Saturday, July 19


The forthcoming Summer Olympics have focused plenty attention on China’s national capital and its incredible transformation. In recent times the city has opened a new airport terminal, underground metro lines, spectacular sports stadiums and dramatic new public buildings. I’ve read articles that compare the city’s development to that of Paris, London or New York during their respective economic heyday.

I first visited Beijing in 1998. Since then I’ve returned regularly for business, witnessing first-hand the remarkable transformation. I still recall standing at a major intersection, a few short blocks away from Tiananmen Square, and being transfixed by the expanse of bicycles I could see in every direction. Today, the same intersection is just as chaotic, but the bicycles have been replaced by a noisy sea of cars.

I’ve seen only one other city, Berlin, transform itself in a similar manner over the same time frame. My first trip to Berlin in August 1990 came only nine months after the Wall had fallen, and a month before reunification of the post-war German nations. At the time, we’d hitch-hiked into Berlin along one of the three autobahns that had once linked it with the West. Ominous border booths and fences were still in place (but not in use) and the East Germany Ostmark was still in circulation.

I’ve returned in 1996, 2002 and again last weekend when Garry and I ventured to Berlin with two friends from Australia; Brendan and Grant. This was my fourth time in the city, their first. We stayed on the banks of the Spree River, in Mitte, a neighbourhood that was once part of East Berlin.

Each time I’ve visited, the city’s progressive transformation has captivated me. In 1990, Potsdamer Platz was nothing more than an empty field in the heart of the city surrounded by the last remnants of the infamous Berlin Wall. Six years later the same location was an astonishing forest of construction cranes stretching for almost a kilometre. Another six years on and it was home to a modern, light-filled public atrium linking half a dozen ultra-modern glass towers.

Today, a further six years on and the city continues to surprise and delight me. This time I noted the new soaring Hauptbahnhof terminal, a new stadium on the banks of the Spree and entire neighbourhoods in former East Berlin that had become fashionable café zones. Even the restored Reichstag was sporting a new metro station. I was glad to see a few decaying remnants of the old Cold War city still remain.

The East Side Gallery is still in place. This preserved portion of the Berlin Wall on the northern bank of the Spree River was transformed into an outdoor art gallery after the wall fell. Its stark concrete wall is painted with colourful murals, many with political themes reflecting on the city’s release from decades of fear and oppression. In 1996 the paint was bright and the images larger than life. Today, the same artwork is faded and blotted by graffiti.

Checkpoint Charlie has become a cliché tourist spot. The once imposing border post has been replaced by a Disney-clean guard booth flanked by meticulously arranged sandbags and two flag-bearing uniformed soldiers. You can pose in front of its perfect façade once you’ve greased each soldier’s palm with a few euros. It was hard to fathom that the city’s once frightening reality had become little more than a tourist’s happy snap.

I was relieved to see a few poignant memorials to the city’s painful past have been sensitively preserved. Perhaps the most striking of these was the Topography of Terror, a open-air display near Potsdamer Platz that documents the history of the Nazi Gestapo. A preserved, tattered section of the Berlin Wall provides a sombre backdrop. It’s here that you’re reminded of how much heartache the city’s citizens have endured for almost eighty years.

I was also glad to see that the simple Wall Victims Memorials was still in place near Brandenburger Tor. This memorial consists of a line of white crosses that immortal individuals killed attempting to escape from East Berlin. The last of these victims died less than nine months before the wall fell. Brandenburger Tor itself has been transformed. A once isolated landmark demarcating the border between East and West Berlin is now overshadowed by a ring of uninspiring modern buildings that link it directly to the surrounding neighbourhood. Personally, I think it’s lost much of its grandeur in the process.

Other familiar sights remain untouched by progress. Over the course of the long weekend I took the boys up the TV tower at Alexanderplatz, past the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche war memorial church and along the grand boulevard of Unter den Linden. Each was as memorable as the last time I saw it.

However, perhaps the most memorable highlight was the Pergamon Museum on Museumsinsel (Museum Island). Here we saw the impressive Pergamon Altar, a reconstructed Roman temple, that gave the museum its name. The altar sits in a large glass-roof atrium, the height of a three-storey building, making for a breath-taking experience as you enter the museum itself.

Two years ago, Garry and I were fortunate enough to visit the ancient town of Pergamon in Turkey. At the time, our tour guide showed us a low-profile, grass-covered platform and noted that it had once been home to the very same altar. Recalling its original location brought this museum artefact to life in a rare and wonderful moment. Once again, Garry and I were reminded of the unique experience afforded by our life in London.

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