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.
Officially, taking pictures is prohibited, so I was walking on eggshells. At the beginning, I closed the door of my compartment (which I was sharing with three other foreigners) and started shooting through the dirt and glare of our window. As the barren landscape unfolded, I would occasionally hang in the corridor, and over time built connections with North Koreans passengers, primarily through smiles, nods and waves. Eventually we started exchanging a few words in rudimentary English and I felt that my presence and actions were not perceived as threatening. This encouraged me to go a bit further and I eventually showed up in the corridor camera in hand. Soon enough, I was standing at an open window, equipped with both an SLR and a video camera. That was definitely pushing the limits, and there were a couple close calls—the staff reprimanded me for making pictures in the restaurant car, train station agents brushed me off (one minor altercation was actually caught on cam) and North Koreans travelers became visibly uncomfortable when I started photographing soldiers and watchtowers along the route—indeed, photographing the military in the DPRK is an absolute no-no, although soldiers are such a common sight that it is at times genuinely difficult to avoid photographing them.
I made frequent trips to my compartment to backup of my pictures should I been asked to delete them. Yet, my new-found Korean friends appeared to be merely genuinely curious as to who we foreigners were and what drew us to their country, and didn’t seem to have any intention to police anything. Very few DPRK citizens are allowed to travel abroad, and those who are can do so only with valid a business reason and under great restrictions—they surrender their passport as soon as they re-enter the DPRK, and their family back home pays the price should they opt not to return. But they’re educated, part of a certain elite, are far wealthier than the masses, and have seen enough tourists act like tourists that they don’t necessarily see a spy in every foreigner.
The language barrier made communication challenging and limited, but I sensed that some of my North Korean trainmates were proud to be allowed to travel. One indvidual was coming back from India, for reasons that he wouldn’t elaborate on, and produced a digital camcorder shortly after he saw me making videos. I became uncomfortable when he directed it at me, wondering if he was capturing irrefutable proof of my many felonies, though it occurred to me later that he was simply proud to be a fellow videocam owner—an extreme rarity in the DPRK—and probably just wanted to show it off (unless he too, was reporting on his encounters with fellow passengers on the train!) Maybe this simple, silent and slightly awkward interaction best summarizes the dynamic between North Koreans and foreigners: a mix of fear and concern on both parts, limited communication, a keen awareness from North Koreans on their country’s challenges mixed with national pride, and, at the end of the day, only positive intentions.
We departed Sinuju around 2pm after the customs agents got off the train—over three hours after our arrival at the station, and approximately six hours after our arrival in Dandong, China, a mere couple hundred yards away. Ironically, one could fly roundtrip from Beijing to Pyongyang in the time it takes for the train to cross the border and for passengers to go through customs.
The train started rolling on the bumpy track. It became immediately clear why traveling the 227 miles to Pyongyang was scheduled to take shy of six hours—the track is in a poor shape, limiting trains to very low speeds. As I pointed out in a previous entry, our average speed within the DPRK was ~35 mph, or less than half of our average speed within China. Many tracks are actually in a worse shape, and train travel within the DPRK can take days. Tourists have occasionally been allowed to take the train between Pyongyang and Kaesong (albeit in special carriages) and have reported that driving was faster despite the potholes. The current track network is still a leftover from the Japanese occupation, and not so long ago, the DPRK still ran steam trains—and interestingly even arranged trips for vintage train enthusiasts!
Immediately outside Sinuju appeared what would turn out to be the typical landscape over the next 6 hours: fields and rice paddies drown in a palette of golden and brown hues, with mountains in the background. Buildings and propaganda signs provide a touch of color in the otherwise desolate and barren landscape. All the available space—even right in front of larger buildings—appears to be cultivated. Indeed, 80% of the DPRK’s national territory is mountainous, leaving very little arable land. The capital’s name, Pyongyang, stands for “flat land,” highlighting the rarity of plains in the landscape. There is therefore an effort to exploit all available land, although yields are very low due to lack of fertilizers and equipment. This led the DPRK to deforest extensively over the years in an attempt to create more arable space. In some cases, there have even been attempts to grow crops on deforested hills, dramatically altering water retention. The combination of deforestation and over-exploitation has led to a vicious draught/flood cycle which has been negatively impacting the DPRK’s economy for years, with little relief in sight.
As we enter the countryside, larger buildings disappear, making room for vast fields and traditional “harmonica houses,” multi-family dwellings where communal farm workers reside. There are virtually no paved roads and hardly any cars anywhere. Most traffic on the local dirt roads is composed of pedestrians, a few bicycles and the occasional army truck which leaves a cloud of thick dust behind. People walk everywhere, sometimes long distances, often carrying bundles, as they can be assigned to any field in the (near or far) vicinity of their residence.
We soon approach the town of Sapkon-ni, which features more of the same typical architecture. In truth, seen from afar, these towns have a certain rustic charm; the architecture of the harmonica houses is appealing. The view of the train is as close as foreigners will get, though, and close-up reality is probably tougher than charming—by numerous accounts, there is virtually no infrastructure in the countryside, little electricity and hardly any reliable water distribution. The occasional healthcare facility is likely devoid of basic supplies. However, every little village has a functioning school that children are required to attend.
After school, though, children are often required to do “volunteer work” and help with farming. We notice many children at work along the train tracks, often holding shovels and performing various duties. Most pause and look at our train go by, and smile and wave in response to our greetings. Most seem to be genuinely happy. There is beauty in the youthful energy that they exhibit against the vast dying landscape, drama in the contrast of their still lives stuck in the past while the train rolls by, carrying foreigners from all continents of the world. Smiles are the language that unites us all, and they are truly genuine.
The train windows reveal a living museum. Farming relies on century-old traditions. Most work is done manually or with the use of ox-carts. Farm workers stand in the water and mud, working the rice paddies. The occasional, brightly painted tractor provides a touch of color, as do the small red flags which dot the fields and are supposed to encourage and motivate workers.
Another motivator is the ubiquitous propaganda. Whether subtle—in the form of billboards depicting Mt. Paekdu (Generalissimo King Jong’s Il presumed birth site,) or Kimjongiliaa and Kimilsungias, flowers dedicated to the leaders—or blatant—slogans to the glory of the party or encouraging production—it is omnipresent, even in the most remote villages. Each village also features a centrally located “tower of eternal life,” a stone monuments lauding the achievements of eternal President Kim Il Sung. These towers are currently being upgraded to include a mention the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.
The landscape is fascinating. It is the small details that reveal the way of life in the countryside—the abandoned ox-cart, the manicured flower pot, the banner that no one seems to notice anymore…
While the landscape unfolds we walk over to the restaurant car. This is a chance to go through the rest of the train—in Dandong, an extra set of carriages was attached to the two cars coming from Beijing. All cars appear to be occupied by Chinese citizens, probably visiting relatives in the DPRK or involved in the 100th anniversary celebrations in a way or another, as the large flower arrangements that crowd the corridors seem to indicate. There is a profusion of laptops, iPods, and other devices as the Chinese travelers keep themselves busy on the long ride—a surreal sight while crossing a desolate landscape.
The restaurant car is bare but functional. We order a meal for a couple of euros each and a flurry of small dishes soon shows up. Local and foreign beers are available. I enjoy my very first bottle of water manufactured in the DPRK. The staff is attentive, but vigilant—I am asked to put away my camera, although there is no attempt to have me delete any pictures. Eating on the bouncy train is at times a challenging exercise. Suddenly, power goes out in a tunnel—this is business as usual, and the staff quickly produces a flashlight, conveniently hanging on a wire. The outage doesn’t last… looking back I’m not even sure whether the train slowed down, and I don’t think it stopped, although it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the nominal speed from reduced speeds. All patrons in the restaurant car are foreigners. I have heard that it was off-limits to DPRK citizens, but have no proof or evidence either way. However I can attest that given the ample food supplies that Korean passengers brought on board, a stop at the dining car would have been unlikely. Prices, while cheap by western standards (approximately 5 euros for a meal) are off the charts for most North Koreans anyway.
We make it back to our carriage, where nothing seems to have changed—the Koreans are still smoking, virtually everywhere. On the Chinese side, they tried to congregate at either end of the carriages, but now that we’ve crossed the border, the “No Smoking” signs are all but theoretical. The car is hazy at times, but open windows are very convenient for pictures 🙂 The conductors, who looked so severe when we boarded back in Beijing, are now pretty laid back going about their business, picking up trash, eating and drinking, and setting the carpet straight. While trash accumulates at the end of each car, while the bathrooms are rather unwelcoming, while smoke fills the corridor, they sweep the carpet with great precision, and have everybody step into their compartment to carefully line it up with the windows. It is a high standing affair. Details matter.
We make a brief stop at Chongju, also known as Jongju. This is the first of two stops between Sinuju and Pyongyang. All train stations look alike, featuring a portrait of one of the Leaders, typically the President’s.
We now roll towards Sinanju, the last stop before Pyongyang. The landscape doesn’t vary much—more ride paddies, more golden hues, and more dry fields. I notice that there’s hardly any cattle anywhere—all we’ve seen so far is a couple skinny goats, here and there. In fact, in all my time in the DPRK I never saw any real cattle, as in, in great numbers. Perhaps I didn’t go to the right places, or perhaps it somehow explains the meat shortage.
The army is omnipresent. The train tracks are dotted with observation and surveillance towers, manned 24hrs a day. Soldiers on duty stand still, watching the horizon. It’s unclear what they actually look for, although train tracks are part of the core infrastructure that is controlled by the army, so perhaps that explains the precaution. The KPA (Korean People’s Army) employs over one million people and its mission is broader than defense. The “soldier-builders,“ as they’re sometimes called by KCNA, the DPRK’s official news channel, build major projects, both in the cities and in the countryside. Soldiers can be seen just about everywhere, whether walking around or working on a variety of tasks. Photographing them is illegal (except at the DMZ) but they’re a friendly bunch who will often wave back. Along the tracks, we see soldiers loading coal, without a mask or any protection, onto a freight train. Others fix roads. Some don’t seem to have much to do.
Finally, the train stops at Sinanju. Some Koreans passengers get off to smoke one more cigarette, however as foreigners, we have to stay onboard. For some reason photographing train stations is prohibited, and I attract some attention as I start filming, albeit discretely (see first video.)
It is almost 6pm and the sky is slowly getting darker. As time goes by, buildings tend to get taller, tracks seem to multiply, and a larger number of electric cables are crossing the sky. Are we approaching Pyongyang? It is hard to tell, as it’s a dark, we’re a bit behind schedule, and no one seems to know for sure. Yet, moments later, a form of frenzy appears to take the train by storm. Korean passengers get dressed, boxes and packages are shuffled, and we come to an abrupt stop. I’m still filming. “Pyongyang, Pyongyang” announces the conductor in the corridor as he ushers passengers out. He seems to be in a rush. It’s been a long ride, and yet, we’re a mere 15 minutes late, a pretty impressive performance for a 24 hour journey.
The Pyongyang station is like no other we’ve seen so far. It is grand, and lit. Passengers keep pouring out of the train. It is a chaos of boxes and people on the platform. Somehow, our guide spots us immediately—I suppose the few foreigners always arrive in one of the two rear carriages coming all the way from Beijing. It is 7:45pm a day after departing from Beijing, and we have arrived in Pyongyang.
In pictures: below is a selection of pictures taken from the train. Due to shooting conditions (train movement or speed, perceived or real surveillance, glare when shooting though the windows,) some pictures are a bit blurry, although I have typically managed to keep the main subject in focus. A small number of pictures are blurry beyond repair, but tell such fascinating or heartwarming stories that I just could not resist posting them.