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…

Dandong customs areaUnfortunately, I don’t get a chance to leave the train station in Dandong. The area is secured with border controls and customs, as it is the first entry point in China for passengers coming from North Korea, and vice versa the last point for passengers leaving China.

Shortly after we arrive at the station, Chinese border officials climb onboard to collect our passports. Then, we’re allowed to get off, stretch on the platform and wander into the station. The public bathroom, despite having no hot water, is a welcome reprieve after 14 hours on the train.

Soon, we leave—only to come back. Again. And again. In Dandong, the two North Korean carriages are separated from the rest of the rest of the train, and a North Korean locomotive attached, while the other cars turn back into China. A fellow blogger counted that his train left and entered the station 17 times. I wouldn’t know; I’m having breakfast to keep myself entertained while the landscape loops around us 🙂 Rice, veggies, some kind of meat ball and some kind of sausage—fun! There’s only one thing I can’t do without in the morning… Fortunately, as I already pointed out, I’m a bit of an over planner.

Breakfast in bed   Morning necessities

We receive and fill out the North Korean customs forms. It’s noteworthy that both forms require one to fill in the “name of the delegation,” highlighting how personal travel isn’t an option. Besides the typically prohibited objeDPRK customs formscts (weapons, firearms, etc.) travelers need to declare cell phones, GPS and all forms of positioning systems (including GPS-enabled cameras) as well as publishing of all kinds. Our western guide notifies us that our bags will be searched and that prohibited items will be detained and returned to us when we leave, or sealed to prevent their use during our stay. Truthfully, I’m a bit disappointed by the customs forms; I was expecting them to be a bit more esoteric! After all, didn’t the US ask not long ago if one came with intentions to kill the President? The DPRK pales in comparison with our humor 🙂

Finally the carriages are assembled, our passports are returned, and our train appears to bNorth Korean locomotivee ready to cross into the DPRK. However, with the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Great Leader, Pyongyang is a popular destination. Our two sleeper carriages from Beijing are attached to another set of regular cars, and a long stream of passengers is finally allowed to board. Most travelers appear to be Chinese—many families have ties in the DPRK and in fact, Chinese tourism and family visits comprise, by far, the bulk of travel to the DPRK. We wait patiently while passenPassenger train loaded with goods departing for the DPRKgers go to through customs, bringing with them a new influx of large bags and boxes. By the time our train leaves, numerous exits are blocked, and traffic between cars has become a somewhat of an acrobatic feat. There might be more cargo than passengers on this train, and I’m dying to know what’s in this big, blind carriage just behind the locomotive…

It is finally time to depart. We’ve spent over two hours in Dandong already. I’m not sure if we leave on time, I’m too excited for what’s coming ahead to pay any attention. What starts is a slow and emotional ride across the Sino-Korean friendship bridge. At this point, it is too late to go back. By crossing this bridge, I am effectively giving up my freedom for the next few days, and in a twisted manner, I’m curious to find out how it feels. Few people overall have crossed this bridge–and even less North Koreans. I am about to vacation in a prison.

 Chinese side (Dandong)Behind the passing bridge arches, the Chinese coast unfolds slowly. Finally, we reach the abrupt end of the parallel old bridge. Old pillars ahead are standing blatantly still, supporting nothing but the weight of memories. A couple of onlookers are watching the scenery from the observation platform… Mid way across the river, the stark contrast between the two coasts reveals itself. Dandong’s skyscrapers face a sad, bare and grey landscape. We’re finally above land—surreal land. Across us appears to be a boat cemetery—rusty vessels are rotting in a sea of browns and greys. I have read since that the place is technically a “shipyard”—except that no ship is ever built there.  Instead, boats are dismantled and parts recycled.North Korean coast at Sinuiju

Suddenly, in an absurd setting, rises a still and rusty Ferris wheel above a deserted miniature amusement park. It looks like the past has frozen here for eternity. There is something vaguely reminiscent of pictures of the evacuation area around Chernobyl. Wikipedia speculateAmusement parks that the wheel was built for propaganda purposes, as it can be seen from the Chinese coast. It is possible, although the other two decrepit rides are two small to be seen, and if it was propaganda indeed, it has long outlived its usefulness.

I am officially in Sinuju, DPRK. The first sight of humanity is a group of soldiers seemingly guarding the track. Then, we spot a group of workers gathered around trucks. In fact, I have not seen as many trucks anywhere else I’ve been in the DPRK—highlighting once again the importance of the trade between Sinuju and Dandong.

Here is an unedited, silent film of the border crossing.

It is true that the DPRK doesn’t do itself a favor by treating incoming travelers to such a depressing series of sights. The combination of a broken bridge, a monochrome landscape and a boat cemetery, topped by an abandoned or fake amusement park—in front of a wall of skyscrapers—is  probably enough to convince most visitors, if they weren’t already, that they’re entering a surreal wasteland. It is entirely too unfair in my book, though, to judge a city or a country by what you can see along a train track. I’ll cite the abject poverty that one can see along the US Northeast corridor between New York City and Washington, DC, or the rundown suburbs covered in graffiti that dot the train ride from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport to the city, as two shining examples of terrible appearances which only reveal one face of otherwise massively successful metropolis. I haven’t had a chance to venture into Sinuiju, but I am sure that a gentle eye will find beauty, if not in the town, then in its people. That being said, it is fascinating how the DPRK’s propaganda sometimes breaks down, focusing entirely on the wrong things or revealing blatant gaps… I will get back to this topic in a future post.

Sinuju train stationAs we enter the station I (initially) put my camera away—we’ve been told that making pictures in train stations is a no-no. There are many rules regarding pictures. At the end of the day, it’s at your own risk as long as you don’t get your guide in trouble… The train stops at the deserted station. There are only service members in uniform on the platform. While the comparison makes me somewhat uncomfortable, I can’t help but think of black and white pictures of Nazi Germany, showing trains stopped at stations with stern officers pacing the platform… the red and white slogans are chilling and provide the only touch of color in this concrete landscape.

In what seems an eternity later, customs officers climb onboard the train. We’re not allowed to get off. Time comes to a halt. I believe we waited over an hour before the officers finally reach our compartment. Most of their time is spent with North Korean passengers, but we don’t get to see much of what is going on.

A nice looking car is stationed on the platform, where you’d expect passengers instead. On a regular basis, the trunk opens, an officer gets off the train, drops off a small package into the trunk, and then disappears. The process repeats a few minutes later. What is going on is rather obvious; I just wasn’t expecting it to be that mainstream or shameless. Interestingly, though, none of the big packages stored in unusual locations on the train get even a glance from the customs officers. These strange-looking shipments do not belong to anyone on the train.

Our western guide spots the officers as they approach our compartment and smiles—“I know the younger one!” Indeed, the young officer comes in with a broad smile. Our guide has the matter down to a science. He’s brought him a book; maybe he’d want a DVD next time? Small talk follows, then the fellow gets down to business—he’s a professional after all. He pronounces each passenger’s name, using our visas which as I explained earlier, include a phonetic transcription of the holder’s name. Then he proceeds to go through everyone’s bags. The process is hardly scientific—he points at a bag, misses another, searches one twice, while all along our western guide entertains him with his friendly demeanor. Books are checked, sometimes virtually page by page. Literature that would be derogatory of the regime is banned, in addition to religious texts. There is no room for multiple gods in the DPRK.

Cell phones are sealed. But first, they require a thorough examination: “Show me the map feature! Oh maps, not in our country!” My non-standard phone interface confuses him: “Where is the menu?” Occasionally, some electronic devices require further scrutiny—iPads loaded with games, for example. We get it, and show the fellow how to start games, and he indulges for a couple of minutes with each device. He comes across an eReader, asking “Games?”—no, the owner responds… “Really?” That is suspicious. When he sees our guide’s phone, the officer breaks down—“oh, I don’t know that one, can I keep it with me?” In theory, customs holds items only if you’re departing from the same port of entry. Otherwise, prohibited articles are supposed to be sealed. In this case, I believe our guide was flying out, so there was no official reason to hold his phone. There was a very personal reason though—our young officer just wanted to play with it. “I promise I won’t look at anything, just practice a bit!” Our guide cautions that the battery is almost discharged and that he doesn’t have the adapter, so the plan isn’t going to work. “Oooh…,” the officer utters, in a sigh, seconds before finding said (universal) adapter in our guide’s bag with enthusiasm—”Isn’t that adapter?” “Yes, but that one works only with Chinese electricity!” “Oh, too bad…”

The fancier the device, the more intriguing it is. When the officer requests to see my laptop that doubles as a tablet, I gently point out the swirling screen and the ability to write on the screen. He tries it, then looks, mesmerized… “how much is this?” I pause. “2,000 dollars.” “Two thousand dollars…” I feel a wave taking him offshore, a silent breeze lifting him to another world. The number he had uttered was just unfathomable. In the silence of the moment, the constant screeching of tape rolls resonates in the background, as cell phones are packed and sealed throughout the carriage.

When he searches my suitcase, the officer comes across a newspaper and spots Obama’s picture. “Do you like him?” Without having time to think, I respond “oh, yes!” “He’s bad, bad, Americans are bad!” Oops. I knew—and I spoke too fast. However hated the President and its fellow countrymen might be, though, I notice that the newspaper requires a very thorough inspection. My issues of Time magazine must be fairly suspicious too. There was something so human, so tender, about this kid, sitting on our train berth with a gentle smile, drooling over electronics and trying to catch a glimpse of outside news under the cover of his duties, while trying to make small talk to improve his English. His uniform cannot disguise his open heart. I ask him to pick a copy of Time magazine and keep it. “Really?” he says, delighted, before silently hiding it in his pocket. Our guide gives me the thumbs up; that’s the kind of relationships he likes to create. It’s tough, though—technically, I’ve put the guy in danger. Getting caught with this kind of literature can be ground for arrest and potentially, deportation. Yet, I assume that he can declare the item as “confiscated.”

Cell phone, sealed by customs

Sealed cell phone

I ponder over the situation and gaze at the scene, wondering how porous borders really are—how can these folks believe in the system, with relatively frequent, albeit partial, access to the outside world? My thoughts are soon interrupted. Drama is unfolding in the next compartment: customs is taping someone’s camera. The issue? It has a GPS input. Without the actual GPS device, it is utterly useless, but the customs officers don’t understand that. If it says GPS, then it must be a GPS. Our guide jumps to the rescue and negotiates. In the end, the camera itself is rescued but the GPS input port is taped over multiple times.

Early morning in SinujuOver three hours later, all customs officers disembark. The car disappears from the platform. Finally, North Koreans are allowed on and off the train. This doesn’t mean outside the station, though—one needs to be equipped with the proper documentation to travel, and it is impossible to leave a station without showing the adequate proof of residency or travel permit. Suddenly, a flow of tired but colorful humanity invades the platform. The station is a station again. The inspection is over.

Portrait of the President in Sinuju

Our visas are returned with a stamp, and we’re ready to go. We have now officially entered the DPRK, with another six hours (and 200km) to go to Pyongyang, the capital. The Eternal President Kim Il Sung is smiling at us outside the station, uttering words of welcome to His Paradise.

To end this post, I’d like to share some thoughts on the smuggling that I’ve witnessed. My experience is consistent with what other travelers have described.  it seems relatively obvious that the train from Beijing to Pyongyang, and most likely the few other routes into the DPRK, are used to transport all sorts of cargo which doesn’t belong on a passenger train… and in light of the embargo, may not belong in the DPRK either. The operation appears to be run at least somewhat professionally, given the number of packages wrapped and identified identically, and the careful orchestration all along—Chinese customs agents walk into carriages that are crowded with boxes, but don’t ask any questions; as for the North Korean agents, they’re more interested in searching for foreigners’ entertainment devices, and Korean’s “small packages” susceptible of fitting the trunk of a car. Clearly, the piles of the tarp-wrapped bags stuffed in every corner are invisible to the authorities.

In May 2011, a UN panel of experts issued a report on illegal trade with the DPRK and the movement of goods into the country despite the embargo. Naturally, the report leaked. I took time to browse the document and noticed that paragraph VIII. A. deals with interdiction when related to trade and transportation infrastructure. It briefly mentions the train routes (“… a small number of maritime ports, international air connections, as well as rail and road connections to China and the Russian Federation”) yet exclusively focuses on maritime and air transport, not even suggesting explicitly that trains might also be used for illegal trade. While I realize that the capacity of an airliner or a cargo ship is far superior to the capacity of a passenger train, I’m somewhat surprised by such a glaring omission. I’m certainly no expert in the matter, so maybe I merely witnessed passengers traveling with a large amount of personal effects… As always, the truth is what one chooses to believe.

In pictures: crossing the border

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