Taking the Night Train to Pyongyang

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September 3rd 2009
Published: September 15th 2009
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The journey into the Hermit KingdomThe journey into the Hermit KingdomThe journey into the Hermit Kingdom

A late night stop in China on the way to Pyongyang
“You are going where?!?!”, my friend would exclaim. “North Korea,” I would calmly reply, with a nonchalance likened to asking a flight attendant for another orange juice. “Don’t you mean South Korea?” would come the inevitable response. “No, I mean North Korea: missile tests, captured US journalists...” and the answer would always be, “Ah…you mean the dangerous one,” with particular emphasis on the second last word. I would eventually be asked my reasons: North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea - DPRK) is the last remaining bastion of Communism, the failed economic experiment of the twentieth century. While other communist nations have fallen to the lure of capitalism through one reason or another, North Korea has remained true to its ideal - and for those who were too young to travel to the Soviet Union when Brezhnev and his cohorts wheezed and coughed their way through the dying years of that regime - North Korea provides the last glimpse of an ideology that struck as much fear into the hearts of capitalists worldwide as the word ‘terrorist’ does today.

As would be expected, travelling to North Korea is a bit more difficult than just obtaining a visa upon arrival at the border. One must book a tour with one of the sanctioned tour operators who have been given approval by the KITC (Korea International Travel Company) - the official government board charged with controlling tourists in the country. There are only a dozen tour operators worldwide, and after tossing between several agencies, I decided on booking with Young Pioneer Tours - a new agency that approached the tours with a youthful energy - attempting to combine the backpacking travelling ethos with the demand of KITC to extract large sums of hard currency for curious foreigners. At approximately 150-200 Euro per day, this is definitely not on the budget destination list.

I opted for an independent tour, it is more expensive than the group version, but worth every extra Euro that would haemorrhage from my emaciated bank account. Accompanying me for my second overseas journey in succession would be Fi, who would obviously captured by the excitement of visiting the hermit kingdom. The itinerary we proposed was finally endorsed by KITC, but there were a few anxious moments before the tour - at one point it appeared that visas may be denied to certain nationalities who were critical of a North Korean missile test. A preposterous proposition, retorted the DPRK, this was merely the launch of a satellite into orbit that would broadcast revolutionary songs across the planet.

Finally, after months of planning and waiting, Fi and I collected our visas from Young Pioneer Tours and headed to the Beijing Train Station, where we experienced the usual chaos associated with these transport hubs in China. The sleek Chinese train was divided into two sections, the two carriages heading to Pyongyang were sealed from the remainder of the train, and tarrying too close to these other carriages was forbidden. When Fi approached them, a guard suddenly appeared from one of the cabins and gruffly directed her away from the area. We subsequently noticed that almost all of our fellow travellers were either guards or military people, and we espied only five other westerners heading to Pyongyang, thus confirming that North Korea is still not the destination of choice for many people.

This was to be a 25 hour journey, made longer by a two hour stop at the Chinese city of Dandong, where border formalities were completed, but the longer stopped came as we approached North Korea. After decoupling most of the train, only three carriages rumbled across the Yalu River that divides the two countries. As we passed the half-destroyed bridge that partly spans the river, the water below us gave way to solid land - and it was with a slight amount of apprehension and excitement to know that we had moved onto North Korean territory.

For three hours we sat at Sinuiju station, which included the all important clearance by the North Korean officials. Firstly, I had to contend with the medical officer who kept placing a thermal reader shaped like a pistol against my forehead. The gun was giving a high reading, but I couldn’t see what was so strange about my vital signs giving erratic results when someone in North Korea pointed a gun-like object against my cranium. However, the medical officer thought otherwise, and so I was subjected to the more traditional thermometer test, which I passed. It would have been most unfortunate to have been denied an entry to North Korea after all this effort just because of a slight temperature.

Now came the most apprehensive part, the customs search. There is a strict regulation of goods that be brought into the country, for example, mobile phones would be confiscated, camera lenses over 150mm were also prohibited, and so would imperialist propaganda (i.e. newspapers). When the young, winsome but stern customs lady asked to see my camera, I pulled my amply sized Nikon D300 with its 18-200mm lens from the bag and she audibly gasped. This did not bode well. She proceeded to look through the digital images stored on the camera, probably to determine that I was not a photographer, nor a journalist. Her realisation that I was neither came when she happened upon a photo of my two mascots, Lenny the Curious Lemur and Blu the Travel ‘Roo, outside the Hall of Supreme Harmony at the Forbidden City in Beijing. Her sombre face broke into a slight smile when she saw these two critters, and after looking at Lenny and Blu sitting by the train window, she handed me back the camera and left the cabin. My mascots can be such charmers at times. The customs officer had not even asked about the laptop, even though I declared it on the form, and it could be used for far more incriminating purposes than my camera. And as it turned out, my laptop was indeed used for such a nefarious scheme - but more on that in a future blog.

Thankfully, the last hour of our wait in Sinuiju was occupied by watching hordes of local people stream onto the platform to board the extra carriages that had now been added to our train. I had previously read that there were food shortage problems within North Korea, but upon watching the hundreds of people pass onto the platform, they all seemed well fed, though short in stature. Quite a few appeared to be very well fed as they hauled their plump frames up the stairs towards the train. The most striking aspect of this passing parade was the very high number of military type uniforms - they came in colours of cobalt, navy, olive, khaki, grey, and the occasional white. North Korea would have a difficult task to convince the world that they do not have one of the largest standing armies in the world.

Interestingly, the most popular style amongst men in North Korea was that of wearing gold rimmed sunglasses with a shock of bouffant hair. They all looked similar to a younger Kim
The Yalu river bridge which terminates on the North Korean sideThe Yalu river bridge which terminates on the North Korean sideThe Yalu river bridge which terminates on the North Korean side

See the friendly Chinese all staring and waving as we pass.
Jong Il (the Dear Leader), and I wondered whether Kim was following an already popular style, or whether others mimicked his look out of respect. What the correct answer is to this important question is anybody’s guess.

As we pulled out of Sinuiju station, the female security forces on the platform stood to attention and saluted, and we soon had left the border city far behind. The next five hours were spent chugging through the countryside - and it provided a scene very similar to most of rural Asia. Narrow dirt roads weaved their way through tendered fields of corn and rice. Creeks and irrigation channels appeared at regular intervals, and not only did they sustain the crops, but one could see people bathing and washing clothes in the same water. White washed houses with beige gabled roofs dotted the countryside, and the only adornments on the countryside were small revolutionary towers and nationalistic slogans - there was not an advertising billboard to be seen. The most remarkable absence was that of any mechanisation - but then again, strident communists would probably shudder at the thought of farm machinery being allowed on a collective farm. In the five hours, I only witnessed two dozen small tractors or trucks, and all the farms were being tended by hand as men and women bent over their crops with a sickle at the ready.

As the day drew to an end and the shadows lengthened, we passed numerous small towns that housed identically shaped train stations, all of which held a picture of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung (either the youthful or more elderly version) and his beaming face gazed upon the rusting rail cars. At some stations, work gangs were repairing and maintaining the rail system - and I witnessed women and men performing the same construction tasks. This equated with seeing women employed in equal if not greater numbers to the men in security work around railway stations, and stationed at outposts adjacent to bridges and tunnels.

Finally, the train slowed, shuddered and creaked to a stop, we had reached the termination point of our journey. Our guides found us through the train window and beckoned us outside, and when we did disembark, what we witnessed was similar to a crowd scene from the movie Doctor Zhivago. The train station was a massive aircraft hanger type terminal, and it was dimly lit by a half-dozen of large yet inadequate down lights that hang far below the vaulted ceilings - there were no neon signs or billboards here. Booming through loudspeakers that echoed through the cavernous chamber was the stirring tones of a military chorus and band, rousing the shuffling masses with patriotic fervour. People wearing dark clothes formed very long queues to exit the station and their drab attire added to the sombreness of the setting - a place filled only with totalitarian tunes and muted shades of grey. I had arrived in Pyongyang.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


The photo that 'saved' my cameraThe photo that 'saved' my camera
The photo that 'saved' my camera

Lenny and Blu at the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, Beijing

15th September 2009

Great blog, shane!
You sure know how to build up the excitement. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog.........a prelude to the big story. You write so well about a long train ride and getting into Pyongyang. Simple plot, dripping with excitement. I sensed your anxieties reading this blog. Can't wait to read the next one. Hurry!
15th September 2009

North Korea is scary
Have been there. It seems like you build something up and than abandon it. [url]http://www.diu-info.blogspot.com
16th September 2009

Great entry Shane!
Thanks for this great entry...hope we won't have to wait too long to get the next one...can't wait for it! And it's even better to read it know that you came back home safely. Sure enough, the most totalitarists states have also always been the safests for travellers.
16th September 2009

Brilliant! :) Looking forward to the next one.
16th September 2009

it's me again
Hey, if I do decide to do Nokor........can i borrow lenny and blu? Ha ha ha. They are heroes (or is one a heroine) and should be feted with a medal or something!
16th September 2009

Lenny and Blu
They are not for hire unfortunately, for they do prove useful in many circumstances (and they did again when I left North Korea) plus both of them keep me company when I'm travelling solo.
16th September 2009

The Midnight Train to Pyongyang :P Good story Shane, waiting for the next!
17th September 2009

a really interesting read
We really enjoyed reading your blog on your journey into North Korea...looking forward to the next installments with your travelling companions Lenny and Blu! A fascinating look into a country we never hear that much about apart from in the media. Safe travels!
25th September 2009

Great blog!!! If you like, come back and visit mine: albumdeestampillas blogspot com Thanks, Pablo from Argentina
27th September 2009

Great blog ever! However, what I feel now is my anger at the stupid Chinese and Americans, who create much trouble in the world. They are just unashamed robbers. Poor the Northern Koreans, who are among the most intelligent people!
17th August 2010
The photo that 'saved' my camera

awesome :)

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