From: firstname.lastname@example.org (The Nashville Flash) Subject: Behind the Iron Curtain Summary: Adventure Tale Keywords: East Germany, Berlin, BMW
Back in the Bad Old Days, there was this thing they used to call the "iron curtain." It had something to do with a clash of ideologies. People "behind the iron curtain" lived a very different life than ours. The stuff you may have heard is true.
Berlin was in the middle of East Germany. Half of Berlin was West German. (This is not a history or geography lesson, just the set-up.) The East Germans HAD to let the West Germans in & out. So, some of Hitler's old autobahns became "transit routes." Basically, from Berlin, a westerner could go north - to the port of Rostock and the ferry, west - to Braunschweig, or south - to Nurnberg. The transit routes were unlike autobahns anywhere else. They defined limited access. You got on at one end and you got off at the other end. You did NOT stop except at the service plaza or approved rest areas. You did not exceed 100 kph under penalty of fine in West German Marks of DM10 per kilometer over the limit. If you think that _you_ live in a police state, you are deluded.
The Bavarian Motor Werks (BMW) Motorcycle factory is no where near Bavaria. It is, in fact, in Spandau, an area in West Berlin. We wanted to go there since we were touring about on our R80G/S (in 1983). Before you even arrived at the border, you could see the heavily armed lookout towers of the East German's lining the denuded free-fire zone through the forest. When you arrived at the West/East German border, there was stark contrast. The West had a toll-booth type affair with a bored official waving waving waving the traffic on through. The East had a reinforced concrete labyrinth with huge steel gates that could pop out of the ground or slam shut from the side. These were to prevent anyone in a vehicle from "making a run for it." At the passport control, where you surrendered your passport and vehicle papers, you were told they would be returned "later." (Most countries just stamp 'em. Nobody ever takes 'em out of your sight.) It was frightening to be in THIS of all places without the proof of your identity. Proceed to customs. You had to leave your vehicleto enter a station where you filled out papers concerning your point of origin, destination, duration of stay, cash on hand, photographic equipment, and on and on. Meanwhile, gray uniformed officers were poking and prodding the empty vehicles. Eventually we were allowed to enter the transit route after being warned of the applicable laws. And this was on the way IN to the country.
We set out for Berlin at exactly 100 kph. Everyone else was going exactly the same speed. It was like slow motion after the wide-open West autobahn. There was virtually no passing; what there was went on in slow motion. The road surface was concrete with expansion joints. For the most part, trees lined the road so there was nothing to see. While we were considering the oppression we felt, a very strange thing happened. A large helicopter gun ship approached from an oblique angle ahead. The ship dropped down and circled us at an altitude of about 40 meters while a crewman snapped pictures. Having done that, it left in the direction from which it came. The rest of the way was uneventful (dead boring). At the edge of Berlin, Eastern security was more lax and we were only stopped briefly. We were cheerfully waved into West Berlin by a West German official.
West Berlin was a city on the edge. It is a city that is excited. It is more like New York SHOULD be. It was fashion and fun at a pace fueled by the tension of the cold war. More neon and murals and music than anywhere else. East Berlin was the epitome of contrast...
On a Wednesday morning we walked across the Border at Checkpoint Charlie. We left the hustle and bustle of downtown West Berlin and (again) subjected ourselves to the East German border guards. One, who looked like Broom Hilda, got VERY agitated when Big Red had the temerity to smile. It was obligatory to change a certain amount of money before entering East Berlin. This amounted to an "admission fee", since you were not allowed to take any East German money out. After clearing the concreted, multi-stop East German border station we found ourselves... on a Sunday afternoon. That's what it seemed like. We had left a teaming metropolis on one side and arrived in... silence. In the distance we saw a single Trabant (cheap-shit 2-stroke car) pooting along. We proceeded to a subway stop to go to Alexanderplatz.
The graphics in the subway were disturbing. There were only muted colors. Many nationalistic Worker oriented posters were present. In addition was a poster of Uncle Sam. He had very pointy teeth and was brandishing atomic weapons in each hand. The Eastern subway cars were more like old subway cars in New York... without the graffiti. By contrast, you can almost eat off the floor of West German subway cars. We arrived at Alexanderplatz hungry.
Finding a restaurant was no problem. We sat down and ordered. The menu was spare but the prices were very reasonable. A beer was about US$0.10 and a bowl of stew with mystery meat was about US$0.50. When our meal arrived we ate in our normal manner... quitely discussing whatever came to mind. When we fell silent for a few minutes, as people normally do from time to time while eating, it suddenly it occurred to us that something was wrong. We had never eaten in a restaurant where NO ONE was talking. It was very eerie to be in a room full of people who were eating lunch and the only sounds were the clink of the tableware.
After lunch we went to the department store to spend the rest of our admission fee. What a store. The East German version of Sears. With one exception. Say you wanted to buy forks. They had forks. Your selection consisted of buying the one style present or not buying any. Binary displays... we have it or we don't. I bought a hat like Captain Kangaroo's. We left. Our overwhelming impression was that of Grayness. Lack of color. Lack of spirit. Lack of vitality. This place, East Germany, was a prison. The people were prisoners, and they knew it.
The East Germans finally let us out and the West welcomed us with a smile and a wave. After a couple more days in West Berlin, we decided to go north. So we packed up and headed out. Crossing from West Berlin to the transit route north showed us the full force of The Wall. In addition to stuff previously mentioned, we saw the glass studded wall-top, mine-fields, dogs, rat-patrol heavily armored jeeps, and lots of soldiers, all with an Attitude. The Wall was actually a "zone" consisting of a series of obstacles, all deadly.
We headed north, toward the ferry at Rostock. The asphalt degenerated to concrete. The concrete degenerated to hard-packed dirt. We rode past the entrance to an army base. We saw tanks with red stars on them having artillery practice. I became concerned that I had made a "wrong turn" (my last?) even though we had made no turns. Eventually the hard-pack returned to concrete. Another helicopter came and took our picture. This time we smiled and waved and acted like we were having loads of FUN.
The bikes we saw... were mostly CZ's. We saw none over 250cc or so and all were2-strokes. Luggage was strictly African Tourister, you know, cardboard boxes tied on with string. Occasionally we saw where some creative individual had fabricated some mounts out of wire milk crates. After quite some time, we stopped to eat some lunch at an "approved" rest stop that had a picnic table and some young East German bikers. They got very nervous when we arrived and began to pack up to leave. I tried to have a "typical biker" conversation. They were NOT INTERESTED. Although, I got the feeling that they very much WANTED to chat. We offered them some of our bread, cheese, fruit, and chocolate. They refused. But, again, LOOKED like they wanted some. After a few minutes a patrol car pulled up. The officer said nothing. The bikers all jumped on their scoots and left. The officer waited, saying nothing, watching us. Eventually, we finished and packed up to leave. When we left, he left too. He crossed the median and headed off south. Sometime later, we (slooooowwly) passed the other bikers on the road. This time they smiled and waved.
We arrived at Rostock about two hours before time to sail. I thought this would give us time to poke around. WRONG. We joined the queue. Besides all the previous hassles, this time they had something new. An officer requested that I open a saddle bag. He then pointed to one of the bags contained there-in and indicated that I should bring it and follow him. We went into an office where he had me empty the contents on a table. He looked at my paperwork. Then he pointed to the currency statement. We had been through several countries and were planning to go back through several of them again on our way back south. Therefore I had all sorts of currencies... Canadian, West German, Belgian, Dutch, French, American, and "souvenirs" from several other countries. He indicated that he wanted to SEE the money. Whaddamy gonna do? I showed him the money. I was much relieved that he didn't see fit to "help himself" to any of it. I was elated to get back out to the bike.
Having cleared the "border". We were then allowed to buy ferry tickets, another queue. After getting the tickets, we queued up for the ferry. There were soldiers wandering around, up and down the queue. They had dogs sniffing everything in sight. They had these mirrors on wheels with a long handle that they would shove up under trucks. I suppose they were looking for people, not contraband. After all, what could anyone be taking OUT of this emptiness?
We made our way into the hold of the ferry and secured the bike. Then we went out on deck to observe the activities involved with casting off and "setting sail". We had sailed on many ferries before. There is always a "Bon Voyage" sentiment heralded by the onlookers ashore. Not this time. As we pulled away from the dock we were left with an overwhelming impression... the people on shore just stood there, watching the ship leave, each individual looking for all the world like they wished they were on it. Strangest of all; no one waved.
We pulled into port in Denmark. It was fairly dark in the dank hold waiting for those big doors to open so we could ride up the slippery ramp and on to further adventures. Eventually the huge steel doors slowly opened. The light came in. And something came in with it. (I still get goose bumps writing this, eight years later.) What came in was tangible. We could see it. We could feel it. What came in with the light, was freedom.
The motorcycle factory? Well, it was closed for vacation.