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.
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.
We settle in and store our bags. Our compartments are of the “soft sleeper” type—the only class of service typically available to Beijing/Pyongyang through passengers. “Soft sleeper” designates compartments with four berths, a small table and plenty of storage space. The essentials are provided (sheets, blankets, pillows) as well as teacups and a power outlet. On one end of the car is a hot water faucet for food and hot drinks, on the other are bathrooms: one open room with two small sinks, and two stalls.
I’m used to overnight sleeper trains—as a child I used to ride them frequently in Europe when going on vacation with my family. My parents booked the equivalent of the Chinese “hard sleeper”: six person compartments, which can be quite cramped and require a fair amount of coordination between fellow travelers, since it takes flipping the middle bunks up to be able to sit on the bottom bunks. With this in mind, our overnight North Korean accommodations are somewhat of an upgrade over what I’m used to—the compartments are reasonably spacious and well-appointed. At least, this is my first impression, until I unfold the provided sheets and pillows—when were they washed again? Some questions are better left unanswered. It will be just fine; good thing I brought my own travel pillow… I’m a bit of an over planner 🙂
The train pulls out of the station on time. In a matter of minutes, the vibe onboard changes dramatically. It’s like the military style seat assignment process was just a show. The conductors abandon their star-adorned caps by the window, retreat to their compartment, and then emerge half undressed—gone are the suits, enter undershirts and loose pants. I sense commotion throughout the car—virtually all Koreans follow the same pattern, getting comfortable for the long ride.
Soon I notice that a long line seems to be forming next to the bathroom at the end of the car. Still a bit uncomfortable as a foreigner surrounded by North Koreans who I was told, could be spying on us and reporting on our activities (and mine involve making many pictures) I remain at large for a while, until I figure that I should probably get in line too. It is not actually a line. The scene is surreal. There, on the train, in the aforementioned open bathroom, the Koreans are bathing. Bare chested and bare foot, they’re scrubbing. Water splashes on the floor; the tiny towels are soaked; a suspicious looking public soap bar appears from who knows where. Hardly anyone seems to pay attention to me—I elbow my way through the mob in an attempt to find out if maybe, I can reach the other car. There is no such luck—as I open the door that leads to the car vestibule, I stumble open another gathering. After the bathers, the smokers! They’re chilling next to a conveniently located “No smoking” sign. For a moment I’m outraged that one would indulge on the train, blackening everyone’s air and lungs. Until I remember again, those trips of my youth in Europe… Have I become too American? In the context of the world’s stage, this is nothing to write home about. As for my quest for a bathroom, it will have to be postponed.
The Koreans have all closed their doors, and the conductors are nowhere to be seen. I hear commotion and shuffling in their compartment. Between the bathers bathing, the smokers smoking, and the conductors shuffling, it seems like a perfect opportunity to go explore a little further. I make my way to the other side of the car, opposite to the bathrooms. Trash has started to accumulate on the floor in a corner that, I assume, was designed just for this purpose. Then, I notice something odd: there are a number of rather strange-looking bags—unknown merchandise and supplies wrapped in blue, red and white tarps, with undecipherable hand written labels. In fact, as I look around, I notice—did I miss it upon boarding or did it happen later on?—that the train is packed to the gills with bags and boxes. There are bags against the outside door, opposite the door we used to get in, packages in the technical spaces, bundles in the electrical cabinets—anywhere and everywhere. Do Koreans travel with that many bags, or am I witnessing something else?
It is a foregone conclusion, of course, but we’ll get to that in the next post 🙂
It’s dinner time, and I’m getting somewhat hungry. I move back to my compartment to mingle with others. The Chinese landscape is unfolding through our windows. A rather terrifying landscape, in fact, made of bare and hollow concrete. We pass through miles of unfinished construction and empty towers: ghost towns, the consequence of China’s widely documented housing construction flurry and then bust. It is estimated that there are 64.5 million empty apartments in China, due to a variety of factors—overly aggressive construction, unaffordable costs for ordinary people, speculative and investment purchases by the rich, lack of infrastructure to serve the new developments.
This short video gives a glimpse of the surreal landscape approximately two hours away from Beijing.
But dinner time it is. And dinner tonight, straight out of a convenience store, is promising to be exquisite! Let’s see—dried packaged hardly identifiable stuff, cheap beer, and oh! The best instant noodles, with huge chunks of tender meat. Well, that’s what the picture shows, at least. I’m salivating. The onboard hot water faucet comes in handy, and presto, dinner’s served. But wait, where are the meat chunks again? They must have been so tender that they melted already… There’s false advertising, and then there’s false advertising in China—the epitome of the art 🙂
Our Western guide pops in to ask how we’re doing. We share a laugh about the instant noodles. He decides to take the matter in his own hands. The man is a North Korean travel expert… while we were exploring and starting to eat, it turns out he was hanging out with our North Korean fellow travelers and conductors. He had come equipped with cigarettes, booze, and a jovial mood. Jumping between basic English, some Chinese (which he speaks fluently) and bits of Korean that he’s picked up over time, he’s been passing the goods around, and made lots of new friends. Indeed, some of his newly acquainted buddies knock at our door. With a broad smile, they perform the universal “gimme a cigarette, bro” gesture. Some things are international; the citizens of the axis of evil are just like the rest of us.
A couple of hours ago, I was staring at the stern looking Korean conductors who directed us military style to our berths. Now, their fellow countrymates, who, as rumor has it, may monitor foreigners and report at the border, are standing in baggy pants and undershirts, beer in hand, attempting to communicate with us. As it turns out, some are even already a bit too “tired” for conversation 😉 Compartment doors start to open, and I feel much more comfortable peeking inside our train mates’ accommodations. Words fail me. I’m not sure where anyone will sleep, because there are packages everywhere. Under the beds, over the beds, against the windows… bags of various sizes and shapes, plus the ubiquitous undefined bundles rolled in tarps. In a surreal organized chaos, folks are cooking and eating—food is being reheated, passed around and shared, under a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Somehow, now that we’re all friends, the infamous locked doors between the North Korean and Chinese cars open up, and our guide encourages us to make our way to the Chinese restaurant car—where there is, guess what, more booze. We walk through the Chinese cars. The train is modern, but cramped. Passengers are sitting on the floor and in the aisles; some are sleeping on the floor and in the doorways. The buzz and energy of conversations are deafening. Our soft sleeper compartments almost feel like first class in comparison. Then again, the majority of the folks in the Chinese cars will be spending a couple of hours on the train, whereas we’ve embarked for a 24+ hour journey.
Food is cheap and plentiful in the restaurant car, and we indulge in a nice meal. The matrons who serve us offer to bring breakfast to our bunks before our early morning arrival in Dandong. I take them up on the offer—there’s nothing more fun than random asian food for breakfast—while wondering about the legality of the whole process—aren’t our cars supposed to be segregated after all? Apparently, the restaurant staff is allowed to enter the Korean cars at certain hours, while passengers are supposed to stay put. It’s all theoretical.
It is now dark outside and while some of us stay up in the restaurant car, I make my way back to our North Korean estates, eager to check on the comfort and softness of my berth 🙂 I think I would have slept rather well, had it not been for a snoring seatmate who kept us up all night, finally emerging in the morning declaring: “I hope I didn’t snore! And I hope you guys slept well, I really did myself!” Yeah, we figured.
It’s 7am and already light outside. The restaurant attendant drops off our breakfast trays. We’re about to enter Dandong, the Chinese border city.
Tip: Do you dream of sleeping aboard a North Korean train carriage? Unlike plane tickets to Pyongyang which can only be purchased through specialized agencies, train tickets can be purchased freely in Beijing, assuming that space is available. Of course, without a visa, you’ll want to be sure you get off the train in Dandong or you’ll be in for a treat; but you can enjoy the first half of the ride. A ticket to Pyongyang is required to enter the Korean cars. The same rule appears to apply on the route originating in Russia, potentially offering opportunities to ride on different types of equipment.
In pictures: Beijing to Dandong