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Published: October 16th 2018
1st Oct: North Korea, some where that I have wanted to travel to for a long time and I am finally getting round to doing it. It is a quite a difficult place to travel, although the visa process was a lot easier than that of China, as you have to be part of a tour, either a group tour or a private one. There is no freedom to go where you please and everything is strictly controlled. I headed to a hotel in Beijing for my pre departure meeting and to meet with the Western guides from the tour company I was using. Getting out of the subway station at Beijing Station was madness. Since it was the start of the National Day holiday, there were about a million people about. I was glad to be leaving all the craziness and crowds behind. The meeting was straight forward and we were told some basic dos and don'ts. Then we had a couple of hours to kill before heading to the train station. A few of us just chilled in the hotel's lobby. We headed over to the train station and managed to get through the crowds in one piece and
without losing any group members. We joined the massive queue for our train and spotted a couple of North Korean in the queue. We were taking the sleeper train up to Dandong, which is on the border with North Korea. This was my first time to take a sleeper train in China and I was quite looking forward to the new experience. We were in the hard sleeper bunks, which is an open compartment of six bunks, three on each side. I definitely got the shitty end of the stick as I had been assigned the top bunk, thank you China Railways. The top bunk was rather unpleasant as it was just so cramped. I couldn't sit up straight and when I was trying to sort through some of my stuff I was so hunched over, I would have given Quazimodo a run for his money. I am pretty short, so I really don't know how tall people manage it. I spent a couple of hours reading and snacking in my bunk and when the others on my tour, who were in the bunks under me said they were going for a wander I was happy to join them.
Across the Yalu River
We headed down to one of the other carriages where some of the others were staying. We chatted with them there for a bit before deciding to move to the restaurant car. After walking all the way to restaurant car, we found it was full of people with standing tickets. We were a bit pissed off as the restaurant car staff refused to move any of them even though the vast majority were sitting there with no food or drink in hand. We would have all happily bought some beers and food, but no the staff obviously didn't want to do any work or make any money. So we headed back to one of the compartment and bought some beers and baiju from an attendant and passed the time chatting. It was getting late, by Chinese standards, and at 10 pm the lights in the carriage went out. Gotta love an enforced bed time! We decided to head back to the restaurant car to see if we could snag a seat, but the door to the soft sleeper compartment and the restaurant car beyond it was locked. We were bang out of luck. We headed back the way we came
and came across some Chinese men playing cards in the corridor, we decided that they had the best idea, so we hunched down and had a few games of cards. Eventually, around midnight, we all got chased out of the corridor by one of the train attendants.
2nd Oct: I wish I could say that I had woke up well rested, but that would be a big fat lie. The bloke in the bunk across from me was snoring horrifically when I got to bed. I think he must have had a cold as I can only describe his snores as wet and they sounded like they were coming from deep inside his gut. I spent my time awake planning his death, tossing and turning, and muttering to myself. I did get a break in my luck as he got up and buggered off for a bit, meaning I managed to get an hour or two's sleep. Seriously, if you snore that badly fly to Dandong, don't inflict your snoring on others. He returned and started up again, since it was getting light and there was a bit of movement in the carriage, I decided to get up. After
getting sorted, I had some instant noodles and egg for breakfast, I was quite hungry as I had skipped dinner the night before. We arrived in Dandong around 7:30 am and had a bit of free time before heading for the train to Pyongyang. Our guide pointed us in the direction of the Yalu River, from which we could get our first glimpse across to North Korea. Winter was definitely coming to Dandong and the air had an early morning nip to it as we headed down to the river. It took about 10 minutes to walk there and despite the early hour, it was already filled with tourists.
The Yalu River runs for 795 kilometres marking the border between China and North Korea. The riverside is really nice and the Chinese have obviously spent money on making the scenic area attractive. I wonder if those looking across can see how prosperous China is. The contrast when looking across to the North Korean side of the river was stark. The first part I could see just looked like countryside. There was also an early morning haze on the water, which I quite liked as the DPRK was shrouded in
mist, making it seem more mysterious. I could see the two bridges, the first one was the 'Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge' that stretched all the way across the river and would be the one that our train would take. The second was the 'Broken Bridge'. I had a walk along the promenade and saw that you could pay to go on the 'Broken Bridge', but there was already quite a queue and I don't think I would have had enough time, which is a bit of a shame. The ‘Broken Bridge' was the first bridge built across the Yalu River by the Japanese Empire in 1911. The bridge was destroyed by American bombing during the Korean War and only four of the arches remain on the Chinese side of the river. I liked that the bridge just seemed to stop suddenly in the water. There were also quite a few signs forbidding photography here, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to them, so I took their lead and snapped away.
We headed back to the train station and up to immigration. It didn't take too long to get through and soon we were getting settled onto our
next train. While our first train hadn't exactly been palatial, it had been decent enough, this one felt a bit more cruddy. The older, crappier trains must be destined for the Dandong - Pyongyang route. I think we left around ten or ten thirty and it wasn't too long before we were crossing the bridge across the Yalu River and were entering North Korea. For some reason I was surprised that there was a time difference between here and China, so had to change the time on my devices, which proved trickier than I thought. Normally, they will automatically update, but with no internet access in North Korea, I had to try and do it myself which proved difficult. The train stopped at the station in Sinuiju, which is the North Korean border town. The train would be stopping here for almost two hours so that we could complete the immigration formalilites. Our guide told us that it normally all gets done within one hour and the second hour is to chill. We filled in our declarations and soon a soldier/immigration official came around and collected them along with our passports and tourist cards. Then we sat and waited until
the officials came to ask us some questions. The process was super simple as we had all our electronic devices laid out on the table for them. They asked us what type of phones we had, if our cameras had GPS (a big no-no), and if we had any books. Super simple and the official was pretty chill. Definitely not one of those blokes on a power trip, which I had kind of been expecting. The highlight was when asking me questions he put his hand on my leg. No man can resist my meaty thighs, I was ecstatic that I had been touched by a North Korean border guard/immigration officer/what ever they are called. Soon, the process was over and we had an hour to kill. We were allowed out on to the platform and two women soon appeared with a refreshment card. Most of us purchased our first North Korean beer as a celebration that we had made it through the formalities unscathed and would soon be on our way to Pyongyang.
The train journey took pretty much all day. I had managed to snag a middle bunk on this journey and enjoyed it a whole lot
more. I was able to participate in conversations with the others and also when I felt like it, close my eyes and take a nap. I also really enjoyed watching the country pass by from the window. I had done quite a bit of reading about the country before the trip, but I still didn't know what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised as I think we all were. When I think of North Korea, I generally think of grimness and oppression and I had kind of expected that to be reflected in the landscape for some reason. However we passed through beautiful countryside, bright pale blue skies, field filled with golden grass/crops, and houses and small apartment blocks in pale pastel colours. I didn't see many cars going by, but plenty of people were travelling around by bicycle and I saw kids playing out in nature. It did feel a bit like travelling back in time, but not in a bad way, just to a more simpler time. We also saw a beautiful sunset, the sky changing to a lovely shade of pink. Soon the countryside gave way to more and more buildings as we entered the outskirts of
Pyongyang. Our train arrived in Pyongyang Station around 6:45 and it felt surreal to be getting off the train. I was in Pyongyang! There were quite a few women in hanboks around and we were greeted by music being pumped out across the speakers. There were also quite a few soldiers milling around. Our tour guides soon came to collect us and escorted us to our bus. They also took our passports away as they would be looking after them for the duration of our trip. First impressions of our guides were good. They seemed really nice and as we drove to dinner they explained a bit about the country and some dos and don'ts. We had dinner in KITC (Korea International Travel Company) Restaurant #4. I was famished by this point, so I was really looking forward to the food. The food was good, nothing fancy, but just what I needed after the long train journey. It wasn't all traditional Korean food, which I had been hoping for as there was quite a few dishes that looked suspiciously like something you would get in China. I presume it is because the majority of tourists to the DPRK are from
China. We washed the food down with a few beers and then headed to our hotel. We were staying in the Yanggakdo, which is on an island in the Taedong River. Therefore, no chance of us mixing with the locals. The hotel is huge, probably the biggest place I've ever stayed. Our guide gave us a quick tour of the facilities and then I was straight in the shower, something I had been looking forward to for almost 24 hours. Happy to be feeling clean again, I was ready for sleep.
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