I Should Have Packed My Hiking Boots?

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

As, Czech Republic to Mahring, Germany
16.7.2010


I got up early for breakfast at seven, eager to hit the road and put some distance between myself and As. The day was marvelously sunny and the morning light was enough to turn my feelings toward the city around, at least a little bit. I enjoyed a nice breakfast courtesy of the attentive innkeep, carried my bike out of a dusty basement, and was off before eight. With minimal trouble, I found the trail to Cheb-another steep, crazy gravel path that made me wish for my hiking boots. I have been very impressed with the Iron Curtain 3 guidebook, and it didn’t let me down today, as I navigated the woods with surprising ease to Liba. Here, I struggled up a 18% grade that featured, yes, stairs on the bike path. The road wound around the castle and up to a flat area with a shelter and map for travelers.

Here, I got a bit off from the directions, which I previously thought would spell certain doom on this section of the trail. However, I was still on a cycle path headed toward Cheb, and with a combination of extremely well placed maps, and my compass, I got back on the 214, a road that gave me one last blast from the Czech Republic in a spasm of casinos and bars in the middle of the forest before I passed a memorial to the victims of the Iron Curtain and crossed into Germany. A policeman smiled and waved me through the border inspection area and I would have held my arms up in triumph, except I would have fallen over. I was glad to be back in Germany.

I took a left in Hundesbach, feeling particularly fond of the big, yellow signs that point a traveler in the direction of the next villages. Before too long, I arrived in Neualbenreuth. I was tired and took a hard look at my travel plans. By today, it was clear that I was not going to make it to Aigen, or even Bayrisch Eisenstein, and instead, I needed to focus on getting to a town with a big enough railroad station where making a connection to Vienna would be relatively painless. The closest town on my route that met these requirements was Waldmünchen, about 100k to the south. Since I never know what the road is going to throw at me, I decided that it made sense to press on now.

So, I left the very attractive town of Neualbenreuth and began a hilly 11k, luckily on good roads, for the unknown village of Mahring, or beyond. I arrived relatively early, but I was completely gassed and liked the look of the town, so I made for Pension Beer, amused by the name of the place. There, the owner told me he didn’t have a room, but I followed him in his car as he drove across town to a friend’s pension that could accommodate me.

I decided to eat in the restaurant on the first floor and throughout the course of my meal, made friends with Tereza, the woman who owned the house. She made me spaghetti, I signed her guestbook, she brought me a huge helping of ice cream, for which she would not accept payment, we took each others’ pictures and exchanged email addresses, and then she let me use her computer and I was able to check my email. She spoke only German, but was patient with me and I understand most of what she said, even if I could only offer simple answers to her questions. I was really touched by her kindness and heartfelt concern, and felt completely at ease in her house. Later, I think most of the town gathered in the bar below my room, judging by the ruckus that was raised late into the night.

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The Other Side

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

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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The Other Wall

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Blankenstein to Hof
Written 14.7.10

I got an early start this morning, taking care to warm up properly before I started the first few climbs. The next two hours saw me stumble up to Hirschberg with a combination of riding and pushing. Here, I took on a 20% grade, advertised as the steepest section of the tour. Maybe it was because I was expecting it, but I didn’t think it was quite as difficult as some other sections I’d faced. I stopped for a snack and rest in the shade at the top, then continued to Juchhoh and Modlareuth, the famous divided village.

Modlareuth was called “Little Berlin” by American troops stationed there because it was the only other German city split by the border. Despite its tiny population (58 today), an extensive “anti-fascist protection barrier” was installed here. The wall was built in stages, beginning as a wooden fence in 1952, then barbed wire and additional fortifications were added until a fully fledged concrete wall was erected in 1966, just five years after the construction of the Berlin Wall. Since the wall was flattened in 1990, a very good borderland museum has served to educate visitors on the history of the village.

Despite reunification, the village still serves as a bizarre, tangible example of the ongoing differences between eastern and western Germany. The town has two mayors, two postal and telephone codes, and two different car registrations. And according to a pamphlet from the museum, “you can tell which side of the stream people come from by the way they great you: “Gruß Gott” on one side and “Guten Tag” on the other.

I spoke to a women who worked at the museum and lived in the western part of Modlareuth during the division. I asked her why the GDR built a wall comparable to the one in Berlin for only 58 people. She explained that it could be explained by the ancient border between Bavaria and Thuringia that ran through the town. I wasn’t quite satisfied by this answer, or completely sure that she understood my question, but it was getting late and long distances ahead demanded that I press on.

I left the village in the direction of Münchenreuth, up a pretty good hill. At the top, the road gave way to gravel and dirt but I remained undaunted; the road was perfect for a mountain bike adventure. However, after a few hundred meters, it became apparent that I was accidentally in the middle of a construction site where steamrollers, bulldozers, and forklifts busily moved dirt around. I could see the village I was headed toward, and determined to avoid a long detour, so I decided to keep going, pushing my bike on the side of the sandbox, trying to look unassuming and confused. One by one, I passed pieces of heavy machinery and burly construction workers who scrutinized me, but didn’t yell or say the word “verboten,” which I took as approval to continue. I made it to Münchenreuth, proud of my shortcut, and continued to Feilitzsch and Trogen, where I struck out 5 times looking for a place to spend the night. I only found worn down buildings and people who told me “nicht übernactung” when I arrived at the addresses for gasthouses. Annoyed, I had no choice but to head for Hof, a town of about 50,000 where I figured it would be easy to find a hotel. After an hour, I settled on a place by the railroad station.

Hof was a little out of my way, but the good thing about bigger towns is that finding spaghetti is 10 times more likely. I found a nice Italian restaurant and quickly made friends with the owner when we discovered our mutual passion for biking, and I showed him my funny tan spots on my hands from my bike gloves. He then insisted on bringing me free orange juice and cooked me a delicious dinner. We discussed cycling in the area until I could no longer stifle my yawns and returned to my hotel.

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Lost and Found

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Lauenstein to Blankenstein
Written 13.7.10

I spent most of the day lost and an unfortunate amount of time on foot, pushing my bike. It took me two hours to make it 14k to Lehesten, contending with grades of 16% and steep hills unmarked by my map. This, combined with terrible road conditions made riding difficult. Last night’s rain had indeed cooled the land and water dripped from the trees and ran off my helmet while my feet were soaked by puddles and mud while I scrambled up the first set of hills. Later, I found myself on a particularly bad section of the Kolonnenweg, pacing a flat area by a shelter hut, checking my compass, completely confused. I was afraid of making an irreversible downhill mistake, but I eventually took the steep road anyway. I seriously doubted my ability to make it back up this section of the Kolonnenweg, at least without a rope, and entered a shady valley with trepidation. Before too long, though, I found a signpost to Brennersgrün, where I got back on track, and later, caught up with the Rennsteig, with a few tips from a biker going my way. My afternoon kick was surprisingly strong and I rolled into Blankenstein tired, but in good time, and stayed the night at a Bett und Bike Pension.

I spoke to my dad on the phone later that night, telling him about the incredible grade along the Kolonnenweg and he commented, “well I guess they put the fence wherever they wanted.” This was a clear summary of many of my experiences biking directly on the border. The Kolonnenweg stops for nothing. It is usually here that I find the most extreme grades and most difficult riding conditions. Yet another testament to the determination of the GDR to secure their border, but also a comment on the border’s geographical placement. It makes sense that people are divided by wild, hilly terrain (this is also the ancient border between Thuringria and Bayren) simply because it is difficult to cross but easy to fortify…

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Mountain Detour!

July 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Sonneburg to Lauenstein
12.7.10

I felt great as I rolled out of Sonneburg. It was a quiet, cool morning and the cycle path was signposted with crisp, blue ICT signs. A few kilometers into the ride, I ran into something that ruined my chances for meeting one of my goals for the trip: do not crash. I whizzed around a tight corner after an underpass and came up fast to a gate designed to prevent cars from using the road. I tried to navigate between the posts, and almost cleared them, but I managed to catch the end of my handlebar on a very solid fencepost. My bike stopped and I flew forward, rolling once. But remarkably, this mishap was met with zero damage. I complimented myself on an excellent fall; I was hardly even scratched, picked my bike up, and continued, good mood also intact.

Unfortunately, the ICT signs stopped after a while, and it was back to navigation by trial and error, reading and misinterpretation, “is this a path?” and a new challenge: roadblocks. I wound my way up to Heinersdorf on the Lions-Radweg and made it to Alexanderhütte, a small forest village. Here, I found the path I was supposed to be on, but before going to far on it, found my way blocked by the german equivalent of “caution” tape, complete with “verboten!” and a skull and crossbones. This was enough to ward me off and I turned back down the path, where a shirtless, grey man chopping wood told me I’d have to go around to get to Kleintettau. I found the road without too much trouble, dismissing the incident as isolated and unusual. I met up with the Rennsteig cycle/hiking path, a 170k trail that runs between Horschel and Blankenstein. It was supposed to be an easy 4k or so to Lichtenhain, the next village, and I was excited to be on track to pass through in good time. Instead, I found more of the same caution tape. I was sorely tempted to ignore it; Lichtenhain was no more than 2k away, and I could go under the tape without even ducking, so clearly it wasn’t meant for me anyway, right? As I stood debating with myself, I heard a chainsaw off to my right, and a few minutes later, a loud yell before a huge pine tree crashed through the forest and landed, dead, not 100 yards away from where I was standing. I finally realized that the blocked off roads were closed because of logging, decided that being hit with a falling tree was a bad way to go, and reluctantly turned around.

The I followed signs to the next village and with a feeling that sank faster than my elevation, rode the mountain road down, down, down, knowing I’d have to claw my way back up every inch. In the valley I found a road that took me to Lichtenhain, through countless switchbacks up a steady climb. Some detour. I made it to Lauenstein just in time to find a place for the night and found very good accommodation at Zur Post hotel. That evening, I feasted on goulash while a storm rolled in through the hills. When the clouds finally broke and lightning ripped into the purple sky, I watched eagerly from the balcony off my room, knowing that the rain would cool the land for the coming days.

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A Look at the Berlin Wall Trail

July 10, 2010 Leave a comment

A few photos from the Berlin Wall Trail now online at kcanary.zenfolio.com

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A Different Kind of Jungle

July 9, 2010 1 comment


On Monday, I took the day to explore Berlin by foot, of course hitting as many Cold War history sites and museums as possible. I started the day at Checkpoint Charlie. This was an allied checkpoint for border crossings, situated on the border between the Soviet sector and the American sector. In 1961, this was the site of a tense confrontation between American and Soviet tanks over American access to East Berlin. Luckily, the situation was defused before open conflict broke out. Once the front lines of the Cold War, Checkpoint Charlie is today a buzzing tourist attraction, where you can get your passport stamped by a fake border guard, visit a museum, or purchase a variety of souvenirs, including a vast selection of GDR memorabilia and “pieces of the Berlin Wall.” Amid all this kitch, there stands on a tall post which holds a photo of a Soviet soldier looking West and on the other side, an American soldier looking east. I found this eternal vigil a bit eerie, unsure of its purpose. It adds a feeling of tension and apprehension to the site, ensuring those who visit remember its history. There also remains the famous sign which reads, “You are leaving the American sector,” printed in English, French, German, and Russian.

I passed Potsdammer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate before walking down Unter den Linden on my way to Museum Island and the DDR Museum. At the DDR Museum, visitors get an interactive look at every day life in East Germany. The museum featured a Trabi, exhibits on education, culture, food, a model living room, kitchen, and bathroom, a film on urban space and planning, and much more. All the writing had English translations, and I spent over an hour exploring the various exhibits and learning unusual facts. Did you know that nudism was extremely popular in the East Germany, despite government attempts to suppress it? I was really impressed with the museum, and by the looks of it, so was the rest of Berlin. The place was packed the entire time I was there, and it’s one of the most popular museums in Berlin today.

After a currywurst lunch, I caught tram M5 from Alexanderplatz to get to the Gedenkstatte Museum and Memorial. Located on the site of a prison used by both the Soviet Secret Police and the Stasi, the Museum offers daily guided tours in German and English, some conducted by former prisoners. The first stop on our tour was a creepy basement, its walls filthy and lined with pipes. The hallways were lined with heavy cell doors and lit by cold fluorescent lights. I couldn’t help but imagine a prisoner being led down the hall, then stumbling and falling while the echos of a gunshot rang through the prison. Our tour guide led our group into one of the cells, which was about the size of a single dorm room. However, we learned that up to twelve prisoners were housed here, sharing a single bucket for the toilet, and a hard wooden plank for a bed, which they were only allowed to use for 8 hours a day. But 8 hours was relative; there was no natural light in the room and guards would often deliberately confuse prisoners as to the time of day or night. As our group stood in the chamber, it got hot quickly. Our guide described how the heat would cause condensation to drip from the ceiling of the cells, which would cause prisoners’ hair and clothing to mold. It was uncomfortable to stand inside the cell for ten minutes. I couldn’t begin to imagine spending 10 weeks, months, or years inside. We also passed cells equipped for Chinese water torture and spaces, scarcely bigger than a door frame, where inmates who misbehaved might be enclosed.

To my relief, we filed out shortly to examine the Stasi facilities. The Stasi favored psychological abuse and techniques over the Soviet methods of brute force. Often, prisoners would be isolated, interrogated frequently, and mentally manipulated by the interrogator.

We also saw a truck that was used to transport prisoners to the facility. People would be kidnapped on the street, then transferred to a van disguised as a grocery truck, driven around for several hours to disorient them, and then dropped off at the prison. Our guide made an interesting point about the driving time: four or five hours from Berlin, and a prisoner could be deep in Poland, when in reality they would be in the suburbs of the city, perhaps half an hour from their home or work.

We concluded the tour in an interrogation room, complete with a portrait of Erich Honecker. There, I was shocked to learn that approximately 0% of the Stasi had suffered any punishment following reunification. East German officials could not be punished because they had acted under the laws of the GDR, and a clause that would have overridden this was omitted from the reunification treaty in the interest of promoting unity (check). What’s worse, many of the Stasi feel no remorse for their actions. Our guide described an interview published three years ago where a former Stasi interrogator boldly asserted that he was not sorry for his actions during the Cold War. I was also sickened to learn that every once in a while, a former Stasi member would visit the museum, go on a tour, and verbally abuse the guides. And apparently exchanges between former prisoners and interrogators were also not unheard of around town, at the supermarket, or the bank. I left the museum around 4, feeling saddened, and a bit paranoid around grocery trucks.

I made my way to the East Side Gallery via S-bahn, where I was much cheered by the 1.3k strip where the Berlin Wall has survived, and is now the site of gigantic, colorful murals. There are 105 paintings under monumental protection, all in very good condition today thanks to a restoration effort completed in 2009. I worked my way down the wall, photographing murals I particularly liked until I got to the next S-Bahn station and headed for the hostel I was staying at. I had a (mercifully) quiet night and got ready to start the first leg of the Berlin Wall Trail.

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“Berlin! Berlin! Wir fahren nach Berlin!”

July 9, 2010 1 comment

I’ve been in touch with the office of Michael Cramer (EU Parliament Member, major force in the creation of the Berlin Wall Trail and author of the corresponding guidebook, author of the Iron Curtain Trail guidebooks) for several months regarding this project. They’ve been enormously helpful, providing me with information, local contacts, and on Sunday, the chance to meet Mr. Cramer in Berlin.

I got the email on Friday evening after arriving in Neustadt. I made arrangements as quickly as possible and on Sunday morning, I began a 10-hour, 6-station journey by train to arrive at Literaturehaus Cafe that evening for the appointment. I was sweaty and a bit disheveled by the time I got there, but Michael welcomed me warmly with a handshake and an invitation to eat ice cream. For nearly an hour and a half, we discussed the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, how they are represented in German history, and, of course, remembered by the cycle paths that now trace the former borders. Mr. Cramer stressed the importance of the trails in preserving the history of Europe’s division, and when I asked him about the generation gap I’d noticed among Germans, the teacher in him shone through as he agreed with the necessity of educating the next generation.

One of the goals of the Iron Curtain Trail is to promote the creation of a European identity, which Mr. Cramer believes to be essential to future peace and understanding on the continent. The experience of cycling the trail, as opposed to travel by train or car, therefore offers more opportunities to interact with different countries and cultures in a tangible way and allows cyclists to form a deeper connection with the land they traverse. The political efforts to coordinate the Iron Curtain Trail across the continent also constitute a step toward a new sense of unity with many nations working to commemorate their shared, modern history of division and reunification.

A bit off-handedly, I asked Mr. Cramer why so many GDR watchtowers and border posts remained on private property, and were even repurposed by the residents. He gave me a very thoughtful response, explaining the mentality of German history. German history is so bad, Mr. Cramer said, that Germans have a more reflective attitude toward the past than other nations. German history is instead often regarded as an open discussion where there are few taboos. The watchtower that has been converted to a house, and the striped post that now functions as a flower pot hanger are not flippant dismissals of their dark history, but instead serve to simultaneously acknowledge the past, but also demonstrate that it no longer binds the people.

At the same time, it is undeniable that ghosts of the past remain. Mr. Cramer told me about a recent study on deer living near the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. By placing sensors on the animals, scientists showed that even today, the deer on both sides would approach the border and turn around without crossing. This habit was apparently passed down to younger generations as well. I asked him whether this applied to people and Mr. Cramer said that he himself was hyper-aware of the border, and was always aware of having crossed it, even if he had been sleeping on a train. I also asked him about ongoing stereotypes or differences between Eastern and Western Germans, and he acknowledged that this was unfortunately still the case, and would only be erased by time.

I was absolutely thrilled to meet with Mr. Cramer and have the chance to hear his own views on the Iron Curtain and German history. Mr. Cramer was not only generous with his time, but also bestowed upon me more of his guidebooks, and a suggestion to attend the Berliner Mauerstreifzüge next Saturday, which he leads occasionally throughout the summer. I agreed eagerly and immediately made plans to put my new guidebook, “The Berlin Wall Trail” to use in the meantime…

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Two Towers (At Point Alpha)

July 5, 2010 1 comment

Buttlar to Fladungen

Written 30.6.2010

Having been denied a visit to Point Alpha the day before, I was eager to get to the museum right away this morning. I was feeling good, and the 4k to Geisa went fast. Point Alpha lies about 2k west of Geisa, and this distance is an uphill climb with a 10% grade for those coming from the village. This was very tiring, but I was rewarded by a spectacular museum visit at the top. Maybe it was because I was expecting it, having studied this article, but I was immediately struck by the proximity of the two watchtowers, standing stoically in a field to my right, just down the Kolonnenweg. I was pulled toward them automatically, walking my bike through the former death strip.

The DDR tower was small, just 2×2 meters, and it looked old and weather-beaten, but still menacing, casting an imposing shadow in the morning light. Separated by a distance of perhaps 500 meters (?), vehicle barriers, fences, and control strips, the American watchtower was bigger, with two decks for observation. When I approached the base, I was thrilled to find that I could climb it, “at my own risk.” Well worth it, I thought, scaling two sets of stairs to the very top, where I took in the view: Geisa in the valley on the left, fences and barriers below, and the DDR post slightly to the right, definitely close enough to make eye contact with someone in the other tower. I felt a shudder of excitement, fully appreciating that that’s exactly what happened here, what Ken had done, what Americans had done, for the better part of the Cold War. And the GDR border police had held their gaze.

I descended from the tower and explored the rest of the museum, leaving around 11. From there, it was a fairly easy ride to the spa town of Tann, where I had a break for a snack, which I ordered entirely in German, to my pleasure, and surprise. After getting lost briefly and consulting the city map, I headed for Fladungen. En route, I was frustrated by a steady climb, which would not be inaccurate to term an unexpected mountain, through a forest, and for nearly 3k, I was forced to push and walk my way up, climbing more than 200 meters. When I finally reached Frankenheim, I zoomed quickly down the other side, and arrived in Fladungen around 4.

I knew I’d have to be done for the day, and on the fourth try, found a bed in a small pension, run by a delightful old woman, Frau Bauer. We were limited in our communication as she speaks almost no English, but we took a liking to each other right away. I again, had the problem of finding restaurants mysteriously closed and settled for a slightly un-nutritious dinner in the only place that seemed to be open at 6:00, a bar. Alas. I returned to my room, and have been “serenaded” by a group of men in a nearby park, who are very excited about something. I’ve been drinking water like nobody’s business, gearing up for a long two days to Neustadt.

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Old Memories, New Friends

July 5, 2010 Leave a comment

Herleshausen to Buttlar 29.6.2010

Written 30.6.2010

Today’s journey started with a border crossing to Lauchroden. I stopped on the bridge, which was destroyed during the Cold War, and has been rebuilt since. Sitting on the railing, I found the right angle and produced a then/now photo, comparing the same spot in the years 1984, 2006, and 2010.

I continued on, and soon spotted Monte Kali on the horizon. The “mountain” is actually a salt-stone dump, but it’s still marked on many maps, and I cycled in its strange shadow for close to fifteen kilometers.

I arrived in Vacha, home of the Hoßfeld House, and the Unity Bridge. The Hoßfeld House lies directly on the border of Thüringia and Hessen, and it was not spared the DDR’s extreme agenda of forced division. On New Year’s Eve of 1951/1952, the door connecting the two states within the house was bricked up, and the owner was not allowed to remove the barrier for 24 years when West Germany officially recognized the East German government.

Directly adjacent to the Hoßfeld House is the Unity Bridge, which also lies on the border. This bridge was used as a fortified barrier during the Cold War. Its eloquent arches were sealed with fences, and an observation remains today on the south end. Here, I attempted to find the vantage point Brian Rose photographed in 1985. Today, a thick line of trees runs alongside the bridge, blocking the view. Here is the scene as it appears in 2010.

I made it to Geisa, an unremarkable town, aside from its proximity to Point Alpha. Here, I had a terrible time finding a room, and eventually biked 4k back to the town of Buttlar, where I had much better luck and found a lovely hotel. I happened to arrive at the same time as a guy from Texas, who I think was the first American I’d seen in at least two weeks. After dinner, I returned to the hotel to find the man eating alone at the bar, so I asked him what brought him to Germany. As it turns out, Ken had been a civil engineer at Point Alpha for several years, first in 1969-1972 and also from 1977-1980, and had returned to see the region today. He was part of the 11th Calvary that maintained watch over the Fulda Gap for the majority of the Cold War, and despite his official role as an engineer, he told me that he frequently found himself in the American watchtower, staring down the DDR watchtower not more than 500 yards away. Life on the border was never dull, he said, but the most exciting times came during escape attempts by DDR refugees. He had seen five or six successful attempts in his time, and a few that ended badly. He also observed that the Germany he had known when he served is now totally changed. The town of Rasdorf, west of Point Alpha was a backward village during the Cold War, and also suffered from its proximity to the border, even though it was on the western side. Today, it is modern and busy and Ken commented that he probably saw more cars just driving between Rasdorf and Geisa (5k) than he’d seen there during both tours.

We had a fascinating conversation for the better part of the evening, and were occasionally joined by Christian, the inn owner and bartender, who commented on continued differences between East and West Germany. He mostly complained of a sense of laziness in the former East, using my earlier experience of finding randomly closed Gasthouses as an example. Admittedly, this is something I have noticed in this region: restaurants, hotels, and other establishments with posted hours claim to be open, but no one is around, the doors are locked, and phone calls are fruitless. Highly inconvenient for a traveler, but is this really something that can be explained by the border? Christian’s thoughts also contradict those of the Lübeck landlady, who claimed to always find girls from the east to be harder working and more reliable. Either way, it would seem that there are stereotypes abound, and a sense of awareness as to whether someone is from Eastern or Western Germany. Christian and Ken were both wonderful to talk with, and seemed like all-around good guys. We parted ways in the morning, wishing each other well.

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