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.
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 🙂
I meet with my group around lunch time near Beijing’s cavernous train station. Our western guide, a laid back fellow who’s experienced more in 22 years than most in a lifetime, walks us through the key rules and protocols (basically: watch your mouth, be respectful and don’t try to escape) and hands us our visas.
North Korean tourist group visas are mere standalone flyers with a picture, the dates and location of entry and exit, and an interesting phonetic translation of the holder’s name—think of your name pronounced in broken English and then transcribed into Korean characters; that’s pretty much what you get. From this standpoint, the DPRK is incredibly informal. It takes much more time and effort to obtain a Chinese visa (which needs to be at least of the double-entry flavor) than it takes to obtain a North Korean group visa, assuming you work with the right agency. At no point did I provide any official documentation—the picture on my visa is a color printout of a photo that I sent as an email attachment. On the other hand, once you cross the border, your documents are swiftly taken away from you; and with no passport, credit card (they do not work in the DPRK) or cell phone (they’re confiscated) you quickly get a sense of how things really work. You may want to stay with the group and watch your mouth after all 🙂
Our first mission before making our way to the station is to stock up on food and snacks. It’s going to be a long ride, and the door between the North Korean and Chinese cars is typically locked, so it’s unlikely that we’ll have access to the restaurant car. Indeed, only a handful of cars make it into the DPRK—the bulk of the carriage turns back into China at the border city of Dandong. We venture into the nearest convenience store and acquire Chinese instant noodles, drinks (booze for some :)) and other fine local delicacies. Fortunately, there is a hot water tap on the train.
K27 is our train number. The station is reasonably easy to navigate as long as one knows the train number. Otherwise, there’s hardly any English in sight. After hanging out in the waiting room, it’s time to start boarding and we make our way to the platform, where a long train awaits. There’s nothing remotely special about this train at a first glance, until, finally, at the far end of the train—here they are: two North Korean carriages in the typical dark green livery adorned with the DPRK’s insignia. Only two cars—a sign of how little travel there is between the two capitals, even at the eve of a major holiday.
We’re lucky (in my book) to be riding in North Korean cars: Chinese and North Korean carriages rotate on this route, and there is something more authentic about riding in a true North Korean train, even though the North Korean carriages on the flagship Beijing/Pyongyang route are actually relatively recent Chinese-made cars in complete working order. This is not the case on other routes, though—not so long ago the DPRK still operated Japanese made steam trains, making it a paradise for classic train aficionados, and other routes appear to be much more poorly equipped, which probably explains why they’re typically not open to tourists.
Next to the cars stand a couple of very official looking North Korean attendants, chain-smoking. They wear the red Kim Il Sung pin which will soon become a familiar sight—it is a sign of their loyalty to the Eternal President and a reflection of the reliable services that they’ve rendered to the nation.
It is real now. In a moment, I’ll be boarding and be on my way. I’m about to experience my longest train journey so far, departing Beijing at 5:30pm and arriving in Pyongyang over a day later, hopefully around 7:30pm.
But why does the journey take 24 hours when the equivalent flight lasts approximately 90 minutes? The three primary factors are geography, border controls, and speed.
First, from a geographical standpoint, while airplanes can fly in a straight line, trains need to hug the coast of the East China Sea, adding considerable travel distance. Below is a map that I have generated using a GPS onboard and the excellent gpsvisualizer.com. While the exact location of the tracks and the details of the route are widely documented (and visible on satellite maps) I figured it would be cool to bring home a precise trail. In red is the first segment of the trip from Beijing to Qinhuangdao, where we arrived the first evening. The second segment is missing—unsure of the reliability of the onboard power outlet once in the DPRK, I decided to practively recharge my GPS overnight while in Chinese territory. The green segment is our trail from Dandong, the Chinese border city is where we arrived around 7am, to Pyongyang, DPRK. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to find a potential flaw in this paragraph 🙂
Second, border controls take time—that’s an understatement. Below is a picture of the schedule that was posted on the train. Note how the train is scheduled to arrive in Dandong on the Chinese side at 7:17am, and to depart Sinuju on the Korean side at 2pm. That’s a total of almost 6 hours spent in customs, with over half of the time on the Korean side. (The bulk of the time on the Chinese side is actually spent assembling carriages and loading passengers.) I will touch on this experience in a future post. Sharp eyes may also notice that the “distance” column is blank on the Korean side—I assume for “security” reasons.
Finally, the train runs slowly on the Korean side, and can be plagued with delays and unscheduled stops. I have read that the DPRK sometimes uses diesel engines despite the fact that the line is electrified, presumably to work around power cuts. In my experience, the ride was slow, but stops were few and far between and we did have an electric locomotive. I’m not sure how my experience, days away from a key holiday, reflects the typical service, but we arrived less than one hour late. Speed wise, though, the experience is striking. Due to the condition of the track on the Korean side, trains run extremely slowly. Below is a chart that I generated from my GPS data and again some help from gpsvisualizer.com. To the left of the red line is the speed chart for the Chinese segment of the trip (the red trail above) and to the right of the line is the chart for the Korean part (the green trail above.) On average, the train is twice slower on the Korean side—the speed falls from roughly 70mph to 30mph. And even at that speed, the ride can be exceedingly bumpy at times…