Saturday, 27 June 2020

Back from Poland: Better Late than Never?

There were two amusing incidents that followed our return to the UK, one quite shortly and the other much more recently.

If you've been following this series of posts about our train-riding adventures in eastern Europe you'll recall that our journey through Poland wasn't straighforward at times due to our failure to obtain a copy of the Polish Railways (PKP) timetable. (If you haven't been reading it you can start here.)

Mark, who worked for British Rail in London at the time, had tried everything he knew to get hold of one, but without success.  His luck changed after we got home, but I'll let him tell the story in his own words:

The planning was all done without a current PKP timetable. I'd tried everywhere in London to get one: the official Polish travel agency, Thomas Cook HQ, various BR offices. They were like gold-dust, it seemed. It was only after we got back home that I finally popped-in to the office at Paddington that produced BR's own European Timetable (nothing like as comprehensive as Thomas Cook's but designed for BR travel centre staff and therefore easier-to-read). I casually mentioned my futile efforts to locate a copy of the priceless PKP timetable and he replied "Oh, those?", opening a cupboard that was bulging with the damned things. They only needed one but got sent at least a hundred and didn't know what to do with them all!
Europe Collectable Railway Public Timetables for sale | eBay
Just what we'd been looking for!
The second incident occured more or less as I was writing the last post in the series a couple of days ago. Hilary was clearing out our garden shed and disturbed a pile of carrier bags full of old papers and stuff that had been put to one side many years ago presumably before being taken for recyclying. After putting them back in place, she turned round to see some scraps of coloured paper on the floor.
They were old banknotes - to a total of 1,290 złotys! In 1985 they would have been worth a total of £7.91 at the official rate of exchange (and at least 5 times more from the man in the Polish street) but only in Poland, as the currency was then unconvertible into harder, western money.
Polish banknotes from 1985. I particularly like the "Proletyariat" one top right.
They had survived not only the journey back from Poland, but 35 years in various lofts and cupboards and at least six house moves.  I had no idea I still had them as I thought I'd given away all my old Polish currency to a Manchester pub barmaid in a vain attempt to impress her back in 1985.

Mark and I revisited the DDR in 1986 and I went again with another mate in 1988, not long before the world changed and socialist Europe disappeared completely. The photos from those later trips survive, but as nobody kept a diary the memories seem to have disappeared as well. By then, we were also much more experienced in travel in the east so the incidents and anecdotes were fewer and it all seemed a lot more "normal".

There is, however, just one more tale to tell and one which illustrates the difficluties placed in the traveller's way by the DDR's bureaucracy, but also the fact that there were sometimes ways round it.
To be granted a visa to visit the country it was necessary to book hotel accommodation in advance and to inform the authorities where one would be staying. On our 1986 trip this proved a problem as we wanted to spent a couple of days in the north of the country and the rest of the time in the south-east, but didn't want to waste a day travelling between the two as well as spending a night  somewhere we didn't particularly want to be.

Again, in Mark's words:
I was very aware that in order to obtain a visa it was necessary to book a hotel for each night of our stay, but I thought I'd try my luck by asking the friendly clerk (who was almost certainly a Stasi official) at the DDR Travel Agency in London what were the chances of a derogation for one night's sleeper travel . 
He thought carefully and eventually replied that if I could book the sleeper myself and supply proof of the booking, he would be prepared to submit the evidence with my visa application. Thus he very cleverly transferred responsibility (1) for booking the sleeper from himself to me and (2) for issuing the visa from himself to the DDR Consulate in London (and thus to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin). It was as if the experience of the Nurnberg Trials had taught every German to make sure they could blame everyone but themselves if things went wrong! His assumption was obviously that because he was the only person in London authorised to book internal sleepers in the DDR, I would realise my idea was impossible and we'd end-up spending a (very expensive) night in Berlin.

But I had a trick up my sleeve: I worked at the time at Railfreight International, the European train-ferry freight operation, and I had a friendly contact on the passenger side who was able to telex reservations, I think via Deutsche Bundesbahn HQ in Frankfurt-am-Main, but then relayed to Deutsche Reichsbahn HQ in Berlin and thus to the DR Reiseburo in Stralsund. After some delay the reply came back (no doubt after they'd checked with HQ in Berlin) that they could only book me on a sleeper if I already had a visa. Catch-22!

At this point most people might have given up, but again I tried my luck, with nothing to lose if I failed. I wrote back with a carefully-worded "clarification" that the DDR Consulate in London "required" the reservation to be confirmed in order to be able to issue a visa. The word "required" might have been mistranslated as an instruction from the Consulate in London rather than a request from me, but miraculously it worked! I finally got a telex back confirming the reservation and the DDR Consulate duly issued the visa. All backs were covered!
The friendly slleping car attendant on the Stralsund-Leipzig express. 
Or was he a Stasi agent?
 Perhaps the friendly DR-Schlafwagengleiter on the train from Stralsund, who seemed so easy-going, had been specially-briefed to monitor our activities and report-back to Stasi HQ in Berlin - or am I being paranoid again?

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Back from Poland, with trouble at Dover

Sunday, 21st April 1985

We left Wernigerode on the 1854 to Halberstadt and after half-an-hour there continued to Magdeburg, where we had a lengthy wait for the overnight train back to the west.  A week ago we might have had plans for an extensive pub crawl, but our experiences of the DDR and Poland had taught us that eastern European cities were not really set up for that sort of thing, so we settled for a meal and a few beers in the bar of one of the big hotels in the vicinity of the station.

One thing I did like about the DDR and eastern Europe in general - was the lack of garish commercial advertising in the streets. Public spaces that in the West would have been covered in advertisments for Coca-Cola or fast cars were free of such intrusions, although there was the occasional reminder to the populace of how fortunate they were to be living in a socialsit society, such as this bannr outside Magdeburg station.
Hard to imagine our government advertising its "economic strategy" (even if it had one)
The journey to Köln was our fourth overnight on a train in the last nine days, so it's perhaps not surprising that we remember very little of it.  Bob recalls that we crossed the border back into the west at Oebisfelde, despite our tickets being specifically for the more direct route via Helmstedt. That didn't seem to cause any bother, perhaps because the authorities were too  heavily focussed on preventing illegal travel by their own nationals to worry about whether a few western railway enthusiasts had the right tickets.

Bob's notes of the trip peter out at Köln, which we reached at 07.16 on Sunday morning and left again at 08.07 for Ostend. From there we would have  taken the ferry to Dover and arrived in the late afternoon.

Trouble at Dover

Our accounts of what happened at Dover not unsurprisingly vary, but a synthesis of Mark's and my recollections (Bob says he doesn't remember a thing) would be: 

At border control we were asked where we had travelled from.  Given that we had been travelling almost non-stop for nine days this wasn't an easy question to answer, but thinking that it would speed things up, one of us answered "Germany". We might have got away with that had be been in  a car, but even in the 1980s it was unusual for foot passengers to arrive back in the UK having made long, overland journeys by public transport.  "Where in Germany?" we were asked.  I don't know whether the official was actually suspicious of us or whether we mad merely aroused his interest on a long, boring Sunday afternoon shift at Dover docks.

But it was another impossible question, so someone answered "Well, Poland, actually!).  But border guards don't like people who change their story, so this really did arouse interest - and suspicion - . "So, first you tell me you have been to Germany and now you tell me you've been to Poland......"

Eventually we got though immigration, but it had taken longer than expected. I was now worried about missing the connecting train to London and we still had customs to contend with.  Mark and I were a little ahead of Bob as we entered an empty customs hall.  I knew that only random checks took place, but that if you were stopped you could be there for a while. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the customs officer watching me and he looked as if he was about to beckon me over for a search. Although I had nothing to hide I deliberately didn't catch his eye and kept on walking. He let me go and stopped Bob instead!  Looking back, I wonder if he thought I was playing a sort of double-bluff by acting as if I didn't want to be stopped, so that he would stop me and let Bob (who might have been the real smuggler) go through.  I don't know whether that was case or not, but Bob, unfortunately, did have a case to answer.

Whilst in Poland he had bought some local cigarettes, which were so awful that he couln't smoke them. They were still in his luggage - forgotten about - when he bought his full duty-free allowance on the boat, pushing him technically over the limit.  But after another interrogation he was let off, presumably on the basis that the Polish fags contained so little tobacco that it didn't really count towards the limit!

We arrived in London in the early evening, but too late for Bob and I to make our way home to Barnsley and Bolton respectively. We must have gone back to Mark's flat in Tooting, where despite him having been away from home and his beloved Helen for nine days we  went for a pub crawl to celebrate a bloody good holiday.

But that's not quite the end.....                                                                   to be concluded...

Monday, 22 June 2020

Last Day in the DDR

Saturday, 20th April 1985

Today was supposed to be a "rest day" to allow us to catch up after a hectic week's train riding and other adventures in the DDR and Poland before making yet another overnight journey home. The itinerary promised a leisurly day exploring Dresden and no doubt enjoying the odd beer or two on the way round.

But because of the problem we'd had in Thale on the previous Saturday, when "bus, hitch or taxi to Gernrode" failed to work (read again here) we still had most of the Harz narrow gauge system to do. So it was another fairly early start, with us being up and away and at Dresden Hauptbahnhof for the almost four hour (260km) ride to Gerrode on the 0858 train, with changes to be made at Wegleben and Quedlinburg. Bob records that for some reason we only bought tickets for the first leg of this trip. Therefore, on arrival at Wegleben I leapt from the train and legged it to the booking office to get tickets for the rest of the way.

I was in a hurry becuae we only had five minutes or so between trains, but the queue at the booking office was so long and moving so slowly that I had to abandon the attempt and we had to continue without tickets.  This was potentially a more serious offence on a Deutsche Reichsbahn main line train than it would have been on the Polish narrow gauge, but we appear to have got away with it and, after a further change of train at Quedlinburg, arrived at Gernrode at 13.47.
Gernrode station, where we had two minutes to change trains, buy tickets and, apparently, take photographs!
We were just in time for the 1349 to Stiege and it appears that despite the two minute connection we did manage to find time to buy tickets and take the odd photograph!  Nowadays our journey from Dresden would be easier as, in a rare event, the standard-gauge, diesel worked branch line from Quedlinburg has been closed and replaced by an extension of the narrow-gauge line from Gernrode!

In 1985 Gernrode was the easternmost terminus of a network of lines that spanned the Harz Mountains. Trains ran westwards to Alexisbad (where a branch ran off to Harzegerode), Stiege (for the Hasseldelde branch) and the important junction in the middle of nowhere at Eisfelde Talmüle where it met the north-south line from Nordhausen running up to Wernigerode. A further branch of the system - from Drei Annen Höhe up to the summit of the Broken - which is now the busiest part of the network - was in 1985 only open for passengers as far as the village of Schierke and even then anyone travelling required a permit  due to the proximity of the village to the border and the fact that the top of the Broken Mountain and the terminus for the line, housed a Russian Millitary base.
We obviously had time at Alexisbad, probably waiting for a connecting train from Harzgerode to take photos.
 I loved the way you could get up close and personal to trains on these narrow-gauge lines.
Our train was going to Hasseldelde, but the timetable didn't allow us to go all the way and we had to change at Steige.
Stiege. We had two minutes to change trains here but already had through tickets.
After a two-minute halt and a quick change of trains we were off again, this time to the more important junction at Eisfelde Talmühle where we met the Harz "main line" running from Nordhausen to Wernigerode. There was plenty to see during our 22 minute wait here.
Despite its importance as a junction, Eisfelde Talműhle was in a remote spot.
We left at 16.34, with the 43km journey to Wernigerode scheduled to take just under two hours. The line closely paralleled the border between the DDR and the Federal Republic of Germany and in places some of the frontier fence could be seen from the train. On a similar trip in 1988 I got into trouble with the guard for taking photos, after having been warned by him not to do so, although I got the impression he didn't really mind and it was more of a "look, I've got to tell you this because it's my job" sort of telling off, rather than anything more serious.
A train from the Harz running into Wernigerode. Note the lack of level crossing controls!
And so, at 18.29 we were back at Wernigerode, almost where we started after over 2,000km of train and bus travel (not counting the journey from London) plus, of course 487km in the Lada hire car.

We allowed ourselves a twenty-five minute respite before boarding the 1854 to Halberstadt to begin our journey home.

to be concluded....

Thursday, 18 June 2020

Drei Spiegeleier mit Frites

Friday, 19th April 1985 (part two)

After a marathon twelve-and-a-half hour journey from Poznan, including surviving the Polish Railways BAR WARS experience (see yesterday's post) we arrived at Zittau in the far south-east of the DDR at 09.06 on Friday morning.

The town was the junction for a small narrow-gauge system of both passenger and freight trains consisting of a main line running about 9km south to Bertsdorf, where it bifurcated with two short branch lines running to Kurort Oybin and Kurort Jonsdorf ("Kurort" being the German term for a spa). The southern termini were almost on the border with Czechoslovakia, as it then was.

We had an hour at the station before catching the 1017 to Oybin
Narrow-gauge trains left from a separate station and passed in front of the Main Line station in the background.
Clearly, having come this far, we had to cover the whole system. The lower part of the line still carried feight which was conveyed in main line wagons riding on transporters so as to fit the narrow-gauge tracks.
Narrow-gauge freight near Zittau
At Oybin, we stayed on the train and returned to the junction at Bertsdorf. It was now 11.30 and the rest of the timetable dictated an early lunch.  There was no buffet on Bertsdorf station but across the road lay the Station Hotel. Now that we were back in the DDR there was no trouble getting beer, which I recall as being above avaerage for the country and they also did food. Quite often seemingly extensive menus could prove disappointing, with many items being "off" so it was usually better to just ask the waiter what he recommended. Whether this was what we did or not I can't remember, but I do remember what we got - "Drei Spiegeleier mit Frites":
Close-up Von Isolierten Drei Spiegeleier In Weißen Teller ...
"Drei Spiegeleier (chips were included)
No one took photos of their dinner in 1985 - the above was pinched off the internet!

The beer was good enough to tempt us into a couple more, but then we started to get disapproving looks from the staff, so as we didn't want to overstay our welcome we made our way back to the station for the 1226 to Jonsdorf.

Leaving the Bahnhofshotel after lunch. "Steady, lads!"
The hotel is still in business today and the building work is finally finnished!

 The line worked on the basis of alternate trains from Zittau running through to either Oybin or Jonsdorf with a connection at Bertsdorf for whichever destination wasn't served by the through train. This made Bertsdorf a busy station at least as far as train movements were concerned, although there didn't seem to be many passengers. Surprisingly, in a country where all public transport was government owned and controlled there was a parallel bus service linking Zittau with the Kurorts, which most travellers seemed to prefer.
Bertsdorf. Plenty of staff but we seem to be the only passengers.
Not long after our visit the line and much of the area through which it ran came under threat from a proposed opencast mine development. The DDR relied on its deposits of lignite (or brown coal)  for much of its power supply and its dependence on it usually took precedence over any other concerns as far as government policy went and the line would have been closed. Fortunately, nothing had been done by the time of German reunification in 1990 and it survives to this day.
Dresden city centre. Our hotel was one of the blocks on the left.

After completing the system by riding to Jonsdorf and back we returned to Zittau for a mid-afternoon train north to Dresden.  After checking-in to the Hotel Königstein - a charachterless tower block in the city centre - we went exploring.  Bob has a ticket for the funicular railway and I have a photo of the lower station, but neither of us can remember anything else about it.

In 1984, Mark and I had enjoyed an evening out in Dresden "but only just". I assume that we would have put the knowledge we gained then to  good use and enjoyed a night out again, including a few "Felsenkellers" no doubt.

to be continued...