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.

Due to a combination of politics, economics (there is very little demand for travel to the DPRK) and Air Koryo’s (the DPRK’s flag carrier) inability to serve a wide range of destinations, there are very few gateways to the DPRK. The airline does not own jets which would allow it to operate long hauls and was banned in France in 2001, then in the whole European Union in 2006 (although restrictions were lifted in 2010 for their two new Tupolev TU-204 aircraft,) leaving them with few options for service beyond the boundaries of traditional allies such as China or Russia.

The Chinese capital is therefore the main entry point to the DPRK. Air Koryo and Air China each operate a couple of flights every week between the Beijing (PEK) and Pyongyang (FNJ) airports. Schedules are coordinated to provide daily service six times a week. Tickets are expensive (approximately 450 euros, i.e. almost $600 for a roundtrip, plus a premium to fly Air China) and can only be purchased through specialized agencies. In addition, a cheaper (and far slower) sleeper train links the two capitals a couple of days a week, with service provided on Korean and Chinese rolling stock. Train tickets can be difficult to obtain, as there are few seats available (only a few cars on the Beijing-Pyongyang train actually cross the border, with most turning back into China) and not all nationalities are allowed to use the train.

Other gateways to the DPRK include Vladivostok, Shenyang and Kuala Lumpur; however service from these cities can be spotty, irregular, or downright inaccessible to tourists. Flights from Kuala Lumpur (operated by Air Koryo) are only seasonal. As for the train from Moscow to Pyongyang via Vladivostok, it is officially off-limits for tourists, prompting two Austrian travelers to attempt and document the experience in 2008, and causing the government to promptly close the loophole that they relied on. Their tale is a fascinating and must read piece in my opinion.

For me, there will be no illegal border crossing, unfortunately 🙂 To spice things up a bit, however, I will be taking the train from Beijing to Pyongyang, choosing the 24 hour journey onboard a North Korean sleeper train in lieu of the quick 90 minute dash on a modern Air China Airbus.

I land in the Chinese capital excited for the adventure ahead. The new airport is a magnificent world class facility which sets the tone for visitors—China has become a powerhouse.

I love the first contact with a city—when you exit the cocoon of the airport and finally dive into the real world. I’m fortunate enough that quite a few places in the world have become familiar to me, but Beijing has changed so much that I’m not sure what to expect. I take the subway to Tian’Anmen square (for a scant CN¥ 2, or. $.30!) and exit by the National Center for Performing Art, dubbed “The Egg.”  Like other modern buildings constructed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it is controversial—designed by a western architect, in a style that supposedly clashes with neighboring buildings. Yet, it is a true piece of artwork. At dusk, stars shine on its dome while colors change, reflected in a gigantic pool along with the neighboring Great Hall of the People… a symbol of history in motion.

This is Beijing today—a modern, efficient and functional capital on the world stage, where old and new are juxtaposed. Back in 2000, the city was far more difficult to navigate. Infrastructure was lacking, there were overall more bicycles than cars on the street, large areas of the city still reeked of communism, and due to the nature of my trip, I even had a government minder follow me (pardon, help me) virtually at all times.

Today I feel something reminiscent of Dubai in Beijing. Maybe it’s the complex smell of warm air, pollution and construction, but there’s probably more to it. Both cities exhale the willingness to play on the world stage, to grow out of their modest roots, and to demonstrate what they can achieve. There is something heartwarming and appealing in my book about the desire to never take enough for granted.

Beijing, and China by extension, have been investing massively in infrastructure. The airport is a marvel, the ever expanding subway system is swift, clean and convenient; the city is more walkable than it used to be, and the center is even dotted with recycle bins! 🙂 As a believer in infrastructure spending, I can’t help but admire the transformation that the city has experienced. There are downsides, of course—large construction projects in China come at a human expense, respect for the environment and ecological policies are dubious at best, and even respect for the past is questionable: entire historical areas of Beijing and hutongs have been razed. China isn’t a model, but it is truly inspiring no matter what.

“Patriotism Innovation Inclusiveness Virtue.” Beijing today. Modern subway, traditional values.

Yet, Communism is still hiding behind the facade. I meet with a friend whose parents hold a high-ranking position in a multi-national corporation… at times they have difficulties running their business. When they complain about the government on the phone, their line occasionally goes dead. I have no evidence of any facts, but the stories I hear provide fascinating insights into what I am about to live.

In pictures: Beijing, then and now.

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