Meet the Man Who Cycled from Switzerland to Shanghai

By Ned Kelly, January 27, 2021

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What kind of person cycles over 30,000 kilometers and through 27 countries, all the way from their home in the shadow of the Swiss Alps to the coast of the East China Sea? The same kind of person who runs away to join the circus, of course! Meet Dave Muehlemann.

“I’m a 40-year-old guy from Switzerland. I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life, but never for the big money,” he introduces himself. “I’ve worked in an office, as a pizza chef, a waiter on a train and as a nurse caring for elderly people. I also toured around my beautiful country as a manager of a circus.”

It was his stint in the circus – perhaps unsurprisingly – that gave him itchy feet... or itchy wheels. In 2013 he rode 3,500 kilometers to the south of Morocco to visit some friends he had met while working in the big top.

“Before I started, I hadn’t cycled one single kilometer on my new bicycle. So, I have to confess, it was a bit of a naive project. But in amazing Morocco, I got a taste for this way of traveling.”

So much of a taste that he flew on to Jordan and then cycled all the way back to Switzerland from there. His ‘Mediterranean Tour’ covered 13,500 kilometers over eight months. As for this latest adventure, the original plan was to cycle to Japan.

“The idea came about in autumn 2013 when I read that the Olympic Games would take place in Tokyo in 2020. Before my departure, I applied for a job at the Olympics. My goal was to be a little cogwheel in the biggest sports event in the world, and hopefully meet Roger Federer!”

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Travels through Kyrgyzstan

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Travels through Kyrgyzstan

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Travels through Kyrgyzstan

After COVID-19, he was forced to switch his route to Shanghai. The pandemic worked to Muehlemann’s advantage in China, though. 

“In normal times, I would have been able to stay in China for only two months. But with the special situation, it was five months. It made it possible to cycle 8,150 kilometers from Yunnan and Shangri-La to Xi’an and Shanghai and onto Hong Kong. This distance is equal to London to Beijing, as the crow flies.”

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Travels through South Asia

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Travels through South Asia

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Travels through South Asia

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Travels through South Asia

Taking things as they come and adapting to the situation is very much part of Muehlemann’s philosophy.

“I’m not the type of guy who wants to plan every detail. On the one hand, I’m too lazy for it. And on the other hand, it’s often senseless to organize too much; when traveling the world, you have to be flexible, and I also want to be able to make spontaneous decisions concerning my route.”

Muehlemann would sleep where he ended each day’s ride. “Sometimes I pitched my tent, other times I would get invited in by families; most of the time I went to the cheapest shabby hotel or guesthouse. One memorable evening in Pakistan, some construction workers let me sleep in one of their beds by the side of a remote and dusty road, with noisy trucks driving by all night.”

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Muehlemann’s roadside bed in Pakistan

Pakistan was one of the unexpected delights for Muehlemann. “Through the media – and it’s true – I had learned there had been several terror attacks only a few years ago. I had warning voices in my head cycling through this region, so I planned to rush through this leg of my journey as fast as possible, doing 150 kilometers a day. 

“In the end, I was so surprised by the beauty of the mountains in the Hunza Valley and Gilgit-Baltistan that I cycled the shortest legs of the whole trip, integrated some hikes and made a very exhausting six-day detour. The main road, the Karakorum Highway, built by the Chinese for the Belt and Road Initiative, is in perfect shape. Next to it can be quite wild and raw – what I really like.”

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Travels through Pakistan

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Travels through Pakistan

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Travels through Pakistan, if you look carefully you can make out Muehlemann’s bike

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Travels through Pakistan

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Travels through Pakistan

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Travels through Pakistan

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Travels through Pakistan

Other highlights for Muehlemann include Tajikistan and the famous Pamir-Highway, stretching across a barren plateau 4,600 meters above sea level, where he rarely encountered another living soul.

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Travels through Tajikistan

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Travels through Tajikistan

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Travels through Tajikistan

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Travels through Tajikistan

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Travels through Tajikistan

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Travels through Tajikistan

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Travels through Tajikistan

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Travels through Tajikistan

The Iranians, meanwhile, were arguably the most hospitable. “The welcoming behavior of the Iranians is legendary – so much so it was almost too much! I cannot say where I met the friendliest people, or where I had the best food. 

“What I can tell you, however, is how many humans gave me something, without knowing me and often without having much for themselves. It was so astonishing and touching.”

Nowhere more so in China than Yunnan, says Muehlemann. “It is an amazing region, so diverse regarding the nature and the people, with 35 minorities. This was where I was given the most presents from the people.

“I spent some time with a young and very generous guy who, on the day I left his small, pretty village, gave me 60 warm quail eggs for my onward journey. Because it was way too much for me, I shared them with the girls and boys along my route.”

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Warm quail eggs in Yunnan, China

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Travels through China

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Travels through China

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Travels through China

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Travels through China

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Travels through China

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Travels through China

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Travels through China

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Travels through China

The children in all countries were the highlight for Muehlemann. “It’s a joy to interact with them, even without a common language. I always had dozens of balloons with me and tied them to a thread so the kids could have some fun for a while.”

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Kids in Southeast Asia

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Kids in Southeast Asia

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Kids in Southeast Asia

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Kids in Pakistan

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Kids in Pakistan

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A child sees off the sun

Muehlemann says that his chosen form of transport is a big advantage when it comes to meeting people along his journey, with people attracted by the fully loaded bike. His trusty steed is a Papalagi GPi of MTB Cycletech – “a robust touring bike with a steel frame and the perfect travel mate for this trip, and even manufactured in my hometown.”

The bicycle itself weighs 19 kilograms, while all his kit weighs 24 kilograms, with 3 kilograms of food and drinks thrown on for good measure. Powering all that up Pakistani mountains would require a special diet, one would imagine. Not so, says Muehlemann: “I always ate what I felt like, if possible, local food from the street. Nothing special.”

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Muehlemann's trusty steed is a Papalagi GPi of MTB Cycletech

In the end, his journey from his hometown near Zurich to Hong Kong took in 30,200 kilometers, with 226 days in the saddle over a period of 18 months, giving Muehlemann time to explore the cities and countries he was in, and “giving my bicycle some time to rest and recover.”

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An overturned truck...

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... and one stuck in the mud

He hopes to inspire other people to travel the world in a similar fashion. “Everyone can do it: one week to Nanjing, three days to Hangzhou. It’s a mental thing – you just have to start, of course.”

Most surprisingly of all, perhaps, Muehlemann says he never felt like giving up – “No, never ever!” And as for whether he would do it all again? “If things go as planned, I will continue my journey on from Shanghai to South Korea and Japan in spring 2021.”

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Muehlemann in Shanghai


Follow Dave Muehlemann on Instagram @daily_dave_diary. For an interactive map of his journey, with pictures (and notes in German), click here or scan the QR code:

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[All images courtesy of Dave Muehlemann]

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