It took me a while to write this post—in addition to shifting through over 20 gigabytes worth of pictures and videos taken in under 10 hours I had to figure out how to best organize my thoughts. Should I make this post linear, and recount my experience hour by hour? Should I emphasize my interactions with North Korean passengers or the striking scenery that we rode through? How could I select just a few representative pictures that would do the experience justice? I’m not sure I’ve found the perfect solution, but I’ve resolved to write a single semi-linear post covering the whole ride from Sinuju, the DPRK’s border town with China to Pyongyang, the capital—a single post narrating some of the shortest 10 hours of my life. It will be long yet cursory and there are topics that I will cover in greater details down the road. I’ve illustrated the text with videos to preserve the dynamic nature of the experience, and I have included at the bottom a series of pictures which tells more than words.
Traveling from Beijing to Pyongyang by train is a privilege. The sinuous line goes through the “real” DPRK and remote parts of the country, places that tourists would never be allowed to visit, far from the showcase capital of Pyongyang. Embarking on this long journey is only possible for non-US citizens, and is a unique opportunity to mingle with North Koreans without a government minder.
While the location of the tracks is well-known (the tracks even appear on Bing Maps, although, strangely, not Google) I left my GPS running to build a continuous trail. While some points are slightly off, due to reception issues and to the need to hide this illegal device, I have been able to map the entire route and geo-tag my pictures, hopefully adding to the pool of knowledge about the DPRK.
Children lining up at Pyongyang’s No. 69 middle school. Visiting a school provides a glimpse into the early propaganda that children are subject to. That being said, the 11 (soon 12) year education is free and compulsory for all, and children have opportunities to engage in extra-curricular activities. They also have to perform “volunteer” work, such as cleaning and maintenance duties.
I made it back from the DPRK a bit over a week ago, having enjoyed another couple of days in the capital, as well as a day out in Kaesong and at the DMZ. With this, I suppose I have officially joined to the odd group of travelers who have been to the Northern side of the DMZ more than they’ve been to the South.
The Mass Games – “Arirang”, a stunning display
The main goal of this trip was to attend the Mass Games “Arirang” show before its likely demise next year. The Mass Games succeed in drawing relatively large crowds, filling May Day stadium—the biggest stadium in the world—many weeks in a row. Granted, Chinese visitors largely outnumber westerners, but there is something almost a little “touristy” about attending a performance, with DVDs and t-shirts on sale inside and outside the stadium. Itineraries built around the Mass Games are therefore often pretty standard, featuring “safe” attractions such as a visit to the statues of the Leaders, a one-stop metro ride, and a children’s show. While I did have a more enthralling experience back in April, it was interesting to witness the execution of a well-oiled itinerary where things typically “just work” (which was definitely not the case in April.) Visitors who fly in and out, and therefore don’t get a peek at the countryside, might almost leave with the feeling that they visited a slightly odd, but overall quite normal place, except perhaps for the fact that there’s no WiFi at the hotel.
One particularly interesting aspect of traveling to the DPRK twice in less than six months, though, is the ability to witness changes. “Change” seems to be a keyword in all recent news surrounding the DPRK—some speculate about it, some hope for it, some bet on it, some deny it—but most observers agree that something is happening. While it is difficult for the naked eye to draw a concise, scientific or objective picture of what change entails, I observed the following: Continue reading
I am back in the DPRK, and super excited to be in the lovely city of Pyongyang again. Obviously, I don’t have Internet access, so I wrote this entry ahead of time with an auto-post. 🙂
My previous trip a couple months ago was a blast but there are a couple of things I didn’t have a chance to do, like fly Air Koryo, the world’s only one-star yet functional airline, attend the Mass Games, and stay at the Yanggakdo and visit its infamous secret 5th floor. It looks like I may have a chance to do fun stuff like visit the new amusement park recently inaugurated by the respected Kim Jong Un, but I won’t know until, probably, the last minute. Above all, every trip is a chance to build a tiny, even flimsy bridge with Humanity beside us and learn about others that we think we may not have much in common with.
When I heard that this year might mark the final installment of the Arirang Mass Games, I arranged for a trip to Pyongyang within the hour. While nothing’s ever certain, and the Mass Games may continue in a way or another, I couldn’t pass on such an opportunity to live history. And despite draught, flooding, and a flurry of other natural disasters, the show is still going on this year. I will be there, reporting back shortly… or not so shortly, since I still have a week’s worth of previous experiences to share before I can touch on my second trip 🙂
Happy and safe travels to all!
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.
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…
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.
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