From Shanghai to Stuttgart without a carbon footprint
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” — TS Elliot
German mechanical engineer Joerg Gebers is no poet, but he is prepared to go to great lengths to travel from Shanghai back to his home in Stuttgart without leaving a carbon footprint.
After four years in China working for German engineering and technology company Bosch, he is returning home in a submarine-shaped, four-wheel bike called velomobile.
The 12,000-kilometer, 10-week route he mapped out will pass through the deserts of northwestern China and continue through Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Poland. He left Shanghai two weeks ago.
Two days before departure, Gebers, 51, was braced for detours and alternative routes because of border closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Everybody is telling me to be realistic and give up this idea,” he told Shanghai Daily at the time. “I don’t even know if I can complete the trip, given current situations. But if I don’t try, then I will never succeed. If I simply fly home and then learn that borders are opening, I will regret it very much.”
The velomobile trip, he said, is a way of meeting people who live between the familiar faces he knows in Shanghai and Stuttgart. He plans to document his trip in photos.
“I start here with a Shanghainese face and end with a German face,” he said. “After all, we are all one mankind. I want to experience new provinces, deserts, steppes and the ways different people live.”
Gebers was set on making the trip home carbon-neutral. He explored various options to accomplish that, including an electric bicycle. Last year he decided to use a velomobile. It’s a human-powered bike in a carbon-composite, aerodynamic shell that allows the operator to sit back while pedaling. Outwardly, it looks like a futuristic go-kart.
There are only about 2,500 velomobiles on the road around the world, and orders for the vehicles have long waiting times for delivery. Gebers ordered a Quattrovelo made in Europe a year in advance. It cost 8,000 euros (US$8,980) and arrived from Europe in late May.
“This is a purely European product,” he said, “and I will tow a Chinese-made solar-powered trailer to carry some luggage and provisions.”
He added, “China is going green. Increasingly more Chinese do long road trips on regular bikes, e-bikes or solar-powered bikes. It is fitting for me to start a sustainable journey home from here.”
His living room before departure had the look of a workshop, with tools and various cables lying around and packed suitcases ready to be shipped home.
Gebers’ 20-year-old son and a friend, both now in Germany, were scheduled to fly to Shanghai to join him on the trip, but they had to drop out because they couldn’t enter China due to coronavirus restrictions.
Gebers is neither a professional cyclist nor an accomplished adventurer. The longest bike trip he has ever taken was 1,000 kilometers around Europe with his son. The longest trip he has had on his velomobile is 400 kilometers. For this journey to Germany, he expects to ride 200 kilometers, or 10 hours, every day.
The sheer scope of his trip, the loss of his traveling companions and the risk of border closures aren’t the only challenges he ticked off before leaving.
“There is the risk of catching coronavirus or developing other health issues,” he said. “I may face technical problems. I can be stopped by police who have never seen this kind of vehicle.”
On his first test run on Shanghai streets in late June, he was stopped by traffic police, who confiscated the vehicle and fined him 100 yuan (US$14.62) for driving an electric vehicle without a legal plate.
According to the police, a vehicle such as his isn’t on the list of legal e-bike models in China and therefore not eligible for a plate for use on the street.
Gebers argued that it wasn’t a motorized vehicle — that it was pure human-powered. He was finally able to retrieve his velomobile after showing police his purchase receipt.
“Many Chinese netizens left comments on my Weibo account after they saw the news,” he said. “They assured me I wouldn’t have any trouble in their hometowns, so I’m not too worried about that. Many Chinese do road trips with solar bikes or tricycles, and this is basically the same.”
To follow the law, he started at Waibaidu Bridge near the Bund on a regular bike, with the velomobile transported by car. When he reached Dianshan Lake near the border between Shanghai and Suzhou, he switched to the velomobile. He was later stopped by police in Suzhou.
Suzhou police informed him of Chinese traffic rules but moved by his persistence and environment-friendly plans, they let him go.
“I explained that I am on a trip home to Europe, and they finally decided to let me get on with it,” he said on a trip update. “Great!”
Coronavirus doesn’t worry him much, but he is carrying an ample supply of face masks.
“I want to show that we have to get back to normal, despite the virus. There will come one virus, and there will come the next virus, and we always need to get back to normal,” he said.
Now into his third week of the trip, Gebers has received some good news. A travel companion, Sam Pang, has joined him for the rest of the China leg of the trip on a regular bike with solar trailer.
“The China leg will last four weeks,” he said, “Hopefully, all borders along the way will open by then.”
(Chen Xuyang contributed to the article.)