The Spring that Never Came: Oberlausitz Cycling

What is it like to cycle in parts one has ridden before? Do you cover the same tracks, especially those that delighted you before? Or do you set out on new paths, the ones that beckoned earlier but which you reluctantly left alone, to return to later? At a fork in the road, do you opt for the same turn as last time, or do you take the road that you have not travelled before? Occasionally I do the former, but more often than not the latter.

Our rides took place in the Oberlausitz region of Saxony, in that eastern corner known as Drielandereck, a region shared by Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. It was supposed to be early spring, in March and early April. But after a vague promise of a few days in early March, the snow kept coming down for another month. That did not stop me searching and hoping for spring. Nor did it deter me from riding.

Day One: Mobile Sauna in the Ice (March 2013)

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‘There’s a taxi’, she says with a longing look.

‘How about we see what the road is like on the edge of town’, I say without guile. ‘If it’s too icy, we’ll grab a taxi near the shops there’.

‘All right’, she says, unconvinced.

It had been snowing for a week, with the fields and hills and forests covered in white, and the roads a mix of salted slush and crisp, slippery ice. We of course had decided to bring our bicycles, to ride from the last railway station – Löbau – to our base for the next month and half, Herrnhut. Laden with food, winter clothes and books, the bicycles were not going to speed along.

A few slippery cobbles and snow flurries later we arrive at the edge of town.

‘I’m on my way now’, she says. ‘And I don’t want to stop’.

I smile and push on.

The catch with riding in sub-zero temperatures is not the cold but the sweat. At some point, usually on a climb, warm clothes become the equivalent of a personal sweat bath or sauna.

Up we ride through the wald, a climb to the Herrnhut ridge, and then a turn to the back road that twists in to Strahwalde. Single lane, winding in and out of fields and the village cores, we have it to ourselves. It’s these village cores that always intrigue me, for their arrangement speaks of a vastly different sense of space from a very different time: the houses, usually two-story (lower for animals) and with local patterns and styles, string out along the necessary creek – for drinking, washing, refuse. They not face the street in the series pattern of suburbs, but are jumbled about, at odd angles and perspectives. The walls too are never quite square, describing ellipses, odd corners bends and twists. And the road between them twists and turns, often turning a corner that is the corner of a house, running through an alley that is the narrow space between two houses.

Day Two: Streugut and the Snow Drifts (March 2013)

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A hint, a tease, an invitation even. A couple of days of slightly warmer weather invite the birds from further south and out of their holes. We too are seduced. The temperature may be hovering around zero, and the snow may be hanging around to see if there is any more fun, but we cannot wait. So we are off, getting used once again to the ageing bicycles that we have kept in Germany now for a year and a half. Soon enough, she realises that the crunching noise in her bike’s drive mechanism is still there, although the gears no longer slip (after some emergency adjustments). And I figure out that the seat on my machine seems to have slipped down and that the rear brake is a little too loose for comfort. Yet, even with its ageing and rattling parts, the bike is still a well-made piece of equipment into which I will settle quickly.

With snow still on the ground, we quickly learn two lessons. First, we need to choose roads that have been cleared. So we avoid the farm tracks and forest paths, since they are still iced over. Instead, we opt for more substantial roads and their obligatory traffic. Or so we think. After Ruppersdorf, the back roads around Nineve and the run up to Niedercunnersdorf, we turn into a peaceful road. Ah, how quiet it is at last, I think to myself … only to come to an abrupt halt. The ditch, almost a chasm, of a new road cuts our track at right angles. Suddenly there is mud, slush and snow drifts aplenty. We have a choice: retrace our route and take a long loop around, or take on the vast canyon before us. We opt for the latter, hauling our bikes down into the chasm, wading through waist-high drifts and getting the bikes covered in mud. Free at last … except that now the road on the other side in uncleared and snowbound. At least we can ride, although our tyres leave wobbly lines in the snow.

Second, Streugut is not necessarily good for tyres. This mix of fine gravel and occasional salt is left in containers along roadsides, in building entrances, on corners, and so on. Its purpose is to give one grip in icy conditions. But ‘grip’ means sharp objects. And sharp objects, much like mini flint axes, can catch on one’s tyres and slowly work their way in. In particular, tubes do not like sharp objects. Car tyres may manage such flint axes, but not the slim affairs on most bicycles. We carefully scan our tyres for the tell-tale back sliver that is gleefully working its way deep inside.

To no avail, as we soon find out. Until now, the day has been sunny. A little cool, but manageable. But now a snow storm hits, a serious one. Snow pellets sting our cheeks and eyes, forcing us to close our eyelids to slits. Snow cakes our clothes, and not all of them are completely waterproof. I laugh out loud at our sheer foolishness, loving every minute of it … until the flat.

We turn a corner, away from the driving snow, only for me to feel a sluggish response in my front wheel. A few metres later the flat becomes obvious. With snow beating down, I have no choice but to change the tube – with our only shelter, slight though it is, being the forest on the side of the road. Wheel off; tyre released; tube out; check for location of puncture; careful examination with bare hands to find that sharp piece of struegut that has caused the flat. Half way around the tyre my thumbs become numb, as do my little fingers. Nothing for it but to continue, through the complete reassembly, until I notice the front bearings have loosened. As I tighten them, she utters a groan. She has almost frozen solid, shaking uncontrollably. Eventually we manage to mount our steeds and make our way to our lodgings for the night. The thaw is slow and painful, but the warmth inside is unbearably pleasurable.

Day Three: Bladders, Cobbles and the Emperor Napoleon (March 2013)

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The snow keeps falling. Having decided that the only way spring will come is if we will it to be so, we are out in the snow once again. Our sheer presence and will power, ploughing through drifts and skidding on icy, crusty surfaces should do the trick … or so we believe. This time it is the Löbau circuit: a swing in north-western direction along less frequented byways, skirting the mountain at Löbau itself, with its ancient fortress, and then south with an easterly bend, along villages strung out on an all-important stream.

Byways are wonderful cycle routes, with cars preferring the wider thoroughfares. But that is only the case if ‘wonderful’ includes plunging drops and granny-gear climbs, if it includes the practice of leaving snow to its own devices, to drift into hollows, to melt when it feels like it, and to hang around as long as possible. If one is lucky enough to have had a car or a truck pass through beforehand, then there may be a tyre line through the snow.

This time we are prepared, even to carry our steeds if needed over particularly icy stretches. After the first few kilometres, the road turns north and drops straight off the ridge to Herwigsdorf. Fingers and toes begin to stiffen as our body decides they should really keep our vital organs functioning in the face of imminent hypothermia. Until the climb: now the extra demand on our lungs and heart send blood coursing to our extremities, slowly warming them once again.

By the time we are in the outskirts of Löbau, the special blessing of a chill ride is upon me. My bladder always feels the need to remove extra fluids from my body in a way that can only lead to extreme dehydration. Either that or the water I keep sucking down needs to go somewhere. I have become rather adept at pissing anywhere and everywhere. My motto is one that I have drawn from Georg Lukács, when he was a communist agitator in Hungary: if you need to do something illegal, make it brief. An elaborate and strung-out affair multiplies exponentially the chances of being spotted. So also with a roadside piss, even in the most built-up areas: do it fast; do it hard; move on.

Apparently, Napoleon attempted the same thing when he tried to invade Russia. Retreating, I mean, not pissing, although he may well have been pissing as well. But he got caught, largely because taking an army over such a vast distance can hardly be done fast and hard. Napoleon? What has he got to do with this ride? The mountain of Löbau was a spot where he chose to make a stand – a century or two before we are passing through – with his fleeing, freezing and hungry army, to fight off the Polish and Russian troops harrying his tail. To no avail, it seems, he was handsomely beaten and had to retreat yet again.

Back to our ride: we know that somewhere ahead is gentle decline out of Löbau, following the stream through the villages for a good stretch. The catch is that we need to cross a wide field or two to get there. And in these conditions a wide field means much snow. Fortunately, it is not so deep, so we crunch and skid for the next few kilometres, having to walk only a few hundred metres. Nonetheless, ice has a curious knack of gathering in one’s brake pads and then squealing incessantly for an eternity afterwards. It does not like dropping off, except with a solid pounding or two.

At last we find my longed-for creek and rattle our way down through Großschweidnitz and Niedercunnersdorf to Obercunnersdorf and many in between – villages strung out next to one another mean cobbles as far as the eye can see. The early houses in Großschweidnitz are ostentatious affairs, pretending to be village houses but speaking of old wealth and long years of exploiting hapless peasants. Lower down the stream the houses become modest, smaller and more appealing, away from the obnoxiously rich and powerful of the world.

By now, thoroughly loosened up by the basalt boulders they call cobbles in these parts, completely emptied of moisture after a dozen or more leaks on the way, and with all parts of the bike encased in solid blocks of ice, we realise that the end of the ride is nigh. We also realise that spring and we will need to muster up some stronger forces than mere will power.

Day Four: Lonely Roads and Bare Trees (March 2013)

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The wind in my face tells me two things: a white Easter is on its way and the Siberian wind of the last few days is easing. Given the circumstances, we need no further invitation. We are keen for open road, lined by stark and bare trees reaching their fingers to the sky. It is almost impossible to put in words the physical sensation of riding along a single lane road across an open hill – a road seemingly made for us on this day and purely for this purpose.

Our route takes us on a northerly loop, seeking to fill in the Oberlausitz map: north-east to Berstandt, north to Kemnitz, west in a zigzag to Herwigdorf, and then south-east, back to our lodgings. Initially, we must ride on busier thoroughfares. Despite the ice tight by the roadside, German traffic in these parts behaves admirably well, giving us a wide berth where possible. I guess it’s because nearly everyone is a cyclist as well (in fairer weather), so they have some sense of what it is like to be peddling on the side of a road, with trucks and buses and cars whizzing by. After the left turn in Bernstadt, we climb steadily to Kemnitz, working up a sweat in our winter gear and removing a few layers. Of course, our ears freeze in the wind as the rest of my body cools.

Now the best part of the ride begins, for we turn onto that magical single-lane road, here today for us but perhaps already gone tomorrow, relocated to another place. I imagine such roads appearing for a day or so, linking villages in a new way, moving aside trees and rocks, only to close up the space and reappear elsewhere – hopefully when we are riding through. On that road the traffic does not come and we have the road to ourselves, even if today that involves the wind in one’s face and ice crunching beneath one’s tyres. But at least now we are somewhat experienced with the encrusted ice beneath the latest layer of snow. Nonetheless, we linger long on these roads, for their pleasure sets my memory tracks running, recalling the same bodily feel of what may well be one of the best pieces of cycling road in the world.

Again we are taken by the forest-topped hills, by the sweeps of fields cleared from the twelfth century onwards, by the villages nestled in folds beside a creek. Again we can locate ourselves easily – that’s Neuberthelsdorf on the hillside there, that’s Grosshennersdorf’s church there, that’s the long rise of the Spreequelle there. And we enjoy riding through the twisting streets of villages and towns, dodging the corners of houses that just out into the street, or rather around which the road must turn.

We skirt the edge of a large forest on the Wolfsberg, pass by a farmhouse with a Trabant and one of those glorious DDR garage (simple, functional and built to last), and then drop from the heights into Herwigsdorf. Too soon do we find ourselves on the final run, winding through the back lanes of Strahwalde before a stop for some of the ridiculously cheap German beer to slake our riding thirst.

Day Five: Eternal Winter in the Zittauer Gebirge (March 2013)

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The hills of the Zittauer Gebirge beckon – another part of eastern Europe that continues to fascinate me. With the Gebirge, the border between Germany and the Czech Republic reveals its sheer artificiality, for the mountains are a region to themselves, ignoring an imaginary line that human beings may have constructed.

We set off south, lulled into a false sense of security with the tail wind from the north-east. The drop from the heights – via Nineve and the mill at Birkmühle – helps too, so we barely feel the ride. We carve our way through villages, along country roads, around the back streets of towns. Our legs are light, the bikes fly, the ride is effortless … until the first snowflake.

It comes at a crucial moment. Thus far, our ride has seen us glide by familiar places – Ninive, the old mill of Birkmülle on the way down to Oderwitz. But as we turn right, to push our way to Eibau and its brewery, that snowflake drifts down and landed on my wrist. I look up: the sun which has shared our ride thus far is gone, retreating behind the opaque, off-white sheet of snow clouds. I prefer not to notice, for we need to negotiate some back streets and then farm tracks. More snowflakes fall, attempting to get me to face reality. Ah no, I reply to the snow god, there is no wind, so you are not serious.

Little do we realise that the river valley with its houses is sheltering us from a wonderfully biting wind. So it is as we cross the Czech border. The multitude of German signs gives way to the occasional battered yellow bicycle arrows of the Czech Republic. We relish the scruffiness of Varnsdorf, a welcome relief from the apparent orderliness of Germany – apparent, for it desperately seeks to control what it cannot control. Of course, the Czech arrows bear little relation to the German map we carry. At the first corner or two we debate endlessly about which is best, or indeed correct. We opt for the wisdom of the Czech signs and are not disappointed. They lead us unerringly through the quieter streets and then country roads, bringing us precisely to the point where the imaginary line of the border brings us back to the German side. It seems as though the bicycle maps produced in Germany – like the one we are using – make vague gestures as to routes outside that country, with little concern for actual routes and distances. Do they thereby suggest that, in their opinion, all outside Germany is chaos, while simultaneously exhibiting a lack of interest in anything outside its borders? Both, I suspect.

Now it is time to climb, into the Zittauer Gebirge proper. Up and up and up we grind, the very effort ensuring that our hearts are pumping and our circulation is good. Waltersdorf at last, with its twisting mountainside streets, churches clinging to cliff faces, and obnoxious holiday houses and hotels for the well-heeled German burgers from distant parts.

With relief we turn homeward … and are smacked in the face by the wind. It is blowing directly from the north, precisely the direction we need to ride home. A drop from the mountains is usually a time for catching breath, enjoying the silver spin of the front wheel, and occasionally touching the brakes. Now it enhances the effect of the wind, chilling fingers and toes, hands and feet, arms and legs.

This is merely the initial cool down. Valleys – like the one along which we need to ride – are wonderful devices for channelling and accelerating any wind that may be about. Given that winds like this one also have the intriguing effect of producing significant wind-chill, we soon become icicles in motion. Each push of the pedals is an effort. Each bend in the road brings another gust of wind. We beat our hands on our sides, stomp our feet on the pedals – all to no avail.

I look across during one particularly gruesome stretch, laugh out loud to my snow-encrusted companion, and shout, ‘Fantastic! It doesn’t get much better than this’. Here we are, in the midst of a driving snow-storm, ice pellets cutting into our faces, the glorious single-lane road that we have to ourselves a treacherous and slippery ribbon between snow-covered fields.

She can’t help smiling, cracking off some of the ice on her face.

On the last climb into Herrnhut, we opt to walk up the slippery ice of the hill, Langsamer Tod. Instead of a slow death, the effect of walking is to bring circulation, slowly and painfully, into our numbed legs and feet.

Today, I do not begrudge the hot shower at the end of the ride one little bit.

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In the Wald: Oberlausitzer Walking

Rolling hills, forests and fields interlaced with one another, ancient paths that criss-cross the countryside and a simple assumption that one does in fact walk. We are – by happenstance – in the far east of Germany, based in the village of Herrnhut in the region of Oberlausitz (Saxony). Full of curiosity (and not a little longing) about the former East Germany, we succumb to the temptation and walk everywhere – a simple backpack on our shoulders, and nothing more to ponder than food, lodgings and place to put tired feet.

Walk

Soon enough, as feet and shoes have become accustomed to one another’s intimate presence in a new way, we long for a decent expedition. Our walk takes us south-west of our village, across farmland to a large Wald (forest), from where we turn in an easterly direction through the villages of Nineveh (!) and Ruppersdorf until we hit another forest. Eventually we wind our way back to the north-west to Herrnhut. Open fields, forests, villages, all in all about 20 kilometres.

We might have warmed to the countryside in our hearts, but colder weather had returned, with bitter, biting winds from the southeast. So we strike out into the teeth of the wind, across open fields that had dared to show the first sprouts of spring a week or so before. Would they draw their weather hoods tighter, don windbreakers, grit their teeth and bear it out, or would they wither before warmer winds returned? As for us, we bend into the wind, wipe noses, look longingly to the shelter of the forest ahead, wonder what in hell possessed us to head out today and what it was about hiking that has attracted us in the first place ….

After what seems like an infernally endless trudge, the trees begin to throw their shadows over us and break up the wind. At the forest edge, we pause for the obligatory piss, snack and drink. And I look out over a land of rolling hills that has begun feel very familiar indeed. There to the south is the higher hill with the Spreequelle I had explored earlier. There is the wind park by Bernstadt. There is Zittau in the distance. There is the sheltered hollow of Berthelsdorf. There is the fold between two hills where Herrnhut lays – our temporary home.

Forest

Pondering the scenery while stationary does not make the kilometres roll by, so we get the legs moving once again, sinking into the forest. Now the wind rustles the leaves and pine needles above us, occasionally wafting upon us around tree trunks. Once these forests covered the whole land and in its cool shade the tribes lived as forest dwellers, as hunters and gatherers. At a turn of the track after we have climb the low ‘berg’, we can see far afield over an increasingly familiar landscape. I squint my eyes, blurring the view and imagine it all covered with the dense growth of ancient forest. Perhaps a cooking fire threads its smoke into the sky halfway to the horizon, over its flames a deer or wild boar or hare that was more plentiful then – in direct proportion to the sparseness of human beings.

Romantic imagination may be one thing, but the reality is that Europe has arguably the most managed landscape on earth. Given that less than two per cent has not been cultivated in some way, one does not find true wilderness, where human beings have not yet been, that has not been altered in some way by human interaction. And given the German propensity for organising and ordering all dimensions of one’s life, forests themselves are managed very well indeed. Trees are logged selectively in a way that maintains the forest’s integrity. Signs appear well before you might get lost. All cycling and walking trails are marked simply and easily – a small white square with a red, green, yellow or what have you colour depending on the trail. Of course, you can take other tracks if you wish, but inevitably these have some sort of insignia.

The paradox is that this entire organisation enables you to relax, be absorbed by the land, enter another world and let your mind tumble. You don’t need to spend hours poring over maps to plot every step of the way. At a deeper level, a subtle easy-going nature among German farmers begins to show itself. Australians might be fabled as an easy-going people (although one needs to be properly suspicious of such cultural stereotypes), but you always find plenty of signs saying ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’. By contrast, here you may walk across a farmer’s field, make your way through some roadwork, walk along someone’s back lane without a worry. Everyone does so, for it is the most normal act in the world. As we do – and much more.

Encounters

But perhaps the greatest thrills are those serendipitous moments, fleeting moments that happen at a singular and unrepeatable conjunction of time and space. ‘Thrill’ is perhaps too strong a word, but they make the walk worthwhile, keep you feeling that the hike is never over, that you have merely taken a break in a much longer venture.

An older woman appears on a turn in the track. Fifty-something, fit and slender – unlike many of the locals – she is out alone in the forest. She strides along at a great pace, and has the sinewy legs and well-worn hiking boots of someone who has been out on the track for many, many kilometres and no doubt has many more to go. Where is she going? I wonder. Walking to see a friend in the next village? Out for a regular weekend hike over familiar and beloved countryside? A constitutional rendezvous with an old lover? Escaping something? A simple love of forests and fields underfoot?

A forester emerges from behind a massive tree trunk, chainsaw in hand, cigarette hanging from a lip. He stops beside a small pile of timber – small since his primary responsibility is to preserve the forest rather than raze it to the ground. A couple sits quietly on the edge of the forest, looking out over the fields. Binoculars in hand, they watch for the riot of life of early spring. Or so it seems. What about lovers, especially now that the sap is rising with spring. I am sure that the quiet corners of forest and field have been the location of more than one tryst, but we meet none – apart from ourselves.

But are there fugitives here too? A man walks furtively from some dense undergrowth to his car. He avoids our gaze, leaps in and drives away. Something to hide? A drug deal? Or perhaps a more sinister venture? No greetings here. Two men pack away sleeping gear into a van. Strictly speaking, you are not supposed to camp here, but who’s to know if you break camp quickly? And in time past, the forest would have provided refuges from wars and famines, hideouts for freedom fighters and revolutionaries, quiet paths for dreamers of a better world.

Yet I do not walk to meet other people – plenty enough of that in the world. Instead, I prefer the glance of sunlight through the trees, throwing a play of light and shadow before me. Or the ice-bordered stream that rushes away in the excited anticipation of spring. Or the dingo pausing on the track ahead. Dingo? Hardly. I look more intently and espy the erect ears of a hare. Through the trees a deer looks my way for a moment, before turning back to its own business. Scratchings on the forest floor suggest wild pigs have been here. Bear? Wolves? Only in the wilder and higher reaches of the mountains in the Czech Republic perhaps, or Italy. But not here. By now I am pondering the fact that these moments merely scrape the surface of field and forest, even in these few hours we are on the walk. Unroll the months, years and centuries and the land has its own history that is wider and probably more fascinating than the human beings who have been wandered about on its surface.

Rhythm

But what is it like to walk such a distance in a day, or really an afternoon? It would hardly be necessary to ask such a question if we still lived in the time before motorised transport, for people would do it as a matter of course. The first quarter of the hike seems to go on forever. If you happen upon a sign that indicates the distance from your base, then you will be disappointed. ‘3.5 km’! I thought we had walked at least ten! The thought that the bulk of the trek is still before can be disheartening. You may well ponder cutting it short and heading back via the comfy looking village below.

Resisting temptation, you trudge on. Now the most enjoyable part of the walk begins, for your legs are in rhythm, your feet feel at home in your beloved boots, the forest is full of subtle delights, the energy from the snack kicks in and before you know it more than three quarters of the hike is completed. But then, when you spy your destination through a fold in the hills, the beacon atop a last climb, you begin to feel the day’s hike in legs, feet and mind. The pack grows heavier, the climbs steeper, the wind colder. Until at last you step over the thick basalt threshold and through the heavy timber door and find one of those heavenly drinks the Germans know how to brew so well. By this time your appetite is so huge you could eat three meals in one – which I do.