjoyable), a fast run down a section of the Elbe, which divides most of east Germany from the western parts, and then the beginning of the mountainous sections of eastern Saxony. The fortress at Stolpen was a complete surprise. Rising out of the fields is an old castle, dating back some 8 or 9 centuries. For long occupied by a local bishop, it also boasted sloping cobbled streets, and the great Burg Hotel. A relative treat for the last night, but immensely enjoyable.














Riding a Brompton on the Mittelland Route (D4 Fernradweg): Day 14

Day 14: Augustusburg to Tharandt, 68 km

From the mountain top of Augustusburg to the forests of Tharandt. For the first time, I encountered a part of the track completely overgrown with grass. It appeared on the edge of a forest and required me to cross some farms. I had wondered why the cyclists I had encountered earlier had opted to follow the main road – now I knew why. Another sunny day, quiet corners, and a Trabant – one the great symbols of eastern Europe during the communist era (but also a signal of its limits in comparison to China).

I stayed at the Altes Wirtshaus Tharandt, where I was greeted on arrival in Dutch!