They know it is a long train, but they never know exactly how long. Passengers dare not get out and walk along the platform for fear that the guard dogs will take pieces out of them.
The train from West Germany, the Federal Republic, to West Berlin passes through 112 miles of ominous countryside known as the German Democratic Republic. Armed guards and vicious-looking police dogs patrol the platform. Barbed-wire fences surround the train. Everyone inside is jittery.
Train No. D-345, known to passengers as the "Paranoia Express," offers possibly the most dramatic perspective on the world today as well as providing entree to Berlin, the busy arena of ancient and modern history, Germany's cultural headquarters, and popular center of non-stop night life.
Obeys No Timetable
Originating at the Hook of Holland ferry landing from London, train D-345 obeys no timetable, but when it is on time it passes through Hanover at 1:08 p.m. and crosses into East Germany at Helmstedt at 2:24 p.m.
As soon as it leaves Helmstedt, passport inspectors, customs officials and ticket takers come through the carriages in waves. They imprint black "DDR" (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) stamps in passports and issue separate transit visas. No charge.
East German scenery is a letdown after the nervous border crossing. The landscape is dull, flat as a breadboard. Occasionally, travelers see a village in the distance or a casern, a small hut, up close. Thinly camouflaged tanks stand side by side. Sometimes they see peasants laboring in rows in the fields, planting or picking by hand.
Restaurant Car Expensive
Few passengers go to the restaurant car for lunch--they know it will be expensive. Almost everyone else is unpacking sandwiches, soft drinks and bottles of beer. It is a Mitropa dining car, meaning owned and staffed by East Germany. What traces of decoration remain reflect the style of the 1930s.
The diner has a selection of sandwiches, soft drinks, cake, coffee, beer and vodka. The sandwiches are served open-faced. Magdeburg cheese has a nice taste, but the bread is yesterday's. Waiters take West German currency and return West German change.
By now the train has crossed the plain and come upon Potsdam. The only pleasant view of the trip extends over a lake to a collection of high-rise buildings. By themselves the buildings are nondescript, but the lake reflects their handsome yellow-brown striping and forms an attractive ensemble.
When the train passes the great dome of the Nikolai Church dominating Potsdam, its view is spoiled by the pedestrian Inter Hotel placed in front of it.
Back in Civilization
It isn't long before passengers realize that they are suddenly back in civilization, and civilization must mean Berlin. The train stops at the Berlin Wannsee train station in West Berlin, the first of several West Berlin stops. Travelers gather their luggage, carry-ons and overcoats for the mass exodus at the Berlin Zoo train station in the center of West Berlin scheduled for 5 p.m.
When the train continues to East Berlin, it is empty.
West Berlin's Zoo train station is gloomy, blackened with chewing-gum blotches on its marble floors, but it is a burst of light compared with the trip through East Germany.
A short walk out of the front of the station leads to the tourist office in the Europa-Center complex. It is so well marked that other German city tourist offices must be envious.
City Within City
The Europa-Center on the Kurfurstendamm is a city within a city, the focus of 24-hour modern Berlin.
The center contains beautiful restaurants and an outdoor cafe, countless boutiques, a gambling casino, nightclubs, a quizzical fountain in the shape of a world ball, and a multistory water clock that attracts passers-by for the change of the hours.
The GermanRail Tourist Card for unlimited train travel in West Germany comes with an attached Berlin coupon allowing holders to travel to and from Berlin for about two-thirds of the normal fare.
A round trip between Helmstedt and Berlin costs 46 marks (about $20.25) second-class with a GermanRail Tourist Card. Normal fare is 70 marks ($30.80). Round trip, first-class, with card costs 69 marks ($30.35) compared to the normal fare of 103 marks ($45.30). Travel must be round trip and must be completed before the expiration of the tourist card. Eurailpass holders pay full fare through East Germany.
Also attached to the GermanRail Tourist Card is a coupon for a free two-hour Berlin tour. The tours have a retail value of about $9, an excellent value considering the quality. They are some of the best-organized, best-narrated city tours in Europe.
The city tour passes a succession of high points and historically interesting sights, including a stop at Potsdamer Platz where everyone climbs a wooden platform to look across the Berlin Wall.
The bus visits the neo-classical Brandenburg Gate, copied from Athens; Checkpoint Charlie, made famous during the Berlin Airlift, and the Reichstag, which Hitler had burned.
It continues to Charlottenburg Palace with its green patina dome; the 1936 Olympic Games stadium with its five rings; Schoneburg's town hall where President Kennedy delivered his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech; the huge new International Congress Center and on the Kurfurstendamm, where it starts, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the Europa-Center.
Although visitors are likely to be disappointed with the dreary Zoo train station, train buffs will be delighted with a visit to the jewel-box Wittenbergplatz subway station, Germany's first and oldest. It has recently been delightfully restored as a historic monument.
A return from East Germany via Leipzig through Weimar to the border crossing at Bebra is surprisingly different. The compartments are sprinkled with gray-haired women on their ways to visit brothers or nieces and nephews in the West. Only retired persons are granted visas, and are allowed to take no valuables or currency.
Smiles on the Train
They speak guardedly, choosing their words judiciously, but when they finally see the West German policemen in Bebra they rush to the windows, look back and forth, realize there is no possibility of the train turning back, and break into smiles.
The last stretch of railroad past Erfurt is by far the prettiest in East Germany. Passengers see rolling, forested hills, village houses with tiled roofs and half-timbered farmhouses. Beside the tracks yellow-flowering bushes and blue larkspur seem to shout "Hurrah!"
Money is changed. Westerners must change all East German marks, one for one, with West German marks, but the catch is that they also must have their original money-conversion receipts. A woman with a lapel pin, "Bank," makes the conversion. The East German travelers look on enviously, wishing they could convert their money.
East German passport control officials carefully check visas and compare passport photos and look under the seats for stowaways.
There are no West German passport or customs formalities.
The most dramatic impression of the difference between East and West Germany comes when the train enters the West and one realizes the beauty of farms well-tended instead of fields lying fallow and homes well-kept instead of houses crying for repair.
For further information, contact the German National Tourist Office, Suite 2230, 444 S. Flower St., Los Angeles 90071.