We arrived on the platform in front of carriage No.13 on time but was turned down at the door. Apparently there is another No.13 at the end. This No.13 is ‘especially’ prepared for foreigners going to North Korea. The train departures from Beijing at 17.30, and will take more than one whole day, 27 hours to be exact to reach its destination Pyongyang And the time spent can vary depending on what happens at the boarder. But overall we are really glad to be onboard; thanks to the recent death of Dear Leader, formalities got somewhat fuzzy and complicated.
The train was quite empty when we first got on. And as it turns out, we are double locked inside our carriage by chains and barrier. From Dandong which is the last stop in China, there came a lot more people into our carriage. All of them North Koreans but with ‘special’ passports like us; only diplomatic or official passport holders are allowed in No.13. And by the look of it, many of them are clearly enjoying lives no less than us.
The stop at Dandong station took couple hours, meanwhile we drove back and forth between 2 stations for at least 5 times (to change carriages). When we were finally on the move again, the long stop came, custom declaration it is this time. The North Korean officers were nice and polite, they do not speak much English but managed to communicate. As rumour says North Korean men love cigarette, indeed they do. With one pack of cigarrette Jordy soon secured a solid brotherhood with an officer, who is later generously showing us the different passports he has, even allowed us to play with his military hat.
Our stuff survived the inspection. Nothing dangerous was found. Our North Korean friends were struggling much more with the big boxes they are brining in from China, many of which are fruits. The price for custom was 300 RMB per box of fruit. When the train is finally moving again, we have even more passengers came out of no where, and piles of boxes have blocked the sinks. More importantly, the carriages were instantly filled with cigarette smoke and lasted for the whole 12 hours that is left.
The tickets for this train are written in chinese and russian. After consulting the Chinese police, they told us that only languages of the countries who joined Socialist Railway Union will be there, thus English and French is no where to be found.
We originally have a North Korean family staying with us in the compartment from Dandong. They are a family living in Dalian, a married couple and a cute boy at the age of 3. The man speaks some Chinese and a tiny bit of English, with a very nice and gentle character. The woman seems like a housewife, young and simple, giving all her attention to the child. The interesting part is, this North Korean lady’s grandparents were actually Japanese, they went to North Korea in the 70s. She does not speak Chinese, but was very much enjoying talking to me in Japanese with the bits and pieces she knows. The baby boy is called Iina (人贺), born and raised happily in Dalian. He does not speak any languages just yet, but was hyper active and demanding, thus both parents can do nothing but following the order of this little prince.
Besides them, we had a new edition of members from the first stop in North Korea where they were doing the custom checking. The 2 new members were introduced by an officer and Iina’s father. Apparently this officer is the boss at the custom and he wonders whether we would allow his kid and a friend to stay with us. With such a nice request from a North Korean officer how can we refuse? As a result our merry little party is even cozier and warmer now.
Now we are driving officially in North Korea. We then took the liberty of taking unlimited pictures of the mysterious countryside of DPRK. Everything seemed merry and gay. The yellow soil they have glitters nicely with the sun, children all came out to see the train, houses look pretty and new, and of course there are nice slogans for the dear leader Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il , the sun of 21st century.
After a while taking pictures of the outside, it is time to enjoy more of the party on the train. At lunch time every compartment started to smell really nice. You can tell many of them brought their own bento from home, presently the smell of kimchi almost covered the smoke. The Chinese police officer who will accompany us all the way to Pyongyang even started cooking on the train. Not being able to leave all our cameras and laptops behind for the other side of barrier, we chose to stay and survive on some biscuit. This really worried Iina’s father, who then brought out instant noodles and stuff in case we are hungry.
Being warmly encouraged by the signs and smiley pictures of Kim Il Sung, we overcame the hunger, and are now once again starting to take pictures of the fascinating country. And it is not soon until we drew some attention to one of the young fellow who was dressed in some extremely well made suit with a handkerchief nicely tugged in the pocket. He is a North Korean student of finance in a university in Dalian. By the look on his face and the way he approaches, I really though he was to ask my number if only we are not on this train.
This boy speaks both English and Chinese, which made him a very favorable conversation partner for us. After some time we found out he is no difference to a normal university student in China. About when we then lost our interests, and turned towards those 2 new members in our carriages. The son of the boss at the custom was of the same age, studying English in China. He is not so open minded but much easier going in manners comparing to his partner: another North Korean comrade with the most proper hair cut and a traditional North Korean suit, older in age and very reserved. When ever we say something or ask something to the young one, he is sure to translate everything for his comrade straight after.
It does not take long for me to doze off on the train, when later I felt someone pulling a blanket over me. It was Iina’s father again, he then turned to do the same for his wife. What a nice and warm character he has. Although, he is very surprised by us going to North Korea. And judging by his attitude of speech and the nice badge of Kim Il Sung, he is quite conservative as well. He always seemed worry for us, and tries to naturally direct us to the right way of conversing in North Korea.
The discovery of North Korean countryside continued when we are on the car from Pyongyang to Kaesong. It was a very misty weather and everything looked quite mysterious. There is only one road that runs this way, it was bumpy and lengthy, full of checkpoints with armed soldiers. About half way we pulled over for a toilet break, which stretched into a coffee break. A waitress then attended us with some instant coffee powder, and a kettle of hot water. To protest again this not so elegant treatment, our guide called out for milk. Soon some strawberry milk powder answered the request. After all, it is a 4 Euro coffee, I enjoyed it with all my heart.
We now arrived at Panmunjom, the famous check point at Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). We now have 6 North Koreans in the car again us 2 foreigners, very well protected against the southern imperialists. The whole ‘inspection’ accidentally ended up as an interview of Jordy by the North Korean soldiers, questions like how he does feel when the French Flag is hung on the other side of Demilitarization zone… “Heee, but there aren’t any flags on the other side!” replied Jordy fearlessly, looking carefully at the other side.
As a Chinese, I thought I would be warmly welcomed by our North Korean brothers, after all we helped them with the Korean War. But not even once did they mention the countries that helped them during or after the war, everything was a result of the brave North Korean people under the Great leader papa Kim. But they did not forget to mention their evil enemy, the America. Not only did Americans are too ashamed of themselves as to bring only a UN flag, but also they are the reason that South Koreans cannot reunion with their Northern brothers as they wish to be.
After some heavy anti-imperialism education from the well armed soldiers, we are happy to get back to our easy-going North Korean people We always feel very relaxed when crossing the road, giving the fact that there is no cars what-so-ever outside Pyongyang. And I do not remember seeing even one petrol station, wonder which brand of petrol do they use. Bikes, however, can be seen quite often. Apparently bike is a symbol of wealth in the regime.
The lunch was arranged in Kaesung, at a ‘traditional’ village for tourists only. The food looks wonderful and colourful. But little did we know that they could be awful and poisonous for our stomachs. So at the end of the day, I was crawling in my hotel room trying to drink hot water only. Tips here: BRING YOUR OWN MEDICINE for emergencies like this. I did not, real stupid of me. And all they have there is either North Korean or Russian medicine, both written in languages beyond comprehension and can only make you feel worse than before.
After the poisonous lunch, I was feeling rather heavy. Thus we took a casual walk around to help me digest. Above you can see young kids with tiny broomsticks. Our guide eagerly told us that these sweet angels are off to do some volunteer work; cleaning the monument. Actually volunteer work is very common in DPRK. After the diligent 6 working days, people are happily and voluntarily joined together to do some extra work. What a magical country and what lovely people they do have!
My stomach did not recover much after the walk, so we prepared to head back to Pyongyang a bit earlier. On the way back, our lady guide is fast asleep as usual for the whole trip and the two gentlemen are well engaged in conversation in the front seat. Jordy of course jumped on the chance to observe the pastoral life with his 70-200 lens. I, on the other hand, was actually enjoying the winter sun, without the interruption of stories about Dear Leader or Great Father, I am having a peaceful romantic feeling all by myself.
We stopped by the Three Charters for National Reunification Monument to take pictures. Mr. Kan, our male guide who knows deeply how we love photography, took me (as usual) by my arm to the middle of the road to take pictures. God bless this country where you can walk willfully on the road. Mr. Kan has a very sweet side like all the guys from Korean dramas; always take me by my arm (with force) to make sure I am safe, always help me carry my heavy tripod when we are taking a walk, and now he is very worried about my stomach and we are to go straight back to the hotel with no further choices.
Thus ended our expedition of the outskirt of Pyongyang. I am now back in my hotel room, cold as hell with a slight fever. And when we request for the heater that was in our room the previous night, no one helped us. It took me a while to understand that no one will help you here when you are sick, they probably want you out of the hotel straight away. So I gathered all my energy trying to recover. Jordy, meanwhile, took loads of nice pictures from our hotel room.
You will see more of these nice pictures in our next articles about Pyongyang. Please look forward to it 🙂