Thursday, April 19, 2007 China China / Korea (North) North Korea

Return to the free world

Pyongyang station [Enlarge]

We should have had a lie in this morning as we were not due to leave the hotel until 09:30. But Sod's Law came into play and we got a wake up call meant for someone else… at half past six. We got up, showered, dressed, packed up our bags and took them down to our last ever Yanggakdo Hotel breakfast. We certainly won't be eating eggs for a while—we've eaten more than our average annual consumption of eggs in one week. We had been told to be on the bus at 09:30, ready to go. The entire group managed better than that, and was on board and waiting for the driver at 09:15. This unusual burst of punctuality was due partly to the group's continual improvement in doing what is asked of it, but mostly because everyone was now desperate to get out of here. Our train back to China wouldn't wait for us, and staying here for several days while we found another way out of the country would drive us mad. Not to mention the 500 US dollars per day fine which would be levied on each of us for overstaying our visa.

Before the coach left the hotel, Mr Lee had some things to distribute. First of all he handed out the DVDs made by our cameraman. He has been following us all week, and we saw a sneak preview of his results in the duck barbecue restaurant last night. It looked really good. Then Mr Lee gave someone a large plastic bag containing all the mobile phones for both groups. The bag had a customs seal on it, which would be checked by the border guards on the way out. Consequences for opening the bag before then were not mentioned, but they really didn't need to be. Finally Mr Lee made us check three times that we had our passports and all our belongings with us. Then we set off for the train station.

This is our carriage, which is only going as far as Dandong, just over the Chinese border. [IMG_2773]
Pyongyang to Dandong carriage [Enlarge]

When we had booked the tour, we decided to take the one day 'Dandong extension'—a brief stopover in Dandong, the Chinese city on the DPRK's northern border. Roughly half of us had chosen to do this (all of our group and two members of group B), and we were all placed together in a North Korean train carriage. The rest of group B are staying on the train overnight, and going all the way to Beijing in one go. Their carriage was Chinese. The style was the same (four berth compartments), but the Chinese carriage was newer and had heating!

A lot of shunting was going to be necessary. A long train would leave Pyongyang. Most of the carriages (full of North Koreans) would only go as far as Sinuiju, the Korean city which faces Dandong across the Yalu River. Our carriage and group B's Chinese carriage would be unhitched and taken across the bridge into China. Our carriage would be left there, and group B's carriage would be connected up to a Chinese train going from Dandong to Beijing.

We shared a compartment with two Australian ladies with whom we have become good friends during week. Between them they have got decades of amazing independent travel stories to tell. One of them first travelled to China in 1979, when the only way in was on an organised tour and many people had never seen a westerner—sounds strangely familiar!

The final parting word from the guides was a reminder not to take any photographs from the train as we travelled through the DPRK countryside. If anyone on or off the train sees us take a photo they are duty bound to report it to the authorities. The customs officials will find out and people's photos will be gone through and 'edited'. Then Mr Lee, Mrs Lee and the two group B guides waved us off. They were still smiling as we chugged slowly away, but the second we were out of sight they must have collapsed in an exhausted heap on the platform. All the guides worked so unbelievably hard this week to meet our requests wherever possible. They must think that Westerners are a bunch of spoiled, lazy, scruffy, rude, disobedient, rich, arrogant dickheads. But not once do they let it show. We'd like to think that they will get a couple of days off, but we know that won't happen. They will be straight back to the office to prepare for the next group. And when summer comes and it's busy on the farms, they will join the other office workers from Pyongyang who have to go and do a turn helping out doing hard manual labour. Our lives are incomparably easy compared to theirs, and they are amongst the elite in the DPRK—the trusted few who are allowed to travel around the country and interact with foreigners.

The train made steady progress out of Pyongyang and the dreary grey landscape of the city turned into the dreary brown of the countryside. There wasn't much to photograph anyway. It looked like all the other rural areas we had seen, and a lot like many of the rural bits of China, and even India, that had slipped past the windows of other trains we have taken. All the sensitive stuff is pretty well hidden. After a while a railway employee from the restaurant car came round touting for business. We had a look, but the restaurant car was thick with cigarette smoke, and on seeing the state of the kitchen we lost our appetite anyway. Mindful of the story we'd read about Indian railway kitchens, and of the fact that we had two long train journeys ahead of us, all day today and overnight tomorrow, we slipped off back to the compartment. We don't ever want to get sick, but we especially don't want to get sick now. The duck barbecue last night had laid low one member of our group (we did suggest at the time that using the same chopsticks to eat the cooked duck as she was using to handle the raw duck was a bad idea). She spent the first hour of the trip in the squalid train toilet, and the rest of the time on her bunk, sleeping it off.

A man came round and handed out three forms to each person: a DPRK departure card, a customs declaration card and a health screening card. We filled in the first two okay, but the health card was only written in Chinese and Korean. Luckily two of the group could read enough Chinese to get us by. At 15:20 we stopped at Sinuiju station, on the DPRK side of the border. The passports and cards were collected up and taken away. Then the customs officials came round. We had to leave the compartment and come back in to be interviewed individually. Some people had their bags searched, some people had their photos reviewed on their cameras, and yes, some people lost photos. But we survived the experience unscathed. The guard wasn't even bothered about our oil painting, for which we had carefully asked for a receipt to prove that it was regular art and not socialist realist art, the export of which is banned.

At the same time as our border formalities were going on, the North Koreans in the other carriages must have been getting their papers checked. There is no concept of free movement in the DPRK—you need permission from both the head of your work group and the local government to even travel to the next village. Going to a border town must require an even greater level of checks and balances to make sure you don't have any crazy ideas like escaping. All of a sudden the station sprang into life as the Koreans were released from the train. They began to file past our window along the platform. They were all weighed down by some very heavy looking luggage. The older women in particular looked like they were permanently bent at 90 degrees from a lifetime of carrying heavy loads on their backs. After things had calmed down, we were told that we could get off the train and stand on the platform if we liked. "But stay near the train!" It was cold outside, and so after a quick bit of fresh air we retreated back to the slightly warmer carriage. Some people who were brave enough to stay outside managed to have a conversation of sorts with the DPRK wrestling team, who were travelling to Beijing for a tournament.

Bombed bridge separating North Korea from China [Enlarge]

Three hours and five minutes after we had stopped, our passports rematerialised. We were approximately as cold as we had been when we were stuck at Niš in Serbia, but far less bored thanks to the Aussies' travel tales. These two make our round the world trip look like a package holiday. Almost immediately, the train began to move again. As we rolled slowly across the Yalu River on a utilitarian box girder bridge, we could see the famous 'half bridge' that was bombed by the Americans during the Korean War and now stands as a strange kind of monument, jutting out pointlessly into the middle of the river. The Chinese half is intact, but the Korean half is gone apart from a few concrete pillars.

Chinese immigration was relatively painless, but still took over an hour. The officials were smiley. They said "Hello", we said "Ni hao". Obviously North Korean customs checks are so thorough that the Chinese don't feel the need to do any more checking. We were finally released from the train and met our new guide on the platform, in the form of the small but voluble Brooklyn. He led us out to the waiting coach which whisked us across town to the Zhong Lian Hotel.

It wasn't the Sheraton, but it sure felt like it. We could buy overpriced ice creams in the foyer, we could access our email in the Business Centre, and if we wanted to we could go outside, into the street, and walk anywhere we wanted. You cannot believe how weird, how exhilarating and how scary that feels unless you have experienced the DPRK. We checked into our room then went down to the hotel's restaurant for dinner. That meal was good! At the end of our tour of China, barely a week ago, we would have been happy never to have a sumptuous Chinese banquet ever again. But after seven guilt-ridden days of eating meals which were generally very poor quality, but which were so relatively extravagant that no North Korean (apart from one) would even be able to imagine them, this delicious and high quality food was so welcome.

Talking of guilt, there is plenty of information on the web about the food shortages in the DPRK, and the consensus seems to be that this year is going to be another really tough one after the floods of 2006. We used to get annoyed if our local supermarket ran out of frozen peas. But most people in North Korea (or at least the non-elites outside Pyongyang) are surviving on 200 g (7 oz) of rice or grain per day, and hardly anything else. These are people we've seen in the street, people we've driven past, always smiling and looking cheerful. They live in a country that tries to depict itself as modern, advanced, and superior. A country which preaches Juche (self-reliance) but is hooked on international aid to meet its most basic needs. Standing on the riverside in Dandong this evening we could take our pick of 24 hour convenience stores and buy anything we wanted for a small amount of money. Then we could jump in a taxi and drive through the neon-lit streets to a bar or restaurant serving any dish from almost anywhere in the world and eat until we were full. But five hundred metres away on the opposite bank of the river, so dark that you could be forgiven for not realising there's even a city over there, people were coming home from work to their cold, dark apartments, and going to bed with their hunger barely touched by their starvation rations. You will surely never find a contrast as stark as this anywhere in the world.

All our photos from today are here. You can see everywhere we go in Google Earth by going to our progress map, then clicking the Google Earth tab.

Map of Day 146

Day 146
Pyongyang to Dandong

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Anonymous said...

Just enjoyed reading all of your DPRK posts. Thank you very much for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Shame on you. I have lost a LOT of my office time now because I couldn't stop reading about your trip in DPRK. Good my boss isn't here today.....

Brent said...

What an amazing series on the DPRK. I happened upon your page when I was researching a blog post about the Pyongyang Metro, but I couldn't stop reading. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Awesome read thank you so much for sharing your experience of the DPRK.
Down with Kim and his failed socialist craziness! viva the real revolution!

Glenn Livett said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!

Nick W said...

Fascinating read about your time in DPRK. I can see it was a tough but interesting journey into one of the world's strangest countries. I'd love to do it myself sometime - thanks for sharing!

Ajay said...

Very well written, almost felt like I am in N. Korea. I finished whole DPRK section in one go. Will be reading your stories from other parts of world.