East Berlin was controlled by the Russians until 1989. It no longer exists. I spent some time there many years ago, on my way to Asia. This is how I described it in my first travel book, 9 Months in Tibet.
Berlin back then was entirely surrounded by a high security wall and guarded round the clock by dogs, landmines and thousands of heavily armed soldiers. The whole thing was a bizarre hangover from the Second World War. In 1945 Germany had been occupied by the allied powers and in the areas controlled by America, Britain and France free elections were allowed – and that part became known as West Germany, or the Federal Republic. The Russian army controlled the eastern part of the country – East Germany, officially known as the Democratic Republic of Germany – where Russian-style elections took place and Communism was imposed.
As it was located deep within the Russian zone, one would have thought that Berlin should have become a Communist-controlled city like Dresden or Leipzig. For some reason that I never really understood, Berlin was divided up between the allied powers and this resulted in the western part of Berlin becoming an island of Capitalism in a sea of Communism. The status of West Berlin was backed up by American military muscle, and their nuclear arsenal. By the time I got there the political situation was relatively settled and the city functioned well. It was connected to West Germany by an airport and a fenced-off motorway that was so heavily guarded that you couldn’t stop anywhere without East German troops appearing.
My impression of West Berlin was that it was populated by artists, gays and drifters. If you wanted to avoid the military draft in West Germany you moved to Berlin where that particular law didn’t apply. The West German government was worried about the city becoming depopulated so it offered incentives like this so people would go and live there. We stayed with a Scottish artist called Fiona, a friend of my skateboarding brother Moona. We visited art galleries which I got bored of pretty fast. I was more interested in the nightlife, which started after midnight and went on until nine in the morning. I had never seen anything like it. In Britain the pubs all closed at 11pm, thanks to a law from the First World War that was designed to keep the workforce sober, but in West Berlin there was no such thing as closing time. And the pubs weren’t the smoky, crowded, noisy pits I was used to – they were more like art galleries with smoked-glass tables and great music. They served beer in large, elegant brandy glasses.
My friend Christian was gone after a few days and I was left on my own, feeling a bit disorientated and not quite sure how to start my epic journey round the world. Fiona lived alone in a big flat and said I could stay as long as I wanted.
The most interesting part of the city was East Berlin, the Communist controlled sector, where the architecture was verging on the grotesque. Getting there was exciting. You had to pass through what was probably the most famous border crossing in the world: Checkpoint Charlie. On the western side there were no passport controls at all, just relaxed American soldiers. On the eastern side there were scores of armed military officials who checked passports, searched bags and took the whole thing very seriously. Anyone caught trying to escape from the Communist part would be hunted down by dogs, blown up by landmines or shot. There was an exhibition at Checkpoint Charlie documenting some of the more dramatic escape attempts. People used to dig tunnels, hide in cars and risk their lives to escape the restrictions of East Germany.
One evening on the Eastern side I passed a pub – a thin room, full of smoke, packed with people and roaring with voices – and it reminded me of pubs in Scotland. So different from the smart but staid pubs in West Berlin. The only thing I missed about Scotland was the pubs. To me they represent community.
Berlin has a big underground railway system, the Metro, which was built before the city was divided up by the Allied Powers. An agreement had been made at some point whereby the western side controlled the metro system and the Communist side blocked access to it for their citizens. I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time but I was stunned when the train didn’t stop at an underground station that seemed to be lit with just one fluorescent strip and looked like it hadn’t been swept in years. I saw soldiers in stylish grey jackets which reached down to their hips, thick belts round their waists and high black boots. They each carried a short machine gun on a strap round their shoulders and stood menacingly on the platform with their legs apart, looking at our carriage intently. The Metro had been a popular escape route – people would hang onto the bottom of trains so that they could find freedom in the west.
One of the main reasons I spent so much time in Berlin was to get visas for all the countries I planned to go through: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, not to mention Iran, Pakistan, India and China. I had started this process over the previous few months – visiting spooky embassies in London. The Romanian Embassy was in a huge Victorian villa and looked like something out of a Dracula movie. Getting visas is a time consuming process but the one thing I didn’t have in the UK was time, as I was so busy making money driving a truck. I suspect that if my friend Christian hadn’t insisted I come to Berlin I might never have left. Berlin proved to be a useful staging post where I could prepare for the next leg of my journey. I didn’t need to think about a Chinese visa until I got to Hong Kong — if I ever got there; it still seemed so impossibly far away and the money I had brought with me no longer seemed like such a vast hoard.
The first challenge was to get a visa for the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country that stood right in the middle of my planned hitchhiking route. Iran had been taken over by Islamic Fundamentalists in 1979 and they didn’t have a very good impression of us Brits. Our colonial history there is a shameful one and I wasn’t sure they would give me a visa at all. But I had to try. Several weeks later I stood in the snow outside the Iranian Embassy, clutching my passport with a fresh visa in it. It was time to move on.
Just before leaving Berlin I had an attack of fear and paranoia. It happened late one night in Fiona’s flat, which was large and empty. Fiona was out, as she was most nights. The rooms were cold and dark and the street lights were casting strange shadows. I was smoking a joint on my own and contemplating the future. I had smoked a lot of pot over the last few years and I believed it had made me more aware, but I knew it had also made me lazy and disconnected from university.
I started to feel paranoid. The more I smoked the more scared I became – a horrible, crawling feeling in my stomach and on my skin. The Iranian visa was the spark: around the visa stamp was a lot of Arabic writing and I became convinced that this was my death sentence which said This is a British spy! Arrest him immediately! I imagined being hauled off to a crowded dungeon, put in chains, starved, screamed at, flogged in public, tortured and eventually decapitated.
The Iranian fear was avoidable as I had a choice: I didn’t have to go there. I could fly over Iran. No sooner had I decided to do just that the next shock came marching in: I was trapped in this city and it was surrounded by the Red Army. What if the Russians decided that I was not allowed to leave? Maybe they had talked to the Iranians? Surely they would lock me up and throw away the key?
Fortunately, I managed to sleep and by morning my living nightmare was just a memory. Something good came out of this episode: I gave up smoking cannabis. I realised that if I was going to hitchhike across Europe and Asia it wasn’t in my best interest to use a drug that could make me feel so scared. It wasn’t until that morning in Berlin in 1986 that I realised the importance of giving up dope. I tried some many years later, in the basement flat of a doctor friend in London, but the demons of paranoia came on strong and I realised that I must give up this shit for good.
It was time to hit the road but I was running out of cash. I had spent too much time in this damned city. Even though I was living frugally and wasn’t paying rent, the cash was dripping through my fingers as if it were sand. What could I do? How could I earn some money? The last thing I wanted to do was call home and say Mummy! Please help! I’ve run out of money. It would have been so humiliating. I didn’t know enough German to be able to get a job in Berlin and I wanted out of this town. It was becoming suffocating. I looked at the map and considered my options: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary; not much chance of getting a job in those parts. The only modern capitalist city on my route was Vienna: Hmm…I wonder…Could I get a job there?
Now that I was finally away from home I had so many questions. Why was I planning to travel by train? Wasn’t I supposed to be hitching? Why was I planning a route through South-East Europe? Wasn’t that a long and complicated way to get to China? How much would all the visas cost? What about exchange rate losses? Why not get the train to Moscow? I could get the legendary Trans-Siberian Express, stop off in Mongolia, and then arrive in Beijing dusty and experienced in the ways of the traveller. I didn’t have a neat answer to my choice of route but I did want to see as many of those strange East European countries as possible.
If I didn’t make some money soon there was no way I would get anywhere near China. I had underestimated how much things cost. I was down to $200 and I needed to build up my stash to over $2,000 before proceeding eastwards. This became my formula: when the cash dropped below $200 I had to get a job; when more than $2,000 was saved – hit the road. Would I be able to get a job in Vienna?
German words are so long, the language seemed impossible and I doubted I could ever learn it. I was also studying Mandarin Chinese with the aid of a book from the 1930s and I remember thinking: Chinese is easier to learn than German – it’s just a series of monosyllables; whereas German words are really long and almost impossible to remember.
Germany has one of the best railway systems in Europe but the trains it deployed for going east, into the Communist world, were old and run-down. My impression of the Communist Bloc, a vast stretch of the northern hemisphere, was that all the nations were the same. They were all toiling under Moscow’s rule, uniformity in all things was the order of the day; they wore the same clothes, drove the same cars, did the same things, learned the same Communist-inspired history and took their orders from Russia. If you had asked me: Why on Earth would you visit such a boring place? I would have told you that I wanted to see for myself how dreadful it really was and if this impression of uniformity was really true.
This is an extract from my first travel book 9 Months in Tibet. You can get the eBook here: 9 Months in Tibet eBook: Wolfe-Murray, Rupert, McCall Smith, Alexander: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store