10,000 Kilometers, 26 Horsepower German Man to Travel to Olympics by Trabant

It's a long way from Germany to Beijing -- especially in a 26-horsepower Trabant. But one dauntless man is making his 10th trip to the Olympics in a cult East German car and is more worried about bureaucracy than breaking down.

By David Gordon Smith


Hundreds of thousands of people will be traveling to the Beijing Summer Olympics this August. But what better way to get to the world's largest communist country than in that icon of East German socialism, the Trabant?

Eccentric world traveler Rolf Becker -- better known as Barrel Organ Rolf due to his love for the musical instrument -- is traveling to Beijing by Trabant, the East German car that has a cult following.

Becker began his 10,000-kilometer (6,200-mile) journey to China Thursday, setting off from Magdeburg in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. He will travel first to Rostock on the north German coast, then across the Baltic Sea by ferry to the Latvian capital Riga and on to the Estonian capital Tallinn. He will continue on through Russia, where he will stop off in Moscow and Novosibirsk.

After that he will head across Mongolia -- where the driving will mainly be off-road -- before reaching China. He plans to arrive in Beijing two weeks before the games begin on August 8. After the trip he plans to auction the car's hood, which has been signed by various celebrities, for charity. Becker's epic trek across Eastern Europe and Asia can be followed on his Web site.

Becker, speaking by telephone Friday from near the Polish border where he was due to make a guest appearance at a wedding trade show, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that he was not afraid of breakdowns. "As I always tell people, I have a German car," he said. His entourage actually consists of three Trabants. "We'll see how many of them complete the route," he said. The Trabant, which was first produced in East Germany in 1957, has a reputation for breaking down more often than an old FIAT, but also for being easy to repair due to its low-tech design.

However, mechanical hitches are not his greatest worry. "The bureaucracy is the biggest problem," he said, explaining that he was having difficulty getting the necessary transit visas for Russia.

This will be the 10th trip by Trabant to the Olympics for Becker, 61, who originally comes from the eastern German city of Halle and was a professional barrel organ player during the socialist era (he broke the world record for the longest period playing the instrument). He hasn't missed an Olympics since the fall of the Berlin Wall and has also successfully completed the Paris-Dakar rally and driven coast to coast across the US in a Trabant. "I have always completed my journeys," he says.

During a 2006 trip across Africa, he took pleasure in getting through terrain where Land Rovers got stuck. "I know how weak the Trabant is," he said, explaining that he does not suffer from the false confidence that drivers of four-wheel-drive vehicles sometimes have. Instead, he explains, he gets out of his car and carefully checks difficult terrain before attempting it.

Hopefully on this trip he will not have to contend with being shot at, as happened during his Africa exhibition when he came under rebel fire while traveling through Somalia. "There was a bullet hole in the Trabi," he said. "Fortunately Allah protected us."

Becker, who describes himself as "the German Mr. Bean" and who sports a clown-style hat with a flower sticking out of it, explained that he practices the art of friendly diplomacy in order to avoid any potential trouble. "People see from my outfit that I'm not dangerous," he says. "At worst they might think I'm a bit soft in the head."

With China's human rights record attracting international attention in the run-up to the Olympics, does he have a message for the Chinese people? "People are the same everywhere, even if we look a bit different," he says.

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