The Solo Traveller's View

Cycling in the Borderlands

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Thursday, 20 March 2014

My Workaway hosts have planned a bicycle tour in the afternoon, to show me the former inner-German border nearby. The weather forecast was right: it is a gloriously sunny day, fitting for the vernal equinox. This morning, my Workaway volunteer task is to take the wheelbarrow around the grounds and cart away the thick layer of straw from the base of each rose, placed there in autumn for protection from frost. Since there are a lot of roses, this job keeps me busy well beyond lunchtime.

I spend my tea break on the jetty of Heike’s swimming pond, watching scores of toads as they move ponderously among the stalks of water plants in their search for the right partner. They seem to be quite as choosy as a certain person I know! Once in a while, a frog skims with confident legwork across the surface, newts wriggle up to snatch a gulp of air before diving back down into the murky depths, water beetles skate ecstatically in the brilliant sunshine reflected by their liquid world … I love to observe life in a pond and could do so for hours, but now it is time to return to straw, wheelbarrow and roses until my hosts call me to get ready for our outing.

I am invited to choose a traditional bicycle from their well-stocked stables. Heike and Sally adjust the tyre pressure of their sleek recumbent bikes and at half past three we set out, passing through tiny hamlets sprinkled along deserted, smoothly tarmaced lanes between rows of trees that seem to line every country road in these parts.

A typical, tree-lined Country Road

A typical, tree-lined German Country Road

I have not used a bicycle for, oh – it must be about thirty years now! But it is indeed true that one does not forget how to ride a bike, and I notice with satisfaction that the gear-changing mechanism has come a long way since those far-off days. The land is flat, thank God, and there is no traffic to speak of. We can ride three abreast, and for a while take up the whole breadth of the quiet country road that stretches straight ahead between rows of birches. Riding along with the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and not a care in the world, I am truly happy.

Bicycle Tour in the Borderlands

Bicycle Tour in the Borderlands

Our first goal is that strip of local woodland where a fiercely guarded border once separated Germany, West, from Germany, East. (See also previous blog post.) There, we leave our bikes to wander among the trees for a few hundred yards, on a narrow path overgrown with soft grass.

The former Border Path

The former Border Path

Heike describes how this was once a much wider track on which tanks and other border guard vehicles moved along the fence. This track used to be paved with concrete slabs, and the strip of land alongside was cleared and ploughed for maximum visibility and the easy tracking of footprints … Those light woods now crowding the path have only sprung up in the twenty-odd years since Germany’s reunification.

Nature has reclaimed the Death Strip

Nature reclaims Death Strip

When the border was opened, residents of the eastern side removed the concrete slabs to use as paving in their villages. They also took away segments of the metal-mesh fence and put them around their gardens. (This I find surprising and not at all easy to comprehend.) One local man had spent decades observing, travelling along and photographing the border from the western side. He now drove around and collected all he could for his museum, the Grenzmuseum in Göhr, which I shall visit on Saturday. It doesn’t open until the tourist season begins in May, but Heike has arranged a viewing for me. (Blog post of this visit to follow.) Terrible though the border was for the divided nation, nature flourished in this strip of land forbidden to humans. Rare plants and animals thrived in the death zone. Fortunately this was recognized, and after reunification Das Grüne Band became a trail of nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries. I had learnt about this at the museum in Lenzen, and today I am thrilled to be walking a few paces along the Green Belt myself. (Read more about the Green Belt in my previous blog post.)

Then we ride on, crossing over into what had been the borderland of the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. No citizen had been allowed to approach the border from that side. Villages too close to the fence were razed and their inhabitants forced to relocate. Those wanting to visit relatives in ‘The Zone’ had to apply for special permits, as did farmers who lived within a certain radius, just so they could approach the guarded strip and work in their fields alongside. Today, these hamlets seem peaceful and a little backward, for they have retained a certain old-worldly purity due to their long separation from hectic modern times.

A Village near the former Border

A Village near the former Border

It seems to me like a trip into times past, and I like the look of these half-timbered houses. Many have been beautifully restored, but others – no less appealing – have lapsed into decay. This may well be a property-developer’s dreamland …

So beautiful - could it be saved?

So beautiful – but can it be saved?

Our next stop is at a Grenzwachturm, a watch tower of the former border guards. This ruin of chipped concrete, fascinating in its hideousness, has been stripped of its doors, its window panes and all its former accessories, such as alarm systems, spotlights and wireless equipment. An empty shell, it stands divested of its former deadly power, reduced to a punctuation mark in history’s narrative.

A former GDR Watch Tower

A former GDR Watch Tower …

... or what's left of it!

… or what’s left of it!

The metal stairs too had been removed to make the guard rooms inaccessible, but local people soon put in roughly nailed ladders of wooden planks. To climb them requires a certain amount of faith in their handiwork. From the third floor we have a good view across the land – as indeed the guards once did.

A Climb with some Risks

A Climb with some Risks

Chipped Concrete and Stripped Windows remain

Only chipped Concrete and stripped Windows remain

Overlooking the Borderlands

Overlooking the Borderlands

Heike traces the line of the former border for me and has an intriguing story to tell about the village of Harpe, visible just beyond the trees: The otherwise straight border showed an odd bump at this point, abandoning its obvious course to curve around the tiny settlement and leaving it unexpectedly on the western side of the fence. People in these parts refer to it as ‘the Vodka Bend’. They are alluding to the astuteness of Harpe’s mayor, who, upon realizing what was about to happen, invited the officers of the Russian Border Commission to an evening of free drinks and merriment. Once the vodka had done its work, he found it possible to have the line of the border repositioned according to the wishes of the community, and Harpe remained firmly outside the zone of Soviet occupation. (Were queries ever raised by higher authorities regarding this suspicious bump in the line? We have no way of knowing, but may assume that the officers of the border commission in question will have invented a good reason, rather than admit to fraternizing with the enemy.)

Small, but to be reckoned with!

Harpe: tiny, but to be reckoned with!

On the road towards this wily village, we halt once more to mount a wooden and slightly rotting viewing platform. People from the West would come here to look across to East Germany, for they were allowed to approach the border at will. No one on this side of the fence was in the least concerned that they might escape to the socialist paradise beyond, though visitors were warned that there was a risk of being shot at occasionally by drunken or bored Russian soldiers on guard duty.

A View of the Other Side

For a Peek at the Other Side …

The sun is setting and the air cooling quickly as we return to the mill around half past six o’clock. After such a long ride, the first steps feel slightly strange. I anticipate that I may not be able to move my legs tomorrow, but Heike hands out ferrum phosphoricum and magnesium tablets from Dr Schüssler’s biochemic cell salts range. She has found that, taken at intervals after physical exertion, they prevent sore muscles effectively. I am willing to give them a try. Sally mentions that riding a bike has been found beneficial not only for general muscle tone, but also for the hemispheres of the brain, as this activity stimulates and enhances their coordinated action. That sounds good too.

Supper is most welcome now! … Later, and much against my habits, I ask a member of the kitchen team if there is perhaps a piece of their daily (and always unbelievably wonderful) cake left over. I am shown to the shelf in the cooling chamber where a few remaining slices of exquisitely delicious-looking Sahnetorte await their fate – and promptly succeed in tipping the platter, spilling cream cake all over the floor. So much for coordinated action of the brain! Bang goes that theory … I am appalled at my clumsiness and the creamy mess now covering milk churns and tiles. Claudia and Heidi from the kitchen team shake their heads sorrowfully – the lovely cake! – but are very nice about the disaster and hand me all that is necessary to clear up and clean away. First, I scoop up those bits that may still be eaten by someone not concerned with food aesthetics (probably me), then wipe and scrub until every trace of the mishap is erased. That done, I retreat to my room with a last, sincere apology and a bowl heaped with the spongy, delicious, unfortunate mess, to ponder – and write about – another eventful day in my new life as a happy Workaway volunteer.

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Author: Fabienne Wolf

writing solo traveller

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