Our Korean tour guides took us to ride the Pyongyang Metro through the city. We were lucky enough to be able to stop at four stations, something which very few tourists have done before.
We went into the Metro at Puhung station. We skipped the queue and went straight through to the escalator. This escalator felt longer than the one in Angel station in London – the only other long escalator I’ve ever been on.
At the bottom we our tour guide showed us the route we were going to take. There was a little board that lights up showing the route that you would take through the city when you ride the metro. Unfortunately this one wasn’t working so we didn’t get the full effect.
We descended the stairs to the actual platform. This place was absolutely huge – a large wide open space with murals covering every wall. Along the middle of the platform were posts with newspapers inside them. Many people would stand by them and read the latest news while they waited for their train.
The trains themselves looked like they were from the 40s. When I heard Gareth selling this tour once he said that it was like going through a time machine. Seeing these trains I felt like I had been transported to a time when trains were still fairly new to most of the world.
Another train pulled up and we were told to board this one. The train’s interior was covered with wood panelling adding to the feel of being in another time. The train began moving and we were off to the next stop.
At Yongwang station we disembarked to look around. This station was lined with huge arches and murals of Pyongyang on both sides of the river.
We got onto the next train and proceeded to Kaeson which was to be our destination. The next stop was closed so we went straight through. I only saw it briefly, but it was pretty dark – none of the lights were switched on.
At our final stop we were met with a (less) giant statue of the leader.
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.
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:
We were officially in North Korea.
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.
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.
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.
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.