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The Other Side

Hof, Germany to As, Czech Republic
Written 15.7.10

I didn’t sleep well in Hof, wakened in the middle of the night by a truly inspiring thunderstorm. The morning was dull and grey, and my first task before I left town was to find a bank that could change a few euro to Czech Koruna because I was, at long last, a mere 13k from the border and the end of the German-German trail. After some investigation, I found a bank on Schillerstraße that could perform the transaction. I’d been asking around for the last day or so, and was surprised by the absence of places to change currencies so close to the border, perhaps because of the small size of the towns I’d been asking in, or maybe because of the lack of demand for the service.

With a few thousand crowns in my money belt, I accomplished an impressive navigational feat by leaving Hof on the correct cycle path, bound for the border. It rained the whole way, but I made good time to Oberzech and from there, downhill to a grove of trees on a slick, narrow road. I pushed my bike over a grassy field, crossed a stream, and reverently approached the tri-state border. It was a small clearing scattered with border signs for Bayern, Thuringia, and the Czech Republic. I walked around for a while, getting my feet soaked in intermittent puddles before I took a deep breath and crossed another stream to the Czech Republic.

All the road signs were in Czech. A teen-aged girl stared at me suspiciously from a bus stop as I emerged from the woods. It continued to drizzle. As I cycled on a gravely road toward As, I repeatedly encountered groups of four kids, unaccompanied, also on bikes. The old patrol road was rough and absurdly steep in many places. I did a lot of pushing and scrambling, my feet searching for a stable foothold as my bike threatened to slide down on the loose rock. I met another lonely traveler whose eyes didn’t quite meet mine as he spoke in a language completely unintelligible to my ears. I was on the other side and it was exciting.

I arrived in As around 2 and debated whether to stay put for the night or continue to Cheb. Walking through town and considering my options, I realized I’d forgotten how different the Czech Republic is. In As, the casinos and bars easily outnumber any other shops on a given street. I spotted a scantily clad woman get in a car near a park. There were at least 5 “Asia Markets” in a square kilometer. Czechs have a fascination with things that are open 24 hours a day, but they are called “nonstop” in just one of many bizarre borrowings from the english language. Aside from this, I was lucky to find somebody who spoke a little German at the Goethe Hotel, which I decided was the most reputable-looking place to overnight, and as it started to rain again, and the road ahead was largely unknown, I was more than happy to settle down, despite my uncomfortable surroundings. In my room, I was intrigued by a price list in English and German for rooms, dated from 2002. Then, a single room would have cost me 103 Euro, but I had only paid 500 crowns, about 20 Euro. This might have been a very different place, just eight years ago.

I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, where I accidentally ordered a small chicken to go with my sauerkraut and dumplings. I know exactly five words in Czech: good day, please, yes, and beer, so I knew I was taking a chance when I ordered 150g of something from the menu! My plug adapter unfortunately did not work in my hotel room (I figured the building was too old). So, with a laptop battery that was fading fast, I had a relatively boring evening and vaguely watched coverage of the Tour de France before soaking my legs in cold water for a few minutes and getting to sleep.

I was amazed by how different As was from any part of Germany I’d been to. I was barely 5k from the German border, but it might as well be 500k. For all the lasting differences between east and west, Germany was still Germany. My gradual approach to the Czech border did nothing to prepare me for the world on the other side and I was surprised to find myself feeling so out of place and awkward.

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