Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

The edge of reason - border madness from around the world
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The Independent Travel

Some frontiers are plainly absurd. Just south of Vancouver, a finger of land dangles into the Pacific. This picturesque location has evolved into an up-market dormitory suburb for British Columbia's largest city. Vancouverites with a few million dollars to burn and a boat to float head for Point Roberts at the southern tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula, south of the 49-degree line of latitude. But the last few hundred metres lie below the American-Canadian border, which follows the 49th parallel west of the Great Lakes. This sliver of land is thus US territory, and the American authorities duly impose border controls that dutifully process Canadian citizens en route from Vancouver.

Some frontiers are plainly absurd. Just south of Vancouver, a finger of land dangles into the Pacific. This picturesque location has evolved into an up-market dormitory suburb for British Columbia's largest city. Vancouverites with a few million dollars to burn and a boat to float head for Point Roberts at the southern tip of the Tsawwassen peninsula, south of the 49-degree line of latitude. But the last few hundred metres lie below the American-Canadian border, which follows the 49th parallel west of the Great Lakes. This sliver of land is thus US territory, and the American authorities duly impose border controls that dutifully process Canadian citizens en route from Vancouver.

That's what happens when you start carving up territory using a ruler rather than natural features such as seas, rivers and mountain ranges. Many international and intranational divides are straight lines along specific latitudes and longitudes, but at least these have the benefit of looking like the product of an ordered mind. In contrast, some of the boundaries of the former Soviet Union are a tangle of geoethnic contradictions. When Stalin was in charge of the USSR, he devised incredibly contorted borders for the Central Asian republics - as though he was designing a giant jigsaw for the amusement of those in the Kremlin. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are a couple of the more misshapen pieces.

Military divides, ancient and modern, have also followed nonsensical paths: the Great Wall of China (or rather the collection of walls from different dynasties designed to protect the Middle Kingdom from the Mongols and the Manchus from the north) meanders across mountains and deserts in capricious fashion. And the Berlin Wall, an arbitrary ring that was intended to seal hermetically the unfortunate residents of West Berlin from the rest of the free world, carved up a city with no regard for the patterns of human behaviour.

Happily, as President Bush has discovered this week, travelling across Europe no longer involves a series of long waits for frontier formalities. But there is still work to be done before all the wreckage of the 20th century is cleared away. To see this, take a winter wander along the frontier between France and Germany - starting at Schengen, symbolic junction of the continent. This is where the border begins, at the point where Luxembourg, France and Germany converge. Even though a railway runs alongside the Moselle river, connecting French and German territory, no passenger trains run between them: you have to walk a couple of kilometres across a railway no-man's-land between the last station in France and the first in Germany. (At frontiers elsewhere in Europe there are lines but only imaginary stations: for the purposes of pricing and accounting, the authorities establish "virtual" stations where no trains call.)

Further along the Franco-German frontier, the road map shows a series of crossings of the Rhine, western Europe's great thoroughfare. When I cycled up to what I imagined was a bridge across the river, I was startled to find instead a tiny ferry; amazed to discover that it closes down for the night at 8pm; and relieved that I had arrived at 7.45.

Even at the symbolic city of Strasbourg, home to the Council of Europe, the line linking the French and German rail network consists of a single track that has a speed limit barely above cycling pace.

This is the route of the Orient-Express, and the main line connecting Paris with Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Munich. Yet 60 years after the end of the Second World War, work to improve the bridge, add a second track and accelerate the line has yet to be completed - and the blame falls squarely on Germany, which is legally responsible to make good War damage.

Still, at least when it is completed, travellers from Strasbourg will not have to pay an entrance fee. It is reported that Russia has joined a number of Latin American and African countries in levying a charge for travellers crossing its borders. A £6 per person tax has been imposed on the road border into Finland. The money is said to be needed to help pay for border guards.

WANT TO KNOW THE 'ETIQUETTE OF DITCHING'? THEN READ ON...

Follow the Rhine upstream, and just before it enters Switzerland you will find the Vitra Design Museum (below) - itself a work of art, and the location for some fascinating exhibitions. The current display is on the design history of aviation. Annoyingly, it ends on Monday so if you can't make it, here are the best bits.

There are some highly intriguing insights into 20th-century air travel, including the instructions from American Overseas Airlines (now part of American Airlines) on "The Etiquette of Ditching", about how to cope in the event of your aircraft crash-landing in water. "Put yourself in the proper position. Don't inflate your vest inside the cabin."

The German national carrier, Lufthansa, went one better: "Way out - regulations. There are more than sufficient boats, and everyone igets a seat. The lifeboats are equipped with with all comforts. There is plenty of food on hand, and drinks too." Boasting about the quality of catering in the lifeboats is an extreme marketing move, in contrast to British European Airways' more timid promise that "BEA takes you there and brings you back".

I also learnt that BEA used to fly Viscounts from Zurich to Belgrade, an early example of "cabotage" - an airline's right to fly between two foreign countries. So too did Lufthansa, which in 1935 flew between Hull and Liverpool; flight 519 took 55 minutes. Within five years German pilots were once again flying to English ports, though not with the intention of landing.

The Brazilian airline, Varig, was more upfront about the quality of its service. It's marketing spiel promised an "executive hostess" who was "a lovely girl from Brazilian society who wears high-fashion clothes instead of a uniform and is absolutely covered with charm". Not exactly a Russian frontier official, then.

Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein (00 49 7621 702 3200; www.design-museum.de)

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