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The Paranoia Express

July 27, 1986|JAY BRUNHOUSE | Brunhouse is a San Francisco free-lance writer.

WEST BERLIN, Germany — 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.

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