Riding the rails of a lost country

Ironically, “Ostalgia” is big business.  Over a quarter of a century since Communist East Germany ceased to exist, nostalgia for it has never been more popular.  It seems that, with almost as much haste as the traces of the former country were wiped away following the fall of the Berlin Wall, people are now scrambling to experience what life was like behind it.

You can drive a Trabant car in convoy around East Berlin on an innovative sightseeing tour, then stay at painstakingly styled themed hotels.  You can purchase clothes, food and all manner of other items of “reborn” Communist brands, recreated by popular demand.  You can have your photo taken at Checkpoint Charlie in front of a replica border hut, with men dressed up as border guards.

Yet all of these experiences are in some way synthetic. This part of the world has experienced so many changes since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, that it is nigh on impossible to recreate “everyday life” in any setting.  After all, this was a country where you could realistically expect your intercity train to be powered by steam right up until the late 1980s.  Today you can flash through the Sachsen-Anhalt countryside on some of the world’s most modern trains at speeds of up to 300 km/h.

Stepping off the modern electrified German commuter railway at Freital-Hainsberg station, though – a mere 12 minutes’ ride from the centre of Dresden – is like stepping back in time.

As the crowded electric trains zip in and out upstairs, an altogether slower pace of life exists at the station’s lower level.  Every two hours or so, every day, a narrow-gauge steam train quietly slips away, often fairly empty – especially out of season.  However, this is no tourist-orientated recreation of days gone by.  This is an operation that has remained largely unchanged since it opened in 1882.

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Awaiting departure from Freital-Hainsberg

The former East Germany retains a number of these tiny steam railways – but most have only survived by switching their focus to catering for tourists; the sound of the steam engines being accompanied by the excited laughter of children and the snapping of the shutters of countless coach tour passengers’ cameras.  Some others use modern diesel trains on some services as a more cost-effective method of operation.  This, the “Weisseritztalbahn”, has largely escaped that, and thus retains that Holy Grail of “Ostalgics” – genuine authenticity.

The railway winds its way for 14 kilometres up the narrow, heavily forested valley into the scenic East Ore Mountains, criss-crossing the river as it goes.  The train makes five intermediate stops along its way – largely wayside shacks at which nobody boards and nobody alights – before skirting the reservoir at Malter and pulling into the station at Dippoldiswalde.  This village, of only 140 inhabitants, is an unlikely terminus, and serves mainly as a popular base for mountain walks.  Indeed, the East German leadership placed a great deal of emphasis on encouraging outdoor leisure activities, and even in the technological age, this is something that many here still like to do.

The railway formerly continued for a further 12 kilometres from Dippoldiswalde to the one-time tourist resort of Kurort Kipsdorf – however this section still awaits reopening after it sustained severe damage during the catastrophic Central European floods of 2002.

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Heading up the valley

The last round trip of the day departs from Freital-Hainsberg at 18:42, and although sacrificing some of the scenery, a trip on it as dusk gathers is very highly recommended indeed.  The virtually empty, atmospherically illuminated train eases its way up the valley, the only sounds being the cacophonic echo of the engine’s roar, the gentle drum beat of the wheels on the rails, and the rushing water of the river.  In that moment, it might not be 2016 at all; this is exactly the experience of everybody who has travelled this route by train before – not just during the years of German division, but indeed back though two world wars and as far as 1882.  Suddenly, you are a world away from the bustling city centre of Dresden, in spite of it being still only a handful of kilometres away.

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Inside the Weisseritztalbahn train

Ultimately, the hordes who hope to experience a slice of life from the time of the Berlin Wall will most likely spend far more than the €15 Weisseritztalbahn fare, for a far less authentic product.  Yet everyday life for most East German citizens was not necessarily the clichés of Stasi persecution and political propaganda.  For a small investment of time and money, here you are offered the sounds, sights and indeed smells of days gone by – and little could be more “East German” than a ride on some authentic public transport, through some idyllic countryside, in order to enjoy some relaxed outdoor pursuits in a tranquil and scenic environment.

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