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Archive for the ‘Berlin’ Category

The Bahnbetriebswerk Pankow-Heinersdorf (Bahnbetriebswerk = railyard) is right next to the train station of the same name in Germany’s capital Berlin… and probably as famous as the *Spreepark* and the *Iraqi Embassy In The German Democratic Republic* – yeah, I was a lazy explorer last summer, going after the easy names instead of the unique locations like I do here in Japan. But I was kind of in a hurry and to the best of my knowledge, abandoned embassies and railyards are really rare in Japan, so it was a welcome change of aesthetics, though the insane amount of vandalism and other people there pretty much ruined the experience again.

The history of the Bahnbetriebswerk Pankow-Heinersdorf dates back to the year 1893, which makes the area one of the oldest “modern” ruins I ever explored. Back in Prussian times the roundhouse (Rundlokschuppen) at the southern end of the premises was finished – then a high tech building to store and / or repair up to 24 trains at the same time, protected from the weather; thanks to its internal turntable, protected from frost. At that time, new and bigger train models were released much more often than nowadays. Soon the roundhouse became too small, so the Königlich Preußische und Großherzoglich Hessischen Staatseisenbahnen (“Royal Prussian and Grand-Ducal Hessian State Railways”) had to add a semi-oval train repair shop (Lokschuppen) in the northern part of the railyard. The advantage of that building was that it could be expanded according to the needs of new train models, the disadvantage was its outdoor turntable, exposed to the weather all year long and therefore failure-prone.
Both repair shops are still standing today. The roundhouse is actually one of only two left in all of Germany – and under monumental protection, which is probably one of the reasons why the whole area is one big ruin, despite the fact that it was sold by the Deutsche Bahn AG to real estate and furniture mogul Kurt Krieger in 2011, more than ten years after the railyard was closed. Yes, Kurt Krieger – long-time readers of *Abandoned Kansai* might remember that name from an article I wrote 20 months ago, about the abandoned furniture store *Möbel Erbe Hanau*; it’s the very same guy, what a surprise! (Gosh, I love it when separate stories come together like that!)

The Bahnbetriebswerk Pankow-Heinersdorf once covered an area of 250000 square meters (that’s almost 2.7 million square feet!) and gave work to hundreds of people, now that most of the train tracks have been removed, there are only about a dozen rotting buildings in various states of decay left – other buildings and more tracks further south have been demolished around 2006. Over the years, they all have been boarded up and torn apart several times, graffiti everywhere. I spent around two hours at the trainyard and ran into more than a dozen people; urbex for the masses. While I had the newer repair shop in the north for myself, the roundhouse in the south turned out to be a popular spot for photo shootings… and a large group of eight to ten people was just setting up. When they called for a meeting in one of the adjunct rooms, I quickly shot a short video and then got out of there to not further disturb them.
Exploring the Bahnbetriebswerk Pankow-Heinersdorf was interesting, but a little bit underwhelming. I love those huge industrial sites from the Age of Industrialization, especially since they are so hard to find in Japan, but at the same time it was sad to see a rare building under monumental protection just rot away for monetary reasons, vandalized by bored morons – the railyard’s roundhouse is one of only two left in all of Germany, from an era so important for the whole country… for the whole world. It might not have been the most glamorous or the most just era, but it surely was one of the most interesting ones!

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Abandoned embassies are not exactly common finds in the urbex world, yet the deserted embassy of Iraq in Berlin has become kind of a tourist attraction, mentioned in several guides to Germany’s capital. For seasoned urban explorers like myself quite a weird experience…
The area around the Tschaikowskistraße (German for Tchaikovsky Street) in Niederschönhausen is dominated by mansions with large gardens, built about 100 years ago; the road itself leading up directly to Schönhausen Palace, a baroque palace dating back to a villa originally built more than 350 years ago. One exception is a small offspring of the Tschaikowskistraße, including the infamous number 51 – home to the former Iraqi Embassy in the German Democratic Republic a.k.a. East Germany. The area consists of half a dozen buildings constructed in 1974 by the Kombinat Ingenieurhochbau Berlin. The GDR was (in)famous for their huge plattenbau style architecture, simple designs built with prefabricated concrete slabs – and the new houses in the Tschaikowskistraße were no exception. Well, they were smaller and modified (inside walls were brick-built!) to suit the purposes of their new inhabitants: the ambassadors from France, Italy, Australia, Poland… and Iraq. After the collapse of East Germany those countries needed only one embassy in the now reunited Berlin, so they gave up the so called “Diplomatenviertel von Pankow” (Diplomats’ Neighborhood of Pankow), named after borough Niederschönhausen is located in. While the other nations packed their stuff, left and gave back the premises they were located on… the Iraqis just left. Background is a paralyzing mix of the complicated legal circumstance (there are different versions of who owns the land, the building and the usage rights) and a total lack of interest in resolving the situation; apparently neither Germany nor the Iraq are lifting a finger when it comes to Tschaikowskistraße 51. And so the building just stands there from early 1991 on – when the diplomats left due to the Gulf War and accusations that the embassy had been used as a weapons and explosives storage. As time went on more and more people had a look at the deserted embassy, then people started to take “souvenirs” – framed photos of Saddam Hussein, visas, documents, books, even parts of the interior furnishing. At the same time people started to vandalize the building; smashing windows, graffiti, arson. Then the press picked up the topic and in 2003 even the New York Times ran a piece about it. With no security, no police patrolling and nobody really caring about the building, dozens of regular Berlin tourist from all over the world show up there every day with a taken-for-grantedness bordering arrogance – something I wasn’t aware of when I finally reached the embassy; and a state of mind I am not used to as a seasoned urban explorer treating both the locations I visit as well as fellow explorers with all due respect.

The first thing I realized upon arrival at the former Iraqi Embassy In The German Democratic Republic was the fact that the surrounding buildings were occupied by a company called AiF Projekt GmbH, with no hint what this company was doing. The partly boarded-up embassy was located maybe 5 meters away from the street on the 5000 square meters big property – the only apparent way in and out a slightly opened lattice gate. Unaware of the complex ownership situation and the touristy reputation of this clearly rundown building, I tried to evaluate whether or not it was worth taking the risk of entering straight away in broad daylight, when a retiree walking his dog came up to me. We were having quite a nice conversation in which he was telling me all about the history of the embassy and the similar buildings right across the street, about his life in the GDR and how the powers that be couldn’t care less about the condition of the embassy, when all of a sudden a woman in her late 40s, early 50s interrupted. With an obnoxious voice and an even more obnoxious arrogant attitude she questioned basically everything the man said, because she read about the place in a tourist guide and did some research of her own – basically calling the poor old man a liar and storyteller. The poor fella really took it to heart, getting red in the face, starting to shake involuntarily… and then he left, but not after voicing that he wished the place was gone and that he would love to call the police 20 times a day. Which I totally understood, because I have to admit that I hardly ever met an argumentative person like that in my whole life, especially not since I moved to Japan where a dis(s)cussion like that is completely unheard-of.
Slightly worried whether or not that nice old man would call the police from pure spite and hatred for that strange woman, I entered the embassy through an open door – only to realize that the place was a mess, one of the most rundown and vandalized locations I have ever explored, a real piece of trash. The architecture and the style of the building was like nothing I would ever be able to see while exploring in Japan, so I got my camera ready and started to take some photos, when I ran into that middle-aged woman from before again, outside on a balcony. I cut the conversation short as she was desperate to get my confirmation about how she was right, not just with the arguments she had, but with the way she presented them. So I basically fled to the upper floor… where I ran into three guys of questionable looks – halfway between squatters and drug addicts. What the heck was going on here? They approached me in English and we had two minutes of meaningless small talk. Luckily they weren’t squatting druggies, just British tourists; though one of them way clearly drunk and most likely high! Down at the ground floor again, I stepped into main hallway, when I saw a teenage girl coming down the staircase while another middle aged woman (wearing a too tight skirt and flip-flops!) was blaring “See, now they are creeping from their holes!” at us in German as if we were a bunch of cockroaches, before leaving with her Cartman looking son. Seriously, WTF? There was an endless coming and going of random people, something I’ve never seen before – I easily met more people at the former Iraqi Embassy In The German Democratic Republic in the hour I spent there than in five years of serious urban exploration in Japan! I wasn’t even able to shoot a decent video without anybody yelling or walking through background; Christian Bale most likely would have gone nuts! After an attempt or two I approached the latest group of urbex tourists, a handful of French twens, and told them that I intended to shoot a video that could end up on Youtube… and they were like “Yeah, we don’t mind being seen or heard in it, just go ahead!” – I still tried to avoid people, but you will see / hear some of them in the clip at the end of this article.

“Interesting” is the kindest word I was able come up with to describe my experiences in Berlin… in general. Back in the early / mid-90s the Iraqi Embassy must have been one of the most exciting abandoned places in the whole world – untouched, full of items left behind, 20 years of intense history. Now it’s an involuntary tourist attraction, vandalized and overrun, from urban exploration as far away as infiltration. What a shame…

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How to enter Spreepark?

That never really was a question. I knew I would find my way into Germany’s most famous abandoned theme park, though I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to. When I first saw the sad leftovers of what once was Spreepark im Plänterwald on a sunny early Monday afternoon my heart sank a bit – all the horror stories about vandalism at famous abandoned places in Europe seemed to have come true at first sight, even from the outside. I just had arrived in Berlin to abysmal weather forecasts (rain, rain, rain and… rain), so I headed there immediately after I dropped some luggage at my freshly booked hotel – a mild disaster in comparison to what I am used to living in Japan. In Japan you go to the clearly labelled tourist information and you name your budget and the part of the city you are interested in. At Tegel Airport I first had to ask somebody if there was a tourist information at all and the first reaction I got there upon voicing my general request was „We charge three Euros for a hotel reservation!“ – I guess it’s needless to say that it’s a free of charge service in Japan. After not being asked, I tried to state my budget and the area of the city I was interested in, to which I had to deal with a rather rude „First I have to find out what’s available!“ Jawohl, mein Fräulein! Of course the hotel she found was 50% above my budget, which provoked her to the following snarky comment: „You can go to the city center and try to find a cheaper hotel on your own!“ After booking, the tourist information “lady” tried to send me on my way with the hotel’s address printed on top of a legal document 5 pages long, but without a map or information about how to get to the damn city center. Gosh, you gotta love Berlin… (It turned out that the hotel was not only over the price I had in mind, but it was also overpriced. Breakfast was 10 EUR extra per day, WiFi in the room an additional 5 EUR, the room had no fridge or complimentary toiletries like a toothbrush, and the bed was about half as wide of what I am used to from Japan – where I pay about half as much per night, but including all of the above!) If you think I sometimes rant too much about Japan, don’t get me started about Germany! 😉

Well, there I was, finally, at the Spreepark, just 15 minutes on foot away from the S-Bahn station Plänterwald, named after the city forest of the same name. The park opened in 1969 as the only amusement park in the German Democratic Republic a.k.a. East Germany. Called Kulturpark Plänterwald (cultural park Plänterwald) back then, it was privatized and renamed in 1991, one year after Germany’s reunification. Originally a pay as you go amusement park, the concept was changed in 90s as the Spreepark Berlin GmbH under owner Norbert Witte added more and more attractions – nevertheless visitor numbers dropped from 1.5 million per year to 400.000 per year, followed by the bankruptcy of the GmbH in 2001. In early 2002, Witte, his family and some employees made authorities believe that they would ship 6 attractions to repair, instead they sent them to Lima, Peru, where they opened a new theme park called Lunapark – later Witte and his son were convicted for trying to smuggle 167 kilograms of drugs upon returning back to Germany. The gutted park itself closed for the public in 2002 and became a famous spot for urban explorers, despite round the clock security. Taking advantage of that huge interest, a company offered official photo tours from August 2009 on, a café called Mythos opened in April 2011 on the weekends and from Mai 2011 on the park’s train Santa Fe Express became its first official active attraction again – and Spreepark turned into a zombie amusement park; looking (and probably smelling) dead, but being somewhat alive…
In early 2014 the city took over and I was told that for the first time in 12 years there were neither security nor official tours – and by coincidence I went to Berlin anyway, so I had a look myself. Remains of the park can be found as far as 500 meters away from the entrance, where I saw a huge ad box for the park, promoting raffles for free tickets. From there a path lead through the forest to the main entrance, damaged lamp posts from the GDR era on both sides of the way. Upon arrival the first thing I saw was a parked car right inside the gates, so I assumed somebody was on the premises, which made me have a look around first. A couple of minutes later I found several spots to enter Spreepark comfortably, but at the same time the sun was gone and it began to rain… heavily… at least for a while – the forecast was right after all. I took shelter in a little hut right next to the Spree and when the sun came out again I continued to circle Spreepark in full, amazed that the fence had more holes than Swiss cheese! On the way I saw several vandalized signs, a vandalized wooden kiosk and a locked up, fenced off and slightly vandalized restaurant for day-trippers called “Zum Eierhäuschen” (The Egg House), dating back to the 19th century and made famous by Theodor Fontane’s novel Der Stechlin.
Upon getting closer to the main entrance again, I finally saw the park’s landmark, a Ferris wheel 45 meters high – and to my surprise it was moving! I took a quick video, when I saw some people inside of the park, walking towards one of the gates… Half a dozen left, one stayed behind, so I talked to the guy and asked him when the next tour would start – it turned out that he wasn’t a tour guide, but security. Damn! He also told me that he kicks everybody out straight away and calls the police when he sees somebody twice – and that I was notice. Damn! And the Ferris wheel wasn’t running, it was moved by the wind… damn! Not my day…
Well, after a dozen years of vandalism and removing attraction, Spreepark was a rundown piece of crap anyway – and after 5 years of official tours and thousands of people entering illegally, there was no way I could have taken a photo inside you haven’t seen a million times on the internet anyway. So I decided to stay outside, taking some pictures from there – not spectacular ones, but new ones, stuff you probably haven’t seen yet; and to enjoy the atmosphere there for another hour or two. Minutes later I talked to a group of British students on a school trip to Berlin, who were eager to enter, but couldn’t decide whether or not to risk it. Then I went back to the Ferris wheel to have another look, when all of a sudden I saw a guy inside running like crazy, followed by a police car outside. The guy was able to hide and the police car left without catching him, but to me this was great – I am not used to that doing urbex in Japan, it’s a lot more mellow here! I headed back to the main entrance, when I saw two young women inside, just carelessly walking around, obviously not the slightest worried about security or the police – an attitude I saw repeatedly on two more locations the following day; people in Berlin don’t seem to have a sense of guilt whatsoever, their level of entitlement was amazing to see – though I guess some of them get crushed at the police station… 🙂 Despite that, I still had no urge to get inside and take some photos – again, there was close to nothing for me to gain. One big element of urbex is risk assessment. Spreepark is photographed to death and I have been to much better abandoned amusement parks in the past. *Nara Dreamland* for example – I was willing to take the risk to go there five years ago, when it was virtually unknown. Now it’s a vandalized piece of garbage much like Spreepark, and I pity the fools who nowadays risk getting caught by security and the Japanese police. At the same time I don’t mind taking a risk if it’s worth it – just three days ago I explored an abandoned capsule hotel right across the street from a police station, because it’s a unique location and I was able to take some amazing photos that no one has ever taken before; *click here for a first impression on Facebook*.
Anyway, I sat down on a bench, looking through the photos on my camera, when I was approached by an older man. We talked for a while and it turned out that he lived in the area for like 40 years and knew all about the park and its history, not happy with the current situation. He confirmed that the Ferris wheel hasn’t been used in a while and that it is actually very dangerous to get close to it as the authorities are worried that the whole thing might fall over as the foundations are completely rotten and a very strong wind could bring it down.

Wow, this visit really had it all – security, police, neighbors, wannabe explorers, risk takers; and me enjoying the atmosphere.
About four weeks later Spreepark made national news when four men started two fires that destroyed parts of the park. The city’s reaction? Increased security, a new fence all around the park… and new photo tours, probably starting in 2015.

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