Home, Charles

Germany Part2

East Germany 
The GDR Way of Life

Border Crossings

End in Sight

A good Bike Path gone bad
Northern Germany 
The Historic Town that Tourists forgot

The End
dates and mileages

The GDR Way of Life

All those windows, pretty windows, each contain their private dramas
I just pass outside glancing up in vain
The flowers grow in boredom and the curtains hang to mock me
Is there not a chance that I might venture in
from Windows - John Hartford

WEARING A NEWLY PURCHASED T SHIRT, I rang the doorbell of family S. in Oelsnitz, for the first time after five years. Karen and I had met 5 years earlier, at a baggage carousel in the Frankfurt airport, comparing damages inflicted on our bicycles by the airlines. She was just returning from a bike tour in Canada, and I was starting on one through Eastern Europe. At that time she had started her medicine studies. Now she was a full fledged doctor. As a matter of fact I was ringing the doorbell of a house containing several doctors.

The large old wooden frame Fachwerk house belonged to Karen's family. Later I learned, it was so large and so old, that its renovation had to be tackled by one generation at a time. The house was already built when the United States weren't united or states yet. In its two or three hundred years of existence, it has survived world wars, seen political systems come and go, seen the generations rise and fall. In this country, New Mexico has buildings dating back to that time, but the rest of the middle states where I live, well, I'm sure at least there were lots of of tents around.

A good part of the picturesque brooding wooden frame house stood empty. Each branch of the family carved its own living space from the house, leaving the rest as future resource. Karen's brother and family had lately taken over half of the second story. Karen's brother had remodeled it into a modern precision fixture living space. Right in the center of this space was a showpiece bathroom, featuring an immaculately bright tiled Jacuzzi. This was definitely a post communism type bathroom, luxury verging on decadence. Maybe it was a way to overcompensate for all those years of socialistic bathroom depravation. The brother and his family had moved down from the third floor, thus vacating the third floor for Karen's new apartment. Karen's new living space was under the slanted roof. The old woodwork was cleaned up and laid bare, turning an old utilitarian wall into richly colored and textured wood tile art.

I stood in front of the large gate of this house, waiting for somebody do answer the doorbell. Karen's father answered the door. He was a friendly tall jovial man with a precision edged beard, giving him the appearance of a ship's captain. I thought he would probably make an excellent father.  A daughter electing the same profession as her father was already evidence for that. Karen was working through the night at the local hospital, emergency service in case of accidents. But she had prepared her parents to expect a bicycling stray towards the evening. Karen and me spoke on the telephone. She invited me up to her third floor living space. "So, make yourself at home, go ahead and play a CD if you like, just the TV isn't working, there's a loose wire in the back". It was as if a long lost relative who had become quite distant from the family had returned home after 5 years of absence.

After supper, Mr. S., Karen's father, came up to keep me company for a while. "Yes, every year I had to pick potatoes. We all had to do that". He started a story about the time he was studying medicine, pouring us a bottle of beer with a perfect foam head into two tall slender glasses. "Aha, a story about work ethics" I thought.  I continued reasoning : He is wondering about my prolonged bicycle tours and is steering the conversation topic in a direction towards work ethics.  So, logically,  I countered with a work story of my own. I told how I once held a job as a geological assistant in Alaska, working away for 12 hours a day, being dropped off into the Alaskan tundra by  helicopter, to fend for myself with Brunton compass and pickax, digging deep into the ground for traces of placer gold, then evaluating the samples with freezing fingers for gold content, till late into the cold night, in a small tent, barely lit by a Coleman lantern. There, that's work, long hard, backbreaking work-till-you-drop work. I didn't mention that I was transferred after a month, for being a troublemaker, and quit another month after that.

Wrong again, work ethics breath. Mr. S. really wasn't very interested in my tales of work heroism . How quickly we jump to conclusions, living in large American cities, where we are constantly taught new ways to dispose of our disposable income.  He simply wanted to relate a story of a life that has disappeared virtually overnight, life in the old DDR ( or GDR in English ), the German Democratic Republic, as their own communist government liked to call it. Karen's father followed an elite path. Doctors are in the top of the social pyramid everywhere. Yet, come summer, all students had to help the farmers dig for potatoes, or perform another type of civic duty. It was a rule of the state. So aspiring potato cultivators, aspiring surgeons, soldiers and engineers were in the same pot, sleeping in the same communal bunk beds, bending their backs in manual labor together, for the benefit of the proletariat.

All of continental Europe, communist and capitalist alike,  believes firmly in government subsidized agriculture. All you have to do is listen to any current news about trade negotiations to see that. The old GDR however, brought this concept to new, previously unreached, dizzying heights. "Eggs and berries, the state bought them from us for 3 marks, even though they only cost 2 marks in the store" Mister S. told me. Every house had a garden. Most gardens had chickens laying eggs, and bushes producing berries. The state would pay more to buy these goods from the private man than it cost to buy them in the local grocery store. These were happy days for free wandering uninstitutionalized garden chicken, laying eggs when so inclined. It was also a great deal for their owners. "So of course we sold our eggs and baskets of berries to the store. The store had to buy it for three Marks, and then we bought it right back for two Marks" laughed Mr. S.. Ah, but this state was not born yesterday. After a while, the store stamped the purchased eggs with an official state seal, so this way, at least you couldn't sell back the eggs to the state store a second time. "Yes that's the way it was in the good old GDR. That really couldn't end well". spoke Mr. S., staring off into the melancholy distance, thinking back to a long past age, that was only ten years gone. We both laughed.

Actually, considering the options, things ended very well for the GDR. Karen described the location of her town Oelsnitz once as the last shred of communist territory (Bettzipfel) from which you couldn't wander more than 17 km in any direction except one, without running into a life threatening border. Then in 89 after the German reunion, this town was suddenly located in the newly emerging center of Central Europe.

Pouring another bottle of delicious full bodied wheat beer, served with a slice of lime, Karen's father told me about another paradox of the old GDR economy. A used car was more expensive than a new car. Now there's a puzzle for sharp economic minds. How can this be possible ? The logic goes like this. Cars were manufactured by the state. Only a handful of models existed, the Wartburg, and the famous sometimes-2-cycle-plastic-body Trabant. All were relatively inexpensive. If you wanted to buy a car, the appropriate state agency took your name and you were put on list, a very long list that only became longer. Waiting times for a new Wartburg or Trabi were measured in years. So capitalism flourished where it was not specifically prohibited. You could sell your used car. And since there were no new cars, you could sell it for a multiple of a theoretical new car.

"I have noticed", said Mr. K. "that we scare off many people from our teachings, because we have an answer for everything. Couldn't we, in the interest of propaganda, put together a list of questions, which to us, appear totally unanswered ?"
translated from "stories of Mr. Keuner (1935)", Bertold Brecht

Karen and me had our first longer conversation the next morning. The bike got a day off today, a very rare and well deserved occurrence. Karen made it clear that I was the guest, and she wanted me to decide, or at least have major input, on how to spend the day. Well now, actually there is a major attraction of sorts fairly close to Oelsnitz. It's not for everybody, but it bears interest for a small segment of population, interested in bridges or trains. Of course I am talking about the world famous Goelschnitztalbruecke. This word is even hard to pronounce for a native German speaker, so don't despair. It is the largest brick built railroad bridge in the world. Structurally resembling a huge Roman aqueduct, arches built on arches, a bridge on top of a bridge, four layers of arches on top of one another in all, it reaches 574 sturdy meters across the valley. Karen humored my off beat interests, and we took off in her car to check out the Goelschnitztalbruecke. Much to her surprise, it had been elevated to a perfectly legitimate tourist attraction since the fall of communism. I wouldn't say that it receives the relentless flood of visitors and unabating adulation, heaped upon cathedrals, baroque churches and other brick assemblages of that type. But still, a respectable amount of tourists strolled the paths under the bridge, climbed aloft to catch that perfect moment of a train traversing the bridge with a camera. A small adjacent museum offered models, and interesting historical facts about the bridge, such as, it took 14 456 545 bricks to build, it cost 126 344 456 Mark and 59 Pfennig to build. Actually, these facts offered more insight into Germanic thinking than into the bridge itself. Even today the bridge could carry eighteen times the load required by the two track train traffic across the top.

So much for the Goelschnitztalbruecke. We still had half a day left, and Karen had plans for it, a museum visit. As we walked up the stately stone staircase to a building resembling an old school house, three men greeted us, eager to explain the goodies housed within, in elaborate detail. We were the only museum visitors, and the object of their collective attention. Karen knew one of the men from the hospital. The three men were the board of directors, museum guides, and owners of everything in the museum. It won't come as a surprise that the museum had three distinct points of focus. With the exception of a bunch of ships in bottles and marine related paraphanalia ( all of which is of consummate interest to people interested in ships in bottles ), all the exhibits had one thing in common though. All these things connected with the stories that Karen's father had told me. All these objects had become immediately obsolete with the introduction of commercial capitalism. Rooms housed mammoth collections of immaculately lettered glossy porcelain like fired signs (Emalienschilder), too expensive to produce in a modern world. Others displayed scores of gas pumps required by the Trabant cars. These pumps would mix separately attached small containers of oil to the gas, rendering the specific gas mixture required by the dirty little two cycle engines, with the elegance of an original Italian expresso machine. After two hours of explanations on the intricacies of GDR life, I was beginning to realize just how isolated and simple my life on the bike was. There were all these problems that people thought required solving, and they insisted on explaining them down to the last detail. I was longing for the simplicity of rotating feet and a comfortably detached scenery floating by sublimely. This was only due to a long day of socializing. My hermit existence was bombarded with a barrage of difficult to follow explanations. My little rubber band attention span had been stretched beyond capacity. I was tired. Even more, I was longing to find out things about Karen, her likes, her dislikes, what turned her on, what didn't. Gasoline pumps were one category under luke warm.

In retrospect we experienced some truly magic and unique moments in that museum. The highpoint occured as we entered into a large room with nothing but kitchen scales, an unbeliebable variety of two hundred or more kitchen scales. An especially valuable item in the collection, was a kitchen scale manufactured by a harmonica workshop. Again it told a story about GDR life. The state mandated makers of nonessential equipment, such as harmonicas and violins, to spend part of their manufacturing resources on commonly necessary items. Now, in a place where every cake originates from the handful of Saveway mass bakeries scattered across the country, or from a single powdery substance in a brightly colored Betty Crocker box, a kitchen scale is not deemed a "commonly necessary item". But, where cakes and cookies originate from flower, and eggs from happy free roaming chicken, kitchen scales take on monumental importance. So I was duly impressed by the little tin contraptions lining the shelves in orderly procession, but getting even more tired.

Border Crossings

THE NEXT MORNING, my rested bicycle was ready to jump into action again. Me too. Karen was in charge of route planning. She had picked a route into the lush forests of the "ore mountains" (Erzgebirge). Now, they're not really mountains like the alps. But they managed to wear us out anyway. Karen's route threaded itself out of town on bike paths I never would have found. It continued on rough narrow winding roads, lined by precision planted trees, spaced along the road at regular intervals. This gave the impression of biking in a large garden. Nature was all around. It surrounded the road. Bushes ate up the houses. Tree trunks limited the width of the road and covered it with a green canopy. Here, nature was always directed, regularized, conformed to be useful. These tree alley roads were wonderful and everywhere. Karen's route proceeded over hill and through valley to a small Check border crossing. We crossed it. It was an unmanned noncommercial crossing, no passboard needed. You never have to stop pedaling. It was later than planed. But then it always is. We discovered we didn't have a map. But we didn't let that stop our adventurous spirit. After all, Karen had been here before. We headed North along the border towards another border crossing near Klingenthal.

Fewer people live on the Check side of the border. A road with a wilderness feel replaced the planted tree lined roads of the Vogtland region of Germany. We talked away the miles, comparing notes on how we felt about kitchen scales and other more personal things, gliding along in a  misty canopy of pines. We headed for an approximately 600 meter high plateau. On top a large treeless area opened up, a natural park. From here, Karen remembered the border crossing back into Germany, a dirt road into the woods. The dirt road became well worn tire tracks. The tiretracks became fainter. We hadn't seen a soul since we left the road.

What a remarkable border crossing this was ! I remembered the last time I had crossed between these two countries. I had passed a convoy of trucks, several miles long, average waiting time 8 hours. That's average waiting time for them, not a bicycle. The time it took me to ride past all of them already seemed long enough to me. That period of time was already enough for a pleasant afternoon nap for them. Their waiting time was considerably longer. How different this border crossing was. I had no idea that ,with the help of a bicycle, you could seek out these tiny border crossings, and be delivered into a strange new forest or the heart of a little village with different architecture and culture. Knowing the local ways is a ticket away from traffic jams and four lanes.

Out of nowhere, a Tchec border cop appeared. He was riding in upright position on his green camouflaged motorcycle like something out of a bad Hollywood movie. His bike lurched out of the woods with the suddenness of a gecko launching himself after a fly. We were the flies. Apparently this was not the border crossing after all. The green official took himself seriously, but lucky for us, not grotesquely seriously. Having our passboards with us was definitely a time saving device. I can only wonder at the difficulty we would have encountered without them. We didn't need them to get into the country, but we surely needed them to get out. When we crossed into the Check Republic, nobody checked a passboard. Nobody looked in your face probingly to discover some hidden hint that might give cause to search the panniers. Nothing. Now, the green attired motorcycle official made notes of names and numbers, and issued a formal warning. He was courteous, almost verging on pleasant, after discovering an unexpected strange nationality in my passboard in his remote hunting ground. But what is the purpose of controlling the remote forests of an open border ? Vanloads of illegal immigrants, plutonium, bazookas, and atomic warheads could be ferried through the designated crossing, without attracting as much as an acknowledging salute from either side of the border. I can only assume that the recently liberalized labor market has left an overabundance of unemployed border patrollers, with death threatening borders having gone out of style in the last decade. Much to our relief, they seem to have amended their ways since the cold war.

The real road to the border crossing was not much larger than the one we had taken. There may have been a sign in Tchec, pointing to it. Not knowing Tchec it's impossible to say. This path was almost as obscure as the one leading us into the stake out of the lurking border official. It was the most remote romantic border crossing I have seen. Not a person for miles, except the hiding motorcyclist in the woods somewhere. The smell of mushrooms hung heavy in the moist air. Birds were screaming with the intensity of being bathed in hot tar, drowning out any squeaking chain noises. A single tree-trunk-like barricade competed with pine branches to obstruct the two yard wide path.  It was easier to slip under the barricade, than to to lift it. Adjacent a dilapidated shack the size of an outhouse once housed a border official. We were back in East Germany.

We still had a long day ahead, on paths through German grid space precision forests, wonderful side roads by abandoned train stations, back to the tree lined alleys of home. "So how many times have you done this route ?" I asked Karen. "Oh, once. Somebody showed it to me a year ago or so". - That explains it. Every adventurous bicycle tour requires a certain lack of preparation, forgetting about things like maps, working on the basis of old memories. It is possible to have adventures on a bike tour, following painstakingly researched routes, stopping at every turn to consult the latest topo maps, checking the GPS system on your wrist as backup, and carrying a cell phone. But it is much more difficult. At the end of the ride Karen asked me if I was exhausted too, and derived visible satisfaction from the fact that I was. I just loved the ways she tried to wear me out.

Next day was Monday, time to return to work for Karen and family. I didn't want to abuse the hospitality, so I went back to work too. Not really. I worked on getting used to the solitary road again. As fate would have it, Karen was planning to visit the US, later that year with several friends, and we made a date to meet again. There is a mountain in Colorado with her name on it. The last person saying good bye to me was Karen's mother. "Come back in five years again" she said with a clever smile on her face. I elected to interpret it positively, as I'm sure it was meant, reasonably sure anyway.

End in Sight. SO WHERE DO I RIDE from here ? I'll decide that when I make that decision. I didn't have energy or motivation to think about that yet. My mind had been bombarded by daily impressions to be recorded, new situations to be explored, people to respond to, a new dialect to be discovered. I was trying to remember details that happened, not figure out what would happen next. Now was the time to figure out what would happen next. I rode to a bookstore and bought a map of the area North of here. I had only one more planned stop on the "relatives and friends road", the final stop, Bremen, where my father lives. I hadn't been able to contact him yet, so I was unsure of the magnitude of detour I should plan in between here and there. I finally decided on a direction North by North East, heading roughly between Jena and Dresden. It was a utilitarian route, with traffic and prominent white marking lines on the road, as dictated by German tradition. These roads were not nearly as picturesque as the ones Karen had taken me on. But that was just fine with me. I put the legs on autopilot so that they could keep themselves busy for a while. The mind still wanted to work on processing impressions from the last days. The weather was dangerously nice, tempting me into the assumption that things will continue along those lines.

The end of the tour was in sight. Funny things happen when rides come to an end. If it's a group ride, furiously competitive racers often shed their macho disguise. They line up obediently for group photographs next to the road, displaying smiles where previousely only the painful grimmaces could be discerned. But this was a group of one. Unusual things happen here too, usually one of two things. Either you're so exhausted that you look forward to the end. You take every opportunity to rest and eat, and make a smooth transition to the life style ahead. On the other hand, you could actually be scared to stop riding. You're not really looking forward to the moment when you have to teach your legs not to go round and round any more. This often happens when you've enjoyed yourself a whole lot. It happens when everything was perfect, when the weather has been warm but not hot, when diversions of every kind have lined the path, a happy stomach has spread the joys of nourishment to the rest of the body. It often happens when you've cut some ties to the past, when you've disregarded advice from people who are obviously not acquainted with the joys of bicycle touring.  Not only is the tour over, but you can't just slip out of your bicycling costume, only to conveniently slip back into some other costume. I was in this situation.

A good bikepath gone bad

I HEADED NORTH, AVOIDING cities because they would cause me to stop pedaling occasionally. I spent the day on busy main roads. My route stayed in the eastern part of Germany, away from tourist centers, heading north into Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. Nothing sharpens route planning skills as much as a day of being fumigated into oblivion by East German traffic. That happened yesterday. I was ready for less traffic and smaller roads. An evening spent with my 1:200000 map provided the solution. A map of this scale allows zipping across the map at a rate of 3 miles to the inch. I would be in Saxony-Anhalt in no time.

The western country side of Saxony-Anhalt doesn't get many visitors. The small empty roads are ideal for long mileage days. The area lacks attractions described in painful detail in best selling guidebooks. The guidebooks tell people to head East, to Berlin or Brandenburg. If tourists stop in this part of rural Saxony, it's usually not because they planned it, and these days people rarely do anything unplanned. As a result Saxons take more interest in somebody who happens to come along. A tourist in the little towns is a novelty. You could say Saxons posses a cetain nosiness, exploring the novelty that comes along, exploring the world that has been off limits to them for such a long time. This attitude is not found in the West, where tourism has been institutionalized for decades.

I was following a bike path skirting the woods of a small river. Unlike most rivers, this one still had the freedom to meander. Most rivers in the north of Germany have been straightened. They flow straight and obediently along manmade channels, surrendering their nature given freedom to dikes damns and locks. Not so with the Mulde ( pronounced Mooldeh ). Crossing the small 30 meter stream, required the assistance of a small ferry. The ferry was not much larger than a rowboat. It was held in place against the stream with guide wire attached to both shores. The ferry master manually pulled himself and the load of not more than a handful of people across the stream, with nothing more than muscle power. These are the spectacles, unique to human powered travel. No bleachers housed busloads of spectators. It was not that sort of a spectacle. But a small picnic bench did offer shelter to the wanderer, the hiker, the small groups biking and hiking about.

As I tipped the ferry master and extracted my bike from the tiny boat, a voice welcomed me from the picnic bench. "What weird things are you trading ?" (Nun womit handeln Sie denn)". An old man was waving his walking stick wildly in the air in an attempt to emphasize what he was saying, as if his arms were way to short. In Italy people talk with their hands. Here some people talk with their walking sticks. "-Well, because you're carrying so much stuff" the old man explained. The man's wife, a bit perturbed by his impoliteness, interjected: "Why don't you just ask him where he's riding from". As a bike ride becomes longer, people's reaction to the answer increases proportionately. After their surprised reaction subsided, the man said "Aha, an adventure tour, we're too old for that". But they did like to bike and hike, and the topic turned to bicycle seats. I told them that mine had been as comfortable as an easy chair for the last 6000 miles. "That butt I want to see" answered the wife. No I didn't. Did I mention that Saxons tend to be uncomplicated and refreshingly direct in the contact with visitors that wander unsuspectingly through the country side ? I had finished my pound bag of chocolate covered Bahlsen confectionery, a fitting desert, and we all shook hands to say good-bye, as is the custom.

But, oh, how German bicycle paths treat the unsuspecting foreign bicycle tourer ! Oh, the tricks hiding behind their unsuspecting cute little turns ! One minute you're cycling along under a leafy canopy, filtering gentle sunlight onto a moist path. The next minute the path dumps you out on a large thoroughfare at the edge of town, like a wheelbarrel depositing an undesirable where nobody will notice him. The bike path apparently ended where it was needed most. A sign formalized the situation in orderly Germanic fashion. It made it clear that the path ended here not just by accident. No, adding insult to injury, it was supposed to end here, as indeed it does, as anybody could testify. The word "Ende" (end) was readable below a blue sign with a white bicycle and a red line through it. This extremely redundant sign makes me think there is still some fat to be trimmed from German public work projects. Or at least the money could be spent better than pointing out things you are painfully aware of. If the truth be known, a bike route probably existed somewhere, threading its way through the environs of Bitterfeld, through backyards, around orderly fences, lined by precision cut hedges, perfect for riding to the corner grocery for a candy bar. But they're only practical if you live here and spent years learning the route.

I still followed that endearing little stream, the Mulde, now at some distance. But, oh, how little GDR rivers change downstream when they grow up to face the real world ! Oh, how they were abused ! The Mulde had been damned, not to improve its carp habitation qualities, as one might suspect. No, the Mulde flows straight into one of the largest European strip mine coal pits, conveniently forming a lake, and one of  Europe's major environmental nightmares. The pit served conveniently as a receptor for untreated chemical waste, from the huge complex of GDR industries in town. After reunification the lake gained fame by reports of acid bubbeling to the surface, thereby constantly giving the appearance of a water surface struck by rain. The locals call it "silver lake", not for any romantic qualities exuding from the spectacle, but for the enormous amount of heavy metal pollution, courtesy of the film industry. A few strip mine cranes still stood around other open mine pits, looking strangely like the corpses of some endangered behemoth bird from past times.

It is strangely fascinating to cycle by the shut down chemical industries at the edge of Bitterfeld. It is the same fascination I get, as cycling through some large out of control city slum. Colossal refinery structures tangled with decaying brick buildings for miles. Brick facades dwarfing any cathedral showed the colossal scale of the German chemical industry. The scene could have been the result of war.  The only unfitting detail were the scores of orderly parking lots surrounding the scene of destruction, the people working on destroying the destruction. I have never seen a refinery pipelines maze on this scale before. I just wished I could get a closer look. Uniformed guards stood at the entrances to the sprawling complex as if it were some secret military research sight.

In Saxony-Anhalt private rooms continued to be advertised on the side of the road, but you had to look closely in a larger town. You couldn't have seen the small "Zimmer frei" signs from a passing car. If somebody was home they always had a room to rent and they always wanted to rent it. They were always curious for a story. And they were always anxious to share one of theirs. "There's nothing left here. It's all gone" told me one man, talking about the highest unemployment rate in Germany, above 20 percent. He had retreated into the world of collections. He collected license plates. "Colorado, I have all of those, there are only two." California and Florida are the hotbeds for East German license plate collectors, with a plethora of designs. Closer to home, Turkey holds the record for license plate variability. You never know what you're going to learn on a bike tour. In Bitterfeld the next morning, I was let go for the second time in as many mornings with the words "The main thing is you enjoyed yourself here and come back anytime". A woman waved with a smile and then closed the garden door in the gigantic straight clipped hedge behind her.

The Historic Town that Tourists forgot. From here on I was on my last leg. A pancake topography encouraged zipping across the landscape, with the speed befitting very high quality zippers, say a YKK gauge 18 zipper for example. The final three days of the tour through North Eastern Germany covered 291 miles in three days. Germany had one more pleasant surprise in store for me, the Altmark area. I crossed the half kilometer wide, mighty river Elbe. It gave the appearance of an ocean estuary, even here, a hundred kilometers upstream of its mouth and the city of Hamburg. I was crossing the stream on a modern metal bridge with a wide comfortable bike path. From here I could see the high red brick buildings of Tangermuende. "Tangermuede" means "mouth of the Tanger". The Tanger is the river flowing into the Elbe at Tangermuende, as logic would have it.

Rolling into a city gate on a bike, and emerging out the other side into a past century, is not a rare experience in Mediterranean Europe. It rarely happens in Germany. The houses are too clean. The old cobblestones, if not removed, have been demedeivalized, so that even bicycles with the heaviest panniers can roll over them without spoke failures. - I'm not complaining. - An elaborate system of sidewalks and signs direct heavy tourist traffic through the gates. You have to deal with all the traffic somehow. A few exceptions to the restoration craze still exist in North East Germany, in the Altmark Area. The Altmark extends roughly North from Magdeburg, West of the river Elbe, and East of the old iron curtain.

Five minutes after I rolled off the bridge,  I found myself in a small old city core. The streets were flanked by intricate stone and wood buildings, with the fanciest carved doors I had ever seen in Germany. A squared off romanic cathedral towered above. I rolled under the neatest mosaic town gate in a long long time. Tangermuende possesses a different appearance than equally old towns further south. Here, the building material was not the huge natural bricks you see in many medieval German stone buidings. This flat sandy country side does not provide that building material. Mountains, hills, even road cuts are absent. Stone buildings in Tangermuende are largely made from small red fired bricks. The small bricks lend themselves perfectly for constructing intricate patterns, large angular mosaics, turrets with white bricks as highlights. To me it looks like each building is just begging to be modeled for a model railroad display, or a museum.

Tangermuende, like Nuremberg, maintained a castle for visiting German Kaiser CEOs. Its walls date back to around 1300AD. The Kaiser of the time, Karl the fourth, hoped to build a control point on the river Elbe, for a Hanseatic trade route between Hamburg and Prag. When old Karl died, so did the importance of the trade point. In the following century, our old friends, the Hohenzollerns, moved into the city. In spite of the fact that this relationship was far from harmonious, during the 15th century, the city experienced its summer of life, building fancy gates, churches and elaborate doorways.

In order to become a historic attraction in the centuries to come, a town has to fall into a curious sleep. It has to be a sleep that preserves the past of a particular period. It has to do this without being blown to pieces in the process. Then it has to be preserved in a state of arrested decay, still earning a living somehow. Some towns have flourished through the ages into the present. Nuremberg for example, is a marvel of city planning, of destruction and rebuilding. But cities like that rarely give the illusion of living in another time. 

Tangermuende almost died in a city fire in 1617.The 30 years war did the rest, making about two thirds of its houses uninhabitable. The town was lucky to be unimportant enough, not to be attacked during WW2. - Ignorance is bliss. - The communists erected factories, North of town, mercifully sparing the city. Merciless west Marks were kept away by the iron curtain. They would have renovated every last sqaure inch into sterility. Sofar since reunification, the country's stone masons has been too busy renovating the major cities. 

Rolling out of Tangermuende, I looked for the Elbe bike path. This was a most curious animal of a bike path. As it crossed my road, I could see it turn to a cobblestone surface leading to the river. This was not an old historic cobblestone city street.  No, it was a conscious deliberate act. A presumably otherwise quite sane human being, had actually decided that these shiny rounded cobblestones, made the best topping for the bike path. This surface can send any young mountain bike into the retirement home, a real brick wall to bicycle momentum. It just goes to show, all this centralized planning really runs amuck sometimes. I'm sure I missed some interesting towns along that route, but I had become rather attached to the concept of momentum. Small straight roads connected my identifiable goals without traffic. I could invest energy into my bike in the form of momentum (kinetic energy, for those still living with the handicap of remembering their high school education), without being robbed by a hill every 100 yards, and then harvest the results in the form of increased airflow whistling between the ears. What can I say ? I'm easily thrilled. Or I could enjoy the effort of my sweat, coasting a little on long forest straight aways, the enormous reed covered roofs of the North German houses floating by, modern propellor windmills whistling in the distance.

On the last day, I rode till late into the still bright summer evening. I was on my way towards my father's house in Oyten, a village near Bremen, covering 118 miles. My Avocet50 altimeter said I climbed 1100 feet. But if as much as an anthill's worth of climbing graced today's route, I  missed it. Must be the batteries are getting low again. Before I tracked down my father's adress, I found a quiet bench in town, to relax and reflect. I often had to do this during the ride, in order to make the transition between being alone on the bike, and the assault on the senses that was about to take place, during a visit with people I hadn't seen for five years. As I sat there on last time during this ride, the town of Oyten struck me as curiously untypical for Germany. It really reminded me more of an American suburb. Downtown was a tiny collection of small businesses, not a collection of old Fachwerk houses, confined side by side, between two old town gates. Most of the shopping took place in large modern suburban indoor malls. The many spread out residents of Oyten lived a rather Californian lifestyle, large flat fashionable residences, liberally surrounded by bushes, forest, manicured gardens, horses and other fashionable pets. - An ironic way to to call it a trip.  

First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.
- Zen Aphorism

The End. A week later I returned by train to Frankfurt, making another visit en route, and then flew back to Denver. The tour ended the same way it started, with a ride over 15 miles of limited access expressway between Denver International Airport and a friend's house. I was looking forward to another discussion with a friendly police officer on the shoulder of the expressway. This had happened when I rode to DIA airport three months ago. Colorado police officers are so understanding. They know that this is the absolute only way to get to the airport on a bicycle, short of riding it through 15 miles of privalty owned goatheads (or using motorized transport). They know and they understand. On the shoulder of Penya Expressway, the officer had offered some special advice on how to exit the expressway safely, at the appropriate off ramp, and gave me good instructions regarding how to get to my terminal. In Germany, discussions like this would take place in the back of a patrol car, with the sirens going, on the way to someplace with a very long and official name. On the other hand, getting to a German airport on a bike would never necessitate a four lane express way. The ride to the Frankfurt airport is comparable to riding to the local grocery store for a candy bar. You just have to know the route. So I rolled along over Penya expressway, enjoying the unique Colorado character of the final end of the tour, and nothing happened. Nobody stopped me, no flats, no runs, no errors. Chalk up another 4 1/4 thousand miles. That was fun, at least in retrospect. We always remember the good stuff best.

End(e),for 1999

Oelsnitz day rides June 14, 1 day 66 miles
Oelsnitz - Bremen June 15 - June 19, 5 days 427 miles
Bremen area, Frankfurt area, airport rides June 20 - June 27, 8 days 167 miles


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