Love on two wheels
Updated: 2012-08-10 10:47
By Yang Yang (China Daily)
Top: Tang Jia and her husband Thomas Keunecke pose for a photo in Shanghai. Above: Tang believes that traveling by motorbike is the best way to test love. Photos Provided to China Daily
Epic road trip romance makes for moving book
A Chinese girl, who dreams of wild adventures around the world and shuns a stable career and her family's wishes, is suddenly swept off her feet by a handsome foreign traveler, who rides into town one day on his trusty steed. As romances go, Tang Jia and Thomas Keunecke's is as moving as you can get, in distance as well as emotion.
It all started five years ago when 23-year-old Tang was studying English.
Born into a well-off family in Changsha, Hunan province, Tang first aspired when growing up to becoming "an iron lady" and managing a big company. At university, she chose tourism management, and worked as a guide during summer vacations, visiting many well-known attractions around China.
"At that time, like everybody else, I considered choosing a major that would make getting a job easier four years later," she says.
"In the end, I chose tourism management, although my father disagreed. It was the first big decision of my life, and it turns out that I've been very lucky because it fits my personality.
"But, gradually, I got bored of touring only in China. I dreamed of being an international guide, which required good English."
To improve her language ability, in early 2007, Tang went to Yangshuo county, in the famous scenic surrounds of Guilin, in South China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, where there are many language schools. After two months of hard work, she improved sufficiently to stay on to assist in teaching.
Meanwhile, 27-year-old Thomas Keunecke had sold his music business back in Germany and was touring China by motorbike. Keunecke's love for motorbikes was in his blood. His great grandmother was Poland's first woman motorcycle racer.
In February 2007, he rode into Yangshuo and into Tang's life.
Keunecke had heard that the language school offered free board and lodging to foreign travelers in exchange for them talking to students for an hour each day. Having spent several months previously riding around South China, he thought he would take some out of the saddle to replenish his energy and resources before the next long leg to Tibet.
When he passed by a board displaying the school staff portraits, he was particularly taken by the one of Tang, and it wasn't long before he asked her if she would like to go for a quick scenic tour on his motorbike.
"I sat behind him and he smelt good. I guess at first it was a hormonal attraction," Tang says.
Within a month, they had fallen in love and Keunecke asked Tang to join him on the ride to Tibet.
"At first, I thought the relationship would lead nowhere. He is from Germany and I am Chinese. It might only be a fleeting romantic adventure, so I refused him," she recalls.
But when the time came for Keunecke to ride off into the west, Tang broke into tears. She realized this relationship was special to her. She frantically packed some clothes, climbed on the pillion seat, and thus began her first great adventure.
But it was not as romantic as she had imagined. Their transport was not a white charger but a modest 125cc Yamaha YBR.
"The first journey was the most difficult and challenging one, because we were not well prepared and were inexperienced. We went to the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong vehicle.
"It was very cold on the plateau in March and we didn't expect that we would starve all day because there was no restaurant along the road and we did not prepare any food.
"I'm just that kind of person. When I want to do something, I just do it, without thinking too much about the result."
But the couple's impetuous relationship would have more serious consequences.
When they returned from Lhasa, Tang took Keunecke back home to her family. Her father was strongly against their relationship, mainly because Keunecke was a foreigner.
"I fought with my parents and left home. In May, Thomas went back to Germany and I returned to school.
"After graduation, I went to Shanghai and fell into depression. I cried every morning when I woke up, because I had lost my family's support. My relationship with Thomas seemed to lead to nowhere but I couldn't end it. And my job sucked."
After three months, encouraged by a friend, Tang found a more suitable one in a travel company - and decided to break up with Keunecke.
"I got my confidence back. My career started to get better and I decided to get rid of the hopeless relationship. Being confident is really very important. When you are confident in yourself, you have the power to make yourself better in any way," she says.
However, Keunecke's feelings were equally strong. After he received Tang's e-mail ending the relationship, he immediately returned to China, and to the tough little woman who had ridden thousands of miles with him through all the difficulties and challenges.
"He told me he cannot let such a strong woman as me go," Tang says, laughing.
"Sometimes we think we are weak, so we cannot do this or that, but we were stronger than we thought."
They got married in April 2008 - and Keunecke offered his wife a honeymoon traveling from Shanghai to Hamburg by motorbike. Again, she quit her work and jumped on the pillion without hesitation.
Thus began an epic journey that she recounts in a book published recently in China titled The Journey of Love, from Shanghai to Hamburg.
"I think traveling by motorbike is the best way to test love. On the road of love and travel, we know more about each other, transcending the differences of culture and personality ... I always thought this relationship led nowhere but I still loved without any hesitation. I just thought I was young and I should do whatever I want to do, and love whomever I want to love. Marriage could wait. So I love, and get a happy ending," she writes in the book.
The 26,000-kilometer journey took them across 15 countries, overcoming many difficulties and hardships, meeting people and making friends. They spent most of their mere 40,000 yuan ($6,280, 5,072 euros) budget for the trip on fuel and accommodation.
"I never thought I would publish a book. But when you do what you really want to do, it seems like luck will come to you unexpectedly," Tang says.
"At first, I just wanted to keep my memories in words online, and suddenly publishers came to me and asked me to publish them as a book, so I did it."
Now, the freewheeling couple has settled in Bavaria, Germany, fittingly near the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein, and they have a 2-year-old daughter, Eva.
But that hasn't quelled their wanderlust - only now they travel by car. So far, the little girl has traveled to 10 countries with her parents. "Travel is my way of life. I cannot stop," she says.
In September, she hopes to publish another book about her family's travels.
"I gained a lot from travel. I got love and a family," she says. "I think you can find your true self by exploring an unknown world.
"It changed my view of the world. I learned that being rich does not necessarily mean being happy. I've been to many remote places, and people there are happier than many in big cities, although they are poorer."
If Keunecke hadn't rode into her life that day, she says, she would probably be in one of those big Chinese cities striving to become a rich corporate boss and "iron lady".
(China Daily 08/10/2012 page29)