The Forbidden Journey How Two East Germans Fled to China to Go West

They were young and in love -- and trapped in an oppressive regime. In 1987, an East German couple traveled clandestinely from Berlin to Beijing in a brazen attempt to escape to the West. Only one of them would make it to freedom.

It would have actually taken just 10 minutes for Jens and Marion to walk the 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) that separated Rykestrasse, in East Berlin, from the western half of the divided city.

But on a day in August 1987, they were somewhere in Mongolia, roughly 7,500 kilometers (4,650 miles) from their street in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. The two students had taken the longest conceivable route from East to West Berlin -- and they were still a long way from reaching their destination. Beijing was still some 1,500 kilometers away, and they had no visa to cross the border into China.

Using a forged invitation, Jens and Marion had made it to Mongolia, which was politically controlled by the Soviet Union at the time. Now came the most difficult part of their trip: China was a forbidden country for citizens of the former East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR). But it was only in Beijing, at the West German embassy, that they could apply for political asylum and acquire the passport that would allow them to live in the West.

Twice a week, a train traveled from the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, to Beijing. Still, it seemed virtually impossible for anyone who was not Chinese to buy a ticket. Soldiers and police were milling around the railway station, and every minute in the vicinity of the ticket counter was dangerous for East Germans without a valid visa. Out of fear of being discovered, Marion retreated to the mountains behind the city and spent the night in the woods in a sleeping bag. Jens anxiously made his way to the Chinese consulate.

In East Berlin, GDR citizens were not granted visas for China. It was a similar story in Warsaw and Moscow. But what about in Ulan Bator? "Nobody in Mongolia picks up the phone to check on something back in the GDR," thought Jens. To improve their chances, he held a few dollars in his hand. The Chinese official gave him a quizzical look and rifled through the documents for several minutes. Then the diplomat took the money and slid the visas across the table. The long march could continue -- along with the debate over whether they wanted to venture the last steps to freedom.

Yearning to Escape the Cage

Jens and Marion have now told their story for the first time. It's the tale of a trip to the East to arrive in the West. Few had dared such a journey in the days when Germany was still divided. Nearly all those fleeing East Germany opted for the short, dangerous route over the Berlin Wall, or they attempted to cross borders within Europe.

"Everyone would say you should go from east to west. But you can simply go the opposite direction and eventually also reach your destination -- it's as simple as that," says Jens. It is now 25 years later. He is sitting in his house in the Spreewald, an idyllic forest and inland delta region southwest of Berlin. His property is surrounded by trees and flowing water, and he can bird-watch from his garden. He loves to imitate their calls, lure them closer and describe their plumage and courtship behavior.

Nature is his great passion -- an interest that had already been kindled back in the days when he studied biology in East Berlin. He longed to explore all climate zones, and the GDR was too small and confining for his dreams. "I wanted to live, I wanted to discover the world," says Jens. "I couldn't accept that aging rulers simply decreed: "'You can't leave the country; you have to stay home in the small cage!'"

Today, Jens writes independent biological assessments on nature conservation projects. He hasn't seen Marion for 20 years. But he has cherished the memories of their forbidden journey, along with photos taken at the time. It was his children who started to ask him what happened back then. "If you want something, pursue it with all your heart," he tells them.

It takes a special kind of person to believe that 9,000 kilometers is not too far to travel to go from East to West Berlin. Perhaps this is the kind of thing you can only come up with if you're 24 years old and in love; if you can put up with not knowing in the morning where you will sleep that night; if the end of the forbidden journey is open; and if you see the dangers along the way as the challenge of a lifetime. And if you seize your freedom, instead of asking for it.

A Dream Destroyed

Marion and Jens met each other at East Berlin's Weissensee School of Art -- in the darkroom. Marion was studying stage design and came along one day as Jens was developing photos from a trip to the Caucasus. The lively young woman was a year older than him. She had a carefree laugh and told him about a wild trip through the countryside. Jens immediately took a liking to her.

That same evening, she went home with him to his one-room apartment in a dilapidated old building on Rykestrasse, right near the old water tower, a landmark in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. It was winter. Outside the building, they stole coal from a trailer and sat on an upturned wooden crate, warming themselves in front of the old tiled stove until late in the night.

Marion soon moved in with Jens. On warm days, she liked to sit on the roof and draw the decrepit chimneys, the ramshackle roofs and the top of East Berlin's TV tower in the distance. Jens paid a monthly rent of 36 East German marks. His neighbors were political activists, artists and punks -- young people who wanted another political system, another life.

Jens, a mountain climber with a long beard, was working in bird sanctuaries at the time. When the zoologist Günter Tembrock accepted him into his class at Berlin's Humboldt University, it was a dream come true for Jens. Tembrock was as popular in the East as Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian zoologist and animal behaviorist, was in the West, and he had compiled the largest animal sound archive in Europe. Jens admired and emulated this great scholar, and he wanted to become a field biologist and explore the animal kingdom.

But, in 1986, Jens was expelled from the university after having been categorized as a "hostile and negative individual." His commitment to nature conservation and his involvement with church environmental groups had incurred the displeasure of East Germany's feared secret police, the Stasi.

Learning to Escape

With his life's dream destroyed, Jens refused to compromise. Instead, he wanted to leave. But how? GDR citizens were not even allowed to freely travel in fellow communist countries. Trips to the Soviet Union were generally limited to delegations and tour groups, and such journeys abroad often cost over 6,000 marks -- more than many East Germans earned in a year.

Uniformed officials at railway stations and highway checkpoints constantly asked for the "march route," the time-limited itinerary that travelers had to respect to the letter.

But Jens had already traveled illegally through the USSR when he was 20. During one transit from Poland to Romania, which was limited to three days, he got off the train in the Soviet Union. Jens took extended trips with a portable, folding boat as far as north as the Soviet polar circle, he hiked in the Pamir Mountains, and he traveled as far east as Lake Baikal -- and didn't report in to the authorities until weeks later, supplying them with wild excuses. In the East German outdoor scene, this type of traveling was called moving "undetected through friendly territory."

Other trips followed. Without a visa, the amateur biologist trekked in foreign climes and took photos with a medium-format camera. He even managed to sell a few of his pictures to East German nature magazines, using the money to finance more travel.

The expeditions through the Eastern bloc taught him how communist bureaucracies worked -- and the best ways to outsmart customs officers and border officials. He would later use this knowledge during his escape with Marion.

Gathering the Necessary Documents

In order to create a somewhat credible story, he and Marion joined the Socialist Mountaineering Club. At a flea market, he purchased a typewriter with Cyrillic letters and used it to create a fake invitation from the Soviet Union. The bogus document alleged that Russian climbers from a fellow socialist mountaineering association in Tajikistan had invited the couple to join them on a trip to "Communism Peak" -- known today as Ismoil Somoni Peak -- in the Pamir Mountains. At almost 7,500 meters (25,000 feet), the peak is the highest mountain in Tajikistan and the former Soviet Union.

The East German police in Prenzlauer Berg were impressed. In any case, with their rudimentary knowledge of Russian, the officials thought the letter was genuine, but felt that it wasn't their area of responsibility.

They said there was a special passport office for Olympic teams at the sports complex in the Hohenschönhausen district. Two weeks later, Jens and Marion were surprised to receive travel documents from this authority, including visas for Mongolia.

From earlier trips, Jens knew that suspicious officials everywhere could ask for their dokumenty, confiscate their passports and put an end to their trip. So it was advisable never to hand over the original identification papers. They decided to take along other documents that looked rather impressive.

"Whenever we were stopped," recalls Jens, "we'd always ask ourselves: What should we show now? The Young Pioneer ID card? Or the membership card from the Society for German-Soviet Friendship?"

He thought the GDR social security ID seemed particularly suitable for the job. It was a small, green booklet the size of a passport, with a large number of pages and a watermark. It was stamped with a big official seal every time he donated blood, which he frequently did. He glued a passport photo into the document and used a large East German five-mark coin -- with its hammer, compass and wreath of wheat -- for a stamp template. All he had to do was coat the coin in red ink and press it on the edge of the passport photo and the reserve fake passport was complete.

Flights into the Wild

During his earlier travels, Jens had gathered names and addresses of possible places to spend the night. For example, there was Misha, the Soviet military pilot. The young East German and the Russian officer had met in a sleeping compartment of the Trans-Siberian Railway east of the Ural Mountains. They started up a conversation over breakfast. Misha was stirring a kind of jam into his tea as he explained that he was from Chita, a city in southern Siberia. Jens said that there was a national park nearby that was home to the Siberian tiger. Misha was impressed. "Not bad," he said. "How can someone from Berlin be familiar with my hometown?"

After a number of hours in the same compartment, Jens mustered his courage and showed Misha on a map the areas he still wanted to explore. "To observe nesting birds," he added cautiously.

"I can help you," Misha said. "I regularly make supply flights for our geologists." The pilot marked on Jens' map where he sometimes landed with his airplane to pick up scientists, and where one could find interesting birds. "Simply go to the airport at Ulan Bator, walk past the barriers, cross the airfield and ask for Misha. I'm there on Tuesdays and Fridays, depending on the weather. Wait for me if I don't happen to be there."

Jens took the officer up on his offer. In the summer of 1986, he and Marion headed east, intending to travel as far as Mongolia for the first time. The plan wasn't to make their escape this year. It was merely a test to see how far they could get.

Following Misha's directions, they walked across the airfield in Ulan Bator and on toward the military section of the airport. They quickly found the pilot, hopped on board his rickety plane and took off. Jens and Marion saw barren mountains and steppes pass below them. There was a crack in the windshield and Misha loudly complained that the repair in Ulan Bator had failed once again. Since the crack widened to become a hole, and a storm front was brewing up ahead, Misha had to make a wide detour to avoid the rain. Hours later, he dropped the couple off at a nature reserve they were determined to see.

Camping in Mongolia

Jens and Marion traveled unimpeded across a country that is 14 times as large as the former East Germany and finally reached the Gobi Desert. They were given a ride in an old truck by a Mongolian family. When the engine broke down, they were stuck for three days in searing heat that reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade. They enjoyed the villagers' hospitality which, as Jens recalls, was so refreshingly different than all the empty words of solidarity uttered back home on May 1, International Workers' Day.

There were many moments like this on the trip, and Jens could no longer imagine returning to live out his days in the GDR. Here he had found what was missing back home -- freedom, adventure and the ability to act and make decisions without anyone telling him what to do.

He and Marion pitched their camp on the shores of the shimmering, deep-blue waters of Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia's second-largest lake. Jens built a bench, a table and an oven to bake bread. Marion drew plants and animals.

"During those days," Marion says, "we didn't see a single soul, just a herd of wild horses grazing nearby. Our tent was hidden among small fir trees and, in the early morning hours, we were awakened by singing birds."

Marion is sitting in her old village house, surrounded by meadows and pastures in the Fläming region, a lonely landscape in southern Brandenburg, southwest of Berlin. Like Jens, she has retained her love of nature; she raises sheep and runs a felt workshop. "It was like an expedition," she says as she looks back on their first trip to Mongolia. She observed with fascination how people lived in a yurt and admired the sense of calm and the harmony among their Mongolian hosts. "I could've stayed forever," Marion says today. She didn't want to deal with the plans of their subsequent escape. After a few weeks, she returned to East Berlin in time to start the new semester. Jens came home somewhat later.

Cold Feet

Things got serious a year later. In June 1987, the two boarded a train in Berlin's Ostbahnhof station and traveled through Poland to Moscow. At Moscow's Yaroslavsky train station, they hopped on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Perm, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk -- for days they traveled through the Soviet Union and nervously stood in front of the samovar in their third-class sleeping car and kept warm by drinking strong black tea. Their dokumenty were constantly checked. But their plan succeeded, and the trip went smoothly.

They eventually found themselves in Mongolia again. Marion wanted to return to the wilderness and spend some time there, but Jens wanted to move on quickly -- to China and the West German embassy.

On an August evening in Ulan Bator, the two students debated what to do next. Jens tried to justify to himself and to Marion why he wanted to put East Germany behind him forever. He talked about the geriatric state leaders who tried to dictate what life should be like. He talked about the Free German Youth (FDJ), the official communist youth movement, at his university that had reported him. To outside appearances, his university comrades had criticized him for not taking enough Russian classes. In reality, though, his Stasi files would later reveal that he had in fact been targeted because of his critical opinions, his environmental awareness, his desire to travel, his many contacts and his "failure to adapt to the collective."

Jens told Marion what it was like when he had to defend himself before a disciplinary commission at the university, even though it had already been decided behind closed doors that he would be expelled from the school.

He described his experiences with Urania, an educational organization in East Berlin also known as the Society for the Dissemination of Scientific Knowledge. There, he had given slide shows of his expeditions in an auditorium full of delighted audiences. Talking about trips to the Ural Mountains and Lake Baikal, he had advised his incredulous listeners: "Just travel there!" Indeed, he did so with great enthusiasm -- until the day when two gentlemen in gray suits met with the organizer and explained that it would be better if the photographer no longer made presentations there.

It was a long evening. Marion talked about her art studies and her upcoming degree. She had not yet attracted attention as a "hostile and negative individual." She wondered whether fleeing to the West could hurt her sister's future. And what about her father, who held a senior position at the DEFA film studio in Babelsberg near Berlin, East Germany's main movie production facility? Could he lose his job?

The Final Leg to Beijing

The moment of decision drew closer. Jens and Marion still had a short wait in Ulan Bator until the next train left for China. They visited a Buddhist monastery, where the monks were exceedingly friendly. For a long time -- too long for Jens' taste -- the monks urged them with polite gestures to remain inside the monastery. Then uniformed officials suddenly showed up and checked their papers. It turned out the monks had betrayed their guests and called the intelligence agency.

Marion gave the agents her student ID card, and Jens showed them his membership card from the FDJ. They took advantage of a moment when they were left unattended and slipped away. Their guards apparently didn't believe they would try to flee without travel documents.

Jens and Marion rushed back into the mountains and slept in the forest again. It wasn't until days later that they dared to return to the railway station and, with the visas from the Chinese embassy, boarded the night train that took them across the border into China.

They hardly had any money left when they reached the Yellow River. Twelve East German marks were just enough for two fifth-class tickets on board a ship that would take them toward the coast and Beijing. At night, they slept below deck on thin rice mats in a cabin without a window surrounded by a dozen Chinese. During the day, they went up to the second-class section of the ship, where other foreigners were traveling.

A man from Switzerland gave them some money and a copy of the "Lonely Planet" travel guide, which contained key Chinese phrases.

Both of these things helped them travel through a country they found depressing. After the vastness of the Mongolian steppes and the hospitality of the nomads, they experienced communist China as a hard and ruthless system. They had never so clearly witnessed the contradiction between socialist propaganda and reality. Marion began to long for Rykestrasse in Berlin.

Parting Ways

After traveling more than 9,000 kilometers, they finally stood in front of the West German embassy in Beijing. But the building on the other side of the street seemed unreachable: There were surveillance cameras, police guards and civil security agents. Jens and Marion didn't dare to take the last few steps.

Instead, they wandered aimlessly through the streets of Beijing. After a while, they came to a park where old men were moving in what seemed like slow motion as they practiced tai chi on a dried-out lawn. Jens and Marion walked by them hand-in-hand, saying little.

Should they really follow through with their planned escape? Jens had hated this debate with a vengeance back in Prenzlauer Berg. He had seen political activists who had become increasingly similar to their political opponents in the regime and now wanted to dictate to him and others what was right and wrong. He and Marion wanted to decide freely, and the route that they had chosen had taken them this far.

Marion decided to return to the GDR -- back to her beloved Prenzlauer Berg, her university studies, her family and her friends.

With so little money, Jens and Marion were forced to spend the night on the roof of a hotel. The next morning, they said their farewells at the railway station. Marion quickly disappeared in the teeming crowd behind the barriers.

"We were in love right to the end," Marion says today. But her homesickness was stronger than this love, and his yearning to travel to distant lands was more intense. "It was sad, but totally OK," she says.

Without too much trouble, Marion managed to travel by train back to Mongolia, and from there via Moscow as far as Poland. Before she crossed the border into the GDR, she went to the police and reported her passport stolen. In reality, though, she had burned it because her entry stamp into China, a forbidden country, would have betrayed her.

The officials complained, but they finally relented. After all, she was a student who wanted to re-enter the GDR, so she received replacement papers.

The next morning, she returned to the empty apartment on Rykestrasse. She climbed up to the roof and sat at her favorite spot with a view of the old water tower.

The masonry appeared to have crumbled even more quickly while she'd been away. One of the chimneys had collapsed entirely. She once again captured the whole setting in a drawing.

A Time to Remember

Jens remained in China for a while. He wanted to make sure that Marion had safely returned to the GDR before the police and the Stasi found out about his defection. In the meantime, he roamed with his camera and took pictures in Beijing, in Shanghai and in the countryside.

Then he finally ventured back to the West German embassy in Beijing. There, he received a new passport and made his way to West Germany via Hong Kong, Dubai and London. In December 1987, he finally flew from Cologne to West Berlin.

Jens and Marion saw each other a few times. They met in Prague before the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989. They later visited an exhibition on Mongolia together, but then went their separate ways. They both found new partners, had children and moved to where they could be surrounded by nature.

One fall day, they met in Jens' house in the Spreewald. It was the first time they had seen each other in 20 years. Jens still has that glint of adventure in his eyes -- only the beard has been shaved off. Marion still has the same carefree laugh that she had in her student days in East Berlin. They both have new travel plans: He would like take his family on a trip to explore national parks in Africa, and she plans to travel to the Mecklenburg Lake District north of Berlin.

But, for now, they are taking a trip down memory lane. They excitedly look at the old photos on the kitchen table, and the conversation quickly turns to the Mongolians and their yurts, to birds and the meaning of their forbidden journey. "After experiences like that, you can deal with anything," says Marion. "I would do it again at the drop of a hat."

"You have to make a new decision at every fork in the road," says Jens. "Whether you go left or right, it ultimately doesn't matter -- as long as you believe you'll reach your destination."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.