It takes a lot of courage to live a busy life and still turn everything upside down to follow an idea. Werner Wachter had this courage when he founded a motorcycle travel company together with his wife Coral in 1980. In doing so, they were treading a path that no one had taken before them. The days when motorcyclists were considered starvelings or outlaws or both were not long gone, but Werner saw how things were changing and how they would evolve. Motorcycles would become popular recreational vehicles, and the riders would become well-heeled and welcome guests. He was right. As he was so often.
But a company founder needs not only a vision to follow but also a lot of down-to-earth knowledge, great assertiveness, and a lot of perseverance and persuasiveness. All this and more characterized Werner and so he succeeded in establishing not only a new company but a completely new industry. Guided motorcycle tours with comprehensive service from luggage transport to luxury picnics were new to the market but quickly found many takers. And also many imitators.
Werner established a large business network over the years and in many cases business partners became good friends. He built up a reliable staff and trained numerous tour guides, always looking ahead and towards his customers. Providing the guest on tour with a special and unforgettable experience was the guiding star by which he aligned his company. He always had an open ear for criticism and suggestions, even if he mostly preferred to listen to his gut feeling instead. Some people interpreted this character trait as stubbornness, but that is of course completely absurd. He always knew how to lighten up a deadlocked discussion by saying something profound or by telling one of his countless stories, most of which he had experienced himself. A gifted storyteller, yes, that's what he was.
From time to time, his thirst for adventure and discovery got the better of him, and the well-being of the tour participants had to take a back seat. When it hit him, laws became recommendations and rules became hints, which he elegantly circumvented. He suspected something particularly interesting behind that military roadblock in China, and restaurant kitchens were always an open invitation anyway. After all, you want to know where the food comes from, don't you? He liked to mingle with the locals, cheat his way into a wedding photo or dress up as a snake charmer in Morocco to confuse both locals and tourists. Not to mention the tour participants....
With his 60th birthday in the rearview mirror, Werner very slowly began to prepare for retirement. He brought his friend and volleyball partner Rainer Buck on board, made him managing director after a short trial period, and planned one last big trip - the world tour. From November 2010 to July 2011, he rode around the globe with a group of intrepid companions and then returned back to Mieming, but not to his office chair. Instead, he enjoyed his free time and prepared the handover of the company to his son Tobias. In 2018, his life's work was complete and we all would have wished him many more years to reminisce and see both his company and his family continue to grow. It was not meant to be. Farewell, Werner! You will be missed!
By Thomas Ritt
Werner Wachter, the founder of Edelweiss Bike Travel and inventor of the all-round carefree motorcycle trip, has passed away. After a short, serious illness, he took his last trip on the evening of January 16, 2021, leaving behind a deeply grieving family and shocked employees. Werner was an extraordinary person, in many ways, so this is not meant to be a normal obituary, but a travel story.
In early February 2005, I find a letter from Werner in my Edelweiss mailbox, addressed to all tour guides. He is looking for a volunteer, he writes, to take over the brand new China tour program. Interesting, I think, but I've only had two years as a tour guide for Edelweiss and don't want to jump the queue, plus I'm not sure if ten China tours a year, plus scouting and meetings, etc., wouldn't be a bit too much. I decide not to answer the mail for the time being and instead go on a long-planned vacation. Together with a buddy, we are scheduled to go from San Francisco to Denver to visit friends.
At that time there were no smartphones and no public hotspots, it was still cumbersome to check one's mails. At the friend's place in Denver, I check for the first time in two weeks and discover more circular mails from Werner, he seems to find no volunteer. "I am still looking for someone for China!!! URGENTLY!!!", he writes. Departure to Beijing is supposed to be as early as March 3. I write back that unfortunately I can't because I won't be back from the US until March 5. Besides, I am not sooo keen on spending so much time in China, for years to come, but of course, I don't write that. With a slightly hypocritical "I'm sorry" I close my mail. Only hours later, Werner's reply reaches me. "I have rescheduled your flight," he writes, "You will fly to China on March 7 and do the following there. Call me as soon as you get back from America". I scroll back. Did I really say yes? According to Werner's understanding, yes. Clearly.
Back home in Munich, I talk to Werner on the phone for a long time, then ride to Mieming and pick up a pile of documents and equipment. I also procure a - very expensive - express visa and off I go. In Beijing, I meet Rick, our Chinese partner, and we set off on a ten-day scouting tour. Still by car, because the 10 brand new BMWs Rick bought for the tours are not yet registered. Rick has no idea what a motorcycle tour should be like, by "nice road" he means a well-built expressway with immaculate pavement. We visit countless temples, pagodas, and monasteries, plus the Great Wall of China, the traffic on the completely straight roads is atrocious. We don't have time to scout alternatives. This will be a great tour, I think.
Back in Germany, I report to Werner and prepare him for the fact that the tour may not be as exciting as we had hoped. "Don't worry," Werner says, "it will be a fantastic adventure. At this point, I have no idea how right he was to be.
In mid-April, Werner and I fly to Beijing together. Economy, of course, because Werner doesn't like to spend money unnecessarily, especially not on himself. At the hotel, a huge five-star fantasyland on the outskirts of Beijing, we inspect the brand-new motorcycles and greet the tour participants, all hand-picked, adventure-tested regulars and personal friends. At the team meeting, he explains to our Chinese guides Rick and Jerry that we need to make some changes to the route, including adjusting the sights. Impromptu, please. Rick turns pale. He should turn pale more often on this tour.
On the first day of the tour, we head out to the Great Wall. Rick doesn't know how to lead a group, but the participants know how to keep up. I ride at the very back, we zoom along multi-lane roads, between cars, left and right past boundlessly overloaded trucks, across the hard shoulder and sometimes through oncoming traffic. I feel like I'm in a computer game. The adventure has begun.
On the second day, we ride into the mountains, on a narrow, beautiful road full of curves. Rick has picked this route out of the sleeve, he seems to know his way around, I gain hope. At noon we stop in a small village, beautifully decorated in a traditional way and certainly very crowded in summer (there are five large bus parking lots). Now in April, there is no one here except us. After lunch we are shown around the village, take photos. The tour is on, no kidding, we ride big BMWs through China. Unbelievable!
Back at the parking lot. Everyone is waiting for Werner, who is rummaging through his jacket and trouser pockets. The ignition key is nowhere to be found. We search the ground, run back to the restaurant and check every alley. The key remains missing and we have to hoist the 1150GS onto the trailer because unfortunately, Werner is not riding one of the official rental bikes, but a privately borrowed vehicle for which we have no spare key. While Rick continues to lead the group, co-tour guide Jerry has to go back to Beijing to get the spare key. For this, he takes my motorcycle, Werner and I are given a seat in the escort vehicle. I am pissed. The second day, blue sky, beautiful route, great landscape - and I have to sit in that stuffy truck. Werner is meek and has a guilty conscience. Rightly so.
In the evening, while the guests at the bar compare Chinese beer varieties and practice eating with chopsticks, the team gathers and hunches over the map. Werner jabs his index finger at the map and says, "This is a mountain range, right?" "Yes," Rick says, "but I don't know my way around there." "That doesn't matter," Werner says, "you'll take us across these mountains to Taiyuan tomorrow. Good night, everyone." Rick sleeps badly that night.
The next day brings the grandiose adventure that Werner had announced before the trip. At that time, there are neither paper nor digital maps for the mountains that would even remotely be detailed enough. The roads are getting smaller and bumpier, Rick asks for directions, again and again. Repeatedly we have to turn around and try another direction. It drizzles, we dig through the mud, every now and then someone falls over. But there are people everywhere who can't believe their eyes when they see us. Behind his mud-smeared visor, I see a glow on Werner's face. "Tom, this is AWESOME! There has NEVER been a tour group here before, we are breaking NEW GROUND!" Werner is in his element.
There is no catering in Newground, so we treat ourselves to some fruit and candy bars for lunch. It's cold, we're dirty and tired, but Rick has only a very rough idea of where we are. A young girl with a pink umbrella and remarkably clean clothes sends us up an adventurous side road that leads us into an open coal mine. In an instant, operations there come to a standstill, workers stream in, and we look into pitch-black faces with wide-open eyes. These people, I think to myself, have not only never seen a foreigner before, they didn't even know that foreigners existed at all. Not to mention the big BMWs. We are the attraction of the century!
At nightfall we finally reach Taiyuan. One of the bikes has a flat tire, we leave it on the side of the road. The police stop us and we are not allowed to continue but have to wait in a dusty gas station for an escort. This takes time, Werner gets impatient and suggests continuing illegally. The hotel can't be far away, he says. If he had legitimate hope of finding his way there on his own, he would have left long ago, but Taiyuan has about 4 million inhabitants and is rather confusing, so there is no such hope. After two hours, it is now 10 p.m., the escort arrives, an ancient microvan that can only move with difficulty, and leads us to the hotel. After a hard, 15-hour day, we have really earned ourselves a refreshing Tsingtao!
The rest of the tour remains adventurous. We sink into sticky mud, eat things we don't know, cheat our way through the undergrowth on roads that motorcycles are not supposed to ride on, have to shower for hours in Pingyao to wash off the sticky black coal dust and cause a crowd everywhere we stop. Thousands of Chinese women want a photo of themselves and one of us, while the men seem to want nothing more than to take a seat on such a massive motorcycle for once. The people are incredibly friendly.
On the penultimate day, we are on the way to Xi'an and at a difficult spot, Werner falls over together with his GS. I'm behind him, help him and the motorcycle back to their feet and tires and we fight our way out of the mud. Rick has not noticed that we are missing and continues, Werner and I are alone in the Chinese pampas. At a gas station, we want to ask for directions, so I dig out the map. But no matter what I do and no matter how I pronounce Xi'an, nobody understands me. Everyone is too busy admiring us long-noses and the two BMWs. 20 minutes and hundreds of photos later Rick comes back, he missed us at some point.
The highway into the center of Xi'an (8 million inhabitants) is taboo for motorcycles, but we are late and have to get on it to avoid having to ride in the dark again. That is extremely dangerous in China. The lady at the toll station can't be persuaded, so we get to the next exit via a dirt road, ride up against the direction of travel and turn around at the next opportunity. Then it's full throttle to Xi'an, Rick is probably afraid of getting caught. At the end of the highway, there is another toll station where they refuse to let us through and want to send us back. But Rick negotiates skillfully and we are allowed out. From the toll station to the hotel we are escorted again, but not by a junky minibus, but by more than 20 Chinese on large-volume bikes who were waiting for us here. There are not many riders of "real" motorcycles in China, but these few know each other. All of them. At the hotel, the press and TV are waiting, we are filmed and interviewed, hundreds of photos are taken. The head of the local motorcycle club welcomes us in the name of all Chinese bikers. It is a festival.
After the tour Werner is satisfied. The tour was a tremendous adventure, at times a little too much. We would have to defuse some things, make a few adjustments here and there, add a day, move an overnight stop. We agree that the Edelweiss tour program has a future in China.
Together we start our journey home and go to the airport. Werner has booked Austrian, I have a Lufthansa ticket, but the Lufthansa counter is closed. We learn that there will be another LH flight to Germany only in three days, while the Austrian flight seems to be on schedule. There are also free seats on it, we proceed to the ticket office. There are already some people there who would have liked to be on the LH flight, there are loud protests, the mood is tense. The German couple in front of us is told that a rebooking would not be possible, they would have to buy new tickets, which unfortunately is not cheap. Clamoringly they leave and I can already see myself waiting three days at the Beijing airport, or even longer until I finally see my home country again, but Werner manages what the others did not. He inquires about the options in a friendly and polite manner, sprinkles in some small talk, raves about the great trip that lies behind us and about how warm and nice the people were, and how much he is already looking forward to coming back to China. He flirts and chats with the young female employee, flashing his Senator Card as if by chance. The young lady rebooks me, quickly and without fees, and I fly to Vienna together with Werner.
Persistent and determined, always courteous, and always friendly, that was Werner's recipe for success, for almost 40 years, from the founding of the company in 1980 to the handover of the company to his son Tobias in 2018. How fondly I think back to this tour in China, as well as to the Silk Road Tour in 2007, which we also did together. There would be a lot to tell about that one, too...
Thank you, dear Werner. We will miss you.