I didn’t know you were here

“In India there is only the white business – that is the garment”, the dealer says, and between his thumb and index finger he rubs the sleeve of his t-shirt, “or the black business – that is the hashish.” He grins and hands me a joint.

We sit in a concrete courtyard surrounded by half a dozen high-rises. There’s laundry hanging from a thousand window grills. Around us, like corn cobs spread out to dry on the concrete, about 30 Filipino women are laying, sleeping in their jackets, chit-chatting quietly, plucking each other’s eyebrows, facetiming home. 170.000 migrant workers from the Philippines live in Hong Kong, most of them are housemaids or cleaning ladies.


“They are here from 8 to 8, every Sunday. It’s their only free day”, the dealer says. He is 25 years old, fragile frame, carefully groomed hair sprinkled with grey. He came to Hong Kong to find a different line of work, something that’s not black or white. But that didn’t work out, because after five years he still has no work permit. Instead he found a drug lord from his hometown somewhere in the belly of Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong’s “bourgeois Ghetto”, two minutes from here.

“I want to work, man”, he says. He stubs out the joint and then starts to roll another one. It looks as if all the energy that drained out of the bodies of the Filipino women has accumulated in the dealer’s restless bones.


Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world. It’s also one of the most unequal; it’s just that in Hong Kong, you can’t see the inequality. There is no slum at the edge of the city. There’s no area the taxi driver refuses to drive you to. Here, if you don’t earn a shitload of money you simply disappear. In the basement of a high-rise. In Chungking Mansions’ big belly. Or in a boarder house for Filipino women at the city’s fringes.


As it gets dark, the dealer goes back to black. I go home. The following morning at 8, there’s a knock at the door of my friend’s apartment. It’s the Filipino cleaning lady. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were here”, she says.

Hong Kong Ghetto

“Here, brother, you smoke, brother!” A guy from Bangladesh with a moustache, two golden chains and a golden earring, hands me a joint he just rolled. Legs and arms akimbo, pupils wide, he yells: aye mama!, and runs away towards a couple of girls.

A big Indian man looks at me and rolls his eyes. “Brother is crazy.” In four hours’ time, Crazy Brother will be pounding against our door, trying to get into our room, sweating, his gold chains gone. The big Indian is behind him on the corridor, smashing the palm of his hand against his forehead, yelling at the ceiling like some many-armed god could come down from there and calm everything down again.


We’re at Chungking Mansions, a crumbling 17-storey high building that is home to 4000 people from more than 120 nations and every legal or illegal business you can think of. Copy Rolex, tailor made suit, hashish, weed, coca, girl, boy? Ecstasy? You’ll get it here. You want to buy two hundred smartphones? Get your nails done? Sell Rupee, stolen goods or contraband? This is the place.

It’s also the place with the cheapest rooms in Hong Kong. From the big Indian guy we get one for 30 Euro. From Crazy Brother we get an I’ll-stab-you-later-glance.


The Chungking Mansions are like a piece of ghetto placed in one of the most expensive streets in the world. There is actually a real Rolex shop just 200 meters next to where a black guy is slinging his “copy Rolex.” Men take measure for your suit next to a parked car while Gucci and Versace are just across the street. A bourgeois ghetto, one anthropologist calls the Chungking Mansions.


The place is as much about business and trade, is as hectical, loud and fast as its legal counterparts. It is estimated that 20 percent of all phones that are sold in Sub-Saharan Africa went through Chungking Mansions. African traders can visit Hong Kong without visa, buy stolen or second hand phones from Europe in the Mansions, send them over the world’s busiest border to Shenzen in China where they get refurbished and unlocked.


The traders take a cheap room in the mansions and, two or three days later, they fly home with a big suitcase full of “new” phones, or send them to Africa by ship.

That’s generally how this place works. And that’s why it’s tolerated in Hong Kong – it’s business. You’ll get arrested for shoplifting – I saw it, just two blocks away from the Mansions – with handcuffs and all. But trading drugs or contraband across the continent? That’s the spirit, brother.

Thirty years ago, the Chinese have started an experiment in a townlet of 30.000 inhabitants, called Shen-zhen, which means Deep-ditches, through which water streamed on to the rice fields.

The communists placed borders around the townlet and decreed a free market within. Not because there’s a problem with planned economy, God forbid, but, rather, to trade with foreigners.  

The experiment was so successful that, in the meantime, it swallowed the entire country of China, the townlet gained over 10.000.000 inhabitants and it produces more than the whole country of Romania.

Instead of rice, now they produce iPhones, Macs, batteries, hard-disks, smart watches, all the parts that make up a digital human. There’s a good chance that the screen you’re reading these lines on came from Shenzhen.

Everything happens with dizzying speed. By the time the Silicon Valley geniuses finish forging an idea, the Shenzhen boys will have already delivered it in five choices of colour.

No one stumbles on copyright. The factories that produce for big brands work overtime, making the same product and selling it at half a price. Some copy the patents directly from Kickstarter and sell them before the fools even manage to raise the money. There’s no other place where you can produce faster than here.  

The town is developed entirely for technology and commerce: the peripheral neighborhoods are factories surrounded by apartment buildings for workers; in the middle, crammed among skyscrapers, there’s a financial centre, which in turn is surrounded by countless research labs in robotics, genetics, software, spaceships…

The outskirts of the city are already joining with those of other cities and are gradually forming the largest megalopolis on the planet. It stretches from Macao to Hong Kong and comprises over 50.000.000 souls. It’s an anthill that, day and night, pumps trucks, ships and planes with things without which humankind would stop on its tracks.

And this fabulous place, where the world’s technology is produced, is guarded by cops with swords. Because China.


Suddenly, I heard myself cursing the highway.

For three days I’ve traveled on a snaky road that either coiled on rivers or crawled on mountains. Above me, a mega-highway was piercing cliffs and cutting through valleys on immense pylons.

People were flying across the mountains at 150km/h in comfortable, air-conditioned cabins while I hurdled through furrows and pedaled like an oily engine.  

Past the mountains, the highway doesn’t descend among people; instead, it continues ten meters above the fields where peasants plow among palm trees. It splinters villages and makes them look like ghettos, with fruit stands scattered through heaps of rubble and scooters that formicate through mud.

Other suspended highways show up at the horizon and draw near us, entangled into a five-tiered clew that spits expensive cars in all directions. There are still many under construction; the Chinese are working on them night and day, as if they’re building the Great Wall once again.

It’s a different world up there, where people fly through high-end suburbs and modernized downtowns without muddying themselves with the rest of the humanity.

”The poor people are those who don’t have a car,” a guy told me at some point, and just about now I realized what he meant by that.

Scooters are half of the traffic here, but they’re not allowed above. Many regular streets have been demolished and replaced by toll highways even when, for example, they were the only access way through two hills. If you don’t have a car, you have to go around tens of kilometers, or travel through ditches, like we do now.

In a conventional family, the husband travels by car as much as he wants to for work, while the wife travels on scooter, to the market and back home, because the electric battery won’t allow her more.

On this hierarchical ladder, bikes are at the bottom — they’re used only by the homeless and the elders who don’t have relatives to buy them a scooter. While we pedal all day, the cars are cutting our way, they honk at us and blind us with modified headlights. And the highway lies deserted above us.  

Christian laughs at me because I curse a concrete construction, especially one that contributes to economic development and saves lives by preventing frontal collisions. Anyway, the problems it creates can be patched up through public policy.

But the Chinese society doesn’t use patch-ups. It’s at its highest historical impetus, and anyone who stands in its way is trampled on and used as fertilizer.

This worked great as long as millions of people have been saved from dire poverty, but now a new generation comes along with high expectations, and is about to find out it doesn’t even have where to live.

No one is starving any longer, but the frustration grows together with social inequality. The threshold for success is higher and higher.

Some succeed and live in the cloud. Others are getting along between the long legs of the highway.


Finally, we’re surrounded by mountains, not by a sea of Chinese people. We have some room to breathe, lie down under the open sky and talk about home.

Christian comes from a little town in East Germany. We both grew up during the fall of the Communist regime, when our countries were opening up to the world.

This openness is ingrained in our DNA. The more someone is different from us, the happier we get when we discover the ways in which we are, after all, the same. We only really live when we explore and make connections.

But many of the people Christian grew up with are now neo-nazis. Some of them put bombs in places where Muslims go. His neighbours killed ten people because they didn’t think they deserved to breathe the same air.

I start noticing weird stuff as well; people I know since we were kids suddenly feel assaulted and want to fight back. Foreigners, gypsies and gays need to be chased away, or at least re-educated. The ”other” has to disappear, God forbid we learn something from them.

In our journey through China, we are “the other.” People turn their heads on the street. They point fingers at us. Some laugh, others frown. One mother covered her child’s face with her hand, as if her eyes were at risk of becoming round if she looked at us. Others are simply running away from us.

Yet China is opening up, and people are friendly; they’re eager to practice with us their three English words. And we have learned how to guide their curiosity through gestures – yes, we are humans, we won’t hurt you, come on, tell us something about yourself.

If we had arrived 50 years ago we would have been flogged. Back then, even the Chinese who studied at prestigious Western universities and returned to help rebuild their country were thrown into jail. It didn’t matter who they were, all that mattered was that they fraternized with “the other.”

But those who bullied them were themselves persecuted when the political tide changed. There’s always a reason to persecute once you start a witch hunt.

“The other” keeps shifting; if you build walls, one day you might also wake up being cast away.

Are you rich?

Hold the flashlight into the water: it’s clean.

Yes! For 2000 kilometers we’ve been looking for a place like this: Nanshui Lake.

In the dark, we climb the rocks along the shore to find a place to sleep. Cut some reed, put the sleeping bags on top: that’s a bed.

Two fishermen pass by, barely noticing us. I offer cigarettes. Without lighting them up, they continue to climb the hill, sweating and panting.

We arrange our supper: beer and cookies. The moon ascends behind the mountains, we close the light and talk about the future.


“Are you rich?”, a young guy asked me a few hundred kilometers ago. “No, no”, I said, a bit embarrassed. I wish I could show him this now and say: “Yes, I am.”

The Chinese, they’re always on the run, keeping busy like bees; kids already have schedules like managers, farmers work a day-job in the city and the field at night, pensioners get up at three in the morning to practice Tai-chi, countryside officials network the night away in brothels, moms breastfeed their kids on the backs of tricycles, weddings take place on Monday mornings, and the guy who asked me if I’m rich? He works two jobs to make ends meet.


It’s the founding story of modern China to be part of an exasperating movement towards salvation.

Mao’s communist militia had to embark on the Long March, a retreat from the nationalists who wanted to kill them back in the 1930s. The second Long March was started in the 1980s when Deng Xiaoping called for an offensive: the modernization. The current president Xi Jinping ordered for a third Long March: “national rejuvenation.”

This is a retreat again as Xi rewinds some of the open-market policies to favor domestic actors.

And the people march, as if it were a gold rush, towards an urban lifestyle, “western standards”, and retreat to newly-built condos which often cost more than a man can earn in a lifetime.


If there will be a fourth Long March, maybe it will be about the search for everything that got lost during the three previous ones: an intact nature, the freedom to walk at your own pace, to watch the moon ascend and talk about the present, wake up with dew on your face and go swimming with the fish.


We arrived in China all paranoid about being spied on, arrested, interrogated, deported or even worse.

In Beijing we had to report to the police within the first 24 hours. When we we made our way on bikes towards south, people didn’t want to take us in in guest houses because we were foreigners, and hotel staff would call the police to check on us before allowing us to sleep there.

One evening, we danced with some local people on the street, then they added us on their small town’s WeChat group, where we told them a little something about our journey. That is  until a few of them started texting ”Call the police! Call the police!”. At which point I got scared and turned off my phone.

But people didn’t want to turn us in, I realized after some time, but to give us a helping hand. The Chinese police are bound by law to help citizens, no matter what problem the latter have. When you arrive in a new town, it’s not unusual to go to the officers and ask them to take you to a hotel.

Actually, the cops are unarmed and look completely harmless. Rumour has it that, more often than not, they’re the ones who get beaten up by citizens, not the other way around. They patrol around town in some mini-carts, or mini-vans with drawings of uniformed emoticons on them, that tell you to help the elderly and not cross on a red light. In the villages, the police are basically invisible.

When I think about a repressive communist system the thing that comes to mind is an ever-present secret service, like we and the Russians had. But the Chinese have a more efficient system, that’s been working for thousands of years.  

The locals are self-organized — each family sends a representative in a street or building council; each street has a representative in the community council, and so on, until county level.

These councils are not just ritualistic, but they also maintain the public order, mediate conflicts and have a real influence on local administration, as long as they don’t interfere with the larger governmental policies.

If anyone misbehaves, they are immediately calmed down by family and community, otherwise everybody gets in trouble. A brutal state intervention is very rarely necessary.

Their system can be viewed as either a participatory democracy run by technocrats or as a dystopian totalitarism, internalized by the citizens. But the living standard is continually growing, the crime rate is very low, and the social solidarity strong. People mind their own business.

So, this is why we met here, in this police state, far fewer police officers than in Romania.

It’s only in this country that I realized how surveilled we are in Bucharest, at every step we take. We need uniforms at every corner of the street, at the supermarket and the pharmacy, to remind us to be good, to not steal and to respect the authority of others.

Just here I realized how surveilled we are in Bucharest, at every step. We need uniforms at each street corner, at the supermarket and at the pharmacy, to remind us to be nice, to not steal and to respect the authority of others.

Not because we trust or respect them, but to make sure we won’t get smacked in the head.


”I don’t feel free”, a young man suddenly tells me while we’re sharing a cup of tea.

I’m stunned. It’s the first time I’ve heard a Chinese person talking about freedom. I tried to steer the discussions in that direction several times, but it seemed as if they pretended not to hear me and changed the subject.

”And what would set you free?”, I ask, thinking of freedom of speech, human rights and other qualms. He thinks a bit and says:


From what I’ve seen so far, ultimate freedom for a Chinese man means to be a successful businessman who travels, has fun and has many lovers.

This form of freedom is accepted in a society that is still traditionalist, but at the same time wants to conquer the world. What’s the point in fooling around, if the others see you as a traitor or a slacker; freedom requires resources and authority.

The new generation was raised on American blockbusters, individualism and consumerism. But they live in an authoritarian state, and their families still function as clans. How can you make everyone happy?

Entrepreneurship is an existential issue for many people – the only way they can feel whole in a world that tears them apart in every direction.

It’s impossible to compete with their willingness to succeed, no matter how many books on productivity we read. The reason is that they’re doing this simply because they have no choice.

Freedom is when what you wish for is the only option left.

”Why do Chinese people plough the fields at night?”, I kept wondering when I saw how they were struggling with the lanterns, like some wingless fireflies.

I thought it must be some ancient technique, because the Chinese were very advanced in agriculture before being humiliated by the industrialized countries. They built massive irrigation systems 2000 years ago, some of which are still working today…

But there was no magic involved; basically, the peasants are working in the city during the day, and only find time to work the fields during the night. 

They are growing crops everywhere – in ditches, under suspended highways, on terraced hills, even on mountain slopes. No patch of land is left unturned.

In the plains there are no more forests; there are just rows of trees lined up at the borders between fields. I felt happy when I noticed a wild pine forest, but when I got closer, I saw that each tree was incised and a plastic bag was tied to it to collect resin.

I felt happy again when I spotted a lake with water lilies, but when I got closer, I noticed that actually, they were floating plastic bottles in which clams are nursed.  

The use of all space is maximized and it’s still not enough. The new cities are taking over workable land, and the new middle class are eating more and are pickier than their parents.

China should double its productivity in the upcoming years to feed its population. But it can’t just build some huge mechanized farms, because 300.000.000 people who practice subsistence agriculture would be left without work. Last time they tried to fix this issue superficially, 50.000.000 people died.  

So the government is urging its people to work more, and is desperately seeking a solution for the future, otherwise everybody’s fucked. If China runs out of food, the entire planet turns belly-up.

I’ve never felt that this world is not big enough for all of us, not even in the most crowded cities… until I reached these never-ending fields where I can’t find a free spot to put up my tent.


It’s 30°C outside and the sun is damping my T-shirt as I pedal along palm trees. Three days ago, my hands were freezing on the handlebars – the temperature was close to 0°C, it was raining around the clock and we couldn’t stop, otherwise we would have frozen altogether. So we biked for 100 km through industrial swamps until our fingers turned numb.

Today we’re sleeping in a bed and breakfast, tomorrow at some peasants’ house, the day after tomorrow under a bridge… we hang around with business people or construction workers while reading about the Cultural Revolution and Opium Wars.

We meet grown-up people who literally run away from us – they sprint and they hide. Others come and touch us, unsure whether we’re real or not. Cops pick us up on various reasons, take selfies with us and then let us go.

Meanwhile, my friends at home seem to be living on a different planet, and the world altogether seems to be running amok.

In the beginning, my thoughts were eating away at me, almost tearing me apart. But after one month on the bike, the ideas began to settle down quietly by the side of the road; I just need to pick them up and put them together at the end of the day.

There’s C H A O S everywhere, but when I get on the saddle, one by one, things begin to make sense.

Everything will be alright.