Five men were children once again. Five men in an indifferent sartorial mix of dark blue suit jackets, black pleated pants, and Hawaiian shirts – a stylistic mixture that suggests that a society is still searching for its new outfit after years of wearing uniforms. To sign the agreements, Guofeng Wang eventually put on thick brown glasses – party meeting glasses. A relic of the old China.
Outside the cars stood gleaming black in the sunshine, two E-Class cars. A blond hostess set the air conditioning to 22° [Celsius] and the navigation system to English; then she explained the gear shift, with the sixth gear being of particular interest. The men took their first pictures, and each had a turn in the driver’s seat, Qing Li, who owns a Mazda 6 in Shanghai, Pingsheng Ding, who drives an old VW Santana, and Guofeng Wang, who bought his first car two years ago, a GM Sail on an Opel Corsa chassis. Then Xin Liu and Kan Chen, the two youngest, neither of whom owns a car yet, also slid gingerly into the driver’s seat, Chen, a short, slight man, 32 years of age, carefully backed one of the cars out of the parking spot for two meters and back in again. Once he accidentally pushed the horn. There was a lot of nervous laughter.
Finally, tour guide Ding explained the right-before-left rule once more time, the men stomped out their cigarettes and climbed in. The doors went “plop-plop,” the cars started driving with a lurch and got in line on the Autobahn a little while later. On a German Autobahn! Three-laned! With the famous blue-white signs! It was exactly like the advertising brochure they had already been given at the travel bureau in China: the front page bore the slogan “Driving in the land of the car, without a speed limit!,” below it a Mercedes stood in front of Neuschwanstein Castle, then came 30 pages with 70 pictures, none of which showed any tourist attractions, only yellow and blue road signs. Entrance ramps, exit ramps, Autobahn interchange, as though there was no Germany beyond the guard rails. On the last page 39 important words for the trip; the first was “police control.” Other tips in the prospectus: hotel employees in Germany are unusually unfriendly. In restaurants you also have to pay for tea. And: no smacking or slurping.
Thus prepared, the small convoy drove off into the German adventure under a dramatic, stormy sky, on the horizon crouched the silhouette of Frankfurt am Main, which shipping company manager Qing Li would later describe as pretty puny compared to the Shanghai skyline.
After three kilometers the Chinese exceeded 120 for the first time, after four kilometers they switched into the left lane for the first time at 140, after six kilometers they were crowded out for the first time by a BMW, and after nine kilometers they sat in their first German traffic jam.
Würzburg. The navigation system guides the group from the Autobahn up to Marienburg Castle, where the five exit from their air-conditioned travel capsule and walk up to the castle, their hands folded behind their backs. A shower has washed the city; it is now gleaming in the sun with its church towers, sundials, weathercocks. A bell is tolling somewhere.
Guofeng Wang looks down to the Main and the “ideal world” type scenery, at the narrow alleyways and the pigeons on the red roofs. His eyebrows sit high on his forehead, imparting an expression of surprise to his face. Suddenly he says that this is what he loves about Doi Tse Lan: “Blue sky, white clouds, fresh air. Silence.”
In China, these things are presently signs of both luxury and backwardness. China is already the second largest oil consumer on earth; the coastal cities gleam with the neon light of wastefulness. By now the government has to ration electricity, because consumption is growing more rapidly than power plants can be built. Fresh air and silence still exist in the countryside, but no longer in Shanghai, where 14.5 million people are working on the Chinese economic miracle, 29,000 inhabitants per square mile. In Hamburg there are 2,250. For Guofeng Wang, Germany is a tranquil, empty land.