Beijing to Pyongyang by train part 3: Dandong to Sinuju, crossing the border

Dandong is China’s most prominent border city with the DPRK. It lies a mere 3,000 feet away from Sinuju, DPRK, separated by the Yalu river.

Across the river stand, well, a bridge and a half 🙂 The railroad track runs on the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge and acts as a major trading route between China and the DPRK. In parallel runs an older trestle built between 1909 and 1911. Both bridges were bombed by the US during the Korean War, and subsequently only the newer bridge was fully rebuilt. The older bridge was renovated on the Chinese side, but ends abruptly a third of the way—the DPRK never repaired their end. Today, tourists gather on an observation platform at the end of the broken bridge or ride small boats to peek into the DPRK.

Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge

From their vantage point, tourists see an awkward and desolate landscape that contrasts starkly with the towers and the hustle that make the fabric of the Chinese side. Indeed, Dandong’s economy is growing steadily, driven by special economic development zones, manufacturing, but mostly by its import/export industry with the DPRK. Due to the DPRK’s few links with the outside world and international restrictions on trade, China manages a substantial portion of the DPRK’s exports, with Dandong accounting for 40%. This is a city that strives on trading with the closest country in the world. Some trades may be open and transparent, others are probably less so—the DPRK is reported to funnel merchandise through China to export around the world.

It is also said that Dandong is full of North Korean government agents looking for defectors, as well as a haven for smugglers of all kinds.

In an ironic twist, the city is known for its huge statue of Chairman Mao next to the train station. The statue presides over billions of dollars’ worth of private trade, while nodding at the portraits of President Kim Il Sung on the other side of the river…

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Beijing to Pyongyang by train part 2: Beijing to Dandong

The time has come—it’s a few minutes shy of 5:30pm and we’re about to board. Down on the platform, I mingle with my travel companions. It’s going to be a long ride, and I might as well try to pick a like-minded seatmate 🙂

Chinese trains typically feature open seating—it’s possible to get onboard with just the fare covering the distance traveled, without paying extra for an assigned seat. However, our two North Korean cars are an exception: actual seat reservations are mandatory, not only because they feature berths rather than regular seats, but also because passengers going into North Korea are segregated from those remaining in China. There’s no peeking at the North Korean facilities if you’re a mere domestic traveler.

Train ticket

Train ticket

Our western guide shows our reservation to the North Korean train attendants. In a snap, the tired looking chain-smoking fellows who were hanging out by the side of the train tense up, climb on board, and switch to military mode. They don’t speak a word of English, but are surprisingly swift at assigning seats—we follow them through the corridor, filling compartments in the order in which we got on the train as they point to the berths. The herd is organized in under a minute; seatmate selection there will be none—that is not part of the protocol.

The seating chart is simple. The first compartment by the door of the car is reserved for the conductors. Our group occupies the next four compartments. All other compartments in our car and the adjacent car are occupied by North Koreans. This is not a tourist train—we’re a minority, and given our interactions with the conductors so far, there appears to be little room for flexibility. Or so it seems.

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Beijing to Pyongyang by train part 1: Introduction

Today is the day. I woke up in a luxurious bed at a five-star hotel downtown Beijing and will fall asleep aboard a North Korean train. It took me approximately 12 hours to fly all the way to China from the US; it will take me over 24 hours to reach Pyongyang from Beijing. Contrasts make life worth living.

When I disclosed my plans to friends and acquaintances, many asked why anyone would want to spend so many hours on a train. I knew it’d be worth it and indeed, there was never a dull moment.

For starters, there is something anticlimactic about flying to a destination as odd as Pyongyang. Time spent on the train helps build up excitation and anticipation. While I hear that flying Air Koryo, the DPRK’s national airline, can be a bit of an adventure (and I shall find out on my upcoming trip!) at the end of the day (assuming everything goes well :)) air travel on such a short distance is nothing to write home about. The train, on the other hand, is a unique opportunity to see the landscape evolve and to take a peek at the remote and uncensored North Korean countryside. So much, in fact, that Americans can’t take the train (which makes the ride a somewhat exclusive experience; I used my European passport) and that pictures are (officially) forbidden. Finally, the train is an excellent opportunity to interact with North Korean people in the absence of government minders.

North Korean train car in Dandong, China

This is what I knew and expected upon leaving. What didn’t anticipate was that the journey would turn out to be a real highlight of the trip and that I’d gather almost enough material to write a book 🙂 Continue reading

Doubt sets in

It’s been a fun couple of days in Beijing, and I’m almost about to pack my bags for a big leap into the Unknown when unexpectedly, the DPRK makes the news. The seemingly vaguely-heard-of-kinda-faraway country where I’m headed suddenly enters the world stage.

The DPRK makes the news – bad time for a trip?

The DPRK is preparing for a grandiose celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Great Leader, and to mark the occasion, will be launching a satellite. For peaceful purposes, of course—it is a meteorological satellite intended to help improve agriculture. Continue reading

A taste of Beijing’s spirit

There is a very pragmatic reason behind my stopover in Beijing—it is virtually the only way to get to the DPRK. Yet, the prospect of spending a couple of days in the Chinese capital on my way to the last socialist country is an exciting one. Beijing used to be quite similar to Pyongyang, and it is fascinating to observe how it has shaped up over the years, and to dream of how the DPRK may go through a similar metamorphosis sometime down the road.

Beijing in 2000

Beijing in 2000

While I never visited communist China, I discovered Beijing in 2000. The city is of personal significance to me since it was my first destination in Asia and opened my eyes to the world. I remember settling in my middle seat onboard an Air China Boeing 747 which featured amenities as exquisite as sound tube headsets—even back then this was a bit of a disgrace, especially on a long haul. I was praying that the flight instruments were somewhat more up to date. I returned to Beijing in 2001, and then visited other parts of China in the subsequent years, but it had been 11 years since my last visit to the capital. Continue reading

On my way to living history

I am scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang on April 12th, 2012, a couple of days before April 15th. The date is not random—the Korean tourism agency strongly suggests that travel to the DPRK coincides with major a historical or political event. Fortunately, with a rich modern history, the DPRK’s calendar is full of dates of significance. These include for example the Korean New Year in January, Kim Jong Il’s birthday in February, the military foundation in April, May workers’ day, victory day in July, Liberation Day in August, and the mass games in August/September.

4/15 banner in Pyongyang

As the birthday of founder and President Kim Il Sung, April 15th is probably the most significant dates of all. Koreans get two days off to celebrate and express their appreciation for the Great Leader. Facilities are often fixed or upgraded, new buildings unveiled. All towns are decorated with slogans, flowers and large banners. People wear their nicest clothes for the occasion and carry Kimilsungias and Kimjongilias, special breeds of orchids, respectively pink and red, cultivated and named in honor of the leaders. A massive flower show in Pyongyang displays stunning Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia arrangements on two stories. The nation lines up to bow in front of the leaders’ statues and pay their respects.

This year’s anniversary is of even greater significance—it is the President’s 100th birthday and the scale of the celebration is believed to be unprecedented. Nobody is sure what to expect, given the unique ambivalence of the situation. Continue reading