Through the curtain - the cold war years

parkender102

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287
Forget Paul Theroux , you ought to write this up. Superb :E
I posted previously about the full Round the World Trip using Rail where possible here:

https://www.railforums.co.uk/thread...-in-europe-by-rail.170224/page-2#post-3682081

As pointed out by Please Explain!

Just a list really but from memory:

Tickets to Guangzho (Canton City) were purchased at Beijing Main Railway Station (Cash) from the only window where some English was spoken, quite chaotic and we somehow managed to board the train in the evening. We were in Hard Sleeper with open compartments with 6 Beds – 3 either side and a corridor down the side as normal. Discovering that my girlfriend was allocated a bed at the opposite end of the carriage to me reduced her to tears until the Guard moved us so we could be in the same compartment. The locals spitting on the floor took a bit of getting used to but it was a pleasant journey from Beijing through rural China. Memories of locals sitting on fold down seats in the corridor looking out of the window whilst devouring steaming bowls of noodles and the chorus of phlegm being brought up in the morning! We met some interesting people including a Businessman from Pakistan travelling to Hong Kong who shared his food with us and insisted we accompany him to a cheap hotel in Hong Kong. We didn’t take him up on the offer!

On arrival in Guangzho we changed to a modern train for the relatively short journey to Hong Kong. I remember the double seats could be spun around 180 degrees so you could always face the direction of travel. Arriving in Hong Kong was like landing on a different planet (still under British Rule in those days). From sub zero winter in Russia and China to tropical and warm in Hong Kong with the familiar sight of Red London Buses and expats from the banking world. We headed to Chunking Mansions which were 3 tower blocks with hundreds of guest houses and all the cuisines of the world available on the ground floor. They certainly weren't Mansions and the fire exits were all blocked with rubbish - literally a death trap. I believe there was a fire a few years later and some people were killed due to not being able to get out. We spent a week there before taking a short flight to Thailand which cost around £70 one way each.

We spent some time in Bangkok before taking a train down to Surat Thani meeting an American Gem Dealer who refused to take the night buses after waking up one night lying on the road having fallen asleep in the seat behind the driver and when the bus crashed he was flung straight over the drivers head and through the windscreen and landed on the road. We then took a boat out to Koh Samui for a week or 2 before heading back to Bangkok via the same route and purchasing tickets to Australia from a Travel Agent on Khao San Road. We just wanted the cheapest tickets so ended up flying British Airways to Perth in Western Australia. Thinking back we should have purchased them on arrival in Bangkok from Hong Kong as we had to spend the next three days in Bangkok in high humidity with no aircon and just a slow moving ceiling fan to cool us down!
 
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citycat

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858D157B-6E73-4B33-9CD2-92E999352AC8.jpegThe former East Berlin drab appartment blocks have been refurbished and look quite smart. Probabably worth a few bob too.

Also, amazing to see that the actual wall itself is only as thick as my arm. 9D84B56B-C5C0-42B7-94E2-8C158FDDD31E.jpeg A8BAD8C1-26D6-4029-8220-A8175E77EB26.jpeg 2641C65C-2FB7-45D9-9836-A5CD482429BC.jpeg
 

WesternLancer

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This features memories of childhood trips to Poland by train to visit my grandparents and other Polish relations. We would go every two years.

Traveling on a ferry across the North Sea from Harwich Parkeston Quay to Hoek van Holland. The crossing would take six hours as part of the Day Continental service from Liverpool Street, and the ferry was the St George I believe. The boat train from London was usually Mk 1 stock and a class 31 or 37 at the head.

Arriving at the Hoek to find the station full of trains. There was the local one to Amsterdam of course, usually one other, and then our train, the Nord West express. As you walked down the platform, the train would consist of DB coaching stock in green or blue for Berlin, Hamburg, and Copenhagen. There was also PKP green couchette and seating coaches for Warsaw. However, as we only went every two years, my dad would pay extra for the very last coach at the head of the train. A very imposing dark green coach with ribbed sides, brass badging on the side, and lace curtains at the windows. The RZD Russian sleeping car from Hoek to Moscow via Berlin and Warsaw. Complete with stern looking sleeping car conductor.

Ex BR electric loco at the head of the consist, that used to run over Woodhead. Sorry, I don't know the class.

Sitting on the plush bottom bunk, looking out over the flat farmland of Holland as the train made its first stops at Rotterdam Schiedam and Utrecht Centraal. Little did I know then that as the train went from Rotterdam to Utrecht, it passed through the town station of Woerden, the Dutch town in which I now live.

Remembering the first of many border guards that would board the train during the journey, the first being at Hengelo I believe near the Dutch/West German border.

My dad doing ilicit money exchange with the sleeping car conductor, exchanging US dollars for Polish Zlotys. Also agreeing to help the conductor smuggle packs of 200 Marlboro in exchange for unlimited tea, served in glasses with exotic looking holders.

Other passengers changing into pyjamas for the entire trip.

The scary (for a little boy) passage between two coaches, via the concertina curtains and the bouncing corrugated step plates, with the track passing beneath.

Being awoken in the early hours of the morning by loud rapping on the door and the light being switched on, as the West German guards and then the East German guards did the passport check at Helmstedt.

Being awoken again by more passport checks at the East German/West Berlin border at Marienborn.

Watching out of the window as we traversed West Berlin at Hauptbahnhof and Zoo stations, and even more intense passport checks by East German guards.

Watching out of the window again as the train slowly passed through the Berlin Wall, seeing all the watch towers, barbed wire, no mans land, and the wall itself as the train passed through on an elevated section of track.

Arriving into Berlin Ostbahnhoff and seeing green DR coaching stock and Mitropa sleeping and restaurant cars on various other trains.

Remembering the grim and depressing looking blocks of flats near the station, so different from what I saw in West Berlin.

Remembering our Russian car and the PKP cars being shunted into a siding near Ostbahnhoff for a couple of hours with no explanations, and no one asking, it was just accepted, and then finally coupling up to some DDR stock and trundling to Frankfurt Oder for the final border check with Poland.

Remembering the Polish PKP locos that reminded me of class 82 and 83's from the WCML.

Finally arriving into Warsawa Gdansk station some 28 hours after leaving Liverpool Street, and seeing lots of massive black PKP steam locos puffing through the station pulling iron ore or coal wagons. And about twenty of my relatives waiting on the platform as arriving cousins from the West was a big event in those days.

The return journey was the same, except even more intense at Berlin Ostbahnhoff. As another poster said, they would run barking guard dogs under the train, use mirrors, lift all the seats in the compartments or all the mattresses in the sleeper. They would search the locomotive, and border guards would ride the train back to West Berlin.

I was in Berlin Ostbahnhoff a few weeks ago, and now it is just a sleepy Berlin station. It was strange to stand there and remember back to those Cold War days !
Thanks - superb post!

I think you have answered the OP's question very well:

"Was it really the Bond-type high drama and tension that writers and film makers would have us believe, or was it a rather more mundane event."

Obviously the whole thing was very mundane!!!;)

PS - what date would those trips have been - 1960s/ 1970s?
 

WesternLancer

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Loving this thread, some great memories of the good old days here.





All of this still goes on.. Bogies are changed every day/night on the many of RZhD's through trains from the west on the former Soviet borders into Byelorussia, Ukraine, Moldova as well as the once weekly through train from Paris and Nice to Moskva there is still a Praha - Moskva train once per week and of course the Polonez also still runs with RIC cars every two days from Warszawa.
You also have a twice weekly Berlin Ost - Moskva through Talgo with auto gauge changing at Brest so no need for time consuming bogie chages.
What you describe on the Trans-Sib is still very much alive and has hardly changed in thirty years. I enjoyed the classic Russian train experience on my epic Glasgow - Khasan overland trip during the World Cup last summer.



The Sibirjak trains were sadly discontinued with the winter TT change of 2013..: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sibirjak



I can relate to this even thirty years later, its still possible! I did exactly what you describe many times over the past few years on my travels across the continent on IR's and FIP coupons. Vagonweb is an excellent resource for this way of "ultra budget travel" but I will upgrade to a C6 couchette at least most of the time these days especially if the train in question is formed of more "grossraum"s than "abteil"s!!




If you want to relive all this, just take one of the through RZhD trains to Russia and travel around a bit and you'll get a good taste of the closest thing to the good old days of the Reichsbahn and that "Soviet feeling", especially from the FSB pass control units at the border who still wear Sibirskii-Ushanka hats with red stars on them in winter!
I went well off the beaten track in Russia last year and it really was a step back in time in some places..



I'd have thought the Deutsche Reichsbahn was a member of InterRail as were most of the Warsaw Pact countries railways? And surely the crews that worked the "Interzonenzueg" would only be worked by West Berliners? The Reichsbahn was one of the biggest employers there despite being the state railway of the DDR.
Zoo bahnhof was / is until recently a step back in time as well, very neglected since it lost most of its international trains to Lehrte Bahnhof / (the new Hauptbahnhof).
I believe renovations are underway now but I did always like the old-school feeling of the place with the unchanged 80's tiles and old lockers outside were still in situ when I was last there in December, with the Reisezentrum now moved to a portakabin along the street with the works are going on inside.



Brilliant. I'm sadly not old enough to have been around to enjoy all that, its one of my greatest bug bearers that what you describe is impossible now in this country, despite international CIV tickets being still readily available from the counter across most of Europe.

You can still make Berlin overnight from London but only in a seat now since sadly on ICE 949 from Aachen / Koeln after the cancellation of the EuroNight Jan Kiepura in 2016.



Indeed. the DDR refugee crisis was exactly thirty years ago right now and is hot topic in DE again.
Kettcar sum this time up brilliantly in their song "Sommer '89" about the actions of an anonymous young Hamburger who made his way down to Moerbisch am See on 12 August to assist some DDR citizens commit Republikflucht..:

Good news on this route recently, MAV have reinstated their excellent Ammendorf DDR built restaurant cars on all of the EuroCity train pairs they operate between Wien and Budapest.

@parkender102 -I too approve! Brilliant post, I think you wrote more of this round the world trip a year or so ago if I remember right?

@Czesziafan -That is an impressive collection, Ive never seen the SZhD logo before and often wondered what it looked like. Funny to see it in Latin-script, no doubt it was widespread in Cyrillic within the CCCP?
I particularly like your Mitropa badge.

Intresting story about the Polish girl, before '89? How did she make it out to live in England and still be allowed to come back for a visit?! Diplomat or government official to the Peoples Republic of Polska?!

@ChiefPlanner -It indeed is.. That's one thing I do not miss about North London!

@sheff1 -I think the Yankee government have always been a bit funny about their citizens visiting "hostile states" and therefore quite keen to question anyone going east as to what they were doing there (even if only heading for West Berlin), I think similar questioning would be likely to any US citizen going /returning from DPRK or PR China. No doubt someone older and experienced can shed more light.
"I'd have thought the Deutsche Reichsbahn was a member of InterRail as were most of the Warsaw Pact countries railways? And surely the crews that worked the "Interzonenzueg" would only be worked by West Berliners? The Reichsbahn was one of the biggest employers there despite being the state railway of the DDR."

Thanks Please Explain - you have jogged my memory - I conflated 2 rail touring trips, one with Interail, but the trip I describe actually with some sort of 'all system' DB Rover ticket - which was presumably not valid over the border. I can't know for certain if the staff member was DB or DR at this time removed - but I assume I would have noted a change of uniform. The ticket was checked and no issue raised when in west, but the ticket fare charged after the border when we were told ticket not valid. Maybe at the western check the guard simply thought we would get off the train in the west and thus did not see any reason to alert us (and we would not have been able to translate anyway!).

We didn't have interail on this occasion because we set off on travels in a car - which suffered a terminal mechanical failure (valve shattered and parts got into cyclinder IIRC causing engine seizure) somewhere of an early evening near Duisburg. We had some luck on our side because as we nursed the car into the edge of a town we pulled up by some garages where a couple of guys were fixing / restoring a beachbuggy after hours in a workshop - they stopped what they were doing to look at my engine to try and help and diagnosed the fault.

Even more luckily the bar on the other side of the road happened to be run by a brit expat, former British Army of Rhine serviceman, who had settled in the area! He helped us big time with advice, letting us use his phone to get help and being able to translate stuff for us fairly out of our depth teenagers with an old car that was now a right off and we were in a right pickle. I've never forgotten that generosity, and that of those German mechanics who tried to help us that evening.

We decided to continue our travels by rail but being out of the UK could not buy inter rail tickets, so had to settle for this DB Rover ticket.

I don't think I realised Interrail covered the Warsaw Pact - and next time I went nearly 2 years later the Iron Curtain was down and Iterrailers widely welcomed. Even on a low budget, ones currency was much sought after, and everything was very cheap due to the end of the 'fake' exchange rates.
 

eMeS

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As mentioned above, I served in the RAF in West Germany from 1958 to 1959 on a site not that far from the border, and whilst security was tight, life in the local area seemed normal. I do remember hearing that an incident on the route from West Germany through the East German corridor to West Berlin had nearly started WWIII. Years later, I found the atmosphere created by the BBC for one of their George Smiley adventures was too much for me to watch - somehow, they'd captured the atmosphere which years earlier I'd assimilated without realising it.
 

LNW-GW Joint

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Looking at the list of rail crossing points here and a rail map I think we might have crossed at Bebra. If I found my old Thomas Cook I could be sure. On a Frankfurt - Berlin night train. Maybe Bebra was a crossing in the US zone.
Bebra-Gerstungen was the border crossing between Frankfurt and Berlin (historically between the states of Hesse and Prussia/Thuringia).
Gerstungen (just inside the DDR) was the DB/DR loco change point and where the DDR controls were (visas, dogs, ladders, mirrors etc).
The original line crossed the river Werra (the actual border) several times between Gerstungen and Eisenach, so the DDR built a new branch line to Eisenach to avoid crossing back into West Germany for a few km.
The old disused main line had only just been severed completely when the Wall came down, and before long it was restored as the through line, and the DDR branch dismantled.
Today you'd hardly know there was such an arrangement for 30 years.
The whole route has been electrified and modernised and is a principal main line again with ICEs on several routes.

After being routed via Halle and Dessau, at the Berlin end all inter-regional trains were routed via Potsdam and entered West Berlin at the Griebnitzsee crossing.
The train crew changed from DR Ossies to DR Wessies under the armed supervision of border guards, amid much derisive whistling from the passengers.
Then on through West Berlin via Wannsee and the Stadtbahn to enter the DDR again at Friedrichstrasse (not Friedrichstadt!).

Last week I did Berlin-Kyiv via Warsaw, Krakow, Przemysl and Lviv.
The Germany/Poland border over the river Oder was non-existent, although the loco stopped briefly on the German side to switch electrical systems.
There was an on-board crew change at the Frankfurt/Oder stop, and the PKP Siemens Vectron was swapped for an older loco at Poznan for the run to Warsaw.
There were on-board checks on the Poland/Ukraine border (now an EU external border), with 2 brief stops for the national officials to board/leave.
The rail border is complicated by the two gauges, with a 20km overlap with one track of broad gauge and the other of standard.
There were all sorts of freight interchange sidings along this stretch, mostly looking disused.
Ukraine did have some visible border infrastructure, and I noticed a couple of loaded military trains (with tanks, people carriers and ambulances) on the route to Kyiv.
But overall it was all very friendly and welcoming.
 

M28361M

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Also, amazing to see that the actual wall itself is only as thick as my arm.
Veering off topic slightly, but important to remember that as well as the main wall itself, there was a "death strip" about 100 metres wide behind it, constantly watched by East German border guards with orders to shoot on sight. Quite a few people got through the fences and barbed wire on the East Berlin side of the border, but got caught while trying to cross this no-man's land, or trying to get over the wall (which was deliberately designed to be unclimbable).

There's a picture on Wikimedia which gives some idea of what the Berlin border fortifications looked like.

Back on-topic, my own personal fascination with this era is how the Berlin railway network coped with the divided city. The S-Bahn, for example, was operated by the East German railway even in West Berlin, but many West Berliners boycotted it rather than be seen to "subsidise" East Germany by buying tickets for it.

Many sections of U-Bahn that crossed the border were abandoned completely. Other lines, which started in West Berlin, crossed into East Berlin and then back into West Berlin, remained in service but trains did not stop at any stations in East Berlin. They remained on the U-Bahn network map but with stations crossed out to indicate the trains didn't stop.

I think it was only in the early 2000s that all the severed lines and connections were completely restored. There was still some pre-WWII rolling stock running on the S-Bahn until the early years of the 21st century, too.

There was also the very shortlived "M-Bahn" in West Berlin, a low-speed maglev line which was built to serve parts of the city that had been cut off from the U-Bahn network by the wall. Wikipedia has quite a good article about it.
 

WesternLancer

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Bebra-Gerstungen was the border crossing between Frankfurt and Berlin (historically between the states of Hesse and Prussia/Thuringia).
Gerstungen (just inside the DDR) was the DB/DR loco change point and where the DDR controls were (visas, dogs, ladders, mirrors etc).
The original line crossed the river Werra (the actual border) several times between Gerstungen and Eisenach, so the DDR built a new branch line to Eisenach to avoid crossing back into West Germany for a few km.
The old disused main line had only just been severed completely when the Wall came down, and before long it was restored as the through line, and the DDR branch dismantled.
Today you'd hardly know there was such an arrangement for 30 years.
The whole route has been electrified and modernised and is a principal main line again with ICEs on several routes.

After being routed via Halle and Dessau, at the Berlin end all inter-regional trains were routed via Potsdam and entered West Berlin at the Griebnitzsee crossing.
The train crew changed from DR Ossies to DR Wessies under the armed supervision of border guards, amid much derisive whistling from the passengers.
Then on through West Berlin via Wannsee and the Stadtbahn to enter the DDR again at Friedrichstrasse (not Friedrichstadt!).

Last week I did Berlin-Kyiv via Warsaw, Krakow, Przemysl and Lviv.
The Germany/Poland border over the river Oder was non-existent, although the loco stopped briefly on the German side to switch electrical systems.
There was an on-board crew change at the Frankfurt/Oder stop, and the PKP Siemens Vectron was swapped for an older loco at Poznan for the run to Warsaw.
There were on-board checks on the Poland/Ukraine border (now an EU external border), with 2 brief stops for the national officials to board/leave.
The rail border is complicated by the two gauges, with a 20km overlap with one track of broad gauge and the other of standard.
There were all sorts of freight interchange sidings along this stretch, mostly looking disused.
Ukraine did have some visible border infrastructure, and I noticed a couple of loaded military trains (with tanks, people carriers and ambulances) on the route to Kyiv.
But overall it was all very friendly and welcoming.
Thanks for the added info about my own experience 30 years ago - enjoyed reading that!
 

Czesziafan

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213
Loving this thread, some great memories of the good old days here.





All of this still goes on.. Bogies are changed every day/night on the many of RZhD's through trains from the west on the former Soviet borders into Byelorussia, Ukraine, Moldova as well as the once weekly through train from Paris and Nice to Moskva there is still a Praha - Moskva train once per week and of course the Polonez also still runs with RIC cars every two days from Warszawa.
You also have a twice weekly Berlin Ost - Moskva through Talgo with auto gauge changing at Brest so no need for time consuming bogie chages.
What you describe on the Trans-Sib is still very much alive and has hardly changed in thirty years. I enjoyed the classic Russian train experience on my epic Glasgow - Khasan overland trip during the World Cup last summer.



The Sibirjak trains were sadly discontinued with the winter TT change of 2013..: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sibirjak



I can relate to this even thirty years later, its still possible! I did exactly what you describe many times over the past few years on my travels across the continent on IR's and FIP coupons. Vagonweb is an excellent resource for this way of "ultra budget travel" but I will upgrade to a C6 couchette at least most of the time these days especially if the train in question is formed of more "grossraum"s than "abteil"s!!

The Polish girl was a very well educated lady in her mid thirties who had gained British citizenship by marrying a well-off Englishman so it was relatively easy for her to return to the "old country" I imagine. Her trip to Poland was in the au just before everything went pear-shaped and the wheels fell off out there with Martial law.


If you want to relive all this, just take one of the through RZhD trains to Russia and travel around a bit and you'll get a good taste of the closest thing to the good old days of the Reichsbahn and that "Soviet feeling", especially from the FSB pass control units at the border who still wear Sibirskii-Ushanka hats with red stars on them in winter!
I went well off the beaten track in Russia last year and it really was a step back in time in some places..



I'd have thought the Deutsche Reichsbahn was a member of InterRail as were most of the Warsaw Pact countries railways? And surely the crews that worked the "Interzonenzueg" would only be worked by West Berliners? The Reichsbahn was one of the biggest employers there despite being the state railway of the DDR.
Zoo bahnhof was / is until recently a step back in time as well, very neglected since it lost most of its international trains to Lehrte Bahnhof / (the new Hauptbahnhof).
I believe renovations are underway now but I did always like the old-school feeling of the place with the unchanged 80's tiles and old lockers outside were still in situ when I was last there in December, with the Reisezentrum now moved to a portakabin along the street with the works are going on inside.



Brilliant. I'm sadly not old enough to have been around to enjoy all that, its one of my greatest bug bearers that what you describe is impossible now in this country, despite international CIV tickets being still readily available from the counter across most of Europe.

You can still make Berlin overnight from London but only in a seat now since sadly on ICE 949 from Aachen / Koeln after the cancellation of the EuroNight Jan Kiepura in 2016.



Indeed. the DDR refugee crisis was exactly thirty years ago right now and is hot topic in DE again.
Kettcar sum this time up brilliantly in their song "Sommer '89" about the actions of an anonymous young Hamburger who made his way down to Moerbisch am See on 12 August to assist some DDR citizens commit Republikflucht..:

Good news on this route recently, MAV have reinstated their excellent Ammendorf DDR built restaurant cars on all of the EuroCity train pairs they operate between Wien and Budapest.

@parkender102 -I too approve! Brilliant post, I think you wrote more of this round the world trip a year or so ago if I remember right?

@Czesziafan -That is an impressive collection, Ive never seen the SZhD logo before and often wondered what it looked like. Funny to see it in Latin-script, no doubt it was widespread in Cyrillic within the CCCP?
I particularly like your Mitropa badge.

Intresting story about the Polish girl, before '89? How did she make it out to live in England and still be allowed to come back for a visit?! Diplomat or government official to the Peoples Republic of Polska?!

@ChiefPlanner -It indeed is.. That's one thing I do not miss about North London!

@sheff1 -I think the Yankee government have always been a bit funny about their citizens visiting "hostile states" and therefore quite keen to question anyone going east as to what they were doing there (even if only heading for West Berlin), I think similar questioning would be likely to any US citizen going /returning from DPRK or PR China. No doubt someone older and experienced can shed more light.
The Polish girl was a very well educated lady in her mid thirties who had gained British citizenship by marrying a well-off Englishman so i imagine it was relatively easy for her to return to the "old country". Her trip to Poland was in the autumn of 1981, just before everything went pear-shaped and the wheels fell off out there with Martial law and I have a feeling she went via Ostend. Before coming to England she had worked for the Polish travel agency Orbis and also worked for a UK travel company when she came here. She had some interesting stories to tell about life in Poland under "ze reds" and "zoze Russian M************ as she called the Communists.
 
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208
December 84 - Lahti (Finland) to Vienna over a week or so, via Leningrad, Warsaw, Prague and Bratislava.

I could write a book about the rail journey alone - it included an extremely thorough, but simultaneously comic, Soviet customs search, some offloading of unwanted western clothes in exchange for large quantities of roubles I couldn't spend, an extended stand-off with an Intourist woman who claimed not to have my booked ticket, inhuman quantities of vodka.... and that was just the first 12 hours.
 

30907

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Are there any remains of the New Gerstungen Bebra line?
The line ran more or less due East from Gerstungen to Förtha where there was a triangular junction with the (steeply graded) Eisenach-Meiningen line. Looking at Googlemaps, the route is very obvious, but the western end is now a public road.
 

Shimbleshanks

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Purley
"

I don't think I realised Interrail covered the Warsaw Pact - and next time I went nearly 2 years later the Iron Curtain was down and Iterrailers widely welcomed. Even on a low budget, ones currency was much sought after, and everything was very cheap due to the end of the 'fake' exchange rates.
When I did Interail back in 1980, it included Hungary and Romania but not East Germany or Poland, though some of these countries were added to the scheme later. You still had to apply for visas for the two Warsaw Pact countries which cost a few quid and was a bit of a faff if you didn't live within easy access of London, so I don't think many users actually availed themselves of it. I must have been an exception.
I travelled into Hungary via Austria on a real backwater of a route - can't remember the full details but I think I travelled via Graz and Szombathely. The Austrian border guy was surprised to see a British passport and seemed gladf to have the chance to practice his English.
 

citycat

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Thanks - superb post!

I think you have answered the OP's question very well:

"Was it really the Bond-type high drama and tension that writers and film makers would have us believe, or was it a rather more mundane event."

Obviously the whole thing was very mundane!!!;)

PS - what date would those trips have been - 1960s/ 1970s?
My first ever trip through the Iron Curtain was in April 1960, when I was just three months old, and apparently had enough drama for my mother to rival a Len Deighton 'Funeral in Berlin' style novel. My dad was Polish and my mum was English. After I was born, my Polish grandparents were eager to see their new grandson. Unfortunately, my dad couldn't go for some work related reason so it was decided my mum would make the journey to Poland alone. She related this story to me in later years.

On that journey on the Nord West express in 1960, my mum was roughing it in the PKP seats overnight with me. She was in a compartment with five others. When the train got to Helmstedt in the early hours of the morning, the border guards from the DDR got on to do the passport check and when they got to my mum, they found some sort of irregularity with her travel documents that would require her to come off the train and get sorted in the office in the station. My mum told me that she got quite anxious and distressed at this news as she was convinced the train would leave without us and she would be stranded in Germany in the middle of the night with her baby. However, the border guards were quite insistent that she had to come into the station. One of the other occupants of the compartment, a man travelling to West Berlin, assured my mum that if the train left for any reason without her, he would personally take her suitcase off the train at Berlin Zoo and entrust it to the railway police there so she could hopefully catch up with it. Reluctantly, my mum got off the train holding me in her arms and accompanied the guards. She remembered that it was snowing heavily as they went down the platform, and some passengers were leaning out of the train windows watching with mild curiosity.

My mum was still rather distressed as they walked down the snowy platform and a railway official asked the border guards what was happening. He saw my mum's anxious state and then in broken English identified himself as the train guard. He told her that he would accompany her to the border guards office as 'the train cannot leave without me'. She said they went down a flight of steps and through some underground passages to a dingy office somewhere. Luckily, I was either sleeping in her arms or at least quiet and not crying. She was asked to take a seat while an official sat behind a desk and made a phone call. My mum remembered that it was one of those old style bakelite phones with the receiver in a large cradle and that the official had a lenthy conversation with someone while thumbing through her passport which was the old style blue UK passport, but travelling on my dad's Polish surname. Two other border guards were standing in the small office together with the train guard who I imagine worked for the DR as the train was about to enter East Germany. My mum said it was all quite intimidating, with the DDR guards dressed in their severe looking uniforms watching her suspiciously as their superior made his phone call.

Finally, the official came off the phone, reached for a rubber stamp, and loudly thumped her passport before telling my relieved mother that she could rejoin the train. I often wonder who the border official rang in the middle of the night, and where this mystery official was, who had the clout to give the authorisation for my mum to continue her journey. As soon as she was clear to go, my mum said the train guard hurried her as quickly as he could back through the passageways and up to the platform. She remembered that when they reached the platform, two men were smoking and stood chatting to another railway official and that they must've been the engine crew as the guard shouted something to them and they started to hurry off towards the locomotive. Meanwhile the train guard escorted her back down the platform to the PKP seating carriage. What my mum remembered most about that stressful night, was that quite a few passengers were leaning out of the train windows and that they started clapping as she passed by them. They were not clapping in derision of her delaying the train but clapping because she had successfully made it back ok. I guess most people taken off the train are detained and not seen again.

My mum made it back with me in her arms to the relief of the other occupants of the compartment, and as soon as she climbed the carriage steps, the train guard blew several times on his whistle and the train set off almost immediately. The man heading to Berlin told my mum that the train was delayed 23 minutes and he was convinced that she would not be coming back. He was amazed the train had been held for so long until my mum told him how the train guard had remained by her side to ensure the train would not leave. My mum was forever eternally grateful for the kindness of that unnamed DR train guard, making sure she was not left behind.

I'd like to think that somewhere in Germany, in a dusty vault belonging to the Deutsche Bahn, there is a faded train running ledger dating from the 1960's stored on a shelf, and on a page dated xx April 1960, a railway clerk has carefully made an entry using a fountain pen: Eastbound Nord West express delayed 23 minutes at Helmstedt - Passenger travel document irregularity.

To answer your question, my journeys to Poland by train that I actually remember were made in 1970, 1972, 1974 and 1976
 

eMeS

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My first ever trip through the Iron Curtain was in April 1960, when I was just three months old, ...
I'd like to think that somewhere in Germany, in a dusty vault belonging to the Deutsche Bahn, there is a faded train running ledger dating from the 1960's stored on a shelf, and on a page dated xx April 1960, a railway clerk has carefully made an entry using a fountain pen: Eastbound Nord West express delayed 23 minutes at Helmstedt - Passenger travel document irregularity.

...
Fantastic story, and vividly illustrating what life was like then.
 

ChiefPlanner

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Nothing as good as that - bar a slight apprehension of a day trip to East Berlin from the West and going off grid a bit to have a look at the old suburbs of Prenzlauerberg etc , much more interesting than the concrete wastes of Alexanderplatz , (Jewish cemetary etc) - very scruffy 19thC housing with women shoveling brown coal briquettes into cellars - and only a 20Pf ride on the U-Bhan and trams. No one would really talk to me , and there were plenty of suspicious looks as being 25 , i was attired in rather better clothes than the DDR norm.

So the day passed with minimum spend , and I had a quick look at the "Museum of Socialist History" - which had some obvious gaps in the "history" to my views - a slushy meal in a so called self service place where there were ample staff to clean your tray etc. So I found a book shop where apart from wall fulls of Marx , Cuba , Angola etc - there was one solitary railway book called "Berlin und sein S-Bahn" (Transpress) - that got rid of most of my ostmarks , and I gave the rest to a pensioner.

Going through the mandatory check , the guard was clearly very interested - so I had to empty the pockets , rucksack etc - all carefully checked (especially the Walkman !) - he found the brown wrapped (string and paper book) and on seeing the contents called his supervisor.

I was asked why I was interested in "their" railways , so I played my trump card of showing him my BR identity card , gave him a business card (Contract Manager , Railfreight) , and gave it a big one about how I was so impressed with their service etc, I was going to share it with my team in London , and maybe more.

There was a pregnant pause and some very hard eye contact , then with a sharp "Ales Klare" , I was allowed to pack up and board the U-Bahn to the West , under some observation. Never have I been so glad to see the train doors close and movement off. I had a large brandy in a bar in the West. I may have been followed. Who knows.

In 1990 - the Railway Study Association did a study tour in East Berlin , which was honoured despite the recent issues. That was very interesting , especially a visit to the Divisional Offices in Dresden (a book of memory to those lost in WW2 - and especially in early 1945 , was pointed out to us) , and transformation was under way with a mobile Burger King van outside the blackened , gaunt HbF , with a large andeager queue.
 

Trackbedjolly

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I travelled to Poland to visit relatives in both 1962 and again in 1972 on the Ost-vest train from Ostend. We lived in north east Scotland so we had to take a sleeper to London first then the boat train to Dover ferry to Ostend and finally the Moscow train.
I was only a toddler when my mother took the three of us on the first trip so I do not remember much of it. My father could not accompany us for some reason. She told me a bit about the journey years later.
The most dramatic event was when the train was stopped in East Berlin. It was a time of great tension as the Berlin Wall was new. The blinds of the couchette had to be drawn so that the passengers could not see out as they passed through the corridor between West and East Berlin. Being inquisitive my mother drew up the blind and opening the window put her head out to see what was happening. Suddenly she felt the cold steel muzzle of a rifle pressed onto her neck and she quickly withdrew her head back into the safety of the compartment! There were evidently soldiers posted the length of the train. A real Cold War incident.

On the second trip things were a bit easier although again my father was not there as he had died the previous year. This time it was me and my younger brother. We had a lot of food with us from relatives in London.
However before we even left home there was a scare as the Polish visa had not arrived by post on the day we were due to travel. My mother phoned the local Post office and they had it so I needed to run down and fetch it.
Fast forward to travelling on the Moscow train and my brother was left on his own while went to the restaurant car. In the meantime the border guards and been round and asked him for documents. When we got back he was rather worried as he did not understand what was happening and they were armed: "are they going to shoot me?" We were glad to get out of Belgium ;) (This was BEFORE we joined the EEC.)
There were no further problems although our documents were inspected often and during the night of course. I think we were allowed to see East Berlin that time as we had to get off the train and move to a different carriage there.

On the way back she had to try to get sleeper berths for us all in Warsaw. Somehow or other there were not enough beds so my brother ended up sleeping in the luggage rack!
We left from the then main station which was called Główna which a lot of low platforms but not much else; Centralna was opened 3 years later.
 

WesternLancer

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12 Apr 2019
Messages
2,259
My first ever trip through the Iron Curtain was in April 1960, when I was just three months old, and apparently had enough drama for my mother to rival a Len Deighton 'Funeral in Berlin' style novel. My dad was Polish and my mum was English. After I was born, my Polish grandparents were eager to see their new grandson. Unfortunately, my dad couldn't go for some work related reason so it was decided my mum would make the journey to Poland alone. She related this story to me in later years.

On that journey on the Nord West express in 1960, my mum was roughing it in the PKP seats overnight with me. She was in a compartment with five others. When the train got to Helmstedt in the early hours of the morning, the border guards from the DDR got on to do the passport check and when they got to my mum, they found some sort of irregularity with her travel documents that would require her to come off the train and get sorted in the office in the station. My mum told me that she got quite anxious and distressed at this news as she was convinced the train would leave without us and she would be stranded in Germany in the middle of the night with her baby. However, the border guards were quite insistent that she had to come into the station. One of the other occupants of the compartment, a man travelling to West Berlin, assured my mum that if the train left for any reason without her, he would personally take her suitcase off the train at Berlin Zoo and entrust it to the railway police there so she could hopefully catch up with it. Reluctantly, my mum got off the train holding me in her arms and accompanied the guards. She remembered that it was snowing heavily as they went down the platform, and some passengers were leaning out of the train windows watching with mild curiosity.

My mum was still rather distressed as they walked down the snowy platform and a railway official asked the border guards what was happening. He saw my mum's anxious state and then in broken English identified himself as the train guard. He told her that he would accompany her to the border guards office as 'the train cannot leave without me'. She said they went down a flight of steps and through some underground passages to a dingy office somewhere. Luckily, I was either sleeping in her arms or at least quiet and not crying. She was asked to take a seat while an official sat behind a desk and made a phone call. My mum remembered that it was one of those old style bakelite phones with the receiver in a large cradle and that the official had a lenthy conversation with someone while thumbing through her passport which was the old style blue UK passport, but travelling on my dad's Polish surname. Two other border guards were standing in the small office together with the train guard who I imagine worked for the DR as the train was about to enter East Germany. My mum said it was all quite intimidating, with the DDR guards dressed in their severe looking uniforms watching her suspiciously as their superior made his phone call.

Finally, the official came off the phone, reached for a rubber stamp, and loudly thumped her passport before telling my relieved mother that she could rejoin the train. I often wonder who the border official rang in the middle of the night, and where this mystery official was, who had the clout to give the authorisation for my mum to continue her journey. As soon as she was clear to go, my mum said the train guard hurried her as quickly as he could back through the passageways and up to the platform. She remembered that when they reached the platform, two men were smoking and stood chatting to another railway official and that they must've been the engine crew as the guard shouted something to them and they started to hurry off towards the locomotive. Meanwhile the train guard escorted her back down the platform to the PKP seating carriage. What my mum remembered most about that stressful night, was that quite a few passengers were leaning out of the train windows and that they started clapping as she passed by them. They were not clapping in derision of her delaying the train but clapping because she had successfully made it back ok. I guess most people taken off the train are detained and not seen again.

My mum made it back with me in her arms to the relief of the other occupants of the compartment, and as soon as she climbed the carriage steps, the train guard blew several times on his whistle and the train set off almost immediately. The man heading to Berlin told my mum that the train was delayed 23 minutes and he was convinced that she would not be coming back. He was amazed the train had been held for so long until my mum told him how the train guard had remained by her side to ensure the train would not leave. My mum was forever eternally grateful for the kindness of that unnamed DR train guard, making sure she was not left behind.

I'd like to think that somewhere in Germany, in a dusty vault belonging to the Deutsche Bahn, there is a faded train running ledger dating from the 1960's stored on a shelf, and on a page dated xx April 1960, a railway clerk has carefully made an entry using a fountain pen: Eastbound Nord West express delayed 23 minutes at Helmstedt - Passenger travel document irregularity.

To answer your question, my journeys to Poland by train that I actually remember were made in 1970, 1972, 1974 and 1976
Thanks for taking the time to post that - a very interesting and informative read, really captures the sense of things. I bet that ledger is indeed filed away!!

Mind you, strangely your mum's experience reminded me of a border crossing I did on the International train between Canada and the USA Ontario/Michigan - about a year after 9/11 - but that's another story!
 

WesternLancer

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12 Apr 2019
Messages
2,259
Nothing as good as that - bar a slight apprehension of a day trip to East Berlin from the West and going off grid a bit to have a look at the old suburbs of Prenzlauerberg etc , much more interesting than the concrete wastes of Alexanderplatz , (Jewish cemetary etc) - very scruffy 19thC housing with women shoveling brown coal briquettes into cellars - and only a 20Pf ride on the U-Bhan and trams. No one would really talk to me , and there were plenty of suspicious looks as being 25 , i was attired in rather better clothes than the DDR norm.

So the day passed with minimum spend , and I had a quick look at the "Museum of Socialist History" - which had some obvious gaps in the "history" to my views - a slushy meal in a so called self service place where there were ample staff to clean your tray etc. So I found a book shop where apart from wall fulls of Marx , Cuba , Angola etc - there was one solitary railway book called "Berlin und sein S-Bahn" (Transpress) - that got rid of most of my ostmarks , and I gave the rest to a pensioner.

Going through the mandatory check , the guard was clearly very interested - so I had to empty the pockets , rucksack etc - all carefully checked (especially the Walkman !) - he found the brown wrapped (string and paper book) and on seeing the contents called his supervisor.

I was asked why I was interested in "their" railways , so I played my trump card of showing him my BR identity card , gave him a business card (Contract Manager , Railfreight) , and gave it a big one about how I was so impressed with their service etc, I was going to share it with my team in London , and maybe more.

There was a pregnant pause and some very hard eye contact , then with a sharp "Ales Klare" , I was allowed to pack up and board the U-Bahn to the West , under some observation. Never have I been so glad to see the train doors close and movement off. I had a large brandy in a bar in the West. I may have been followed. Who knows.

In 1990 - the Railway Study Association did a study tour in East Berlin , which was honoured despite the recent issues. That was very interesting , especially a visit to the Divisional Offices in Dresden (a book of memory to those lost in WW2 - and especially in early 1945 , was pointed out to us) , and transformation was under way with a mobile Burger King van outside the blackened , gaunt HbF , with a large andeager queue.
"I was asked why I was interested in "their" railways , so I played my trump card of showing him my BR identity card , gave him a business card (Contract Manager , Railfreight) , and gave it a big one about how I was so impressed with their service etc, I was going to share it with my team in London , and maybe more.
There was a pregnant pause and some very hard eye contact , then with a sharp "Ales Klare" "


So it seems that the Comrades political education didn't see nationalised BR as a staging post on the route to true socialism in the west? That guard clearly didn't see the opportunities you were presenting for the expansion of the soviet model of socialism in the UK. With that attitude no wonder the system collapsed...:D

Actually your post has a relevance to a wider point about the OPs question which I think it's maybe hard for people to appreciate today - that being for many people what was the point of going there? It was difficult, awkward (visas etc), and not esp cheap if on a budget as the enforced minimum currency changes at fake exchange rates meant it cost you. And then as you illustrate, there wasn't really anything to spend your money on when you got there!

It was end of these rates post 1989 that made it so cheap when I went east in c1991 - but still little to spend money on as consumer products were limited in the shops (and shops were limited too), although the emergence of unregulated capitalism in Poland - in the form of people just selling stuff on open street pavements took me aback (eg raw meat sold off a tressle table with no refrigeration that I saw in Poland). I also recall a queue outside a perfectly well stocked supermarket yet few people inside it and I could not understand what was going on, until I realised people weer not queueing for the food, but for the supermarket shopping baskets which were rationed out to shoppers as in short supply!

But I was impressed by the public transport system that I encountered in the east. Far better than the post bus deregulation system often to be found in parts of the UK at the time IMHO!
 

ChiefPlanner

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"I was asked why I was interested in "their" railways , so I played my trump card of showing him my BR identity card , gave him a business card (Contract Manager , Railfreight) , and gave it a big one about how I was so impressed with their service etc, I was going to share it with my team in London , and maybe more.
There was a pregnant pause and some very hard eye contact , then with a sharp "Ales Klare" "


So it seems that the Comrades political education didn't see nationalised BR as a staging post on the route to true socialism in the west? That guard clearly didn't see the opportunities you were presenting for the expansion of the soviet model of socialism in the UK. With that attitude no wonder the system collapsed...:D

Actually your post has a relevance to a wider point about the OPs question which I think it's maybe hard for people to appreciate today - that being for many people what was the point of going there? It was difficult, awkward (visas etc), and not esp cheap if on a budget as the enforced minimum currency changes at fake exchange rates meant it cost you. And then as you illustrate, there wasn't really anything to spend your money on when you got there!

It was end of these rates post 1989 that made it so cheap when I went east in c1991 - but still little to spend money on as consumer products were limited in the shops (and shops were limited too), although the emergence of unregulated capitalism in Poland - in the form of people just selling stuff on open street pavements took me aback (eg raw meat sold off a tressle table with no refrigeration that I saw in Poland). I also recall a queue outside a perfectly well stocked supermarket yet few people inside it and I could not understand what was going on, until I realised people weer not queueing for the food, but for the supermarket shopping baskets which were rationed out to shoppers as in short supply!

But I was impressed by the public transport system that I encountered in the east. Far better than the post bus deregulation system often to be found in parts of the UK at the time IMHO!

It was a very interesting day all round - and yes , public transport was incredibly good and cheap - flimsy paper tickets , clearly recycled paper , and gun metal cancellors at entrance points. I am sure fare evasion was very low with such cheap rates and a generally compliant population. Very little advertising , but I recall a very 1950's type poster of happy schoolkids telling the masses that the coal miner was their friend as they dug coal to keep their schools heated.

Materially - hardly anything to buy - there was a long queue outside a cheese shop that had one sort of cheese for sale. Many of the shops had pre-war gothic lettering as they had not been painted since that era. The prime department store at the Alex (Centrum) had incredibly clumsy , massive TV sets and a simple range of washing machines etc , all at very high prices. The music section was interesting in that there was a huge and cheap range of classical music , but not much in the modern idiom apart from "A 100 East German Banjo's" , "Folk Songs from Weimar" etc. Not a lot of fresh produce in the "deli" section. Kopernick beer was very good and affordable. Must look out for it next time I go over.

East Germany of course , was the flagship of the Soviet Block. Things must have been desperate in Romania - my sister in law went on an aid mission to work in some of those despicably resourced childrens homes , and lived very frugally and augmented by the food parcels we sent via Red Star (!) to Bournemouth where they were trucked over in an aid convoy which was aggregated there.

The DDR did have a couple of "Lucky" senior managers who very faithfully attended Europe wide UIC (International Meetings on policy and timetabling / standards etc) , no doubt with high expectations of seeing the decadent and crime ridden West , and enjoying the good meals and company therein. I seem to recall that some of the standards agreed Europe wide were "agreed" by the DDR - but not implemented as the system could not match them , so paper derogations were issued. I had a young West German management trainee on a secondment for a couple of weeks in 1987 , and as a trainee he had (as in BR) done various postings in freight and passenger , one being "Yardmaster" at Hof (I think ?) , where one of the staple consists of eastbound traffic was condemned ex DB wagons to the DDR for further re-use by the "Peasants and Workers State"....his quote was "they will never get anywhere if we have to send them our rubbish to keep moving" - another traffic into West Germany was Russian timber in PKP wagons (trans-shipped enroute) , to earn a bit of hard currency. Presumably shipped free on rail by the 5 Year Plan , - the Germans and Austrians were happy to take cheap timber as it saved them harvesting their own.

One of the pictures in the book , showed the driver messroom somewhere on the DR S-Bahn with a driver taking his meal break benignly watched over by portraits of various communist luminaries - that would have not gone down well at Willesden HL or Watford Junction (DC and Abbey lines)

A very enjoyable thread all round. Keep it coming.
 

WesternLancer

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Joined
12 Apr 2019
Messages
2,259
It was a very interesting day all round - and yes , public transport was incredibly good and cheap - flimsy paper tickets , clearly recycled paper , and gun metal cancellors at entrance points. I am sure fare evasion was very low with such cheap rates and a generally compliant population. Very little advertising , but I recall a very 1950's type poster of happy schoolkids telling the masses that the coal miner was their friend as they dug coal to keep their schools heated.

Materially - hardly anything to buy - there was a long queue outside a cheese shop that had one sort of cheese for sale. Many of the shops had pre-war gothic lettering as they had not been painted since that era. The prime department store at the Alex (Centrum) had incredibly clumsy , massive TV sets and a simple range of washing machines etc , all at very high prices. The music section was interesting in that there was a huge and cheap range of classical music , but not much in the modern idiom apart from "A 100 East German Banjo's" , "Folk Songs from Weimar" etc. Not a lot of fresh produce in the "deli" section. Kopernick beer was very good and affordable. Must look out for it next time I go over.

East Germany of course , was the flagship of the Soviet Block. Things must have been desperate in Romania - my sister in law went on an aid mission to work in some of those despicably resourced childrens homes , and lived very frugally and augmented by the food parcels we sent via Red Star (!) to Bournemouth where they were trucked over in an aid convoy which was aggregated there.

The DDR did have a couple of "Lucky" senior managers who very faithfully attended Europe wide UIC (International Meetings on policy and timetabling / standards etc) , no doubt with high expectations of seeing the decadent and crime ridden West , and enjoying the good meals and company therein. I seem to recall that some of the standards agreed Europe wide were "agreed" by the DDR - but not implemented as the system could not match them , so paper derogations were issued. I had a young West German management trainee on a secondment for a couple of weeks in 1987 , and as a trainee he had (as in BR) done various postings in freight and passenger , one being "Yardmaster" at Hof (I think ?) , where one of the staple consists of eastbound traffic was condemned ex DB wagons to the DDR for further re-use by the "Peasants and Workers State"....his quote was "they will never get anywhere if we have to send them our rubbish to keep moving" - another traffic into West Germany was Russian timber in PKP wagons (trans-shipped enroute) , to earn a bit of hard currency. Presumably shipped free on rail by the 5 Year Plan , - the Germans and Austrians were happy to take cheap timber as it saved them harvesting their own.

One of the pictures in the book , showed the driver messroom somewhere on the DR S-Bahn with a driver taking his meal break benignly watched over by portraits of various communist luminaries - that would have not gone down well at Willesden HL or Watford Junction (DC and Abbey lines)

A very enjoyable thread all round. Keep it coming.
Thanks ChiefPlanner - I meant to ask - when was the trip you described (where the book generated such interest at the border point)?
 

Spamcan81

Member
Joined
12 Sep 2011
Messages
633
Location
Bedfordshire
An excellent thread. I have traveled widely in the DDR, Poland and China by train so can identify with the experiences of other posters. Sadly I never crossed the land borders by train, only by road or air so border experiences were a little different.
 

Ian1971

Member
Joined
22 Aug 2019
Messages
7
Location
Croydon
Yes Ostbahnhof is sleepy now. Back in DDR days, Berlin Lichtenberg was also important for DDR to USSR trains. Now it only has regional services.
It is also difficult to see the border situation at Friedrichstadt nowadays.
There is an amazing museum called the hall of tears beside Friedrichstadt. It was the hall where those leaving for the west said goodbye esp Westerners who had spent the day/weekend in East Berlin.

I went through there in 1987 on my first trip to East Berlin. Some of the stories remind me of traveling to DDR in 1988 and then out of the DDR towards Munich.

My most memorable trip was leaving Czechoslovakia from Prague to Nuremburg in early Nov 89 3 days before the Berlin Wall came down with added coaches to the back of the train full of East Germans who had escaped to the West German embassy. I had said goodbye to my East German girlfriend in Prague with no idea when I would see her again. The day after I got back to the UK the wall came down
 

citycat

Member
Joined
18 Dec 2013
Messages
130
This thread has proved to be quite interesting, and I thought I might add a bit more to it by going into some deeper detail regarding our bi annual trips to cold war Poland, including some of the preparations. Unfortunately, it’s turned out to be a very long post so apologies for this. However, I hope you may find it interesting reading. I’d make a cup of tea first though.


Firstly, just some background. My dad was Polish and came over during WW2 and served in the Polish air force. He met my mum who was English and served in the RAF, and then my dad stayed in the UK after the war. He worked for British Rail at BRB headquarters in Marylebone, and his office was directly under the then Chairman Sir Peter Parker. He said he could hear Sir Peter ranting occasionally when things were going wrong somewhere on the system. As a result of my dad’s job, we always travelled to Poland by train using a combination of FIP coupons and FIP rail discounts.


Preparations for a trip behind the Iron curtain would start as early as a year in advance. We would try to take as many gifts as we could for our extended family members so we would start amassing things over the year. Stuff that could not be readily obtained in the East. I can’t really remember what my mum and dad used to put aside, but as a teenager, I was given the task of taking care of my young cousins and given a budget to spend over the year putting together presents. I would try to make the most of the budget, and made several trips to Portobello market in West London.


Very popular among my cousins was anything from the West that could not be got in Poland and would help them to achieve a ‘cool’ status among their friends. So, I went to several stalls and would try and find pairs of jeans, tee shirts with logos or slogans, and patches that could be sewn onto clothing. Stuff like the Smiley face, or two fingers giving a victory sign or patches with rock band names, stuff like that. Anything American was a sure winner. Records were very popular and I would go to a local record store on Portobello road and buy stuff from The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Moody Blues, Deep Purple etc. The LP covers were just as important as they would go onto bedroom walls. I would also buy Athena posters as it was all light weight stuff that we could carry.


Another place I went to was Lawrence Corner in London. A famous army surplus store. I would go raking through their bargain bins looking for any military stuff like tee shirts, and military patches. One of my older cousins rode a Russian or Chinese motorcycle in Warsaw and I managed to find a bargain WW2 US army helmet with webbing and some Biggles style aviator goggles. My dad also bought a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes to go into the webbing. My cousin later rode around the streets of Warsaw wearing that helmet and goggles thinking he was Clint Eastwood from Kelly’s Heroes. He didn’t even smoke but the packet of Lucky Strike gave him the extra cool factor among his friends.


About three months before departure, my dad and I would take the tube over to Victoria station. We would troop though the station and across the road to the Continental Travel Centre in Semley Place. In the travel centre, we would then go through an unmarked door and this led into the BR staff travel section, Here, a whole morning or afternoon could be spent while the two clerks dealt with staff bookings. With a pencil behind his ear, the clerk would take details, and then busy himself making phone calls or sending telexes to various Continental administrations, or writing out chits. Hopefully, after a couple of hours, my dad and I would walk away with reservations for the sleeper or couchettes, the port taxes for the ferry, and any FIP discounted tickets for me or my mum that were required in addition to our coupons.


On the day of departure, we would get a black cab over to Liverpool street station, with about three or four suitcases packed with our clothes for the trip and all the many gifts we were bringing for family. Although we were loaded down with suitcases, it was never a real problem. In those days there were porters to carry your bags from the taxi rank to the boat train at Liverpool Street, then porters at Parkeston Quay to carry the cases onto the ferry, and then porters at the Hoek to carry the cases off the ferry and over to the Nord West express.


The boat train to Harwich was the Day Continental, normally blue & grey Mk 1’s and a class 31 or 37. We would normally sit in the first coach as my dad knew I liked to hang out of the window as we set off and hear the 31 or 37 thrashing away through East London towards Stratford. At Harwich, we would go through passport control and then onto the boat, the St George I believe, meeting the porter with our cases in the saloon. Although I really liked the ferry, I suffered with the ‘Mal de Mare’ a bit as a child, and if the North sea was a bit rough, the six hour crossing could be a nightmare.


I would always watch the docking process from the outside deck as we arrived at Hoek of Holland, and look down onto the station beside the quay and see the waiting trains down below. It’s a shame to go to the Hoek nowadays, and see the station a shell of what it once was. After disembarkation, we would follow the Dutch porter through the passport and customs checks, and then round to the train. I’ve stated before that there were DB coaches for Hamburg Altona and Copenhagen, and PKP seating and couchette cars for Warsawa, and then at the head of the train behind the NS class 1500 loco (class 77 UK), would be the imposing RZD sleeping car for Moskva.


There was one time, 1974 I think, when we walked down the train and arrived at the loco, but no sleeping car. The NS train guard for the local to Amsterdam was stood on the adjoining platform ‘waiting time’ for his service, and unfortunately for him, he was surrounded by several excitable Eastern European passengers demanding to know where their sleeping car was. Of course, he didn’t know and went off to try and find someone who could. My dad was not among the throng though. Being a railwayman himself, he guessed something had gone on for operational reasons and busied himself grabbing a seating compartment for me and my mum and getting the porter to stow the bags.


Meanwhile, the NS guard returned with the guard for our own train who informed the group that the Westbound service had been heavily delayed earlier in the day, and that the sleeping car had been taken off at Hengelo to avoid it being delayed and it was waiting there. That mean’t a bit of a scrum now for the sleeping car passengers to find seats and stow their bags, while my dad had been ahead of the game and we were nicely sat already. When we got to Hengelo, we got the suitcases off. Luckily, the seating coach was near the head of the train so we didn’t have to carry them far. I watched as the NS loco pulled forward, and then the station pilot propelled the sleeping car from a nearby siding (in the days when some Dutch stations had pilots based nearby). As the sleeping car approached the train, I could see the Russian sleeping car attendant standing on the metal steps wiping down the handrails as the sleeping car buffered up. It was a swift operation. Ten minutes saw the sleeping car passengers on board, the pilot loco withdrawn back into the siding, and the NS loco back onto the head of the train.


Normally though, the sleeping car would be at the Hoek of Holland waiting for us. To a young lad brought up on Michael Caine’s ‘Harry Palmer’, the sleeping car always looked sinister and the start of the main adventure. It looked so sombre and imposing, this dark green carriage with its badges, lace curtains, Cyrillic lettering, ribbed bodywork and the pale faced severe looking sleeping car attendant in his RZD uniform. It was always a male on these trips. I don’t know if female attendants ever made it on Westbound services? Oh, and the destination plate on the side. Hoek v Holland, Berlin Ost, Warszawa Gd, Mockba. This was the real deal !


The sleeping car attendant always seemed to make a big deal of the documentation. Carefully examining each document carefully including passport before finally allowing you access to his sleeping car. I was always taken by how plush the sleeping car seemed compared to the couchettes we’d occasionally taken in the past. From the lace curtains to the carpet in the corridor, the three plump bunks in the compartment (I am an only child so there were no siblings to worry about. Just mum, dad and myself), the black and white photos of Moscow and St Petersburg on the compartment wall, and the filigree tea holders on the compartment table.


I was always surprised at how some passengers would immediately get changed into pyjamas before departure from the Hoek, and remain that way for the entire journey, until my dad explained that’s how a lot of Russians liked to travel.


Regarding the sleeping car attendant and my dad, I got the impression that the Russians and Poles tolerated each other, but didn’t particularly like each other. However, during the journey, my dad would have some discreet meetings with him. Black market money exchanges would sometimes take place to get Polish Zloty at a preferable rate to the official one, plus a carton or two of Marlboro Red would be secreted in the compartment on behalf of the attendant in exchange for unlimited tea and biscuits for the journey. If it was just dad and I travelling, a few US dollar bills to the attendant would ensure the third bunk remained empty.


On departure from the Hoek, I would settle onto the bunk to watch the flat countryside of Holland out of the window, and try to spot my first windmill. The first stop would be at Rotterdam Schiedam. I now live in Holland in the town of Woerden, and the Nord West express used to pass through Gouda and Woerden on the way to the next stop at Utrecht Centraal. My late Dutch father in law said he used to see the train at Schiedam while waiting for his local to Woerden after finishing work at a furniture store, and remembered the Russian sleeping car. Little did I know back in the seventies and sat on that bunk, that I would one day be living in a town on the route of the former Nord West express.


After Utrecht Centraal the train would head through Amersfoort to Hengelo where I believe the German border guards would get on to have their checks done by the time the train reached the German border at Bentheim. I may be wrong though. The NS loco would normally come off at Bentheim to be replaced by a DB loco. The train would then carry on to Osnabruck where I believe the Hamburg and Copenhagen cars came off, and then Hannover and Helmstedt, the East German border in the early hours of the morning. We would normally be in bed by this time but forget getting a good night’s sleep. You would clearly hear the East German guards in the corridor going from compartment to compartment, and then when they got to you, there would be two fierce knocks before the compartment door was flung open and the compartment light switched on.


From memory, the East German guards were exactly as depicted in various spy films, with their uniforms and loud abrupt manner. I always remember the guard checking the passports and other documentation had a little desk strapped to his chest, complete with rubber stamps and visas etc. While he was doing the documents, another guard would be casting his eyes around the compartment and glancing at the suitcases, and it’s probably at this point that my dad would start to sweat a little.


On the ferry crossing to the Hoek, my dad would always go to the duty free shop to get some spirits, and even though he didn’t smoke, he would always get a carton or two of 200 cigarettes, and always Benson & Hedges Gold. I never understood why, but later I did. It was amazing how a packet or two of Benson & Hedges could oil the wheels of bureaucracy during the border checks and avoid suitcases being opened. The East German guards particularly liked B &H apparently as the gold packets looked very exotic in their breast pockets.


After Helmstedt, the DB loco had been exchanged in favour of a DR one and we carried on through the night to the West Berlin border at Marienborn. I can’t remember if there were more checks at Marienborn but I would imagine so. I remember we stopped at two stations in in West Berlin (around 7am I think), Friedrichstrasse and then Zoo. However, I cannot remember where further border checks were made? If it was before the wall or after when we got to Berlin Ost. I just remember looking out of the window as we headed to Berlin Ost on an elevated section of track, and clearly seeing the wall and the no man’s land on the East German side, and seeing how the architecture changed from West to East Berlin.


Maybe the checks were carried out at Berlin Ost, as I clearly remember officials getting on there. As we sat in Berlin Ost, I remember seeing the dingy looking trains of DR arriving and departing, and the dark maroon of Mitropa sleeping cars and restaurant cars dotted about on trains from the East.

A couple of times but not always, after checks were completed, the PKP couchette and seating car and the sleeper were shunted out of Berlin Ost and stabled in a weed strewn siding amongst DR freight wagons, and just left there for an hour or two. No explanations and none asked for by the passengers. We just sat there and it was accepted. Eventually, we were propelled back into the station and coupled up to another train, and then set off for the short journey to the Polish border at Frankfurt Oder. The Polish officials were normally quite quick with their checks on Polish nationals, albeit holding blue UK passports, and then my dad and I would step off onto the platform to have a walk.


When I started my European travels in earnest as a teenager, one of the first tools I acquired was a T key for continental trains, Similar to a British Rail T key but with a hollow square socket as opposed to the solid square socket with BR. It was always useful for unlocking slide down windows, or securing compartment doors when trying to keep a compartment for sole occupancy on overnight trains. However, it was always frustrating travelling in the sleeper. The RZD had to be different to everyone else and used a triangle lock on their stock. It was impossible to get an RZD key and the attendant used to keep the sliding windows firmly locked apart from his pantry window. Also, my dad forbade me to get off the train at any point unaccompanied in case I just disappeared. Therefore, for a boy interested in the railway operations of the train, I could not keep a track of all the shunting movements and engine swaps.


When we got off for a stroll at Frankfurt Oder, it was the first time I could really see the train since we left the Hoek. The consist of the train had changed entirely. The sleeping car instead of being at the head of the train was now in the middle. As said before, we had lost the Scandanavia cars in the night, the PKP couchette and seating coaches were behind us, then the sleeping car, then DR or PKP seating coaches from Berlin Ost to Warszawa. As we strolled to the front of the train, my dad and I would watch as the DR loco came off and a PKP one came on propelling the Polish restaurant car with WARS (wagon restauracyjny) emblazoned on the side. It was a welcome sight for my dad as we would always walk down the train around Rzepin for a traditional Polish lunch in the restaurant car. Borscht for starters (yuck !), and then pork and potatoes for mains. The stop at Poznan would see us heading back to the sleeping car in preparation for our arrival into Warszawa Gdanska.


On arrival into Warsaw, at least twenty family and friends would be waiting on the platform to greet us. Cousins visiting from the West was a big thing in those days, especially when it was only every two years. As I was being smothered in kisses from aunts and grandparents and cousins, I would be looking back at the sleeping car, and wishing I could carry on to Moscow with it, and experience the bogie changing process I had heard about. We would be herded down the platform, all my relatives loud and excitable, and cram into several ancient cars including my uncle’s FSO Warszawa (google that make of car to see one), plus all our suitcases, and go off to my aunt’s flat in Warsaw, all twenty piled into her small flat. The evening would be spent eating and drinking and dishing out the presents to my grateful cousins. It was truly xmas come early for them when the English cousins arrived from the West.


We would spend about three weeks in Warsaw and other places in Poland before the return journey. Just as much came back with us in our suitcases as went. It was mostly Polish crystal carefully wrapped, articles of clothing like soft pig skin gloves, and furs which were cheaply available and could be sold on in London for a nice premium. For me it was model trains. East German model trains were cheaply available and very high quality. As I write this, there is a model train on my son’s window sill comprising Mitropa sleeping cars, DR and CsD (Czech Republic) green seating coaches. Unfortunately, my son does not show an interest in trains (who can blame him being brought up with efficient but boring Dutch trains), so the model train is more for my amusement.


I won’t bore you with the details of the return journey. Suffice to say just as many relatives came to see us off again, and more Benson & Hedges Gold were used during border checks to avoid the unnecessary opening of suitcases. However, at Berlin Ost, the checks were much more intense. In addition to document checks, soldiers were going through the train lifting every seat or sleeping berth, searching all cupboards, searching the locomotive, and running barking dogs under the train and using mirrors. As we went into West Berlin, DDR soldiers were still on board and leaning out of doorways and windows as the train made its slow progress into the West.


When we finally reached the Hoek of Holland, our Dutch vessel for the crossing back to Harwich PQ was usually the Koningen Juliana I believe. If the North sea was being kind, I always enjoyed a creamy dessert in the cafeteria called Mona Tujhe, a pot of which is in my fridge right this minute.

Apologies again for this long post.


So, to answer the OP. Was it a mundane event to travel behind the Iron Curtain? I personally would say it was far from mundane. There were enough characters to fill a spy movie twice over, there was always apprehension if your travel documents were in order or if you would be pulled off the train at any time as my mum found out at Helmstedt. There was also apprehension if your belongings would be confiscated by customs, negated by a few bribes here and there. The train itself could be delayed by hours. And for my late dad himself, there was a bit of apprehension. He initially settled in the UK after the war as part of the Poles in Exile, and although he was travelling under the relative protection of a full UK passport, there was always that underlying fear that something could happen and he might not be allowed to cross back to the West. So yes, far from mundane.


Thanks for reading
 
Last edited:

duesselmartin

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I was 14 year old German in Ireland when the wall fell. In the 1990s i did a lot of Interrail journeys in the hope of getting a homeopathic dose of the eastern experience.
Thank you for taking me from Hoek to Warsaw.

Martin, now in Duisburg. A stop in the former Ost West Express route.
 

Cowley

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This thread has proved to be quite interesting, and I thought I might add a bit more to it by going into some deeper detail regarding our bi annual trips to cold war Poland, including some of the preparations. Unfortunately, it’s turned out to be a very long post so apologies for this. However, I hope you may find it interesting reading. I’d make a cup of tea first though.


Firstly, just some background. My dad was Polish and came over during WW2 and served in the Polish air force. He met my mum who was English and served in the RAF, and then my dad stayed in the UK after the war. He worked for British Rail at BRB headquarters in Marylebone, and his office was directly under the then Chairman Sir Peter Parker. He said he could hear Sir Peter ranting occasionally when things were going wrong somewhere on the system. As a result of my dad’s job, we always travelled to Poland by train using a combination of FIP coupons and FIP rail discounts.


Preparations for a trip behind the Iron curtain would start as early as a year in advance. We would try to take as many gifts as we could for our extended family members so we would start amassing things over the year. Stuff that could not be readily obtained in the East. I can’t really remember what my mum and dad used to put aside, but as a teenager, I was given the task of taking care of my young cousins and given a budget to spend over the year putting together presents. I would try to make the most of the budget, and made several trips to Portobello market in West London.


Very popular among my cousins was anything from the West that could not be got in Poland and would help them to achieve a ‘cool’ status among their friends. So, I went to several stalls and would try and find pairs of jeans, tee shirts with logos or slogans, and patches that could be sewn onto clothing. Stuff like the Smiley face, or two fingers giving a victory sign or patches with rock band names, stuff like that. Anything American was a sure winner. Records were very popular and I would go to a local record store on Portobello road and buy stuff from The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Moody Blues, Deep Purple etc. The LP covers were just as important as they would go onto bedroom walls. I would also buy Athena posters as it was all light weight stuff that we could carry.


Another place I went to was Lawrence Corner in London. A famous army surplus store. I would go raking through their bargain bins looking for any military stuff like tee shirts, and military patches. One of my older cousins rode a Russian or Chinese motorcycle in Warsaw and I managed to find a bargain WW2 US army helmet with webbing and some Biggles style aviator goggles. My dad also bought a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes to go into the webbing. My cousin later rode around the streets of Warsaw wearing that helmet and goggles thinking he was Clint Eastwood from Kelly’s Heroes. He didn’t even smoke but the packet of Lucky Strike gave him the extra cool factor among his friends.


About three months before departure, my dad and I would take the tube over to Victoria station. We would troop though the station and across the road to the Continental Travel Centre in Semley Place. In the travel centre, we would then go through an unmarked door and this led into the BR staff travel section, Here, a whole morning or afternoon could be spent while the two clerks dealt with staff bookings. With a pencil behind his ear, the clerk would take details, and then busy himself making phone calls or sending telexes to various Continental administrations, or writing out chits. Hopefully, after a couple of hours, my dad and I would walk away with reservations for the sleeper or couchettes, the port taxes for the ferry, and any FIP discounted tickets for me or my mum that were required in addition to our coupons.


On the day of departure, we would get a black cab over to Liverpool street station, with about three or four suitcases packed with our clothes for the trip and all the many gifts we were bringing for family. Although we were loaded down with suitcases, it was never a real problem. In those days there were porters to carry your bags from the taxi rank to the boat train at Liverpool Street, then porters at Parkeston Quay to carry the cases onto the ferry, and then porters at the Hoek to carry the cases off the ferry and over to the Nord West express.


The boat train to Harwich was the Day Continental, normally blue & grey Mk 1’s and a class 31 or 37. We would normally sit in the first coach as my dad knew I liked to hang out of the window as we set off and hear the 31 or 37 thrashing away through East London towards Stratford. At Harwich, we would go through passport control and then onto the boat, the St George I believe, meeting the porter with our cases in the saloon. Although I really liked the ferry, I suffered with the ‘Mal de Mare’ a bit as a child, and if the North sea was a bit rough, the six hour crossing could be a nightmare.


I would always watch the docking process from the outside deck as we arrived at Hoek of Holland, and look down onto the station beside the quay and see the waiting trains down below. It’s a shame to go to the Hoek nowadays, and see the station a shell of what it once was. After disembarkation, we would follow the Dutch porter through the passport and customs checks, and then round to the train. I’ve stated before that there were DB coaches for Hamburg Altona and Copenhagen, and PKP seating and couchette cars for Warsawa, and then at the head of the train behind the NS class 1500 loco (class 77 UK), would be the imposing RZD sleeping car for Moskva.


There was one time, 1974 I think, when we walked down the train and arrived at the loco, but no sleeping car. The NS train guard for the local to Amsterdam was stood on the adjoining platform ‘waiting time’ for his service, and unfortunately for him, he was surrounded by several excitable Eastern European passengers demanding to know where their sleeping car was. Of course, he didn’t know and went off to try and find someone who could. My dad was not among the throng though. Being a railwayman himself, he guessed something had gone on for operational reasons and busied himself grabbing a seating compartment for me and my mum and getting the porter to stow the bags.


Meanwhile, the NS guard returned with the guard for our own train who informed the group that the Westbound service had been heavily delayed earlier in the day, and that the sleeping car had been taken off at Hengelo to avoid it being delayed and it was waiting there. That mean’t a bit of a scrum now for the sleeping car passengers to find seats and stow their bags, while my dad had been ahead of the game and we were nicely sat already. When we got to Hengelo, we got the suitcases off. Luckily, the seating coach was near the head of the train so we didn’t have to carry them far. I watched as the NS loco pulled forward, and then the station pilot propelled the sleeping car from a nearby siding (in the days when some Dutch stations had pilots based nearby). As the sleeping car approached the train, I could see the Russian sleeping car attendant standing on the metal steps wiping down the handrails as the sleeping car buffered up. It was a swift operation. Ten minutes saw the sleeping car passengers on board, the pilot loco withdrawn back into the siding, and the NS loco back onto the head of the train.


Normally though, the sleeping car would be at the Hoek of Holland waiting for us. To a young lad brought up on Michael Caine’s ‘Harry Palmer’, the sleeping car always looked sinister and the start of the main adventure. It looked so sombre and imposing, this dark green carriage with its badges, lace curtains, Cyrillic lettering, ribbed bodywork and the pale faced severe looking sleeping car attendant in his RZD uniform. It was always a male on these trips. I don’t know if female attendants ever made it on Westbound services? Oh, and the destination plate on the side. Hoek v Holland, Berlin Ost, Warsawa Gd, Mockba. This was the real deal !


The sleeping car attendant always seemed to make a big deal of the documentation. Carefully examining each document carefully including passport before finally allowing you access to his sleeping car. I was always taken by how plush the sleeping car seemed compared to the couchettes we’d occasionally taken in the past. From the lace curtains to the carpet in the corridor, the three plump bunks in the compartment (I am an only child so there were no siblings to worry about. Just mum, dad and myself), the black and white photos of Moscow and St Petersburg on the compartment wall, and the filigree tea holders on the compartment table.


I was always surprised at how some passengers would immediately get changed into pyjamas before departure from the Hoek, and remain that way for the entire journey, until my dad explained that’s how a lot of Russians liked to travel.


Regarding the sleeping car attendant and my dad, I got the impression that the Russians and Poles tolerated each other, but didn’t particularly like each other. However, during the journey, my dad would have some discreet meetings with him. Black market money exchanges would sometimes take place to get Polish Zloty at a preferable rate to the official one, plus a carton or two of Marlboro Red would be secreted in the compartment on behalf of the attendant in exchange for unlimited tea and biscuits for the journey. If it was just dad and I travelling, a few US dollar bills to the attendant would ensure the third bunk remained empty.


On departure from the Hoek, I would settle onto the bunk to watch the flat countryside of Holland out of the window, and try to spot my first windmill. The first stop would be at Rotterdam Schiedam. I now live in Holland in the town of Woerden, and the Nord West express used to pass through Gouda and Woerden on the way to the next stop at Utrecht Centraal. My late Dutch father in law said he used to see the train at Schiedam while waiting for his local to Woerden after finishing work at a furniture store, and remembered the Russian sleeping car. Little did I know back in the seventies and sat on that bunk, that I would one day be living in a town on the route of the former Nord West express.


After Utrecht Centraal the train would head through Amersfoort to Hengelo where I believe the German border guards would get on to have their checks done by the time the train reached the German border at Bentheim. I may be wrong though. The NS loco would normally come off at Bentheim to be replaced by a DB loco. The train would then carry on to Osnabruck where I believe the Hamburg and Copenhagen cars came off, and then Hannover and Helmstedt, the East German border in the early hours of the morning. We would normally be in bed by this time but forget getting a good night’s sleep. You would clearly hear the East German guards in the corridor going from compartment to compartment, and then when they got to you, there would be two fierce knocks before the compartment door was flung open and the compartment light switched on.


From memory, the East German guards were exactly as depicted in various spy films, with their uniforms and loud abrupt manner. I always remember the guard checking the passports and other documentation had a little desk strapped to his chest, complete with rubber stamps and visas etc. While he was doing the documents, another guard would be casting his eyes around the compartment and glancing at the suitcases, and it’s probably at this point that my dad would start to sweat a little.


On the ferry crossing to the Hoek, my dad would always go to the duty free shop to get some spirits, and even though he didn’t smoke, he would always get a carton or two of 200 cigarettes, and always Benson & Hedges Gold. I never understood why, but later I did. It was amazing how a packet or two of Benson & Hedges could oil the wheels of bureaucracy during the border checks and avoid suitcases being opened. The East German guards particularly liked B &H apparently as the gold packets looked very exotic in their breast pockets.


After Helmstedt, the DB loco had been exchanged in favour of a DR one and we carried on through the night to the West Berlin border at Marienborn. I can’t remember if there were more checks at Marienborn but I would imagine so. I remember we stopped at two stations in in West Berlin (around 7am I think), Friedrichstrasse and then Zoo. However, I cannot remember where further border checks were made? If it was before the wall or after when we got to Berlin Ost. I just remember looking out of the window as we headed to Berlin Ost on an elevated section of track, and clearly seeing the wall and the no man’s land on the East German side, and seeing how the architecture changed from West to East Berlin.


Maybe the checks were carried out at Berlin Ost, as I clearly remember officials getting on there. As we sat in Berlin Ost, I remember seeing the dingy looking trains of DR arriving and departing, and the dark maroon of Mitropa sleeping cars and restaurant cars dotted about on trains from the East.

A couple of times but not always, after checks were completed, the PKP couchette and seating car and the sleeper were shunted out of Berlin Ost and stabled in a weed strewn siding amongst DR freight wagons, and just left there for an hour or two. No explanations and none asked for by the passengers. We just sat there and it was accepted. Eventually, we were propelled back into the station and coupled up to another train, and then set off for the short journey to the Polish border at Frankfurt Oder. The Polish officials were normally quite quick with their checks on Polish nationals, albeit holding blue UK passports, and then my dad and I would step off onto the platform to have a walk.


When I started my European travels in earnest as a teenager, one of the first tools I acquired was a T key for continental trains, Similar to a British Rail T key but with a hollow square socket as opposed to the solid square socket with BR. It was always useful for unlocking slide down windows, or securing compartment doors when trying to keep a compartment for sole occupancy on overnight trains. However, it was always frustrating travelling in the sleeper. The RZD had to be different to everyone else and used a triangle lock on their stock. It was impossible to get an RZD key and the attendant used to keep the sliding windows firmly locked apart from his pantry window. Also, my dad forbade me to get off the train at any point unaccompanied in case I just disappeared. Therefore, for a boy interested in the railway operations of the train, I could not keep a track of all the shunting movements and engine swaps.


When we got off for a stroll at Frankfurt Oder, it was the first time I could really see the train since we left the Hoek. The consist of the train had changed entirely. The sleeping car instead of being at the head of the train was now in the middle. As said before, we had lost the Scandanavia cars in the night, the PKP couchette and seating coaches were behind us, then the sleeping car, then DR or PKP seating coaches from Berlin Ost to Warsawa. As we strolled to the front of the train, my dad and I would watch as the DR loco came off and a PKP one came on propelling the Polish restaurant car with WARS (wagon restauracyjny) emblazoned on the side. It was a welcome sight for my dad as we would always walk down the train around Rzepin for a traditional Polish lunch in the restaurant car. Borscht for starters (yuck !), and then pork and potatoes for mains. The stop at Poznan would see us heading back to the sleeping car in preparation for our arrival into Warsawa Gdanska.


On arrival into Warsaw, at least twenty family and friends would be waiting on the platform to greet us. Cousins visiting from the West was a big thing in those days, especially when it was only every two years. As I was being smothered in kisses from aunts and grandparents and cousins, I would be looking back at the sleeping car, and wishing I could carry on to Moscow with it, and experience the bogie changing process I had heard about. We would be herded down the platform, all my relatives loud and excitable, and cram into several ancient cars including my uncle’s Warsawa (google that make of car to see one), plus all our suitcases, and go off to my aunt’s flat in Warsaw, all twenty piled into her small flat. The evening would be spent eating and drinking and dishing out the presents to my grateful cousins. It was truly xmas come early for them when the English cousins arrived from the West.


We would spend about three weeks in Warsaw and other places in Poland before the return journey. Just as much came back with us in our suitcases as went. It was mostly Polish crystal carefully wrapped, articles of clothing like soft pig skin gloves, and furs which were cheaply available and could be sold on in London for a nice premium. For me it was model trains. East German model trains were cheaply available and very high quality. As I write this, there is a model train on my son’s window sill comprising Mitropa sleeping cars, DR and CsD (Czech Republic) green seating coaches. Unfortunately, my son does not show an interest in trains (who can blame him being brought up with efficient but boring Dutch trains), so the model train is more for my amusement.


I won’t bore you with the details of the return journey. Suffice to say just as many relatives came to see us off again, and more Benson & Hedges Gold were used during border checks to avoid the unnecessary opening of suitcases. However, at Berlin Ost, the checks were much more intense. In addition to document checks, soldiers were going through the train lifting every seat or sleeping berth, searching all cupboards, searching the locomotive, and running barking dogs under the train and using mirrors. As we went into West Berlin, DDR soldiers were still on board and leaning out of doorways and windows as the train made its slow progress into the West.


When we finally reached the Hoek of Holland, our Dutch vessel for the crossing back to Harwich PQ was usually the Koningen Juliana I believe. If the North sea was being kind, I always enjoyed a creamy dessert in the cafeteria called Mona Tujhe, a pot of which is in my fridge right this minute.

Apologies again for this long post.


So, to answer the OP. Was it a mundane event to travel behind the Iron Curtain? I personally would say it was far from mundane. There were enough characters to fill a spy movie twice over, there was always apprehension if your travel documents were in order or if you would be pulled off the train at any time as my mum found out at Helmstedt. There was also apprehension if your belongings would be confiscated by customs, negated by a few bribes here and there. The train itself could be delayed by hours. And for my late dad himself, there was a bit of apprehension. He initially settled in the UK after the war as part of the Poles in Exile, and although he was travelling under the relative protection of a full UK passport, there was always that underlying fear that something could happen and he might not be allowed to cross back to the West. So yes, far from mundane.


Thanks for reading
I was completely lost in the world you portrayed @citycat, thanks for taking the time to share it.
 

ChiefPlanner

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Joined
6 Sep 2011
Messages
6,113
Location
Herts
Well done @citycat - and I particularly appreciated your mention of the long missed "Laurence Corner" shop in the back streets of Euston - a great place where all sorts of things could be perused.

Post of the year I reckon.
 

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