In the Kingdom of Silence
For the Chinese it’s a dream trip: driving the Autobahn in Germany. As fast as possible, in a big Mercedes. They drive through a country that looks old.
There it is, the sign. Guofeng Wang has been waiting for it for 30 kilometers. Actually he’s been waiting for it since his arrival yesterday, or rather, since he received the travel documents that were sent to him in China – perhaps he’s been waiting for it as long as he’s been driving. And now it flies by on the side of the road, so small and incidental that one almost overlooks it, the white sign with the four diagonal stripes, this German sight: the end of the speed limit.
Guofeng Wang, 58, born and raised in Shanghai, where he became a wealthy man, hits the gas. The car lurches a little, the speedometer climbs to 120 [kilometers per hour] . . . maximum speed in China . . . 130 . . .the rain on the Autobahn vaporizes, the [Mercedes] star is reflected in the hood . . . 140 . . . 150 . . . outside the Spessart [mountain range] splits to the left and right of the road, cloud wisps hang in the dark fir trees . . . 160 . . . 170 . . . in the valleys a red-white checkerboard of the single-family homes. Germany looks very German on this morning, the car smells very much like a car, and the female voice from the navigation system says: “Prepare to follow the road.”
Wang is now doing 180.
Two dark Mercedes sedans are speeding from Frankfurt to Würzburg. Behind tinted windows sit five gentlemen from Beijing and Shanghai, all with digital cameras in front of their bellies and cell phones in their belt clips. After every cigarette break they take turns driving, Guofeng Wang, Quin Li, Pingsheng Ding, Xin Lui, and Kan Chen – not filthy rich, but very upper middle class. Each paid 2,000 Euro to the German-Chinese travel agency Caissa for a vacation that is considered a dream trip in China: driving the Autobahn in Germany. Frankfurt, Würzburg, Munich, Baden-Baden, Frankfurt in six days. Germany, fast, fast, with brief stops at sites that are postcard clichés. The men are travelling through a myth that is difficult for them to comprehend because of its strange mixture of the medieval and the supermodern. Deutschland – the tour guide Jun Ding calls it “Doi Tse Land” –, Doi Tse Land, which is, on the one hand, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, which the five men read as schoolchildren. And then there are the fast, expensive cars that they can now buy in China as well. But above all, Doi Tse Land is this faint-hearted country in which the Transrapid was invented but not built. It now runs in Shanghai.
Guofeng Wang and his four companions accelerate in a decelerated country. For they are in the passing lane not only on this Autobahn at this very moment; it is also where they are globally. Five men from a country that is presently experiencing its first economic miracle are traveling through a country that believes it has seen its last economic miracle. Five men from a land of optimism are traveling through a land of pessimism.
Guofeng Wang has to hit the brakes now. A motor home has veered into his lane in front of him. There are a great many motor homes on the road in Doi Tse Lan.
At the Frankfurt airport, a day ago, they had pulled their wheeled suitcases to the rental car counter, the first destination on this trip. The yearned-for name “Mercedes” went over the counters several times; finally the key with the star came back. When the lady behind the counter asked what it was they were most looking forward to, they had nodded shyly, smiled, and said only a single word: