Train to the DPRK

Around a month ago I joined my good friends at Young Pioneer Tours on a trip I have been wanting to do for most of my life. I travelled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (otherwise known as North Korea, or Best Korea). I’ve always had a fascination with the Korean War and with the DPRK in particular.

Introductions

To start the tour we were to meet on the second floor of a hostel in Beijing. Here we waited for our friend and tour guide, Gareth. Yi and myself were there especially early. The first two to arrive where a German man who lives in Beijing, and a Vietnamese man who lives in England. He was also a Liverpool fan so I had fun reminiscing with him about Liverpool and England in general. After these two an American man turned up. He told us of how he came to China in the 80s and managed to go around several villages.

Eventually someone from YPT turned up. He wasn’t our guide – he had been delayed the night before so he would be a late. He gave us an introduction about North Korea – what to expect and how to behave. The major points were that asking any questions were fine as long as they weren’t obviously pointed, taking pictures is generally fine as long as you avoid pictures of the military and that there was zero chance that we would be arrested (unless we decided to do something stupid like tear up our passes).

He gave us our tour passes, but we noticed that one was missing. That was when we realised that Yi, being Chinese, actually had a real visa in her passport. The rest of us were insanely jealous.

It was around this time that our actual guide, showed up. We hung around and had a few drinks in order to get to know each other a little better. Most people had opted to fly in to the DPRK, but Yi and myself had decided to take the train in, since we had heard that this was a good opportunity to meet and talk to North Koreans. Our tour guide was the only other that would take the train with us.

When it was time to go we went down to get some beer and food for the ride in. The plan was an overnight train to Dandong (in the northeast of China), followed by a daytime train into Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital.

Overnight to Dandong

After buying supplies we boarded the overnight train to Dandong. As we were boarding, we bumped into some people our tour guide had met already – the North Korean under 19s football team. They had just had a match against China in Beijing and had managed to win. We arranged to meet for a drink on the train to North Korea the next day.

This isn’t the longest train ride I’ve had, but this time there weren’t any people selling food and beer on the platforms. We went out of our way to get a KFC beforehand so we didn’t have to eat the awful train food. We were much better prepared this time with the snacks and the beer, especially as we only had one night to worry about. We sat up as late as we could swapping travel stories, and then crawled into bed.

The next morning we awoke in Dandong. The Korean peninsula is separated from China by the Yalu river. Several cities line each side of the river. At this point on the river, Dandong (China) lies opposite Sinŭiju (DPRK). This is one of the major places in China were you can get a train into North Korea.

The first thing you see on coming out of the train station is a giant statue of Chairman Mao. We had to meet a contact here to sort out a few things before boarding the train to North Korea proper. We went to a hotel next to the train station and got ourselves a coffee while we waited.

With our tour guide’s contact we arranged for a driver to pick us up when we got back from North Korea. We were supposed to be going to South Korea, but Yi’s visa didn’t work out, so we decided to go travelling along the border between North Korea and China. This meant going further northeast along the Yalu River.

Train to the DPRK

First we had to go through customs – we were leaving the country after all. This customs was a little bit strange, they took our passports off us and would give them back to us when we got on the train. After going through the border checks we bumped into the football team again. This was a duty free zone, so it was here that we bought a pack of cigarettes that we could provide as gifts to any soldiers we meet.

The call came and we boarded the train. It turns out we are in the same cabin as the football team so they came over and said hello to us. After boarding we were all told to get off the train again and wait for our passports.

While we were outside waiting a Chinese man and his son came up to me and asked if my father or my grandfather had been to North Korea. I gave them the honest answer – “Actually, yes!”. They responded, “mine too!”. It’s strange how war can bring enemies together, even after only one or two generations. These two were actually sharing our bunk with us so it was fortunate that they were two very cool people.

Eventually we got our passports back and could get back on to the train. We cracked open the beers we bought in Dandong and waited for the train to move. While we waited we got talking to our cabin-friends. Their father/grandfather had passed away recently so, since he was a Korean war veteran, they were going to the war memorial to pour baiju (a Chinese liquor) on the ground. This is a typical Chinese way of showing respect to the dead – one that involves sacrifice.

The train started moving. We were on our way to the DPRK. Our tour guide made sure that we kept an eye on the next bridge along. This bridge was bombed by US forces during the Korean war, but only the southern side. The northern side was Chinese so they avoided bombing that part so as not to annoy the Chinese. That didn’t work out so well.

The point was that when we got past the halfway point there was no more bridge:

Dandong Bridge
Dandong Bridge

We were officially in North Korea.

Sinŭiju

Our first stop was in Sinŭiju. Here we would have to go through North Korean border patrol. Basically soldiers would get on the train and check our ID. As it turned out, our tour guide knew most of them. As part of the checks our bags had to be searched. The guard would search our bags one by one, and with childlike curiosity would ask what certain things in our bags were.

Unlike soldiers I’ve encountered in Eastern Europe, these soldiers seemed much more relaxed, friendly and weren’t scary in the slightest. When seeing me and Yi together, the guard made some sort of hand signal pointing at us two and asking us if we were “aein-i” (lovers). We said yes and he seemed to find it really cute.

Later another guard came in. Our tour guide obviously knew him because he immediately handed him his iPad for him to play with. He would flick through all the pictures on the iPad, and our tour guide would tell him what each of the pictures were. He seemed disappointed afterwards that there were no new games on it.

Our Chinese friends had disappeared, and when they came back they had beers in hand. I asked them were they got them – it turns out they were selling beer on the platform. On hearing this we instantly charged out to find our own beer. We stocked up a little and came back to drink our first beer in the DPRK.

First beer in the DPRK
First beer in the DPRK

After this the train started moving again.

Lunch on the train

After a short while we went for lunch. The food, as it turns out, was pretty amazing. In typical Korean fashion, our table was filled up with more side dishes than you could possibly count and included kimchi, chicken, noodles and tomato soup. The coach joined us and, seeing that I hadn’t finished my meal kept encouraging me to eat more. He wouldn’t let up so I ended up eating more than my fill.

After dinner
After dinner

Countryside

We were now travelling through the countryside of North Korea, and it turns out that it is very beautiful:

Some observations I made while on the train:

  • There are hardly any cars in the country – most people seemed to travel around on a bicycle.
  • The farms don’t seem mechanised. Although I saw a few tractors, it seemed that oxen are used as beasts of burden here.
  • There were several crop farms and no livestock farms. Whether this means meat is scarce, or that we just weren’t near any livestock farms I don’t know.
  • There were plenty of children playing in the river. It seems North Koreans enjoy swimming a lot.

The train would eventually arrive in Pyongyang. Here we would meet up with the rest of our tour group and head over to the Yanggakdo hotel where we would stay for the rest of our trip.

Lhasa to Beijing by Train

The last part of our tour was to get a train from Lhasa to Beijing. It takes 3 days to get to Beijing which means spending 2 nights on a train.

Day One: Leaving Lhasa

After buying some last minute presents we met up with our tour back at the hotel. In preparation for the long journey ahead of us we bought as much ramen, bread and beer as we could find. I wasn’t too worried as there would be food available on the train.

We were split up onto two different trains: Yi, myself and one other were on one train, and the rest of the tour shared a room on the next train along. It wasn’t until the train started moving that we were allowed to move between carriages. As soon as this happened we moved to the next train to join the others and crack open the beers.

When we got there we found that one of our tour were actually in the cabin next door, and an old Chinese lady was sharing the cabin with the rest of them. They were attempting to get her to swap, but she didn’t seem to understand. They asked Yi to talk to her about swapping beds so that we could all be together. She adamantly refused and wanted to stay in her bed. We were a little stunned by this – she clearly wanted to sleep for most of the journey, yet also wanted to stay in a cabin full of Westerners slowly getting drunk.

The view from the train was astounding. This is the most beautiful place I’ve seen in China, perhaps even in the entire world. I felt a little sad that I would probably never see it again.

After a couple of hours of talking and taking in the view we decided to get some lunch. There’s a thing I’ve found about Chinese food: when it’s good, it’s really good, but when it’s bad, it’s awful. The food we had on this train was bad even for bad Chinese food. I ate as much as I could because we didn’t have enough food to last us three days, but I started to think I may end up going hungry for the last day.

When we got back to the cabin we found someone sleeping in one of our beds. We woke him up and after the initial confusion where we tried to explain that he was in our bed, he showed us his ticket. Sure enough it was the correct ticket. We found the ticket that had been left behind, and it had a different bed number on it. We decided to ask him if he would swap beds and he kind of sat there, not seeming to understand. Eventually he just got up and ran, taking nothing with him.

Later I asked one of the train crew where the bed was that was on the other ticket. He said that there is no bed with that number. We figured the guy we found in the bed must have gotten on board with a fake ticket, and had taken the opportunity to switch tickets with one of us.

There were several stops along the way on this train, and at each station people had set up stalls to sell food and beer. We would ask for cold beer, but they would always want to charge us more.

Eventually we just settled down in the canteen and drank until it closed. Afterwards we all sat around the beds in our cabin together and finished most of the beers we had. Unconsciousness followed shortly and we spent our first night on the train.

Day Two: Hoarding Food and Beer

The next day I woke early, so I took in the view and read a little more of my book. After everyone was awake we got together and started drinking again. Someone (there’s always one) had bought Baijiu – a Chinese alcohol that you don’t like and cannot handle. That got passed around and we downed some and retched afterwards.

Back in Lhasa, one of our tour had bought some small singing bowls. They work by running a stick around the edge of the bowl and creating a resonance that makes the bowl ring. We spent a lot of today playing with these, and when people got curious with what we were doing, ended up teaching several other passengers how to play them.

Food had started running out so the train stops became a method of survival. We would rush out, grab what food and beer we could and rush back on. In the end we would give each other a task – food, beer, cigarettes – and each rush out to grab the assigned necessity. It was meticulous. I was surviving on crisps and ramen for the morning, but I found heaven when I noticed that our tour leader had manage to find a roast duck. And I mean a WHOLE roast duck. I rushed out and grabbed one for myself, and devoured it as soon as I got back on the train.

We were no longer in Tibet so were now seeing the Chinese countryside. One part that really stood out for me were the caves. it turns out that there are millions of people in China that live in caves. I was fascinated and made a note that I would have to come back and see how these caves looked up close.

Eventually the sun set and we drifted off to sleep. I was almost getting used to living on a train. I wondered if there’s a way I could spend a month doing nothing but living on a train.

Day Three: Arriving at Beijing

It was our last day on the train. We were now extremely close to Beijing. This morning was the first time I ever saw the Great Wall – a place I still haven’t gotten around to visiting despite having been to both Beijing and Dandong.

We arrived in Beijing a bit later than we were supposed to. We had to rush to a taxi to make sure we got our connecting flight to Shanghai. Other than that the final day was pretty uneventful. It was time to go home and go back to the day job.

Hotpot Weekend in Shanghai

There are many varieties of the infamous hotpot in China. In general they all consist of the same basic idea: dipping cold things into soup and boiling the flavour into them. In Shanghai it is possible to get many of them, so over the course of a weekend we tried a couple.

Beijing Hotpot. Again

We had already tried Beijing Hotpot, but we were wandering around Shanghai looking for food and Yi really wanted to have it again. We spoke to one of the people who worked there and they said they had a spicy sauce that would taste different to the one we had in Beijing.

This time we ordered a soup that contained sheep’s spine, so we had a bit of meat and the soup actually had some stock in it. The sauce was still sesame sauce, but was spicy. Sesame sauce is starting to grow on me – I found that as long as I didn’t use too much it actually tasted quite nice.

After finishing up we went to a bar. Yi said that she knew of another place where we could try some ‘mystery food’ and that she would take me there the next day. After a couple of cocktails we headed home.

Guangzhou Hotpot

The next day Yi took me to a place near West Yan’an Road station that served Guangzhou style chicken hotpot. Before we put anything into the pot some of the soup was scooped up into our bowls. This is typical Guangzhou thing – they always drink soup before they eat. The stock was a peppery chicken soup and was much to my liking.

Next we dumped some bright orange mushrooms into the soup. This was to add flavour to the soup that would affect everything we ate afterwards. Once the soup started bubbling we were able to eat the mushrooms. We also took more bowls of soup which had taken on an entirely different taste.

After this we had a typical hotpot experience – boiling the various meats, mushrooms, tofu and vegetables we had ordered and dipping them in sauce. We also had rice which came in the Cantonese style I was used to from back in England. Once it was all over we were still able to take more soup, which had now been enriched with the flavour of everything we had thrown into it.

I would say this was my favourite style of hotpot, but it was actually my second favourite. I decided that the next day I would make what I thought was the best hotpot in the world.

Lancashire Hotpot

When I first started dating my girlfriend she told me she really wanted to go get some hotpot. I was surprised that a Chinese girl was craving the Lancashire Hotpot that was infamous in my home county. I was almost insulted when she wouldn’t believe that I could cook it. A few days later she took me for my first ever Chinese hotpot and I learned that China has a much more famous dish that is also called hotpot.

After this weekend of hotpots I decided I would finally prove to her that I was capable of cooking hotpot and so set about gathering the ingredients needed to do so. Beneath were I live is a great market where I can get fresh fruit and veg for next to nothing. The local import shop provided the meat and the herbs I needed.

My attempt at Lancashire hotpot
My attempt at Lancashire hotpot

Unfortunately I realised too late that we were out of salt, and that the meat wasn’t as juicy as it could have been. This meant the stock ended up pretty flavourless. I also found that the casserole dish was nearly too large, and our oven too small, so I burnt my fingers when it finally came time to pull it from the oven.

It wasn’t the best hotpot I had ever made, but it still did the job.

Wandering Tiananmen Square

On our last day in Beijing, after spending the morning recovering from our hangovers at a tea house we took a quick trip to Tiananmen Square.

Despite it being a Monday, there was still a huge queue to get into the square. Guards were checking IDs at the gate with and ID scanner, and at first I thought I wasn’t going to get in as they can’t scan my passport with it. I figured they would just want to look at it, but they just waved my girlfriend and I through. I guess we weren’t the people they wanted to keep an eye on.

Being a Monday the square was relatively empty so we had space to breathe. I was impressed by how large Tiananmen is. It’s a fine example of how to build a city – don’t keep blocking the view with skyscrapers. The vast open space is surrounded by empty roads, government buildings, museums and the entrance Forbidden City.

We had wanted to visit the Chairman Mao mausoleum but were disappointed to find that it was closed. So instead we just wandered around the square.

At the center of Tiananmen Square is a war memorial, commemorating those lost in the Second World War. China really suffered during the Second World War, and as a Westerner raised on tales of nothing but Nazi Germany it’s easy to forget what was happening in China at the time. The memorial stands in the center of Tiananmen Square, a reminder of those who gave their lives fighting for China’s freedom.

After wandering around for a while and taking some pictures, it was time to fetch our bags and fly back to Shanghai. We managed to not visit the Great Wall so we will definitely come back again at some point.

Tea House: The Best Hangover Cure

For some reason I’ve been very un-British and never actually visited a single Tea House in China (despite having been here more than a year), but today it was time to break that streak.

After a good night out in Beijing were I lost my shoes, we decided to nurse our hangovers by drinking lots of tea. Being in Beijing, it was obvious we had to visit a tea house. Yi had spotted one she wanted to go to the day before, so we hopped into a taxi and headed out to start our day.

First we went to a shop next door and bought a cheap pair of shoes very common in China (they’re basically like pumps), then we went to the Tea House. After sitting down we ordered ourselves some jasmine tea.

Jasmine is a flower used to brew tea in northern China. You place the closed bulb in a cup and pour hot water over it. As it brews the flower will open up. It tastes really nice, and is good for getting over a hangover if you happened to have gotten a little drunk the night before…

I also ordered some mutton ribs, which were served in the style of Peking Duck. There was plenty of meat and fat to suck off the bone, and a couple of spicy sauces to dip it in. I would have preferred spicier stuff, but was definitely a good way to start the day on a hangover.

We chilled out for a while, slowly drinking our tea and topping it up with more hot water. Eventually I could feel the effects of the previous night wearing off. Eventually, the flavour of the jasmine flower was drained, so we paid our way and went for one last short trip before leaving Beijing.

Water Cube: Visiting the National Aquatics Center

After leaving the Bird’s Nest we wandered over to the National Aquatics Center (a.k.a. the Water Cube).  The events I focused on when making the official Olympics game were the Swimming and the Diving events, so I had spent more time working with the Water Cube than the other arenas.  The Water Cube didn’t seem to be as much of a big deal as the National Stadium, but for me it was.

Outside the Water Cube

From the outside you can see how the National Aquatics Center gets its nickname.  It looks like a cuboid made up of blue bubbles. Despite it not actually being in the shape of a cube, it’s still known as the Water Cube.  I always thought that the bubbles were made of a solid plastic – but it seems that they are actually made of something that seems like clingfilm (later on I found out this stuff was called EFTE).

After passing through the entrance gate the first thing Yi did was to run up to the side of the Water Cube and try to climb it. She really wanted to touch the bubbles! Outside was a sign saying “H2O^3” which I thought was pretty clever.

Inside the Water Cube

Inside the Water Cube there was a pool full of koi that you could feed milk to, and several restaurants serving overpriced, low-quality food (as you would expect in any tourist trap). We could also see the water park that was built, although at this time it was closed.

Finally we made our way to the actual swimming pool. It feels weird to say this having never actually been there, but it was exactly as I remember it. I remembered staring at the thing for ages, tweaking the difficulty so that you could just about beat the world records if you tried hard enough. Then just as I got it perfect, Eamon Sullivan had to beat the 50m Freestyle record meaning I had to tweak it again.

I was glad to see that this place was still being used as a swimming pool, and not something gimmicky like segway-riding. I sat down to watch for a short while and on noticing the flags at the top I immediately turned around and pointed out the British flag to my girlfriend without even looking. I hadn’t even been here before but I could still remember the exact location of our flag. Say what you will about the game, but the artists really got the details right.

We were getting hungry now so we went to the nearest Macdonalds to get food. Unfortunately it turned out that they were selling only one set meal at a ridiculously expensive price, so we decided to head back towards the center of Beijing to find some real food.

Bird’s Nest: Visiting the Beijing National Stadium

My very first job after university was as a Gameplay Programmer at Eurocom (which sadly closed down last year). The game I worked on was Beijing 2008 the official video game of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. I spent 2 years staring at virtual models of the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube (we actually had the models before the buildings even existed!). I swore that one day I would see them for real.

Six years later I finally saw them.

It was tricky to find where we could get tickets. There were a lot of touts selling tickets – whether or not these were genuine I never found out. We found what seemed like a legitimate ticket office and purchased tickets to both the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube. To my disappointment it seemed that these were the only two stadiums we could visit.

Inside the Bird’s Nest

Once inside the first thing I noticed was that the field hadn’t been maintained much. It probably wasn’t being used that much, so they had no need to. On the actual race tracks people were zipping around on segways.

In the tourist shop I saw the Friendlies – the mascots of the Beijing Olympics. I was pretty excited to see them, but was then told by my girlfriend that these guys were really unpopular in China. This suddenly made sense of an odd request we received from Sega when working on the Game.

If you play Sonic and Mario at the Beijing Olympics, you will see the arenas full of Friendlies. Those arenas were created by artists at Eurocom and added into the game by Sega. The reviews were critical of the arenas in that game, which makes sense – they were still in the first-pass stage as that game was released 6 months earlier.

After the game came out Sega asked us to remove all friendlies from the environments because they were ‘too cute’ for the actual game. We never really understood why, but now I realise it’s probably because they were so unpopular in China.

Very Important Places

Since we bought VIP tickets we were allowed into some extra areas – the entrance hall, the VIP lounge, the VIP viewing area (where the Chairman would watch the games) and a meeting room were the Olympic Games Committee would meet. Whilst this was interesting to see, you aren’t missing much if you skip this part to save money.

Climbing the Bird’s Nest

After the tour we were allowed to wander the Bird’s Nest by ourselves. We were now at the top of it, but as it turns out we could go even higher.

We had to pay extra for this part – but I would recommend it. We were able to climb to the very top of the Bird’s Nest and see it from above. The only downside was that we were on the wrong side and thus couldn’t see the Water Cube from here – a missed opportunity in my opinion. Still, I wasn’t expecting to be able to do this and I loved that we could. Definitely do this, even if you don’t get VIP tickets.

The only thing left to do now was to go onto the track and field itself. Unfortunately it turned out we could only get in if we paid 200 RMB, and we could only ride a segway around the track. It didn’t seem worth the price to us, so we ended up leaving a little disappointed.

Still, it was awesome to finally see it after 6 years. Although I spent most of my time at Eurocom working on the Swimming and Diving events. With the Bird’s Nest out of the way it was time to visit the Water Cube…

Forbidden City

Whilst in Beijing we visited the Forbidden City (紫禁城 or Zǐjinchéng). The Forbidden City was once the capital of China where the King/Emperor resided and is now probably the most popular tourist destination in Beijing if you exclude the Great Wall.

We went during the weekend of Labour Day so it was extraordinarily busy. As soon as we exited the subway at Tienanmen Square we we almost crushed by the crowd of people trying to get into the square.

Forbidden City Entrance
Many people want to see it.

The entrance to the Forbidden City was just as crowded. As we crossed the bridge to the city we noticed that despite there being several uniformed soldiers around, the real security were plain-clothed.

Once inside we had to queue up for tickets. Again, there were a lot of people so the queues were long. I was beginning to think that we had come on the wrong day. I’ve seen pictures of how crowded the Great Wall can get and I was now seeing that it would be the same in the Forbidden City today.

Thankfully I was wrong. There were several ticket stalls set up and the queues went down pretty quickly. We made our way through the gate into the Forbidden City proper.

As we went through the Meridian Gate (午门 or Wǔmén) we noticed that everyone would touch the metal studs on the gate for luck. You could see on them that the ones most touched had the colour worn out of them.

Once inside the Tardis effect manifested again. In front of us was a huge square which was, despite the huge number of people, mostly empty. We could now wander around at our own pace to see the sights.

A waterway stretched across the middle of the square, and on the other side we could see the Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和门 or Tàihémén).

Once through this gate we came into Harmony Square and could now see the Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿 or Tàihédiàn). There were a couple of large incense burners in the Square, and the Hall itself had a tortoise statue, a sundial and a weight that define a jin – a basic unit of weight in China (which in modern times is defined as half a kilogram).

The Hall contained several buildings which we were unable to see inside. My girlfriend said that when she came here as a child people were actually allowed inside these buildings. There were some parts were you could see the throne rooms that were inside the build, but you had to swim through a mass of people just to catch a glimpse.

After wandering the halls it was lunch time. Luckily some shops were nearby and we were able to get some overpriced microwave chicken burgers.

We were near the north side of the City now. The Palace of Heavenly Purity was closed, so we wandered the Imperial Gardens instead. Apparently the King was not allowed to leave the palace, so he would spend his days wandering the gardens instead.

After this we returned south on the western side, through the rooms that were occupied by the various Empresses and concubines of the King. Every courtyard had one or two trees planted in it.

It was around this time I realised I was completely lost. My girlfriend had the map so was guiding the way, but I had no idea where we were in the City.

Somehow we ended up on the eastern side, where we had to pay more money to see the Nine Dragons Screen and the Palace of Tranquil Longevity.

At the end we exited through the northern Gate of Divine Might (神武门 or Shénwǔmén) and were met with the usual hustle and bustle of Beijing. It was as if the city had disappeared behind us and we had returned to the modern Beijing.

Temple of Confucius

The Beijing Temple of Confucius (北京孔庙 or Běijīng kǒngmiào) is the second largest Confucian Temple in China. 庙 (miào) also means shrine, so this place could be considered more of a shrine to Confucius and his teachings rather than an actual Temple.

Confucius Temple Entrance
Entering the Confucius Temple.

The temple contains a few museums detailing in brief the history of Confucius, how he travelled China, spreading his ideas and teachings; and building schools. It shows how Confucius created standardised exams, and is apparently the source of our modern-day education systems. It also shows his influence on other countries right up to the modern age.

His philosophy is detailed in brief – his ideas of honesty and piety and what they mean. One story told in the museum was that of a young boy whose father blamed him for a bad harvest: Continue reading “Temple of Confucius”

Yonghegong Lama Temple

Right next to the first hostel we stayed in Beijing was the Yonghegong (雍和宮 or Yōnghé gōng) – the largest Lama Temple in Beijing. 宮 (gōng) actually means palace – a reminder that this temple was once a palace that was eventually fully converted to a Lama Temple. It managed to survive the Cultural Revolution under the protection of Zhou Enlai so it is also the most well preserved temple in Beijing.
Continue reading “Yonghegong Lama Temple”