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Man cycling by the Berlin wall. (Photograph by Lena Stolarska, My Shot)

The Berlin Wall By Bicycle

The bike tires lick a row of red bricks as I zigzag through Germany’s capital city. My path follows a scar—a blemish rapidly disappearing into the scenery.

I arrived two days ago, and I still can’t wrap my head around the idea of a monstrous wall that split this city in the former East Germany. At Potsdamer Platz, shiny new high-rises overlook a fragment of the graffiti-splashed wall, an iconic backdrop for tourist snapshots.

Fifty years following the wall’s construction, scattered remnants stand. To me, buildings on one side of the old wall appear no different from those on the other. Contemporary structures blur the line further.

For those of us who grew up in the West under the specter of the Cold War, the admittedly biased question is, how did this lunacy work? Where is that hard line between West and East, between Good and Evil?

To find out, I sign up for a four-hour, $25 tour with Berlin on Bike, which has the advantage of 360-degree views and a wide area of coverage. The ride begins near the Eberswalder Strasse train station in Prenzlauer Berg.

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The East Side Gallery, a 1.3 km section of the Berlin Wall. (Photograph by Alessia Cerqua, My Shot)

Guiding our small English-language group this morning is 47-year-old part-time musician Ekki Busch, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable student of history whose family moved to what would become West Germany in 1960. Later he lived in Wedding, some 220 yards from the wall. When it came down, he and many of his peers moved to the former East Berlin. “The rents were cheaper,” he explains. “But the prices have flipped, so now I plan to move back.”

As we ride off, Busch gives us a crash course in history. In 1961, desperate to stem its population drain, the East German government erected a barrier in one night, unfurling miles of barbed wire to isolate and encircle the western half of the city, where American soldiers and their allies were based. Concrete slabs eventually grew, along with 302 guard towers, floodlights, and machine guns.

The 96-mile wall came to a swift demise on November 9, 1989, when East German residents toppled the wall. As the Cold War began to thaw, the city was reunified.

We meet up with the red line in Pankow, a northern suburb where East German government officials once lived. An apartment building still displays a strafing of World War II bullets. Another structure sports a curious outhouse-size box on its roof—a former spy post, Busch explains.

Nearby is the Bornholmer Strasse station, where above-ground S-Bahn routes meet, paralleling each other within kissing distance for a few hundred yards. When Berlin was divided, one track was used by the East, one by the West. The East German government tore down buildings to re-lay the curve of rail, making a potential jump from train to train almost suicidal.

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The Brandenburg Gate, through a bubble. (Photograph by Hitoshi Honda, My Shot)

We encounter a remnant of the wall near Wedding, a colorful stretch lathered in spray paint and flanking a drab, Soviet-era soccer stadium. People are sunning themselves on broad lawns, children playing on swings.

Surveying the gentle scene I wonder aloud how this 12-foot-high structure could ever have prevented able-bodied people from going to the other side. But my guide reminds me: “The wall always contained three elements. There were two parallel barriers, and in between was the Todesstreifen—the death strip.”

Formerly a no-man’s-land where interlopers were shot on sight, the death strip in many areas has been transformed into parks and memorials such as the one on Bernauer Strasse commemorating the more than 135 people who died trying to cross.

The route of the wall winds through Mitte, the historic center of the city, passing under one of only three standing former guard towers and through a cemetery leveled by the barrier, eventually arriving at the Brandenburg Gate. We stop for a snack of currywurst, the fast-food staple of Berlin.

The dish—pork sausages smothered in ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and curry powder —was created in 1949 using supplies obtained from British soldiers. The concoction—still popular today—helped fuel the workers rebuilding the bombed city. I tell Ekki about the fish tacos in my hometown of San Diego, the happy result of another cultural mingling.

Flying home the following evening, I see a familiar sight with new eyes. The twinkling lights of both Tijuana in Mexico and San Diego in the U.S. shine brightly.

In between there is a stark, dark strip.

This article, “Pedaling the Thin Red Line,” written by David Swanson, appeared in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler, and just took top honors for best magazine article (fewer than 1,500 words) in the Society for American Travel Writers’ Western Chapter Writing Awards.