Trainspotting

We tend to think of the barriers between the former East and West Germany as man-made.

The first thing that pops into your head when you reflect on the subject is almost certainly a physical structure. The Berlin Wall is the most potent symbol of an economic, ideological and cultural division which to some extent persists to this day.

We never think of the division between east and west as natural but geography too played a role.

The Inner German Border ran along three rivers, four if you count the river Spree in Berlin. Even the Wall ran for part of the way along the river bank, making assurance double sure when it came to escape attempts. In spite of this, at least four East Germans managed to escape the GDR by swimming over it.

There is also the high ground to be taken into consideration. The Harz mountains, which run for around forty miles on either side of the former border, may only be pimples compared to the Alps but they are good-sized bumps compared to anything Britain has to offer.

You need to be in pretty good shape to get over them. I should know because I’ve done it twice and right now I’m looking at them and wondering what my chances are of managing it a third time.

I’ve come here for two reasons. One is because you’re here and this border is crucial to Germany’s story. We often talk about Germany as a “young” country and this is what we mean. It is not yet thirty years since reunification and the process is ongoing.

The second is that I haven’t tried this for six years, I turn forty next month and I just want to know if I can still do it.

I’m not in the best of shape at the moment, I’ll admit that. I’ve been living off takeaway food as my kitchen has become my study.

My tablecloth has never been so clean, buried as it is under piles of paperwork. The only thing in the fridge that isn’t months past its sell by date is beer.

Add to that the fact that the football season has begun again and things won’t get better any time soon. I’m spending too much time sitting down and I need to get out and stretch my legs.

Much of my sitting is done on trains at the moment, today’s excursion included. Getting to today’s starting point, Bad Harzburg, took six hours.

As a town it knows its market and it knows that its target clientelle has the most dubious of tastes. I am standing on the main square by a fountain which looks as if they have combined the ugliest water features on sale in the local garden centre. Surrounding it are shops selling gingerbread hearts, plastic witches on brooms and other assorted tourist tat.

This is typical for this side of the border. Bad Harzburg is in the former west. Up there at the top of the hill, shrouded in rain clouds, you are in the former German Democratic Republic — that’s where the nice places are.

In almost every respect, the west got the best out of partition but in this region the story is the exact reverse. The east won hands down, getting the best of the scenery, most of the historic towns and all of the Brocken.

At 1142m (3,743 ft) the Brocken isn’t exactly Mont Blanc but its significance is just as great. The witches dance on the top of it at the end of Goethe’s Faust, arguably the single most important piece of literature in the German language.

Hamlet might be a British equivalent were it not for the fact that Hamlet was set in Denmark. Macbeth might be a better equivalent, especially given the similarity of the plots.

Faust is rich in witches, prophecies, and a poor idiot who sells his soul to be king for a day. The Scottish Play is the ideal comparison, except that unlike Macbeth we can pinpoint the locations mentioned exactly. On the top of the Brocken, Burnham wood comes to High Dunsinane in the climactic episode.

For this reason the Brocken is Germany’s mountain and the east got the lot. King, Glamis, Cawdor, all –this was quite a cultural coup. It also afforded considerable strategic advantages which East Berlin immediately pressed into service.

The Brocken is not only the highest mountain in the Harz, it is the highest mountain in the northern half of Germany. North of here the flat plains roll all the way to Scandinavia. The German Democratic Republic quickly set about exploiting its full military potential, placing troops up here and closing the area to civilians from both sides.

In November 1989 the wall came down in Berlin. Within a month, among the trees and the mists, a much quieter revolution took place here. The fences came down and hikers crossed the border for the first time.

Everyone is a revolutionary in their own way I guess. I can just imagine groups of ramblers with woolen hats and flasks of tea ripping up their copies of the Country Code. Maybe one of them got really daring and left a gate open.

Nowadays this is a conservation area. The actual border was about half way up to the top, in the most ridiculous place they could possibly put it. The line runs down a reservoir and is still marked in the middle of the dam.

This caused problems for maintenance workers on both sides who weren’t allowed into enemy territory. Water, not being massively concerned by international politics, tended to go where the most holes were.

A solution was needed and by the 1970s a solution had been found. A joint commission was charged with overseeing repairs.

At about the same time, barriers around the region were falling due to another group of people who one wouldn’t instantly identify as revolutionaries: trainspotters.

Not only did the east have the best towns and the best scenery in the region, it had a network of narrow-gauge steam railways which presented a tempting target for western rail enthusiasts.

In the early days of partition, obtaining permits was extremely difficult but by the 1970s East Berlin needed the cash and was happy to oblige. Towns on the eastern side of the border were opened up to western tourists and the trainspotters were in the vanguard.

There were other attractions too: other than at Lake Ballaton in Hungary where East and West Germans could actually meet. For many couples, a holiday romance was as good and escape route as jumping the Wall.

The nearer I get to the top, the more people I see. They are all going the other way. Most people prefer to take the steam train to the top and then walk down.

“Guten Tag!”, they shout.

“Faule Säcke!” I answer.

I say this in my head of course. “Faule Säcke” means “bloody slackers”. I am in some degree of physical pain and not in the best of moods.

The view makes up for it. At about 1,000m it’s worth turning around and taking it in. To the south, miles upon miles of neatly combed pine trees line the rolling hills, to the north the plains stretch out as far as the eye can see.

Straight on, it’s a different story. With a hundred metres climbing to go I hit the fog. I am walking through a rain cloud. The weather station at the top is within touching distance but I cannot see it. I am neither surprised nor disappointed.

If the Brocken is a paradise for hikers and trainspotters then it is an Aladdin’s cave for meteorologists. The next hill over the plains probably in Norway and the exposed location allows for weather conditions to occur that normally only occur at twice this altitude.

Wind, mostly, is the forecast for today. It is blowing a gale as I struggle into the restaurant, the door slamming behind me.

It can blow as hard as it likes: the German hill walking experience rarely involves sitting with your back to the cairn trying to eat your packed lunch. Every big hill I have done here has a bar and restaurant at the top of it, reachable not only on foot but by rail or cable car.

Usually this caters for the day trippers who make it up and back on a return ticket. When I first came to Germany I was disgusted by the notion: I thought it spoiled the romance. Now I’m rather glad of them, especially today.

Most of them look like this one. Hard floors, long tables, and antlers for decoration. Most of the visitors look the same too. A catwalk for walkers, a friend of mine once called it: everyone is modelling the latest Jack Wolfskin, Helly-Hansen, Mammut or North Face.

Surprisingly enough, most Germans have never heard of Berghaus — but clothing from every other designer manufacturer is strewn across tables and chairs in an attempt to get it dry before venturing out once again into the elements.

I queue up at the canteen. I order black beer, an East German speciality and Soljanka, the best kept East German secret of all. Russian in origin, the Soljanka found fame in the GDR as the dish of choice at state dinners where, not surprisingly, many of the diplomats came from the Soviet Union.

It has since become a de facto national dish for a country which no longer exists and its secrect is still jealously guarded. Court injunctions have been taken out to prevent cheap tinned western imitations.

It’s sweet and sour, containing tomato, beef, gherkins and that’s all I can tell you without being shot as a spy. Nearly thirty years on people can joke about things like that.

Looking around the restaurant you can tell who’s come up on the train from the east side and who’s walked it up from the west like myself. The train crowd all look miserable as sin, having paid twenty-seven euros for the seven-mile trip up here and now facing the prospect of drinking up, zipping up and shipping out into the cold.

Those who have earned their stripes the hard way look much happier. We’ve made it, warm and dry at last. I only have a few steps to the train station then I can sit on my backside for two hours.

I’ve done not bad, I’m thinking to myself as I justify another beer. I feel okay, despite having just eaten yet another takeaway. It didn’t take me any longer than it did last time. The trousers still fit — just.

Only problem is that last time I did this it was as a training exercise for a mountain more than twice as high. At nearly 3,000m the Zugspitze is Germany’s highest peak -even if they do have to share it with Austria.

That won’t be happening this year; too many other things to do. Oh, and last time I did it I turned round and walked back down again.

None of this bothers me and neither does the fog. I make it to the railway station and breathe in the smoke. It’s funny how this would annoy me at a bus stop but it doesn’t when there’s a steam train belching it into my lungs. It’s been thirty years since the last time, I guess that’s why.

I hang out of the carriage with the full permission of the guard and head deeper into what was East Germany. The train stops in the town of Wernigerode, not more than a few yards from my youth hostel. It is a lovely town. The trainspotters chose well.

We’ll be seeing more of the place in the next few weeks. There’s plenty more to see before this story comes to an end — even if there can’t be many more hills to climb now.

3 thoughts on “Trainspotting

    1. The very one. I was even trying to wiggle that in somewhere but as I haven’t seen it in three climbs now that would have been a bit rich. To see it you need to be there when the sun is low in the sky, ideally on a cold day. As the Brocken is slightly higher than everything else, shadows are projected onto the clouds on the surrounding tops. Must be quite a sight!

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      1. It is indeed a sight. I`ve seen it on the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glencoe, during a temperature inversion. It was the only time I`ve worn a halo. Never knew it was a German thing.

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