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Cologne Athlete Traces Iron Curtain on Bike

A German mountain biker on Wednesday he set out to rediscover a part of the Soviet legacy by following the former Iron Curtain, from the Arctic Sea to the Black Sea.

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Frank Hülsemann is on a time travel bike ride along the Iron Curtain

Frank Hülsemann from Cologne has already ridden over 14,000 kilometers (8,700 miles) on his trusty mountain bike -- in Mongolia, Siberia, Alaska, the Gobi Desert, and along the Silk Road. He headed off Wednesday on his next adventure: for the next six weeks, he'll trace the former Iron Curtain, from the Arctic Sea in Norway to the Black Sea in Turkey and back to Germany.

"On a bicycle, you travel slowly enough that you can absorb everything around you," said the mountain biker. "You can take smaller paths…and that's the fascinating part."

A connection to the past

Galerie Berliner Mauer: Ostseite

The Iron Curtain divided Germany until 1989

Hülsemann can personally recall just what the atmosphere was like at the Iron Curtain -- he and his parents checked out the German-German border from the West German side in 1986.

The term "Iron Curtain," first used by Winston Churchill in a 1946 speech, caught on as a harsh metaphor for decades of ideological and political separation between the former Soviet Union and the rest of the continent to the west.

"When I think that the (border) went from the Arctic Sea all the way to the Black Sea and divided not only Germany but other countries that used to have a great deal of exchange, I find it very interesting," said the 34-year-old cyclist. "It really fascinated me and I thought I'd just go there and take a look."

Preparing for an adventure

Hülsemann has spent nearly a year researching his expedition on the Internet and gathering maps. Besides packing the essentials -- a tent, sleeping bag, camping stove and bike repair kit -- not many details can be worked out in advance.

"You can find a lot of pretty good maps on the Internet, especially from the former USSR," said Hülsemann, pointing to a Cyrillic map of Karelia, a region between Russia and Finland. "There's a lot of patchwork involved," he said. "I'll have to go into the villages and ask my way through."

Ungarn öffnet Grenze

Hungarian border guards cut a barbed wire fence, part of the Iron Curtain, in May 1989

Asking may prove difficult, as Hülsemann will have to rely on the village residents who can speak a bit of English or else make the most of hand gestures and sign language. From Norway through Finland and Russia to Turkey and Greece -- that's too many languages to learn beforehand.

Though it's clear that Hülsemann will follow the intangible Iron Curtain, his route will write itself as he cycles.

"I don't think you can plan so precisely," he said. "If the Russian border guard says I have to go this way instead of that way, then I can't do anything about it. It doesn't make any sense to plan out every five or 10 kilometer stretch. I know how long the route is, when I have to be where, where the border crossings are -- and in between I'll just feel my way along."

Physical challenge not central

Hülsemann wants to get on his bike each morning around 9 a.m. and cover 150 to 200 kilometers per day. That should take six to eight hours, which still leaves time to take in his historically significant surroundings and talk with the people he meets.

In mid-September, Frank Hülsemann will return to Germany with several thousand kilometers more under his belt, and countless personal impressions of modern life along the Iron Curtain -- 17 years after its collapse.

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