Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

North Korea I – Train to Pyongyang

– First report of an eight-part series on my August 2015 visit to North Korea. –

The bridge was destroyed by war 65 years ago. It extends about halfway into the river where a viewing platform has been installed. There is nothing interesting to see on the other side. The city of Sinŭiju does not make much of its riverside location. There are a few nondescript buildings, a few ships, a line of trees, the water slide of a swimming pool and behind the trees a ferries wheel. All is hundreds of metres away. Still, a steady stream of people heads to the viewing platform. This is as close as you can get to North Korea and that alone is enough to draw people, to get them to pay 4€ for the privilege.

All trips to North Korea – either by train or by plane – start in Beijing. After an overnight ride to Dandong, we have an hour and a half before the next train will bring us to Pyongyang.

There is no way to visit North Korea independently but with a tour operator it is actually not difficult. You can either go on an expensive individual tour or visit on a cheaper group tour. All tours have in common that you are not free to go where you want. You have to be accompanied permanently by a guide and can only visit places that are officially open for tourism. I visit North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours because they are the cheapest (1295 € for 9 days) and the itineraries are essentially the same with all the operators. The same sights, the same hotels, the same restaurants. In fact, all tours are organized by the North Korean Ministry of Tourism and the Western operators only resell them to tourists. A group consists of a maximum of 20 people and is accompanied by two North Korean guides. In addition, there is a “western guide”, someone working for the tour company, who tries to smooth things in all directions. This guide is already with us.    

Tours to North Korea follow a certain rhythm, all companies are offering tours around the same dates for certain occasions. That might be the National Day, 1st of May, the Pyongyang Marathon or, as in my case, the 70. anniversary of the end of World War II (15th of August in the Pacific). At other dates it seems that North Korea is devoid of tourists. On the big day, everybody is hoping that there will be something special, maybe a mass dance, fireworks, a military parade? Everything is possible, nothing is certain, events (if happening) will be announced on short notice only. The tour operators try to fan the flames of expectation.

Young Pioneer Tours is sending four groups to North Korea so in total nearly 80 people. On the train “we” occupy nearly the whole car. Two groups take a short tour of five days, our group and the fourth group, our sister group, are in for the longer trip, visiting Pyongyang and then heading to the eastern coast of North Korea.

Crossing the border

I, unfortunately, do not have a visa in my passport. The visa was centrally organized in Beijing and comes in the form of a small sheet of paper that I have to put into my passport. To get a proper visa, I would have to have organized that myself and between my trips this year, there was no time to do so. I buy the last supplies, no idea what we can get on the “other side”. I am ready for the border. We board the train and soon it starts to move. The feeling is magical. I always love this moment of departure, but departing for North Korea is special. What is awaiting us? What will happen? North Korea is so far removed from our usual experience that everything seems exiting. We cross the new bridge, having in view the old bridge and the viewing platform. I am excited but I am also a bit scared.    

There are a few special rules to consider when entering North Korea. You are not allowed to bring pornography, no books about North Korea (it’s hard to write a book about North Korea without saying something bad about the country) and no religious books or objects. Camera lenses are only allowed up to 250mm. I am violating these rules in two instances. In my backpack a 70-300mm zoom lens is hiding. I scratched off the “300” marking and to hide my scratch marks I used sand paper on the whole lens to make it look like a really old, heavily used lens. I overpainted the golden ring that shows 70-300 with black marker and did the same on my 24-70mm lens to be able to claim that I just don’t like golden rings. Unfortunately, where my fingers frequently touch the black colour it is already wearing off and I left the marker in Beijing. According to the tour company in case the lens would cause problems, I would need to put it into a quarantine bag that I would have to show unbroken upon leaving North Korea. That risk is acceptable to me.

I do not carry any printed book but I have a kindle. On it is the Rough Guide to Korea, Brian Myers „The Cleanest Race“ on the ideological underpinnings of the North Korean regime, a book with the title „North Korea: Markets and Military Rule“, a book on North Korean propaganda and a collection of speeches by Kim il-Sung. I had planned to hide them in the lower reaches of my kindle. Another book, Barbara Demick’s „Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea“ was slated to be deleted before arrival. Unfortunately, I learn that without an internet connection on the kindle, books do not disappear but only show a “deleted” upon the cover. Just the moment as the first North Korean border guards enter the train, I realize that I forgot to properly take care of my kindle: No books are relegated to the last places and the guidebook is actually open at the moment. I use a short moment to open one inconspicuous book and put the kindle deep into my bag.

Against my expectations we do not have to leave the train. I was certain that we would need to leave, take our complete belongings with us and have it x-rayed. In China that procedure is necessary to enter any train station. In Dandong, our luggage was scanned before boarding the train. I read stories on the internet that you need to register all electronic devices. Nothing like that happens. A few uniformed border guards enter the train and start looking at our passports and visas. What separates them from border guards from other countries is their total disinterest to communicate with the travellers by friendly words or gestures. No hello, no smiling, no emotions, just a gaze. The officer in our compartment did not seem to speak any English and communicated purely with gestures. He wanted to see a backpack and one of the guys volunteered, taking his backpack down. I had asked the other passengers in advance if it would be okay to put my backpack furthest away. A cursory look at another backpack and the search is over.

He wants to see our mobile phones. Nowadays, it is possible to take mobile phones to North Korea, a few years ago, we would have been forced to leave them at the border. They are of limited use; no service will be available. It is marked who brings how many mobile phones and from which company. After the mobile phone all-clear, the search is on for laptops. To avoid any trouble, I left mine in Beijing. All the laptops are collected and a man in civilian clothing starts to turn the first one on. Their proprietors have to enter the passwords and the official searches randomly throughout the file system of the computer. They seem to be focussed on videos and soon some music starts. Our guide claims that the search for videos intensified after the release of “The Interview” (in which North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un eventually gets blown up).

The whole process is slow, takes about two hours before our train finally starts to move. I have crossed many borders in my life, made my experiences. I withstood corrupt attempts to take money from me, I had to remove every single bit of something from my backpack before it was hand-searched if I had sewn anything into the fabric (and that after a drug-sniffing dog had his go at my stuff). Once I was (because of a book) even suspected of being a sympathizer of Islamic terrorists. Compared to all that, the North Korean border control was easy-going and unprofessional. I even took a picture of the guards at work. I am glad to be in the country, with my books, with my lens.

Being in North Korea…

Being in North Korea immediately changes the relation to your surroundings. No one wanted to look out of the window in China. What is there to see? Trees, fields, houses, villages and hills or mountains in the background. Crossing the border changes that, everybody wants to be at the window, wants to see “how it is”. I put my zoom lens on the camera and start taking pictures.

Our North Korean guides (against my expectation) are not yet with us, we will only meet them in Pyongyang. We are free to do however we please, although you can never be sure who is having an eye on you. The train has only a few carriages and seems to be full and in retrospect it is one of the only possibilities to get in touch with North Koreans. With a special group though, North Koreans that are allowed to travel to China. I speak a bit with the doctor of the U17 national football team. He speaks good English and smokes a cigarette between two cars. They are returning from a tournament.

The landscape is interesting, plain at first and then hillier, a few towns and many, many small villages. From time to time, we cross a river. Regularly, giant hoardings or stelae with propaganda slogans are visible. Mostly red, sometimes golden letters on a white background. There is one girl in our group who speaks Korean. We always want to know what the slogans mean. It quickly gets boring, endless variations of how great the party or the leader is. The tracks cross many small roads, most of them unpaved and with next to no traffic. Sometimes a lorry is visble, sometimes a bus, a tractor with a trailer (which is often full of people as are the lorries) and very rarely a car. The second most common mode of transportation is the bicycle and the most common is just people walking. Kids are swimming in the rivers, oxen pull a cart, people are working in the fields. Every train station is garlanded with a propaganda slogan and the portraits of the two deceased but still “beloved leaders”. My special interest is for military personnel. The rules have already been laid out for us, taking pictures of them is not allowed. I have great respect for rules that have been laid down to improve the way people can live together, I have less respect for rules that bring, if you think through them, no improvement. Every bridge is interesting, they all have small watchtowers, often on both sides, with big searchlights to keep guard. I have seen such huts before on the Trans-Siberian Railway, where the tracks often even split before a river and traverse it in two different bridges a bit apart. The huts there are deserted. With satellites and precision guided ways to attack, these protections have fallen out their times. In North Korea, all bridge huts are staffed, usually by female members of the armed forces. I try to take some pictures but I am careful, it is the first day, I have no real feeling yet for the mood and I do not want to cause a scandal à la who-has-taken-a-picture-of-the-military?     

On to Pyongyang

We stop at a bigger station in Chongju. We spot Cyrillic markings on a train, indicating it as the service from Pyongyang to Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East. North Korea and Russia share a short border. Would be nice to cross it one day. People in wonderful old-school uniforms walk on the platform. Some passengers leave the train and after some time we move on. I start a subversive action, get my phone out and switch the GPS on. GPS gives way too much power into the hands of ordinary people. Our tour operator had told us to remove Google Maps from the desktop of our phones and if we had a camera signalling GPS capability, fashionable at some point, to try to hide it somehow. I had downloaded OpenStreetMap data for North Korea, which is surprisingly detailed, and the phone quickly indicates where we are. The power of the satellites is greater than the power of the Kims.

We stop, on the track next to us sits the temptation. A train carrying military machinery: Small tanks, howitzers, other stuff used to destroy things, all camouflaged under tree branches.

We are close to Pyongyang; the surroundings are becoming more urban. At a railway crossing, I take a picture of a car, one small and three bigger lorries. All in one picture! After a day riding through the North Korean countryside this seems remarkable. We spot a trolleybus and we catch a glimpse of the pyramid with the official name of Ryugyong Hotel. We are close. At 6:30 P.M. we roll into platform 1 of Pyongyang railway station. The distance from the tracks to the station building is about 30 metres, and the broad platform, covered by a metal roof, is completely empty. Did I say it is empty? Only at first glance, as we step out of the train, we have one of these North-Korea-moments. Some mass-event is going on, you never truly understand what and especially why this is happening but you learn to accept it. At the far end of the platform, perfectly illuminated in the evening sun, are hundreds of young men, all dressed identically: black shoes, black trousers, white shirt and a red tie. All of them. They sit cross-legged and seem to wait. For what? They are a great motif and the cameras come out quickly. To get better pictures I try to get a bit closer but a uniformed man immediately directs me to the station door. I follow the others, and enter the station through a small door. At this bottleneck, everybody of us is personally greeted by Miss Kim, the female part of our guide/minder duo. She is young, attractive and speaks impeccable, natural-sounding English.

There is a bit of chaos outside the station. We are directed to two busses and soon leave for our hotel. The accommodation of choice for cheaper tours is the Yanggakdo International Hotel, an ideal place to house foreign tourists. 47 storeys, one thousand rooms at the tip of an island in the Taedong river. Totally isolated but with good views. The rooms are nicer than expected, roomy, two single beds (even for couples), a small table, two chairs and a TV. 80s style, although finished in 1995, but nothing that would be totally out of place in a, let’s say, provincial American hotel built around the same time. It has been constructed by a French company. The view from the 36th floor is nice, it is possible to open one of the windows, always good to take pictures. The bathroom is okay although we were told that warm water would only be available in around one hour. North Korean planners have a weakness for rotating restaurants. Many touristic spots have one and so has the Yanggakdo hotel. Our western guide has warned us though that the food is rather mediocre and so it is. At some point, the restaurant even starts to turn, leaving me to get separated from my camera bag.

In a normal country, just having arrived, nothing would stop me to leave the hotel, to have a walk, maybe have a drink somewhere, to get to know the place a bit. In North Korea, we are restricted to “the basement”, well the basement of the hotel. Without a guide, we are not allowed to leave. Exploring “the basement” I first come upon the casino with its gambling machines and roulette tables. No pictures allowed here. The shop is stocked with the things people seem to value most: sweets, alcohol, cigarettes. Many of the sweets are from Germany, a lot from “Gut & Günstig” the discount brand of a well-known supermarket chain. The offerings are a wild mix. The shop follows the old Soviet model, all products are behind glass, you have to ask the attendants, after choosing they will write a sum in Korean won on a piece of paper. With that, you go to the cash desk in the corner where your won-invoice is converted into an amount in euros, US-dollars or Chinese yuan. You pay, go back to the attendant and receive your purchase. We do not have North Korean money and we will never get any. We have to pay everything in foreign currency. I pay around 2€ for a Ritter Sport Alpenmilch chocolate, which would cost about half of that back home.

The “basement” has more options. Table-tennis, a swimming pool, karaoke, pool billiard or bowling. All costs a standard fee of 4€ and the not-so-bad North Korean beer is cheap.