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Gainesville couple bitten by the travel bug sets the globe as their itinerary
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From Russian palaces to nomadic yurts, one Gainesville couple has traveled the globe. Laura Hartert brought back rocks from a Mount Everest 17, 280-foot base camp. Husband Wolfgang collects caps. The Everest trip was 80 kilometers over "terrible roads," Laura Hartert said. "It was great." - photo by Photos by NAT GURLEY

Name a place, and odds are Wolfgang Hartert has visited it.

In fact, if he learns you’re planning a trip there, he pounces on his map collection, asks "May I suggest a route?" and offers to help you arrange accommodations.

After all, it’s more than likely the Gainesville resident has been there and done that.

In his lifetime, the 69-year-old has collected passport stamps from 120 of the world’s 196 countries, has been on two around-the-world trips, has spent about 600 days at sea and has crossed the Atlantic Ocean more than 250 times.

He’s been to Siberia, South Africa, Antarctica, Tibet, the Amazon, the Taj Mahal and the North Pole. He’s gazed into the world’s deepest lake, stood in the Dalai Llama’s palace, climbed to the Mount Everest base camp, paid his respects at the infamous grave of the Romanov royal family, and dined with a family of camel breeders.

Oh, and that last bit? He did that all on just his last vacation alone.

"And this is me relaxing," Hartert said.

A lifelong travel junkie, the retiree has no plans on stopping anytime soon.

"I’m still happy to see more," he said.

A need to travel

The Harterts were afraid.

World War II had plagued the German family, and now they were on the run from the Russians. They were poor, in flux, seeking shelter in West Germany and scared.

"I was a refugee," Hartert said.

The experience left the young child with a single determination: to leave Germany.

"I knew that I wanted to get away," he said.

So Hartert joined the German Navy and was stationed in Norfolk, Va., unknowingly kick-starting a life full of travel.

"I was so lucky that they sent me to America," he said. "I saw all these successful people, and I wanted to be one of them."

He got off to a decent start, enough so that he was soon at a real estate agent’s office, inquiring about properties. While there, he met the proprietor’s daughter, Laura.

The now 59-year-old Gainesville resident well remembers the day she met Hartert, whom she lovingly refers to as "Wolfie."

"My father came home and said to me, ‘I just met the only man on the earth that Laura can marry,’" she said. "We were married eight months later."

From the beginning, Laura recognized that her husband had a desire to see, go and do.

"Wolfie is a travel bug, and I follow along happily," she said.

A big adventure

While the Gainesville couple has seen almost all there is to see — "I think we’ve seen just about everything in the world," Hartert said — they still craved more. For that reason, they recently embarked on one of their most impressive journeys to date.

Crossing the Atlantic, they stopped in Frankfurt, Germany, to visit family, before moving on to Berlin and then Moscow. The couple took full advantage of the Russian city, stopping at the Red Square and visiting museums and monasteries along the way. From there, they visited the Russian community of Ekaterinburg, where the Romanov royal family was murdered, and where the Russian mafia once had a stronghold.

And on they continued, this time to a place that held special significance to Hartert. They traveled to Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia. Hartert especially wanted to see Siberia, as his father was held captive there during the war.

"It was emotional," Hartert said.

But not every part of that leg of the trip was as serious. As the couple wrote in an e-mail to friends back home: "The Russian food is pretty miserable. ... The little dog who enjoyed our food never had it so lucky! We have broken all our regular rules and eaten at KFC, McDonalds or Papa John’s."

In that city, the couple stayed in the hotel where the nation held its 1989 peace talks. The day after, they saw the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lake Baikal, which is the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. After that, the couple took a train to Mongolia, where they stayed in a nomadic yurt.

They wrote in an e-mail: "Mongolia is clean and colorful. ... The landscape is unbelievably beautiful with huge rock formations and big, blue sky. ... This was about the best sleep (we’ve) had so far ... We are surrounded by horses, yaks, cows and one camel."

They spent the next week traveling across the continent, enjoying local experiences, such as spending time with a camel-breeding family and trying camel sour cream, which Laura described as "not bad!"

The trip took a turn toward Beijing, a city that the couple said has changed quite a bit since their last trip to the Chinese capital. They then embarked on the most elusive part of their trip: Tibet, a nation that claims independence and is recognized as its own country by some of the world but is considered by others as part of the People’s Republic of China. The area was home to the Dalai Llama before his political exile.

The Harterts had to have special governmental permission to visit the area, and they found the experience fascinating, writing in an e-mail to their friends: "What a welcome we got in Tibet. The city is totally controlled by Chinese forces, (with) military everywhere you look. They also have lots of spies all around, so we have to be a bit careful."

After walking 700 steps up into the Dalai Llama’s former palace, the pair crossed the famous Friendship Bridge into Nepal and went on to the Mount Everest base camp, where they hiked up a portion of the region. Their last e-mail to friends said: "To describe everything would be too much, and we want to have some stories for our next visits with you, so we will summarize. We know now that this trip is not for the faint-hearted or retirees."

More to come

By the time the Harterts drove up to their home and finally enjoyed the comforts of their own house, they had traveled some 26,600 miles — 16,000 by air travel, 7,300 by train and 3,300 by buses, SUVs or mini-vans.

But it’s not enough for Hartert.

"I’m still hungry for more," he said.

He knows that he’s seen enough of the world to just about make him an expert on the subject.

"I could be a history teacher or a geographer at this point," he said.

Yet, he’s not quite ready to hand in his passport. This next year, the couple wants to travel across Africa by train.

"Why not?" Hartert said.