Wolfsberg Walking: In the Forests of Oberlausitz

Can one find a part of Europe where land is plenty and people are few? This is not the usual image of that western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass. Then go eastward, to regions few think of when ‘Europe’ is mentioned, to Eastern Europe. There you will encounter endless forests, marshland and mountains. To be sure, it is still relative, for farmland always has the next village within eyeshot, and you can be sure that someone, at some time over the last few centuries, has been before you in this spot in the quiet forest. Yet, at a particular moment, you can be entirely alone, not a human being within range. So it is one year in a late winter, in the easternmost parts of Germany. The snow keeps falling and the ice lingers and people hope for spring. Indoors they stay, restless and fidgety, but I am out hiking through snowdrifts and snowstorms, relishing the crisp air, the walde and burge all to myself.

Day One: The Silence of the Forest (March 2013)

2013 March 151 (Herrnhut)a

A couple of days ago the snow returned, reminding us that spring isn’t quite here. Until then, we had begun to feel the warmer touches to the air; the bushes had thought about a bud and some birds began gathering twigs. Too soon, it seems. Recently thawed ground once again lies under a thick cover; pines that had shed their heavy loads are once again blanketed; snow clearing equipment put away until next season is hauled out again.

I am keen to walk – in the forest. My route takes me eastward from my lodgings in Herrnhut, down the hill along a well-known path – Galloping Tuberculosis (the alternative to Langsamer Tod, the Slow Death) – which is the age-old track for villagers between Ruppersdorf and Herrnhut. Along the Petersbach brook it trails through the forest to Oily Crotch (Eulchratsham), before turning northwest and up again through the forest. The last stretch is through open fields, over the Hutberg and to the village of Strahwalde.

For much of the trek, my footsteps are first in the snow. Drifting up to half a metre, it is deep enough so my foot sinks in past my ankle, shallow enough so it is not my whole leg. With temperatures no more than minus 10, it is perfect weather and quite mild. Progress is slow, occasionally slippery, but steady. Beneath the layer of snow lie icy ridges, strange angles, holes – all ready to catch an unwary ankle, to test and tone muscles used to slack walking on the flats. A thorough workout for gluts, thighs, calves and the multiple muscles of my feet and ankles.

In the midst of it all, I am thoroughly absorbed with three things:

First, the silence of the forest. I have experienced the quiet after a snow storm in the city, in Montreal where it was wonderful to be out after a storm with the noise absorber of a white blanket everywhere. But here in the forest, the usual sounds of animals, wind, trees, have disappeared; or rather they are absorbed by the interlocked flakes.

Second, the animal tracks are everywhere. They may be small, dainty steps, perhaps of a bird prancing about on the snow; they may be slightly longer hops, perhaps a squirrel; they may be the pointed toes and sweep of a tail that I guess is a fox; they may be what appear to be rabbit prints, two at a time in neat pairs; or dog tracks, out with an ‘owner’, following their own olfactory path rather than the visual one humans follow. But the triple prints in a triangle are a puzzle, until some deer bound across the track, startled, and I note their tracks. Many other tracks contribute to the intricate tracery, made by animals I cannot not even guess. It may be easy to hide in a snowy landscape at some level, if one knows how (I see very few animals), but well-nigh impossible to cover one’s tracks unless you follow exactly in the footsteps that have gone before – if there are any like one’s own.

Third, the extraordinary effect of snow on trees. On bare branches, a line of snow renders a stark outline, throwing into relief the line of the branch itself. By contrast, conifers seem to set themselves to catch snow on their webs of needles. Whole trees seem to compete with one another to see who can collect the most snow.

Eventually, the forest and its silence, with laden trees and animal tracery in the snow, come to an end. My path takes me out of the forest and over the open fields past the Hutberg. Now I trail someone’s cross-country skis – of which there are many tracks this late winter. I stride up the hill and skid lightly down, a solitary figure in the expanse of white. The sun appears and glistens on the snow; villages and their houses huddle beneath heavy white brows, puffing smoke. Then a magical moment: a brief snow storm, with myriad large fluffy flakes swirling down and cutting down visibility. A low sun peaks beneath the clouds and I am captured – again.

Yet I am also captured by the lowness of the sun, or rather, almost trapped. I am so absorbed by the storm and its light that dusk comes to an end before I know it. Visibility runs down quickly and I am still far from my lodgings. Fortunately even the smallest amount of light is enhanced by the snow. I make for the glow of warm yellow lights in the village windows.


Day Two: Bone-Chiller (March 2013)

Some winds brandish their wind-chill with bitter glee, anticipating the gasps and shivers as they hit yet more warm-blooded creatures. So it is today as I set out on the trails. As soon as I come out from behind the shelter of the wall, the wind hits. Turning to face it, with eyes watering and nostril hairs frozen, I realise I am looking directly towards Siberia. Later I am to discover that this was the coldest spring morning Germany has ever had.

The forest beckons, promising to block the bone-chiller. And so it does. The conifers may whistle higher up, snow may come tumbling down from a waving tree branch, but down below, among the roots and trunks, I am comparatively warm. Underfoot, the snow is compacted to some extent along the trail, so the going is easier than I experienced earlier.

It takes little time for me to feel as though I have been on the road for ages. The kilometres may roll past more slowly underfoot, but pass they do. Well-tried walking boots, comfortable clothes, muscles working smoothly and generating their own warmth, a small pack – nothing more is needed.

Now it is the mountain, the Hengstberg (Horses Hill), where fresh teams of horses used to haul heavy carts up the slope. The trench where the old road ran is still to be found here. I clamber up the slope, beginning to sweat, removing caps and gloves for a brief period. And then it is a slide down the other side, on my bum due to the steepness, and I find once again the childhood glee of pleasure in the snow.

Now I eschew the protective forest and set out over open fields. Here the snow drifts in the Siberian wind, and ice forms on roads and paths, eager to send an unwary foot skidding. Extremities begin to freeze as my body seeks to protect its core. In the village of Batromjecy-Berthelsdorf I pause out of the wind and still I shiver – I find out later that it is minus 20 degrees with the wind chill. I seek out the church. The spirit may have moved here in 1723, sending a handful of Moravian Brethren out to Africa, Greenland, North America, and Asia, but the spirit is not going to warm me today. I seek the spirit in a coffee at the local Gastäte, but it is closed, despite the exuberant sign proclaiming that it is open. Now my body core itself begins to cool, so I turn and march to my lodgings – up the long hill and exposed to the wind. Climbs like this are supposed to get circulation going, but only the coffees and strudel in the cosiness of the Hutbergkellar can achieve that.

2013 March 187 (Herrnhut)a

Day Three: Wolfsberg Wald (March 2013)

Winter seems as though it may be defeated through sheer willpower. Today with the mercury pushing above zero, living creatures have decided to wait no longer. The birds emerge from whatever shelter they had found from the bitter winds and are out, seeking nesting materials and food, squealing, squawking, chirping. Deer seem to leap out every time I look ahead on the still snowy forest track. Dogs are frisky, barking, eager to be out and sniffing anyone and everything. Human beings burrow in garages looking for the implements of spring – gardening tools, bicycles, old chairs in which to sit and enjoy the sun to come … Or they festoon bushes beside their front doors with eggs for Easter. Or they are out walking.


I seek out the wald to the north. This is no patch of trees on a hilltop, for it is huge enough to swallow you and get you seriously lost. It is also vast enough to provide sanctuary for wolves, for they like to avoid human beings. I am told this is not merely due to old fears of hunters, but because human beings stink to high heaven in a wolf’s nostrils. I have actually seen wolf tracks in this forest, so I like to call it after one of its mountains, the Wolfsberg Wald.

On this trek, I walk some 15 kilometres from Herrnhut to Kemnitz and then Bernstadt. I pass through jumbled village cores first established about a millennium ago, along snow-covered trails deep in the forests, along muddy paths across fields, and then finally alongside the main road into Bernstadt. On the way I learn three more lessons about walking through German forests.

First, Germans like to organise their ‘wildernesses’. Of course, there are the sign-posted tracks, marked with routes for walking, horse riding and cycling. And yes, they have hunter/wildlife observer platforms throughout. But when it comes to numbering the bird boxes, it goes to a whole new level. At a scratch I can understand how such boxes help threatened species. But to number them consecutively … ‘There’s a new batch of chicks in number 96 on Berthelsdorfer Strasse’.


That brings me to the second lesson. Tracks through forests are not logging tracks or fire tracks – the sort to which I have become accustomed back home. They are ‘streets’. In fact, they are named according to the village at the other end. So in Berthelsdorf, Kemnitzer Strasse takes you to Kemnitz. And the same track in Kemnitz is called Berthesldorfer Strasse and takes you to, yes, Berthelsdorf. Hold on: they are forest tracks! I can understand a paved road with such names. But forest tracks? Of course, if I cast my mind back a few centuries, when only the rich had horses and carriages and the majority walked, then such a track was the best way between villages. No one would think twice about a 10 km walk from one to the other. It is simply what you did to get around.

Lesson three: German beer tastes much better after a day out walking, even with snow still thick on the ground. Your legs and feet appreciate it more, especially when they have passed from well-oiled pistons to stiff and tender limbs urgently in need of rest and resuscitation. Your carbohydrate deprived body is thankful, since beer provides a concentrated replenishment that is far better than those oddly coloured, fancily bottled and highly sugared ‘sports drinks’. And your throat is eternally thankful.


Day Four: Lost in the Village (March 2013)

Most often on a longer hike, you stride through villages, perhaps stopping for a little to eat and a piss. Apart from a couple of houses strung out along the ever-present stream, there’s nothing much to them. Or is there? For some reason or other I end up in the back streets of the village of Strahwalde, perhaps due to a ‘wrong’ turn. It is hard to know what a ‘wrong’ turn is, since the streets twist and bend in that medieval way.

Before I know it, I have crossed the stream, which is variously dammed for washing clothes in times past, runs through a small mill, or has a diversion for a reason long forgotten. I sidle past a house with an ageing mural on its side, the work of an artist perhaps, who decided long ago to relocate here. Up a twisting path and I am in the midst of run-down stables before striding past the front door of the old schloß, or manor house of the lord. Built in the seventeenth century, it was part of the ‘refeudalisation’ of eastern Europe that was underway. Less a return to feudalism per se, it was a manifestation of early capitalism, but in an area where land was plentiful and labour scarce. So peasants were legally tied to the land of their lord, or perhaps one of his early factories, in a way that seemed as though the old order was returning. But it actually enabled the transition to more fully fledged capitalism. These days the schloß is cracked and worn, windows broken and doors boarded up. I wish that for all the ruling class.


I drop down from the hill – for rulers ‘need’ to have the best views – and come across a man rummaging in his garage. Snow may still be on the ground, ice may still be forming in the creek, but it is March and it is supposed to be spring. So he is sorting out his gardening tools, ready to dig and plant, hoe and rake the moment the thaw arrives. But the garage takes my fancy, for it is a simple rectangular construction, with a light sloping roof to the wooden double door at the front. It is exactly the same design as countless others I have encountered, with cement-rendered finish over large bricks. Simple, functional, cheap – a product of the DDR when one still made such things. This one has a few extra touches: some paint on the timber door, a large thermometer out the front, a weather-cock on its corner. For his sake and for mine, I hope spring comes soon.

A bicycle passes by, upon which is the same man I have seen on a number of occasions. A slightly vacant stare, with one eye to the side; perhaps his family has been in the village a little too long. At the next turn, a woman leans out of her kitchen window and talks to a neighbour on the street. The neighbour’s only errand may well be to meet and chat a little like this. A dog scampers on its way somewhere, and a child follows on a bicycle, trying to keep up with the dog.

Now I twist around the corners of the small farmer’s houses, some with the local braces-and-shingle style. On the lower floor, heavy timber forms arches that look much like braces to hold up one’s pants, should one be of that vintage. Two such braces are at one short end of the house, while three run to the front door. From the door to the other end the braces stop and angled timber and brick takes their place – the kitchen and perhaps (if retrofitted) a small toilet and bathroom inside. Upstairs is for sleeping, and here are shingles aplenty. They cascade down from the roof, past windows and to the intersection between the two floors. And each village has its own distinct pattern. Here the shingles are predominantly black, with white spot patterns in between. Tight and warm in winter; unbearably close in summer.

The spatial relationship between this house and its neighbours seems to have no clear plan, except perhaps to be close to the creek. Or rather, they reveal a very different production of space that dictates such arrangements. With corners jutting out, with designs at all angles apart from 90 degrees, each place is set obliquely to the other. It looks as though a giant child has been playing with them, only to toss them aside and then walk away to seek some other amusement. Here, at the core of a twelfth century village is a living reminder of almost impossible to imagine senses of lived space. Yet, at least one item of spatial production is clear to me: no matter which path you take, with its many twists and unaccountable bends, it always seems to wind its way to the church. Once, long ago, it may have been Roman Catholic and then Lutheran, but now it bears the lamb and banner of the Moravian Brethren over its doors.

I look at my watch: three hours have passed! Is not a village supposed to be tiny, a few houses strung out on a stream?


Day Five: Crossroad (March 2013)

Clearly, everyone and everything wants spring to arrive. The birds have had to put away their sticks and string and straw for the time being. The deer had been hoping for fresh shoots of grass to nibble, but instead find they need to scratch about in the snow for old, frozen leaves. The squirrels’ winter supplies have well and truly run out, but the new stock is by no means ready. Even the first flowers of spring, the yellow winter aconites and white snowdrops, have pushed up in the odd corner only to be frozen stiff.

But spring refuses to arrive. Or rather, winter is undertaking an excellent rear-guard action to keep spring at bay. My winter rhythms continue, baby-steps over slippery ice remain the norm, coats-hats-gloves are still firmly in place. I set off out the back of Berthesdorf, keen to try new paths, through scatterings of houses that collectively call themselves the villages of  Kränke, Neuberthelsdorf, Heuscheune … Even though I know that each house has a dog, even though I am occasionally apprehensive, the German dogs are well-behaved indeed. Perhaps it is the mundane reality of walkers and cyclists that makes such prey unexciting. Perhaps it is the German way, that all must be ordered and controlled. But a barking dog is a rare experience.

I stride over hills and cross creeks, each with a village huddled along it. I hike across fields still white with snow. I plunge into forests full of the animals that are perplexed by the absence of spring. I come to a crossroad – a temptation, a choice, a compromise. Is that not always the way with crossroads? Turn that way and I follow an unknown path; turn this way and it takes me home. Homeward I must turn – not without a longing look towards the other path – for the light is fading and hunger calls me. As do warm lodgings.

2013 April 005 (Herrnhut)a

Bone-Chiller: Saxon Walking (Part 2)

Some winds brandish their wind-chill with bitter glee, anticipating the gasps and shivers as they hit yet more warm-blooded creatures. So it is today as I set out on the trails. As soon as I come out from behind the shelter of the wall, the wind hits. Turning to face it, with eyes watering and nostril hairs frozen, I realise I am looking directly towards Siberia. Later I am to discover that this was the coldest spring morning Germany has ever had.

The forest beckons, promising to block the bone-chiller. And so it does. The conifers may whistle higher up, snow may come tumbling down from a waving tree branch, but down below, among the roots and trunks, I am comparatively warm. Underfoot, the snow is compacted to some extent along the trail, so the going is easier than I experienced earlier.

It takes little time for me to feel as though I have been on the road for ages. The kilometres may roll past more slowly underfoot, but pass they do. Well-tried walking boots, comfortable clothes, muscles working smoothly and generating their own warmth, a small pack – nothing more is needed.

Now it is the mountain, the Hengstberg (Horses Hill), where fresh teams of horses used to haul heavy carts up the slope. The trench where the old road ran is still to be found here. I clamber up the slope, beginning to sweat, removing caps and gloves for a brief period. And then it is a slide down the other side, on my bum due to the steepness, and I find once again the childhood glee of pleasure in the snow.

Soon I eschew the protective forest and set out over open fields. Here the snow drifts in the Siberian wind, and ice forms on roads and paths, eager to send an unwary foot skidding. Extremities begin to freeze as my body seeks to protect its core. In the village of Batromjecy-Berthelsdorf I pause out of the wind and still I shiver – I find out later that it is minus 20 degrees with the wind chill. I seek out the church. The spirit may have moved here in 1723, sending a handful of Moravian Brethren out to Africa, Greenland, North America, and Asia, but the spirit is not going to warm me today. I seek the spirit in a coffee at the local Gastäte, but it is closed, despite the exuberant sign proclaiming that it is open. Now my body core itself begins to cool, so I turn and march to my lodgings – up the long hill and exposed to the wind. Climbs like this are supposed to get circulation going, but only the coffees and strudel in the cosiness of the Hutbergkellar can achieve that.

2013 March 187 (Herrnhut)a

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)

2013 March 046 (Herrnhut)a

‘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)


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)

2013 April 003 (Herrnhut)a

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.

2013 March 217 (Herrnhut)a

Of Yurts, Steel Teeth and Coal-Fired Samovars: From Europe to Asia on the Trans-Siberian

Minus 34 and a few minuted to midnight – so said the station clock and thermometer. At the appointed hour, we joyously popped a champagne bottle, necked it and staggered about, yelling ‘Happy New Year’ to an empty, icy railway platform. The Chinese conductor wasn’t quite sure what to make of us – a Russian, a Mongolian, a Swede, a Dane and an Australian leaping, laughing, sloshing champagne and slipping on the ice. Meanwhile my nostril hairs had frozen, the liquid in my eyes had became thick and viscous and the piss I tried to do in the corner froze before it hit the ground, so I had to snap it off.

It was New Year’s Eve and we had stopped for a few minutes at the small station of Zima, in the middle of Siberia and in a cold most of us had never experienced before. Already we had been on the train for three nights, with three nights and four days to go. We were on the legendary Trans-Siberian, making our way from Moscow to Beijing in a Siberian winter. I had actually begun my journey in Copenhagen on Boxing Day, making my way via Stockholm and Tallinn to Moscow by train and ship. That had taken two days in itself; along with the Trans-Siberian I was to travel half way around the world in nine days, all by surface.

A little over a week? Is that all? Are not ‘East’ and ‘West’ separated by vast distances? Psychologically, cognitively, even politically, most people feel that the East is a long, long, long way from the West. In that light, a journey of a nine days in all, or seven from Moscow is short indeed. All the same, I am told that a website exists which has video of the entire seven-day journey. The view is from the window, looking out, as though one were on the train itself. And should one tire occasionally of the scenery and stations passing by, then one has a choice of three audio options: the click-clack of the rails; a reading of Gogol’s works; or a reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – delivered in a deep Russian male voice. While I can see the attraction of gathering a group of friends for a week-long Trans-Siberian party, with vodka flowing and station food bought, I still prefer the real thing.

The Trans-Siberian is less a train than a route along which many trains run. Some cover the whole route, while most rattle along over various stretches. But even that route in its entirety has three options: the original run to Vladivostok and then the lines through Manchuria or Mongolia to Beijing. But they all run along the same tracks for five days between Moscow and Irkutsk, north of the stunning Lake Baikal, after which they spread out, like three crooked fingers, to their various destinations over the next couple of days. The earliest line, to Vladivostok, was completed in the late nineteenth century, although since then it has undergone many reroutings and upgrading. We took the most recently completed line, turning south at Irkutsk to travel through Mongolia to Beijing.

Each day was to be full of the sheer variety of that species known as homo sapiens, of life on a village in motion, never seen before items of food from station stalls, low Siberian suns skidding quickly across a corner of the sky, and the uniqueness of a train that does not stop for a week.

Day One: Moscow

We had come to the fabled Moscow from a frozen north in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. Cutting through the deep snow of Sweden, the ice of the Baltic, and the bitter night of Estonia, the trains and ships had struggled to get anywhere, let alone on time. Moscow in winter is fearsome, with hoar-frosted trees and houses covered in snow, with glistening ice worn smooth from countless expert footsteps (and no gravel or salt for clearance and grip). Since we had the daylight hours to ourselves before our train left for Beijing, I was after a different Moscow from the one so often portrayed in the Western media, an expensive city full of capitalist corruption. Instead, I was keen on the city of Red Square, Lenin, the Bolsheviks, the Russian Revolution, the city that one Western emperor after another had failed to capture.

A pure pleasure in a new place is to find your way around when the script you know (Roman) does not match the one they use (Cyrillic), when the languages you know do not match the languages they know. A trilingual Azerbaijani, speaking Persian, Russian and English came to our aid in a warm corner of a cafe. Soon we had a map, instructions for Red Square, a finger pointed in the right direction and a wish for good luck. Forget taxis, since they would spot the foreigners and charge a shitload. So the grand metro it was, with its rattling, hurtling Soviet-era metro-cars, vintage 1977 – obviously built to last.

Despite all the hype of 1991, the city is still full of Lenin, from Leninskaya railway station, at which we had arrived from Tallinn, the towering and pensive statue of Lenin in the square outside the station, to his mausoleum in the midst of Red Square. We were blown away by the square. Apart from the ice-cream domes of the churches, the imposing fortress of the Kremlin itself, and the vast sweep of the square, in its midst was a skating rink on which the locals carried on the tradition of Lenin, who was himself an expert skater. We even had a rink of our own, for the glistening, icy cobbles made for some expert footwork and the ever-present risk of going arse over tit. But it was the mausoleum that drew me like a magnet. Snug with the Kremlin wall, it is constructed in an appealingly minimalist style that seemed as though it had been built yesterday. Alas, we missed the closing time by three minutes. Looks like I will have to return.

By evening we had to board our train, the No.4 from Yaroslavsky station. Chinese rolling stock, of a solid, older variety, modelled on Russian trains of a Soviet vintage. It certainly gave the impression that it was built for a long, tough haul. Richly carpeted in deep red, wood-panelled, heavily curtained, with those wonderful fold-out seats in the corridor where you can find a space to yourself to peer out of the windows on that side. As for our cabin – unlike sleek, modern trains in which space-saving has become such a fine art that at times your ribs feel constricted when you breathe, this one was spacious to a fault. Wide, firm bunks with luxurious doonas, an easy chair and a wide table, even a shared bathroom with the next cabin. Here you could stretch out and not feel as though you were engaged in foreplay with your travel companion for the whole journey.

Day Two: Coal (Into Siberia)

Almost as soon as we had boarded I had dived into bed, sleeping long and hard as we trundled east from Moscow. It was still dark when I woke, even though the morning was late. On these days in Siberia, the sun cut a small arc low on the horizon for a handful of hours. At first I was puzzled: the sun seemed to rise and set within the range of our window, struggling up late on the left-hand side and, with a sigh of relief, flopping back below the horizon on the right-hand side not long afterwards. Had the train rapidly changed direction over the day, so that in the morning we faced east and in the evening west? No, we stayed facing south: the sun was interested only in raising itself a few metres above the southern horizon for a brief period.

Awaiting the sun and with a large cup of tea in hand, I was out in the corridor studying a list of stops and times that was posted in Chinese, English and Russian. Legendary names for a legendary journey; some known, some entirely foreign:

Day 1: Vladimir

Day 2: Gorkiy, Kirov, Perm II (gateway to Siberia), Sverdlosk, Tumon

Day 3: Ishin, Omsk, Barabinsk, Novo-Sibirsk, Malinsk

Day 4: Krasnoyorsk, Ilanskaya, Nizhne-Udinsk, Zima, Irkutsk

Day 5: Ulan-Uda, Naushki, Suhe-Bator (into Mongolia), Dahon

Day 6: Zuhala, Ulan-Bator, Choyr, Sain-Shanda, Erlian

Day 7: (into China) Zhuzhihe, Jining, Datong, Zhangjiokau, Beijing.

From two minutes to three hours and forty-five minutes, each stop would involve some or all of rewatering, changing bogeys, passport and customs checks, bartering with platform stallholders and wandering hawkers, chipping ice from door and stair mechanisms, a smoke or three and replenishing coal.

Coal? At the second long stop into our day I had leapt off the train for a stretch – after the conductor had chipped off the ice and kicked the stair latch open – and was immediately face to face with the coal loader. Two men in a trailer, towed by an old and well-maintained tractor, shovelled coal into buckets and then handed them to the conductor of each carriage. Not for the engine, which is electric (more than 7,000 kms of electrified line is mind-boggling enough), but for each carriage’s internal power. Of course, what an enormously practical design! Instead of all power – for air-conditioning, signals, lights, water pumps and so on – relying on a functioning engine (as you find elsewhere), each carriage is self contained in regard to heat and water. Should the engine break down in the middle of a Siberian winter, we would have water and warmth as long as the coal lasted – which would be long enough for a replacement engine to arrive.

That explained the bags I had seen in the freezing vestibules. Initially I had thought they were salt for clearing ice, but then a small shovel appeared in the guard’s hand, a bag was opened and coal was heaped into a small furnace. A waft of coal smoke filtered down the hallway, but the burner ensured a constant supply of hot water for our heaters. No wonder it was such a full heat; no wonder the samovar steamed away, asking, begging even, to assist with that cup of coffee or tea. In each carriage the same procedure was repeated, day in and day out.

All the same, the heat was contained within the main section of the carriage, leaving the smokers’ vestibule and passageway from carriage to carriage to share the winter outside. Ice soon gathered, some snow wafted in through the smallest crack, so that doors froze and required a crowbar to unlock. Deeper into Siberia – which we entered today in Perm – one needed gloves for the door handles, for otherwise hands threatened to stick to the cold metal.

While out on my ‘inspections’, I noted a couple of other features about Russian and Chinese long-distance trains. Each stop saw a team set about chipping off the ice that had built up in the under-carriage, ensuring continued smooth running. In fact, the bogeys were remarkably free of ice, with no massive chunks falling off periodically under their own weight. I couldn’t help contrast such wisdom with Western European chaos after a flake or two of snow or a couple of degrees below zero. There, trains came to a standstill as ice seized up their vital functions, people and freight are stranded, railway staff have no idea what to do – in short, complete disarray, even in winter-postcard Scandinavia (pointy-roofed houses, bare trees, fields and hills all covered in snow) which is supposed to have a sophisticated approach to such matters. Obviously, it was due the Western fashion for ‘rationalising’ the economy, with cutbacks in ‘unnecessary’ railway staff that now went a long way back, so much so that the skills of winter running have been forgotten by now. Perhaps a necessary training camp with the Russians or Chinese is in order.

And as I was watching the ice-chippers, I noticed a belt system on the bogeys. Further inspection revealed a small engine on each. Of course! Should the engine break down, each car would not only have enough heat and water, but it would be able to get out of trouble under its own steam.

Day Three: Water and Food

Apart from heat, water and food were the other two basic requirements for surviving the journey through Siberia. One could buy bottles of water on the train or at the occasional stalls at the stations, but these were unreliable sources. The only sure and trusted source was the glorious samovar I had already met and become familiar with at the end of each carriage. With its pumps and gauges and pressure valve and simple tap, the worn steel cylinder at the conductor’s end of the carriage provided a constant source of coal-fired boiling water for drinking (when cooled), tea or coffee, noodles or beans or rice, or indeed for thawing a lock, cleaning the toilet and washing.

And food: one could, if one wished to sell a body part and partake of dubious Russian food, make one’s way to the dining car. The Chinese car was, on the last couple of days, to have half a dozen cooks procuring fresh meals with plenty of steaming vegetables, but the Russian and Mongolian ones were nothing to salivate over. As for the Russian dining car, the English-language menu had a massive price gap from the Russian version; most of the items were not available, apart from perhaps eggs for breakfast, soggy salads and parts of a dead animal for lunch, and borscht (aka, whatever soup happened to be cooking) and rice and parts of a dead animal for dinner. One ingredient was common to all meals – a liberal supply of butter, so much so that it seemed as though the meal was an afterthought to the buckets of molten butter on offer. One or two visits were worth the experience, with the solid waiter uttering three words of English, the drink purveyor four words and the car decorated with streamers, balloons, the worst art one can imagine, fancy iron-work and a CD at nightclub-level volume playing the four English songs available. We soon realised that the only diners were the non-Russian and non-Chinese travellers, for the Russians had stocked up and the Chinese conductors preferred to cook their own food.

Once we crossed into Mongolia, I decided to consult one of those necessarily misleading guidebook offered to us by our neighbours (American Trustafarians). I came across the following forewarning: ‘Mongolians have never thought much of vegetarianism; some identify vegetable eating with Chinese culture, others are convinced that eating vegetables is just not healthy’. But the Buddhist-themed dining car, with its streamers and Santa-Claus, served food that had obviously been prepared before the car joined us on the Russian border, for the runny eggs were cold, the salad sticky and the sole meat option was sparse.

Surrounded by these culinary delights, we opted to rely on other sources. For the first couple of days we dipped into our stocked-up food – cans of beans, bread rolls, strange powdered substances, some sparse vegetables and fruit. Soon it ran out, but by then I had discovered the station stalls. After one misdemeanour at Perm II, where I had wondered off during a station stop to find food and was sharply rebuked by the conductor, I stayed close to the train. Baby-stepping – to avoid slipping on the ice – along platform after platform, feeling the cold seep through the sternest winter gear, I threw myself into haggling with the stainless-steel-toothed women at the stalls.

Once those women saw I was interested, they flocked about me. Beer? Vodka? Water? No, no and no. But that Kefir looks good – 40 rubles! It sounded cheap to me, so I did not haggle. Peanuts, bread-rolls with a lucky-dip inside (I managed out sniff out the spicy cabbage ones), strange-looking tubs with what turned out to be flavoured potato mix soon added to my bundle. Now I was presented with ready-made meals of a chicken leg and vegetables, mutton and rice, Russian salads (liberally anointed with mayonnaise), an unidentifiable sausage and many more items I simply could not make out. Even though I had no need to worry about freshness, since they were all nicely frozen in a fridge as wide as the sky and this endless land, I avoided the home-cooked and snap-frozen meals. After this first encounter, I learned to buy food when I was able, for not every station had such stalls and the menu varied wildly when they did appear. So we came across the chocolate biscuit station, the bread-roll station, the leg of lamb station, the WTF-is-that station. And after that first glorious engagement with those eager Russian babas, I wondered whether they had phoned their friends down the line, saying: ‘this dumb Australian is on his way; likes to buy food, doesn’t haggle – charge him as much as you can!’

Day Four: New Year’s Eve in Siberia

On the turn of the year we pushed deeper and deeper into Siberia. I was astounded at the size of the cities and the railway stations: almost two million in Novo-Sibirsk, about one million in Perm, and many hundreds of thousands in the others. The so-called ‘exile’ to Siberia – synonymous with poverty, cold, hard labour and early death – was actually a long-standing incentive to populate the new territories to the east. The policy dated back hundreds of years and the Soviet era merely carried it on. If the carrot would not work, a little stick was employed in its place. Add the policy during World War II to move whole populations and factories eastward in this vast country, so that they would be out of harm’s way and support the war effort, and you have a long history that had made Siberia far more populous that it would otherwise have been.

The vital role of the Trans-Siberian railway, itself over 100 years old, was plain to see. With at least triple lines throughout, electrified all the way, massive rail-yards and multiple local and long-distance services, we passed train after train. Mostly freighters, often full of the vital coal (of which we partook), but also passenger services, for 45% of the population use trains as their prime means of transport.

New Year’s Eve: we simply could not miss the chance to celebrate the auspicious year’s turning on a train in the middle of Siberia. One option was to take up the offer of the Russian dining car. It was to be an unspecified spread of dubious quality, blaring songs in English (the four we had already heard), and an endless stream of ‘vodka’ poured from unidentified plastic containers – all for 2500 rubles each. The rotten-toothed salesman, a lackey of the rotund dining-car manager, certainly did his best to persuade us. He would walk uninvited and repeatedly into the middle of our cabin, elaborate on what was on offer, understand our repeated ‘no’ as a ‘yes’, and then, when it finally dawned on him that we weren’t coming, violently rattled his drink tray and slammed the door on departure.

Option two was far better. We piled into the cabin next door, occupied by a trustafarian, Buddhist-hippie American couple planning a whole life of marriage together. They had boarded the train with about thirty bottles of French wine, of which none was left by the time we reached Beijing. We were joined by others who found the whole idea of selling a vital organ for the pleasure of the dining car dubious at best. Lars, a bearded back-packing Swede out for his first adventure in the world, laden with brand new gear, a massively phallic camera hanging around his neck and a liking for both the vodka and the female part of the couple next door. Indeed, he spent much of the journey with her, walking the train, talking in the corridor, laughing in their cabin, drinking – all with her partner benignly looking on, for what his love wanted he was happy to provide, even randy Swedes.

Lars brought with him a short and beaming Mongolian, Ganzorig, who managed litres of vodka without any visible effect. The two were sharing a section of the ‘hard’ sleepers, the open cabin with no doors. The glamorous Georgian couple from the next carriage also joined us, she wearing impossibly high heels and dyed blond hair, he with that barrel chest and sweep of hair that comes from a solid diet of animal parts. We laid out virtually our whole supply of food and alcohol, much of which I had assiduously collected at various station stalls along the way. Later more joined our throng – some Russians from Lars’s carriage, an Australian couple who materialised out of nowhere, and more whom I can no longer remember. By now the hallway was full of people, drinking, shouting, laughing. The only exceptions were the Chinese conductors, who found the celebration a little odd, since it wasn’t yet the real (Chinese) new year. As the night wore on, we celebrated a series of New Years: the east coast Australia’s came at 9.00 pm local time, the local one three hours later, and then, for one or two hardy revellers, Moscow New Year (the train time) – five hours later.

At Zima, a few hours shy of Irkutsk, we piled off the train a few minutes before the local midnight and onto a deserted platform. Most of us were long past feeling the bitter cold, so we popped a champagne, passed the bottle around for a liberal swig each and hailed the year’s turning. The guard kept a watchful eye on us, turned down the offer of a drink and shooed us back onto the train lest we remain stranded.

Day Five: Lake Baikal to Mongolia

How to write of this long, long new year’s day?

It began peacefully. As the others slept off the festivities, I was up early and alone. Standing in the corridor I watched the pack ice and floes on Lake Baikal, the largest body of fresh water in the world (about 20% of the world’s total amount of fresh water). A smell of cooked beans and vegetables drew me towards to the conductor’s compartment. The day-shift man sat quietly, listening to Chinese music, gathering balls of the vegetable and legume mix in his fingers from a steel bowl and rolling them in dumpling pastry he had laid on the board. Each completed dumpling he placed carefully on a clean cloth, awaiting their moment in the steamer. As he did so, he looked out of the window, oblivious to the world about him. What was he thinking? Looking forward to home? To the journey drawing near to its end? It was an immensely peaceful and private scene.

That early moment set the tone for the rest of the day, helped a great deal by all those nursing hangovers. After Irkutsk we skirted by a part of Lake Baikal for what seemed like an eternity, with mountains towering on the landward (western) side. Villages rolled by, small houses with chimneys poking up through the snow-covered roofs, pushing long streams of smoke into the sky. Exceedingly practical, it seemed me, for small spaces are easier to keep warm instead of sprawling ‘open-living’ houses in countries where people seem baffled by space.

By now the time difference between Moscow time (which the train follows) and local time became almost ludicrous. With six hours’ difference, the sun would rise at 4 am and set by noon according to train time. I tried to keep up with local time, but constantly had to recalibrate when checking the timetable or talking with train staff. Naushki, on the border with Mongolia, couldn’t come soon enough, for there we would switch to local, Mongolian time.

The wait at Naushki was interminable, for here we underwent a thorough transformation as the bogeys were changed from Russian to whatever the Mongolian gauge is. As we clunked and clanged, shook and ratted, shunted backwards and then forwards, the last car, the Russian dining car (with comatose staff from the night before) was detached and the front half of the train simply replaced, now with a diesel loco, Mongolian carriages and passengers and a Mongolian dining car that was suddenly in the middle of the train.

By this time more than three hours had passed, a test of bladders and bowels since the toilets were locked for three hours. As we pissed in a converted water-bottle, I pondered the ten tips I had discovered for using the toilet on a winter train in Siberia:

1. Upon entry, admire the durable stainless steel construction, minus seat or lid.

2. Make sure you are wearing solid, wet weather shoes upon entry. Even though the liquid on the floor looks clear, the result perhaps of a leaking sink or flushing device, that slightly acrid smell suggests otherwise.

3. Ensure that you engage all of your considerable acrobatic skill in keeping any part of your pants or clothes in general from touching the floor, unless of course you wish to rinse them in the pool swishing about down there.

4. Enjoy the soft sound of whatever you need to deliver onto the metal plate, for there is no pool of water to make a satisfying ‘plop’.

5. Reach vainly for the toilet paper, realising too late that whatever was there disappeared a few months after construction in the 1970s. Try calling loudly for the conductor to bring you a roll (he will be your friend for life. If that does not work, follow the old biblical adage), do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing and make a mental note to obtain toilet paper for your next visit by whatever means possible.

6. Try to locate the flushing device. Neither on a cistern behind (which does not exist), nor on a chain above your head, a diligent search will reveal a pedal at the base of the toilet.

7. Peer with perverse curiosity down the hole that suddenly appears once the pedal is pressed, waving goodbye to that warm part of you that now slides down onto the tracks.

8. Be startled at the puff of steam that billows from the hole. Was that me? No, a temperature variation of 50 degrees ensures a lovely cloud of steam from the frigid outside.

9. Vainly look for soap, vainly turn the taps and then make a mental note to acquire some hand cleaner as soon as practically possible.

10. Ensure that you seize the opportunity to piss or shit when you can, especially before the outskirts of the next town appear, for the toilet will be locked at the station. After all, civilisation demands that one does not leave behind a gift for the locals as they await their own train. If you fail to make it, the wait of twenty minutes to three hours is good pelvic floor exercise.

Eventually our replacement bogeys were attached and our transformed train was off … almost. Now it was time for the border checks. Russian border officers, dressed in the fur hats and heavy coats (and that was just the sniffer dogs), inspected and inspected again. A serious and very polite woman checked and took the passports, a rotund officer laughed away the unfilled Cyrillic form he had handed us earlier, a red-faced and burly inspector gave our cabin a token inspection for contraband substances. Then it was the turn of the Mongolians: slinky officers in chic gear – short skirts, pantihose, calf-boots, hugging jackets and jaunty caps (and they were, again, just the sniffer dogs). A distinctly handsome people, the Mongolians we met, from border patrols through station staff to other passengers.

But with my early morning, two long border stops, a complete transformation of the train and then the evening run into Mongolia, the day seemed to go on forever, even though we went to bed early in order to be up for the lights of Ulan Bator at 6.30am.

Day Six: Gobi Desert

Mongolia: favoured destination for backpackers, NGOs seeking to westernise, jaded liberals pursuing an ‘authentic’ corner of the world that they can then mould in their own image. But Mongolians have a good reason for encouraging all these visitors, since they have become very creative in extracting money from gullible foreigners. Those foreigners begin with being mesmerised by the most unique name for a currency: forget crown, pound, dollar or denarius, it is the togrog or tughrik! Then they find out that one togrog is worth a stunning AUD 0.0007, so the zeroes seem to multiply exponentially on any product offered to a foreigner. Thus our sole sampling of the dining car’s offering, at lunch, racked up TOG 50,000 (A$35). It sounded far too much to me for what was on offer, even with the conversion, so after that it was the delights of station stalls on the way.

Mongolia seemed like a miniature country compared to the vast steppes of Russia. It took barely 24 hours to cross from north to south, but we made the most of the extending daylight. From the early lights of a frigid Ulan Bator, through the Buddhist-themed dining car and yurts and sheep and Bactrian camels and yaks and deer and thickly-clad herders on foot and horseback, we entered the Gobi desert. Bitterly cold, its meagre grassland was covered with wind-blown snow and sculpted ice. And if the locals on the train were very practically dressed, with fur boots lined with sheepskin, padded jackets and thick caps, then outside such gear was overlaid with flowing cloaks of wool, full-face fur-lined hats and the thickest of gloves.

While I was looking outside, every now and then a cluster of three or four solid rectangular houses, with ornate wooden cornices and alcoves, would pass us by. A village, I thought, a settlement in the Gobi? But then I noticed that gathered about these houses were children’s play equipment, a few vehicles, clusters of people and the scattering of yurts on the plains around about. These houses were not the village, for they were merely the community centre, with a hall, a school, perhaps a simple temple. In other words, they represented the village-centre, for the village itself was scattered some kilometres over the desert around about.

Day Seven: Welcome to China

The plateau of Mongolia with its yurts and village centres and wind-swept snow passed into an obviously wealthier China after an efficient change of bogeys to standard gauge (with much newer equipment than on the Russia-Mongolia border). China welcomed me again. This was the third time in 18 months, with the simple food and chopsticks I have come to expect. We ran through fields lying fallow in preparation for spring, new buildings cheek-by-jowl with old villages, construction trucks beside bicycles with their loads. The burial practices were different too, caves dug in soft mounds in between the fields or on mountain sides – land that could not be cultivated yet still overlooked those fields. Each one had its mountain behind and body of water in front, a formula for a peaceful eternity. And I noticed a feature that had not struck me before in my long rail journeys through China: nearly every older village dwelling with its distinctive arrangements of urban space, every new house and apartment block, indeed almost every roof had solar panels on them. Simple, mass-produced panels, they bore witness to China’s quiet attention to environmental initiatives. While Australia has cut back the government subsidy for solar electricity, since it threatens the established electricity companies, China simply forges ahead on yet another program.

Now the train was noticeably fuller. Mongolians on their way to Beijing, Chinese heading home, a few non-locals – all had boarded from Ulan Bator onwards. Many of the Westerners found the crush too much, especially in the dining car as they offered complimentary breakfast and lunch (a hint to their over-priced and low quality Russian and Mongolian analogues?). But the Chinese especially had no trouble, passing by me with barely a twitch of the hips as I sat in a hallway seat, sipping coffee and looking out the window.

I had one last task to perform before I could soak up our gradual arrival: to embrace my final ascetic wash before entering the world’s largest city. Since the bathroom drain had become blocked with ice, I took to the toilet with its small washbasin and trickle of water. Soaped crotch and shoulders and armpits and neck gave way to one foot at a time in the basin, until at last I sloshed freezing water on my hair and then face. A shave in the dim light and then a prance down the corridor in my clean undies and I was done. Amazing how little water one really needs.

The journey’s end drew me now with anticipation. Beds were stripped, bags were packed, people peered out of the windows as we passed down through gorges, by towering mountains, the Great Wall in the distance and through tunnels from the plateau to lower ground. Beijing enveloped us by late morning and I watched avidly the last hour of the journey, until city’s massively thronging central station offered its welcome.

In Zinzendorf Territory: Deep in the Snow and Christian Communism of Herrnhut

Icy Arrival

‘We are certainly in the sticks’, she said, looking out the window of the rail motor taking us from Dresden to Löbau, deep in the southeast of Germany, close by the Czech and Polish borders. Through the darkness, through heavy snow swirling about in the strong wind, the rail motor seemed to be cutting its way through a blanket. Ahead, its headlight barely made out the way ahead; behind it, a cloud of snow billowed in its passing. Inside, a rotund man dug a piece of those omnipresent German sausages from the back of teeth, farted and burped and settled in for the ride. At Löbau, we were the only ones to disembark, slipping on the ice of a platform that showed little evidence of salt, gravel or snow shovel. From here it was to be the last bus of the night, so we waited at the bus stop with chattering teeth, hoping the driver had not decided to stay in his warm home, or that he had not slid off the road on an icy corner on his way to pick us up.

Arrive he finally did, albeit without a smile or a word of welcome. “Hernhut’, I said, clumping snow off my shoes, shaking out scarves and gloves and hats. We had the bus to ourselves, along with the surly driver who obviously wished he were warm at home, wondering why he had to do runs like this with barely a passenger on board, peering through windscreen wipers desperately trying to sluice away the snow that kept pelting the windscreen.

As the snowstorm thickened, I imagined Herrnhut as a collection of a few houses and a church, with but one stop in the middle of the night and a single light showing us the place in which we were to stay. So at the first hint of settlement – the closed-down Herrnhut Bahnhoff – we clambered off the bus, full of anticipation … Not a welcoming light in sight, not a clump of houses or a church to be seen. All that greeted us was an icy road winding its way into the gloom and a faint light or two in the distance. Anticipating few opportunities to find food out here, we had stocked up for the week, with the result that I had two large, heavy bags along with my backpack. At least I had two, for that way I felt balanced, with both arms stretching out, threatening to become dislocated at the shoulders with every slipping step on the ice.

Eventually the village emerged, but not a soul was to be seen who might help us with directions. At last a light, a person in the window absorbed in a task. So we knocked, asked directions in broken German and were told to walk further. Meanwhile the slope changed from downhill to uphill, so now one threatened to slip backwards rather than forwards.

‘That’s it’, she said. I breathed a sigh of relief only to find that it was merely a sign to our lodging, through Zinzendorfer Platz and by the curious church, down a narrow road festooned with strange Christmas stars shining in the night. I was later to learn that these multi-pointed stars, of all sizes, lit from within, were an invention and product of the Brüdergemeinde, the Moravian Brethren, whose spiritual home was here, in this small village of Herrnhut. Now the stars are sold throughout the world, but to see them decking out the whole street was strongly welcoming after our trek, an invitation to an inn, dry and warm inside. I just hoped that inn wasn’t full.

Thankfully, it wasn’t, but it took the man on duty an eternity to appear after we knocked. Middle-aged, peaceful, moustached, he said he had been waiting for us at the main bus stop in the middle of the village, just opposite the church. When we didn’t step off the bus, he had said to himself, ‘it will be a long night’. Apparently, we had mistakenly disembarked too early in our eagerness to find our lodgings. Perhaps it was the trudge through a cold and snowy night, laden with food and packs that made the spacious room seem all the more luxurious. But it was the cheapest and best accommodation we had found anywhere in Europe – a blessing of the remainders of the communist east, perhaps, along with its location in small village. Even then, we later found out that it was actually the most expensive around …

Zinzendorf, Herrnhutters and Christian Communism

The next five days, during which the snow continued to pile higher and higher, before I had to leave again for Amsterdam, were among the most peaceful and restoring days I have experienced in a long time. Far from the madding crowd, in a village of stone houses dating back to the early eighteenth century, it was where the Moravian Brethren had come in dribs and drabs from persecution under the Habsburgs in Moravia and Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). One element of the Radical Reformation that was so strong in that part of the world, they had been invited by Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf, to find refuge on his estate. A man of extraordinary energy and significant political influence, with a vivid imagination and deeply spiritual, if not charismatic tendencies, Zinzendorf sought, among others, a spiritual renewal in the Lutheran Church.

He had been influenced by his mother’s pietism, but he was also taken with the image of Christian communism found in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-5).

Now the company of all those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-5).

But it was to be a while before these ideals were reformulated for the renewed movement of the Moravian Brethren. The dribs and drabs that fled to Zinzendorf’s estate at Berthelsdorf, whom he encouraged to build the community of Herrnhut on a corner of his estate, were a cantankerous, argumentative lot, given to apocalyptic fervour and expectation. So bad did the dissension and struggles become that some, among them the Moravian leader, Christian David, saw in Zinzendorf the anti-Christ. Sensing the urgent need to deal with the crisis, Zinzendorf gave up his imperial post in Dresden and returned hastily to his estate. He threw himself into the fray, visited all and sundry, exercised his considerable influence and cajoled, threatened and persuaded the people that strife was not the proper mode of Christian living, but that peaceful, communal cooperation was what the New Testament suggested as the ideal for Christian communities.

From then on, Zinzendorf became spiritual leader (eventually a bishop in the Lutheran Church), preacher, theologian, hymn writer, financier, organiser and missionary director. Eventually, all the hard work killed him by the age of 60. By then, however, the small Moravian community had been organised on the terms of the old Unitas Fratrem (a document of which Zinzendorf had happened upon in his reading), into ‘bands’ or ‘choirs’ of men and women, living in communal houses for single men and women, married couples and children. In the process, his vivid imagination developed a discourse concerning the human body and sex that came well before its supposed appearance in nineteenth century Europe. Through guidelines for the ‘choirs’ of young men and women concerning their bodily changes at puberty, matter-of-fact ways of dealing with discharges, a valuing of sex as the symbol of the union of the believer with Christ, Zinzendorf and the Moravians sought to remove the shame and stigma associated with sexual bodies. Of course, it did produce a new form of policing sex and bodies, a way of making them public knowledge and unabashed topics of open conversation.

And Zinzendorf was fascinated by blood, especially the blood of Jesus that poured from the hole cut in his side on the cross. There, he felt, was the moment of salvation, when one nestled in that hole and was washed clean by the blood that flowed freely for our sins. Later Moravian leaders felt called upon, in all due modesty and with a concern that it might appear a little wacky, to tone down the explicitness of this imagery in the theology, instructions and hymns, but not before it influenced the likes of John and Charles Wesley and their fledgling Methodist movement in England.

Within two decades of the renewal and charismatic awakening – at a moment in 1727, or so the story goes, during worship in the Bertheldorf church, the ‘spirit’ was felt to move powerfully among the congregation – the community had sent out missionaries, well before the massive Protestant push of the nineteenth century, to what were literally, from a European perspective, the ends of the earth: Africa, Central America (the Moskito Coast), the Caribbean, Australia, Siberia, Greenland, Labrador, the far East. As a proper noble, Zinzendorf first asked permission from the European colonial headquarters, where there was one, using family and political connections with the royalty of Europe to do so. But he also faced much criticism that he was sending men and women to their deaths. So Zinzendorf set out himself to show that it could be done, spending time in the Caribbean and North America (albeit not Greenland, Labrador, Africa or Australia).

As a result, the movement had an impact way beyond its size, with the deep piety coursing its way through the Lutheran churches, the hymns taken up into many a hymn-book, the missions producing a worldwide movement which today has 700,000 members, even though only 30,000 may be found in Europe.

Village Life

What does all this mean for village life today in the deep east of Germany, the spiritual home of the world-wide Moravians? Despite the Roman Catholic Church in town, it does mean that many in the village are part of the Moravian church, as well as those in surrounding towns and villages. We were there just before Christmas, so the Moravians would come for the almost daily Advent services, prayer meetings and concerts in the extraordinary church building. That building is vaulted, if starkly white and cleared, in good Reformation fashion, of any ornamentation and distraction from one’s focus on God and the spiritual life (we attended one such service to see what it was like). With their continued, although modified, patterns of communal living and deep spiritual introspection, it seems to give the village a greater sense of quiet than you would otherwise find. Walking around town, immersing myself in Moravian history, trekking over to Zinzendorf’s home in Berthelsdorf, peering towards the Hungarian, Czech and Polish borders barely a few kilometres away, I encountered stares rather than glances at the newcomer or visitor, the open perusal and assessment of a new face in town, the small concerns of everyday life that loomed large, and not a little parochialism.

The Moravian Brethren also made a small difference on the depth of the economic recession that afflicted Europe at the time (Christmas 2010, more than two years after the spectacular global economic crisis of 2008). In Herrnhut, unemployment was at about 10 percent; around about it was a staggering 25 percent. Deep in old communist territory, it was one of those regions that had still not achieved the GDP of 1989, before the Berlin Wall came down. The former Eastern Bloc was still at the rough end of a capitalist makeover that had not dealt kindly with those countries in more than two decades. One could still see factories and plants that had been peremptorily closed, depriving people of employment that had in many cases not returned, apart from farm work.

But the Moravians had been through worse before, for Zinzendorf himself was not the best financial manager. Sole financier of the early community, he soon enough found himself raising loans, teetering on bankruptcy, until the Brethren met and decided that they needed to take this matter at least out of the count’s busy hands. From the middle of the eighteenth century, they established firmer economic foundations for the community, based on a simple life, pooled resources, self-sufficiency and careful attention to what would work.

It seems to have worked – not a bad legacy of Christian communism.