After spending the first day at a Train Depot, we arrived in one of the worst hotels we had ever seen. An old man behind the reception desk welcomed us, took our details and explained that our room was equipped with both a toilet and a shower because we had asked for that during reservation while giving us a weird look over the rim of his glasses. The elevator to our floor was so modern that it required a little RFID fob attached to the room key to operate yet at the same time so old that it lacked inner doors.
We went to bed around 1 am, but falling asleep turned out to be more difficult than usual because the people in the room next to us were jumping around on their beds while enthusiastically agreeing to each other and the walls weren't all that solid. Then, I got woken up twice because the occupants of the rooms above us and later next to us on the other side were also having very noisy sex. Finally, some jokesters were running through the halls, banging on every door yelling "GESTAPO" before eventually getting kicked out by the manager. The Belgians sure know how to have a good time.
By the time the clock hit 6 am, we had already handed back our keys and checked out of the hotel. The city was quiet, dark, and almost completely devoid of people - a perfect setting for our little mission.
I could dedicate an entire blog post to how we scouted the surroundings, how we precisely timed a schedule, how it all fell apart due to unforeseen events and how we ultimately realized that the only way to get this done was to just fucking do it, but I promised not do. All I'm going to say is that by the time we caught our breath again, the last remaining bits of sleepiness in our bodies had vanished - and that no ropes were involved.
And so, the exploration began. With the entrance behind us and bare concrete on all sides, the only path led into the silent darkness that lay ahead. We hardly spoke a word in order to be able to hear more clearly if anybody else was ahead or behind of us. We also used minimal light, on one hand to allow our eyes to get used to the darkness faster and on the other hand again to make it easier to spot flashlights of other people. We were certain that if anybody did see us enter and decided to chase us, they'd have to be here soon because otherwise they would lose any chance of ever finding us.
The part of the premetro network we were wandering around in was constructed in the 70s and 80s but was never put in use. It consists of approximately 8 kilometers of tunnels with something like 8 stations, all underground. The tunnels criss cross under large parts of the city. Depending on the soil, they sometimes run parallel to each other and sometimes on top of each other. All in all, they involve a lot of curves and slopes. The stations mostly are three levels deep, one for each direction plus one entrance level. After finishing the bare construction work, the whole project ground to a halt due to lack of funding sometime in the 80s. No tracks, catenaries, electronics or station interiors have ever been installed. All access to the system was sealed off at street level, except for scarce and very well locked service entrances. Some time later, lamps and light switches were installed, waiting to be flipped on and off by whoever was visiting the tunnels, mostly infrequent maintenance crews and probably more frequently explorers like ourselves.
As soon as we walked into the first station that had the lights on, we decided it was time for a short break. The mind numbing march through the pitch black tunnels had deprived us of any perception of time and felt like an eternity. In reality, it had been less than half an hour. I realized that on an ordinary weekday, this was the time I would start lifting my weary body out of bed to prepare for work. But it was weekend and I was sneaking through abandoned tunnels under a major city in a foreign country. Time to get the cameras out.
Thirty years of negligence all of these stations had behind them were visible everywhere. Water was pouring in through the walls and ceilings, bluntly ignoring the somewhat haphazardly installed drain pipes and leaving rusty marks and soda straws before finally accumulating in little puddles. In some places it would come in contact with chemicals, change color or cover itself with a white, foamy skin. In other places it would facilitate the formation of weird looking algae, fungi and something with a human face and fish body what we called Kevin but stayed the hell away from.
The flowing and dripping of the water echoing through numerous pipes and concrete cavities sounded like human voices somewhere in the distance. It caught our attention a couple of times before we finally got used to it. Until we heard real voices closing in on us. Should we check out who they belonged to or should we run for it? We hadn't seen the greater part of the system yet and at least one of us was traveling without a valid ID and wasn't too keen on getting caught. So we sneaked to the station's upper level and off into a randomly chosen tunnel. We would learn a few weeks later how small the world actually is and that the voices belonged to Bartje, Martino and Mrtnski.
Inside the tunnels, everything was very silent and clean. The walls were made of perfectly regular concrete segments patched together with inanimate steel rods. No water was coming through. A lamp was placed on the wall every few meters with switches every few hundred meters that would toggle the lights for each section. Like everything else we weren't allowed as kids, repeatedly flipping the light switches felt disturbingly entertaining.
After several hours of wandering around the tunnels, we reached a long, slightly raising ramp. Sounds of cars, people and traffic were reverberating towards us. The end of the ramp was sealed of with a concrete wall. A little stairway next to it lead to a grating. I lifted it a bit to take a peek. The city above had awoken to a clear winter day with the sun shining out of a perfectly blue sky. I could see the facades of houses and concluded that I was under the middle of a street. Suddenly, the stairs, the grating, and most everything else around me started vibrating and shaking. A tram rumbled past, only a few centimeters next to the grating that I was still holding up.
The presence of fresh air and a wee bit of sunlight designated this spot as a perfect place for our lunch break. And when you have to carry your catering around all day, Snickers, Bifi and and a Red Bull Shot become a perfectly reasonable lunch. Invigorated by that (and a sandwich from Panos we had picked up the night before), we moved on.
On the final branch we explored, we simply followed the traces of construction equipment. A few things that were probably used by maintenance crews were still lying around all over the place. Near the end of the branch, a tractor was parked in an unfinished station, half submerged in darkness. Only a little bit of light was shining through the gaps in a temporary wall, belonging to a pedestrian tunnel under the central station. We could see and hear people hustling past, completely unaware of our presence or even more important of the fact that a gigantic, virtually empty tunnel system existed behind that little, unsuspicious looking door in that shiny wall right next to them.
The only thing left for us to do at that point was to take an outrageously long detour in order to get to the other side of said wall and hop on the next train to Brussels South where our ways parted. Still amazed by the things one can accomplish in a single weekend, I boarded the ICE. HSL, take me home, to the place, I belong. West Germania. Or whatever.
Head over to the Gallery for all of the pics: