Running the Silk Road

German runner seeks to connect Hamburg and Shanghai with a cultural bridge

“Normal” people make long journeys easier by breaking them down into smaller steps in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the magnitude.

But Kai Markus is no normal person, nor would one classify the magnitude of his long journey as normal. Markus processes his endeavor by putting it in perspective, making it, or at least its meaning, bigger than the physical distance he faces. Rather than slicing it into manageable pieces, he blows up the concept so the unfathomable number of kilometers of the road ahead are more manageable.

The 45-year-old Markus is more than halfway through his run that will take him well over 12,000 kilometers (or 7,450 miles), from Hamburg, Germany to Shanghai, China, covering what is known as the Silk Road. The route has taken Markus and his trusted assistant and driver, Victor Neubauer, through Germany, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and now China. As Markus runs about 50K or 31 miles per day, Neubauer drives their rig—a 1984 Volkswagen Beetle and an off-road, teardrop trailer—and keeps Markus hydrated, fueled and on the right path. Their progress, which is being chronicled online with maps, videos and blogs, has been inconsistent because of weather, poor road conditions, various governmental regulations and a variety of setbacks, but the goal is to arrive in Shanghai by late October or early November.

A Man on a Mission

Markus, whose wife is Chinese and with whom he has an 18-month-old son and whose in-laws live in a city along the Silk Road, wanted to undertake a project that would build a cultural bridge. He chose as his mission the symbolic linking of his native Germany and China and selected the historic Silk Road because it resonated with people and was something sponsors could get behind. The Silk Road was the trade route used to connect the East and the West, facilitating exchanges of silk and horses, and dating back to the Han dynasty of around 200 BCE.

In building his cultural bridge, the gregarious Markus seeks to link German and Chinese societies, speaking to anyone and everyone he sees along the route, especially children.

As one of two international journalists who met up with Markus and Neubauer in Kyrgyzstan between the remote villages of Osh and Sary-Tash about 70K from the Chinese border, I found him to be a true Pied Piper of running, inviting people to join him and appearing on local TV and radio shows to spread his love of being active, open and friendly, and to show people that they need to follow their dreams. It’s clear that he wants to share his admiration of both the German and Chinese cultures and illustrate—by crossing the physical bridge between the two nations on foot—that they are not that far apart.

Playing on his footwear and apparel sponsor, 361°, Markus can certainly be said to be “one degree beyond.”

Still, Markus comes off as being genuinely modest, perhaps humbled by the grand effort he’s undertaking.

“I start as a normal person and I’ll finish as a normal person,” he says. “I’m just an individual and everyone has a responsibility to do what they can to see things in a positive light and motivate others, to make a child laugh.”

He says he has learned some profound lessons during his run.

“Here, (in the remote areas of the Silk Road) I learn why I’ve been successful with teaching kindergartners,” he says. “I love them as though they are my own children. Children are our future and if we raise them well then we have a good future.”

Children in Kyrgyzstan flocked to Markus, who went out of his way to greet them, the perfect cultural ambassador, concerned more about making acquaintances than advancing his body along the Silk Road. Markus is very focused on his own son, who already walks up the four flights of stairs at their apartment building in Hamburg, speaks three languages (German with his father and in public, Chinese with his mother and grandparents, and English, his parents’ shared language), and learned to crawl at a very young age because Markus rigged a remote control car to his bottle so that he had to chase it down to get it.

Running through rural areas and seeing the simple life of villagers, nomadic herders and farmers teaches one that the high pressure of a bustling economy isn’t necessarily a good thing and that those passed aren’t necessarily hoping to change their lot in life.

“We all want safety and food for our family and to make our own decisions,” he says, admitting the first part of the trip has already changed him. “I had my own prejudices before, and I’ve lost those through running across the various countries.”

Paving the Way

Markus put nine months of “preparation” into what is likely to be nine months of running the Silk Road. While that prep included plenty of running and a battery of physical and nutritional analyses and diagnoses to help him withstand the rigors of such a tremendous effort, he feels it wasn’t enough time. A lot of that preparation was spent securing sponsorship, and Markus and his support team made approximately 1,000 contacts per sponsor secured. He signed with a wide variety of types of support, including a Chinese-German TV program, a doctor, a nutrition company, global footwear and apparel brand 361°, and many others. Markus requires his sponsors believe in the cultural bridge project that is the essence of his Silk Road dream.

His journey has been governed by a ticking clock. Given the costs associated with the trip, unforeseen and unforeseeable costs—like the expense of a guide when the Uzbek government decided to change its rules and required Markus to have a paid guide during the entire passage through Uzbekistan—time has translated to money. Any delays are the equivalent of eating into the project’s limited sponsorship funds. As such, Nov. 4, 2017 has become a hard stop, whether he makes it to Shanghai or not.

“You have to have a finish date because I can’t just say to sponsors or my wife and son, ‘I’ll finish when I finish,’” he points out.

Markus might also need to complete the Silk Road in order to keep from wasting away, as he’d lost more than 35 pounds while on the run through early July. He says his weight depends a lot on the local diet in the countries through which he passes. He lost the most weight in the desert of Kazakhstan while, in Uzbekistan, where he ate grilled meat three times a day, he was able to replace some of what he had lost.

The border crossings have been one of the most difficult challenges for Markus and Neubauer because they have to completely unpack the VW and the off-road teardrop trailer and inventory every item for the border patrol. For the China border, which is closed Friday–Sunday, this caused a three-day delay and then they weren’t permitted to drive for the 170K of the border zone. Markus dutifully deducts that distance from the Silk Road total distance.

An Invaluable Accomplice

Like Batman’s Robin, Markus has an incredibly devoted support team of one: Victor Neubauer, who quit his job in Germany to volunteer to drive his uncle’s 1984 VW Beetle and tow an off-road-equipped teardrop trailer that, due to weight and lack of horsepower, is unable to exceed 30 mph. Neubauer does all the driving, cooking, cleaning, and maintenance of the VW and trailer, which serves as the team’s shared bedroom and kitchen. Neubauer is known to snore, something Markus had to get used to, given such tight shared quarters.

Neubauer was working for a tourism company and helping Markus during the preparation for the trip. When he saw that Markus wasn’t going to have support for his journey he decided to make a major life decision and enlisted for the big role. Markedly mellow and quiet, Neubauer is the yin to Markus’ yang. He smokes and drinks coffee most of his waking hours, and Markus decided to motivate Neubauer, concocting what became the “Plus One Challenge.” For each day on the Silk Road, Neubauer has to run an additional lap around the VW and trailer, do an extra push-up and an extra sit-up. Eventually, the Plus One Challenge will add up to about 240 daily laps, pushups and sit-ups.

His Way or the Silky Highway

To say that Markus is determined and hardheaded is an understatement. He was arrested when he traveled through China at age 19 because he insisted on testing the authority of a Chinese official who forbade him from taking pictures of government structures. Markus disobeyed the officer, continuing to snap pictures and, in turn, landed himself in a cave-like jail.

He was known as “the pain in the ass” when he worked for a big German investment bank because he called the president out for being impolite. Markus was familiar enough with a German law prohibiting management from reprimanding employees and cited it to the bank’s top dog. Eventually the president ended up admiring the young, brash employee and assigned Markus the projects that had befuddled others because Markus didn’t seem to care if others liked him or not.

Similarly, he has gone into media interviews prepared to deny dialogue if they don’t respect his ground rules for the engagement. And, likewise, he has fired sponsors that failed to abide by the terms of respect that he lays out in negotiating the foundation of the cultural bridge, namely, prohibiting speaking negatively about the nations or peoples who are part of the Silk Road. It is Markus’ way or the highway. It is, after all, his Silk Road.

Adam W. Chase
Adam W. Chase has run more than 150 marathons and ultra-distance races. At this point in life, he writes faster than he runs and also serves as President of the American Trail Running Association and works as a lawyer in Boulder, Colo.