Germany has an excellent rail transport network, particularly in comparison with Amtrak, which has seen fit to give itself the self-esteem-boosting slogan: "Most improved public transport service in America." "Most improved" is, of course, the award you give at the end of the teeball season to the kid whose outfielding skills development was hampered by his constant attempts to eat the ball. The Deutsche Bahn, on the other hand, is highly efficient and generally quite comfortable. Among the many amenities it offers its customers is the Schönes-Wochenende-Ticket, also known as the "35-Mark-Ticket." This ticket allows travel throughout the entire country during a 24-hour period during the week-end for a price of 28 euros.

The idea of a ticket that would allow one to travel an unlimited distance over a given period of time for very little money had a definite appeal to me the first time I lived in Germany, as an exchange student, in 1996-97. So, when the winter holidays came, and I was invited to visit a friend of mine in Berlin, I immediately decided to buy myself a 35-Mark-Ticket. I looked forward to a comfortable, climate-controlled eastward journey, perhaps even in the ICE (Intercity Express) trains I'd heard so much about.

That was not to be. There is one catch to the 35-Mark-Ticket: you have to use regional commuter trains (Regionalverkehr). There was a lot I didn't know about the Regionalverkehr.

And, thus, I walked up to the ticket machine in the Hauptbahnhof München, and inserted my DM 35. Having decided to embark on this journey, I steeled my resolve and planted myself in the queue at the information centre. After making my way to the window, I asked the rather substantial woman on the other side for the best Regionalverkehr connections to Berlin.

After she stopped laughing and realised I was serious, she printed out the connections with a facial expression that was practically a disclaimer in itself. After I got out of the information centre, I saw why:
(times based on memory)
FROM                        TIME                        TO                        TIME
München Hbf                 14:05                      Nürnberg Hbf              17.13   
Nürnberg Hbf                17:37                      Hof Hbf                   20:15
Hof Hbf                     20:20                      Plauen (Vogtland) ob Bf   21:00
Plauen (Vogtland) ob Bf     22:00                      Lichtentanne              22:30
Lichtentanne                23:15                      Leipzig Hbf               0:00
Leipzig Hbf                 4:30                       Dessau Hbf                5:50
Dessau Hbf                  6:30                       Berlin-Charlottenburg     8:00

This was going to be quite a trip. I'd been on the road since 8 that morning making my way back up to Germany from Fieberbrunn, Austria. Now, I was about to spend another 18 hours on trains in east German towns I'd never heard of. This was a lot more than I'd bargained for. But I really didn't have anything better to do. I'd set out to go to Berlin, and I wasn't turning back now. Knowing I wasn't going to have anything decent to eat for a while, I ran down to the Pizza Hut a block away from the Munich station, and ate as much as I could. Then I called up my friend in Berlin to let him know my ETA.

"Damn," he replied.

Hour 8

Once I'd lugged my two suitcases, brimming shoulderbag, and gravitationally-challenged backpack onto the train for Nuremberg, I settled in. This was going to be something. Nuremberg, however, was familiar territory. At the time, I was living in Erlangen, and since there's not terribly much to do there, I had been to the Nuremberg station many times. This still felt like a routine trip.

Hour 11

I didn't start to venture into unfamiliar territory until I began moving east of Nuremberg. I'd never really been further east than Nuremberg. When the announcement came over the loudspeakers: "Nächster Halt: Hof," I started to brace myself. I only had a 5 minute window to make my connection. I'd never been to Hof (or even heard of it before, for that matter), and had no idea how the railway station there was laid out. Upon my arrival, I saw that the ante on my worst-case scenario had been substantially upped. I'd assumed that my train might already be waiting, or that I might have to change tracks. In fact, my train was already waiting and it was waiting for me on the opposite side of the station. Somehow, I managed to get to the train for Plauen on time, narrowly avoiding a heart attack.

This was getting exciting. I was about to see the ex-DDR! Unfortunately, I wasn't terribly sure where the ex-DDR began. I correctly surmised, upon arriving in Plauen, that it began someplace between Hof and Plauen. I could tell just by looking at the buildings, which had that special brand of ugliness that is the exclusive property of 1960s institutional architecture. It looked like some small towns in the West, but somehow crappier.

Hour 14

After freezing on the platform at Plauen, I made my way to the next obscure location: Lichtentanne. You won't find Lichtentanne on most maps, and few people even in East Germany have heard of it. There's little reason they would have, as there doesn't seem to be much reason to go there. I was the only one to get off at the small, isolated shack that is the Lichtentanne station. The first thing I felt once I'd made it onto the Lichtentanne platform is total isolation. No sounds, no light, no sign of anything for what seemed like miles. The area surrounding the station was pitch black. I later found a photo of the Lichtentanne station online, and discovered that this was because the station was located in the middle of a dense pine forest. Only a few dim bulbs illuminated the two-track platform. The signs were written in old gothic Fraktur script and signed "Reich Railway Administration." No one had apparently done any repairs or renovations since the war. There was clearly nothing to blunt the freezing cold - the windows had been long since smashed out. I needed to take pictures of this.

Then, I actually heard a sound. It was a train, but not mine. A well-to-do woman and her two teenage daughters trudged onto the platform. They did not share my fascination with the post-apocalyptic scenery.

"Lichtentanne?! What the fuck is Lichtentanne?"

The other girl, equally thrilled, noted: "I'll never complain about Swiss Railways again."

They decided to check out the waiting shack. I followed them.

"Looks like the local youths have had occasion to celebrate," one of the daughters said, pointing at the thick layer of beer bottle shards and broken windowpanes on the floor. I tried to hide my intense amusement at their predicament. Wanting to document this fully, I began taking pictures of the entire interior of the shack.

"Why are you taking pictures of this hellhole?"

"Because no one would believe me if I didn't."

Eventually, the cold won out over the fatigue, and they decided to try to warm up. They did this by way of what looked like a cross between a Cossack dance and the jig of the damned. Whatever it was intended to be, it apparently worked equally well as a train-summoning dance. Finally, our train to Leipzig arrived.

Glad to be someplace that didn't seem like 1935, I settled into the train. I knew from the start that Leipzig was going to be a challenge. I would be getting there at midnight, and staying for over four hours before my next train would arrive.

Hour 16

At midnight, my train arrived in Leipzig. The Leipzig station was built at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. When I arrived there, at midnight in December, 1996, it was under construction, and eerie as hell. In the hall with the tracks and platforms, there was a massive crater, probably about 10 m deep. The building was vast and cavernous, and made entirely of stone. Everything echoed throughout the station.

I looked around a bit, trying to get my bearings and figure out what I was going to do for four and a half hours in a strange city at the middle of the night. I sure as hell didn't want to stay in the station. I couldn't schlep my things around all night, either. My shoulders were killing me, I was tired, and, for all I knew, I might need to make a quick getaway. I walked over to the bank of storage lockers in the corner of the hall, stowed away everything but my backpack, which had my Walkman, some reading materials and money in it.

Significantly unburdened, I walked down the stairs to the entrance hall of the station, echoing with every step. Looking around, I saw a few vending machines, including a rather creepy-looking fortune teller and a business card printing machine, and a large volume of crap and debris on the floor. I stood there in the middle of the hall for a few minutes, still unsure of what to do, and of whether to risk getting lost in the middle of the night. The place seemed utterly deserted.

Almost. I heard a law, moaning sound coming from one of the corridors and completely froze. If a place is going to be deserted, fine. If there are people there, fine. But don't look deserted and not be deserted! . I had no idea what to do, "Moaning in a deserted train station" not having been included in our orientation classes. So I just stood there. The sound came closer, and eventually, and I was soon confronted with a slightly drugged-looking cross between Gothic and glam rock, streaky white Kiss makeup and all. He didn't say anything. Just walked up to me and stared at me.

"'S machst'n?" he asked - What're you doing?

"Gar nichts," I responded - Nothing.

Somehow, this seemed to satisfy him and he went off to pass out someplace. I did not have the opportunity to thank him for making my decision so much easier. Where to spend the next four and a half hours? Elsewhere.

Having made up my mind, I ventured out onto the street. Since there was no heat in the station, I was not shocked by the -20°C temperature (wind chill not included). I arbitrarily picked a direction and started walking. After about ten minutes, I arrived at what looked like the business district. I began to realise how tired I was. When I saw a café/bar just down the street that appeared open, I decided to check it out.

The place was indeed open. I sat down at the bar, and the bartender came up to take my order. "Something that will keep me awake." He returned a few minutes later with a mug of some of the strongest espresso I have ever consumed. I could feel the adenosine molecules being shut off just from inhaling the scent. I gave him five marks and took a sip. The haze lifted. I was starting to feel less like a zombie. As I began to wake up, I started noticing things. It appeared a few of the patrons were looking at me a bit too curiously. I drank up and left before any awkwardness could ensue.

Having taken care, at least temporarily, of the fatigue issue, I trudged on. Up ahead, a few blocks away from me, I saw an illuminated display with a grid on it. A map! That's what I needed. I hurried toward it. When I reached it, I saw that it was an advertisement for an art exhibit. What looked like a map was actually a print of a painting. Not that a map would have been terribly useful, since my destination was "nowhere in particular."

I kept moving.

I saw some more light up ahead, right by the first bagel shop I'd seen since I'd been in Germany. As I approached, the light took the form of arches. It was McDonald's (or MacDoof, as it is commonly known in Germany, meaning McDumbass). Seeing no other option, I went in and ordered some "food." I was not particularly happy to see that the clientèle was mostly composed of shaven-headed youths in bomber jackets. Of course, a trip to the East is never complete without a few Skinhead sightings.

Moving on in my hierarchy of needs, I decided to make a visit to the lavatory. Much to my dismay, when I tried to turn the knob, the door was locked. There are few things in life that I hate more than having a the door locked in a public lavatory. No one, outside of kindergarten and maybe prison, should be required to ask anyone else for permission to excrete. Inhaling deeply, I decided to handle this as quickly, and quietly, as possible. I walked up to the counter.

"Ähm, dürfte ich mal bitten, mal schnell....die Klotür aufzumachen?", I whispered - might I ask you to open up the lavatory for me? - making eye contact in a way that I hoped was understood to mean "this matter is for your eyes only, and that's only because your damn manager is a sadist." The cashier nodded, slowly turned to the back, and shouted, so that people in Prague could hear:

"Mach die Klotür auf, eine Kundin will pissen!" (Open up the loo, we've got a customer who needs to piss!)

This was accented by the sort of loud buzz commonly heard when unlocking maximum-security prisons and other similar locations. Once the matter was resolved, I decided to seek out greener pastures. However, I also realised that I should try to stay as close to the station as possible. It was proably getting late, and I didn't want to miss my train out of here.

Hour 17.5

After stopping to phone home, I found myself back at the station. There really wasn't that much to do in Leipzig in the middle of the night. I stood around in the front hall for a few minutes, and decided to go back to the tracks. There, I saw a guy who seemed to be about my age - and did not appear to be doing an impression of Gene Simmons on Haldol - standing around smoking. He approached me.

"Pretty fucking cold, huh?" was his greeting.

We began talking. He allowed me to put my hands by his cigarette so that I could warm up a bit. It turned out that we were both waiting for the same train. A little conversation did us both a world of good, and detracted from the combination of eerie and weird that surrounded us. As we paced around the station talking and trying to keep warm, we continued our conversation. As we were enjoying ourselves in a hallway, we heard some footsteps. A massive, unkempt woman with an unsettling look in her eyes saw us standing there and stopped. In her nearly incomprehensible Saxon brogue, she began raving:

"Hey!" We looked up.

"Hey! Wieso bedroohste sie?! Weg hier!" ("Hey! Why're you threat'nin' her?! Go away!") She was talking to my companion. He and I exchanged a glance. This woman was not right.

He protested - "Ich bedrohe niemanden. Lassen's uns in Ruhe!" ("I'm not threatening anyone. Leave us alone!").

She turned to me. Ugh. "Bedroht er disch? Hör oof sie zu bedrohn!" ("'S 'e threat'nin' you? Stop threatn'in her!")

We both tried, calmly as possible, to explain that no one was threatening anyone and that her assistance was not needed. She pondered this.

"Wenn de sie nicht bedrohst, wieso zittat se so? Eh?" (If yer not threat'nin' her, why's she shakin' like that?") She took me by the arm.

This was too much. Through my chattering teeth, I hissed "Ich zittere, weil's hier arschkalt ist! Wir haben 20 Grad Minus, verdammt nochmal. Belästigen Sie doch jemand andern!" (I am shaking because it is fucking cold here. It's 20 below, dammit. Go annoy someone else!")

Finally, this convinced her. Once she was safely out of earshot, my new friend couldn't help laughing a bit. Indeed, the situation was quite amusing, now that it was over. Apparently, this wasn't the first time something like this had happened to him. His crew cut made people mistake him for a Nazi. We saw that our train was sitting in the tracks. It was still much to early to go into the car. Departure was still a couple of hours away. We sat, talking, on the bench by our train for the next few hours.

Hour 20.75

At 3:45, we decided we'd waited long enough. He tried opening the door to the train car, and it opened. We went in and sat down, enjoying the residual heat. This was more like it. We were soon joined by two girls who were apparently together. We struck up a conversation as we waited for the train to Dessau to start. We stayed together once we arrived in Dessau, where things were already beginning to move and the city was slowly awakening. No coffee to be found, however. Together, we finally boarded the train for the last leg of the trip, on our way to Berlin.

Hour 24

Berlin-Charlottenburg. As I said my good-byes to the people I'd spent the last seven hours with, I unloaded my things from the train onto the platform. Only as the train moved on did I realise that I'd never gotten any of their names. I was in Berlin now, and fatigue had caught up with me. I called up my friend to tell him I'd arrived and to get directions to his place. I then proceeded back up to the platform
On the platform, I bought myself a ticket and tried to get it stamped in the machine. For some reason, it wasn't working.

"The ticket stamper's over there," came the voice of a somewhat annoyed security guard. I had been trying to get my ticket validated by the PA system microphone.

I had arrived.

Some things have changed since I made this trip. For one thing, the price of the 35-Mark-Ticket has risen substantially, and would now be more aptly called a "56-Mark-Ticket" if anyone still paid for anything with marks. Moreover, in 1996, when the events described above took place, the 35-Mark-Ticket was good for the entire weekend. Now, it is only valid for until 3:00 a.m. on the day of purchase. For those on a budget or who simply value an interesting voyage over comfort, I still strongly recommend the 28-Euro-Ticket.

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