Wednesday, 7 October 2015

I visit Wałbrzych in search of the Gold Train site

Explore Wałbrzych is the town's new advertising slogan, so I set out to do just that. My night train from Warsaw arrived at Wałbrzych Miasto at 07:14. (I slept well the whole night, thanks to two shots of pigwówka - quince vodka - before boarding the train.) Now, Wałbrzych has four stations (from south to north - Główny, Miasto, Fabryczny and Szczawienko) strung out like pearls along 12.5km of winding railway line that meanders through the town.

I'm on my way to a conference for Polish exporters at the HQ of the Wałbrzych Special Economic Zone. It's on the northern edge of town near Szczawienko station. I've got to be there at half past nine, so I've got over two hours to explore. I walk from Wałbrzych Miasto to Szczawienko, and then reaching the latter, I take off into the hills in search of the Gold Train.

Below: I approach Szczawienko station. That Germanic architecture lends an air of quiet menace to the place.

It's at this station that things start getting interesting. There's an abandoned spur from the main Wałbrzych-Wrocław railway line which then runs parallel to it northwards for a while before swinging off to the east to the former site of a ceramics factory. The rails have long been pulled up. However, between the spur and the main line is an interesting hump of land, towering over both (to the right of the picture below), within which a third railway line containing the fabled train could quite feasibly be buried.

Below: I cross over the high ground and the possible gold train tunnel to find the disused line. Now just wooden sleepers remain of the track bed.

Ventilation shafts? I peek inside and take a few snaps. More like sewerage. Smell like drains. The Gold Train could be directly in front and down several metres.

Below: the roped-off area, between the disused track and the main line, north of ul. Uczniowska has been thoroughly searched by army sappers. The army has finished checking the area out and found nothing except six rounds of rifle ammunition from WW2. No land mines, no chemical weapons – but then the Polish army's kit for scanning beneath the surface of the earth only 'sees' as far down as one metre. The radar location device that was used to 'show' the location of the Gold Train is good for 70m. But then there's only one of these devices in Poland, and the Polish army doesn't have it.

Right by the taped-off area is a large billboard promoting the town as #wAUbrzych (that's AU as in the chemical symbol for gold). On the one hand, visitors are invited to explore Wałbrzych. On the other, you are forbidden to go into the trees beyond. Smaller posters bearing the same message adorn nearby bus stops.

Below: a good view of the likely Gold Train site. It would be right here, centre of the pic. Note the flattened land on top - this is where the army sappers did their bit.

After the conference, I had an hour and half before my train home, so I set out to outflank the police cordon from the north. I made my way down to the track take a look. Look behind the train (click to enlarge) - this is where the line would have entered the tunnel under the raised hump of land. And note too the police car to the right of the frame.

So - here we are on a Google Earth map, rotated so that North is to the right to fit better. The main area in the yellow box is where the train is currently suspected to be. I took the above photo from the right-hand edge of the map, towards the taped-off area. 

When will the official search start in earnest? Will the Gold Train ever be found? Human curiosity and one of the greatest stories in Poland in recent years come into conflict with the dull reality of the Polish State. Poland has yet to discover the efficiencies that come from joined-up government. This is 'Polska resortowa', 'Polska silosowa' – a state of uncommunicative fiefdoms and information jealously hoarded in silos. It is the state of 'spory kompetencyjne' – disputes of competencies – between organs. These are either negative (“This is not our agency's/ministry's/office's business – it's yours”) or positive (“It's not your agency's/ministry's/ office's business – it's ours”).

In the case of the Gold Train, we have the following actors involved: The Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The Ministry of National Defence. The Ministry of Administration and Digitisation. The Lower Silesian Marshal's Office. The Lower Silesian Voivode's Office. The Office of the Mayor of Wałbrzych. Polish state railways' infrastructure arm, PKP PLK. The police, and finally the Straż Ochrony Kolei (SOK – the railway protection service). All these bodies will be having a stake in the game. They will be making suggestions, criticising others' suggestions, coming up with plans, finding allies for their plans, altering the plans, drawing up timetables that stretch into an indefinite future – and all this before we consider the political dimension – this month's parliamentary elections, local party politics, rivalries, jealousies etc. The Premier's office is too busy worrying about re-election to get involved (evidently no political party can see any capital to be made from either a) hurrying up the search or b) delaying the search c) saying anything about the search.

Within weeks the leaves will turn an even more gorgeous shade of gold and will drop off the trees, making the site more exposed to scrutiny (the bridge on ul. Uczniowska will become an even better vantage point). By Christmas, snow should fall, making incursions into the zone difficult as footprints will be traceable. Nothing much will happen this side of next spring. Heavy excavating plant should be brought in, preceded by careful soil analysis and army sappers. Media and popular pressure should be exerted on the authorities to proceed with a dig once the election is out of the way.

The Gold Train might be there, it might not be. If it is – this will be the biggest thing since the Titanic was found on the ocean floor. If not – well, let me take another look. It's down there somewhere.

Just as the Loch Ness Monster, which has generated (I'd guess) billions of pounds in tourism revenue for the lake and surrounding towns and villages since the 1930s, the legend of the Gold Train can become a huge draw for Wałbrzych and vicinity. Książ castle and the sites associated with the mysterious Projekt Riese around Walim. But the promotion needs to be carefully thought through. The balance needs to be right. Not Disneyfied and sanitised – but then on the other hand we don't want freelance explorers doing dangerous things to themselves and others with sticks of dynamite or falling down holes. People should be encouraged to get involved in the mystery, come up with their own pet theories, go on long rambles from Point A to Point B, calling in on cafes and restaurants before falling asleep, happy, in agroturystyki which offer simple but clean accommodation and hearty fare for tired explorers. Enterprising Wałbrzych householders will hopefully expand the baza noclegowa rapidly in coming years to be able to welcome curious tourists from around the world.

I've had a small sample today of the potential of Wałbrych as Town of Legend. The atmosphere in early autumn (a light mist would have been nice); the gloomy brick of this former German mining town, the rolling hills, the eternal mystery of what happened around these parts between 1943 and 1945. Why did the Nazis – fighting total war on all fronts – divert so many resources to dig so many tunnels and caverns into the mountains to the south-east of Wałbrzych? What did happen to the treasures looted by the Nazis in the East? What else is hidden in this complex? This is all fascinating stuff.

A final point about Wałbrzych. I was last here in 2008. Since then, the town has really come on – mainly as a result of its thriving Special Economic Zone. Ul. Uczniowska which was then nothing more that a dual carriageway lined with street lights running through empty fields is now flanked with factories providng jobs to thousands of people for scores of kilometres around. Gold Train or not, it's a city rising from its knees after the collapse of its coal mining industry. But with the Gold Train legend, Wałbrzych has the potential to become a great city.

This time last year:
Return to Scotland, still a part of the United Kingdom

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's Plac Unii opens - and changes colours

This time three years ago:
Tatra time (worth another watch and listen!)

This time four years ago:
The passing of Old Poland

This time five years ago:
A glorious week

This time six years ago:
Trampled underfoot: Sobieski and the Turks at Vienna

This time seven years ago:
The first, spontaneous signs, of a Park + Ride at Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Early autumn atmospheres, Jeziorki


Bob said...

Good post as always Michael!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an excellent story the puts a clear perspective on what to me is a tantalizing mystery. Cheers.

Matt Padden said...

Maybe an obvious suggestion, but are there maps or photographs covering the roped-off area from prior to 1945? An absence of the hump of land in those would lend strength to the theory that the train is hiding there.

Matt Padden said...

More on this. On the Polish Mapster site (thanks to Marek Zielinski) I found a 1936 map of the area. In this map the spur to the factory, and the factory itself, don't yet exist. It's a little hard to see given the map's limitations; is there an embankment cutting to the right of the line, or is it flat ground? Anyhows here is the map (it's a big file):

And the grid ref on that map is 922 325 (lower right corner).

Clearly an awful lot may have happened in the years between 1936 and 1945, but it would seem odd to build such a large hump of land without good reasons.