The Long Journey Home Part 3 – North Korea
Sunday 19th May 2019 (Dandong, China to Pyongyang, DPRK)
It hadn’t been a great night of sleep, mainly because the coach had been red hot and the blanket made me sweat to death as a result. When we rose from our pits though, there was no more big-city landscape and we were surrounded by greenery, yet every now and then we got a glimpse of a high-speed line running through the landscape in the distance. The previous night on the way out of Beijing there were more high-speed lines being constructed, as if the country didn’t already have enough of them! What had also changed was the traction at the front of the train and I’d not expected to find a twinset DF11G taking us into Dandong, but they must have replaced HXD3D-0650 at Shenyang at 0320 in the morning.
After a quick bonus chat with my wife, who was luckily still up in the UK, our heads turned to the tasks at hand on arrival into Dandong, the first being to find out what the locos were at the head of the train; which didn’t end well! After I’d showed the guy on the platform my phone with Google Translate trying to explain we wanted to see what the locomotive numbers were, he basically told us to fuck off, after being on his radio to someone, who’d probably told him the same. Whether that had anything to do with the fact that the DPRK stock for our onward train into the DPRK was in the adjacent platform, who knows? I wasn’t being beat though and while Flossy got chatting to a guy who came down to the station every day to see if any foreigners wanted help, I walked down the main road to try and find a vantage point. Just when I was about to give up, having found that the whole length of the station had metal hoarding along it, I came across a street that led to the end of the platforms and no sooner had I done so did the DF11G’s blow up and shunt off the train. I was relieved to be able to spot DF11G-0003/0004 without having to point my camera at them, take a photo and zoom in on the shot; there was some sort of checkpoint in my line of sight and with the DPRK being less than 1km away at the other side of the Yalu River, I didn’t want to be taking chances.
Dandong station area was very busy with tour groups, which we didn’t realise at the time were all going to the same place we were, and on the same train. We’d been told to meet Koryo’s contact in Dandong, Mr Jacky Zhang, under the statue of Mao in the square outside Dandong station at 0830; and it was almost smack on 0830 when he turned up to greet us, in the rain. From that point on the morning was a bit of a farce. What we didn’t realise, and it hadn’t been mentioned at our brief with Koryo, was that we’d go over the border to DPRK as part of a tour group, which My Zhang was there to facilitate. Once he introduced us to the tour leader, who spoke little English, that was his job done; other than to tell us that our berths were in hard-sleeper, numbers 8 (lower) and 9 (middle); which weren’t even in the same compartment, let alone in soft-sleeper like we’d asked. When Mr Zhang showed me his e-mal from Koryo specifically requesting hard-sleepers, I saw red and immediately sent Koryo an e-mail expressing my annoyance. Still, what was done, was done, again, and we had to deal with it.
Mr Zhang left us with the Chinese tour group only 15 minutes after his arrival and we were eventually led into a waiting area by the tour leader. After 20 minutes of waiting there it looked like we’d end up going through customs but due to the fact there were too many other people already there, we had to abandon our attempt and hang around some more. The result of that being that we were the last group through customs and immigration and we also needed to fill out a departure card before exiting China. At least the tour leader managed to get us those as soon as he could but once through immigration and train-side, he was nowhere to be seen and neither was the girl we’d been told to follow. It was a free-for-all again and if we’d not been told what our berths were, we’d have been fucked!
Platform side at Dandong we were able to walk around while everyone queued at their respective door to get on the train. Unfortunately, the nice shiny blue engine at the front of the train was beyond a set of barriers and I couldn’t see a number on it when I went for a cheeky look. On board the train it was utter chaos, which was when we realised we were in different compartments and the aisles down the coach were wedged with people as well as every compo being full. When I tried to explain to the girl we’d been told to follow, that we were in different compo’s she just shrugged her shoulders and went off to the next coach; basically, leaving us to it. I wasn’t impressed at all and while I had Chinese data access, I told Koryo Tours so, before the train set off at 1010.
With the DPRK border being the middle of the Yalu River, there were people lining the adjacent road bridge as our train rumbled over the rail bridge in the pouring rain. It was only a few minutes to the other side, with Sinuiju being about 2km as the crow flies, and that was where we stood for the next 2 hours. DPRK officials boarded the train to take out passports and visas for processing, yet we had never been asked to fill out an arrival card, yet everyone else on the train had already done it. This caused a little consternation with the DPRK officials, as did the fact that we weren’t on any of the Chinese Tour group lists and the guy checking our coach wanted to know why, which of course, we couldn’t answer. In the end, a nice Korean lady, who spoke good English, was able to translate for us and we got the girl we’d been told to follow to explain to her what was going off, or more like what wasn’t that should have been! It was all very unorganized, and we could have done without it really. Still, once settled, we were allowed off the train and there were a couple of young Korean girls on the platform with trolleys selling beer, water and snacks. Our 640ml bottles of beer cost RMB10 each; just over a quid.
Before we departed Sinuiju everyone else on the train was fed, but us, and the women in both mine and Flossy’s compos were starting to get on at the girl who was supposed to be looking after us; who yet again just shrugged her shoulders and did one. Luckily for us the boiler was working ok on the train and we were able to provide our own snacks; but it wasn’t the point! It was a little after 1300, Korean time, when we departed Sinuiju, with a similar blue loco on the front to that which had taken us over the border. Which had thankfully run back through the station at Sinuiju, immediately after arrival, revealing itself as DH106.
The journey from Sinuiju was through pouring rain, all the way, and the poor Koreans were still out in force in every field, attending to their rice and vegetables. The majority were dressed in thin plastic over-clothes, similar to the raincoats used by people visiting waterfalls. Everyone looked content though and hardly any even bothered to look up as the train trundled by; with red Korean slogans standing in the fields, no doubt giving them the spurring on that they needed to keep on at their task at hand. It was a sight to behold though, seeing people beavering away in such dismal conditions, and it gave a sense of just how seriously everyone took the most menial of tasks. Meanwhile, I was able to get stretched out in my middle berth for some of the journey, once the rabble had dispersed and settled down throughout the coach.
Along he way I did note some of the things we passed, electric 5223 being the first thing, at South Sinuiju with a northbound passenger train. Then at the next station south Chinese diesel 290 was sat with a southbound freight. At Tongnim LH101 was heading north with what we assumed to be the opposing working of the train we were on, 96 Pyongyang – Dandong. Then at Galli we passed electric 5163 with a northbound passenger train and an M62 numbered 710 was sat with a southbound freight. We did pass another M62 along the way as well, but it had no visible number anywhere on the front or side we could see.
Thanks to ME Maps I was able to keep track of our progress south but there wasn’t any need to attempt to figure out when we were approaching Pyongyang as the scale of the place, and its buildings, firmly lets you know you’re arriving and after crossing over a river bridge just outside Pyongyang station we trundled into the platform nearest to the exit at around 1900. Had we realised at the time, we’d have been able to see the imposing Yanggakdo Hotel, where we’d be staying, situated on its own island in the middle of the Taedong River, as the train approached Pyongyang from the north.
As we were among the first off the train at Pyongyang, we had a few seconds to take in the scene before our guides found us on the platform. We expected them to be waiting at the door for us as we got off but the reality was that I had time to walk towards the front of the train, spot LH105 on the front, and walk back down the platform before they discovered us. There was no way I was going to attempt a photograph as there were army and all sorts of other official looking types standing around towards the front of the train; giving the impression that nobody was allowed beyond where they were stood.
Our guides didn’t seem bothered that we’d been walking around for a couple of minutes and quickly introduced themselves as Mr Yang and Mr Um, before allowing us to take a couple of photos on the platform and then taking us straight out to our waiting minivan outside the station. It was quite a hectic scene as we exited the station with all the Chinese tourists about but we kind of circumvented their queues and were soon meeting our driver, who then took us straight to the Yanggakdo Hotel.
Along the way many things were pointed out to us, which didn’t really register at all, but I did notice just how wide the roads were in Pyongyang and how tall the buildings were, during the short journey to the hotel. Right outside the towering 42-floor high-rise that is the Yanggakdo Hotel was a car park crammed with tourist buses; 99% of which were for Chinese tourists. Inside the impressive foyer, chaos reigned with the number of arriving tourists, which had clearly arrived on the same train we had. We were spared the stress though, and Mr Yang handed us a room key, for room #15 on the 37th floor, and asked how long we needed to freshen up before dinner. After agreeing on 30 minutes we joined the fun and waited for the liftboy to usher us into one of the 8 lifts that would take us up and down the building many times during the next few days.
Our room had twin beds with decent quilts but rock-hard pillows. The air-con had already been on and we had a fridge that came in handy. There was a kettle, rafts of toiletries, slippers, at least 10 charging sockets, a telephone that could be used to make international calls and the water in the bathroom was piping hot, with a nice powerful shower. All-in-all it was way above the standard we’d usually stay at but worth every penny. The best bit about the room was the fantastic view over Pyongyang city and the Taedong River below. Having not got our bearings by this point, we didn’t have a clue what we were looking at but the vibrant colours of the high-rise flats all over the city really stood out, even in the dull conditions and dying light.
With the lift journey and the time we’d taken getting photos out of the room window, we didn’t have much time to do anything before heading back down to meet Mr Yang & Mr Um in the hotel lobby, at which point they took us through to the hotel’s European restaurant where a table in the empty restaurant was laid out for us. They left us to it while food basically flooded the table on tap, served by a single young Korean girl, who I thought was neve going to stop bringing food out! The meal started with a few veg dishes being on the table and once the soup and rice course was over it culminated with chicken schnitzel and potato wedges, which did finish the meal off nicely. After which we didn’t know whether we were able to excuse ourselves, or whether we had to pay for what we’d just eaten.
After walking away from the restaurant, while the girl was setting another table, we figured that we didn’t have to pay for anything and Mr Yang confirmed that all the food was included in our tour package; before taking us up to the 42nd floor of the hotel to the revolving bar. As the weather was crap, and it was quite cloudy anyway, we couldn’t see anything through the murky darkness but eventually figured out that we were revolving while sitting at our table, discussing the following day’s tour plan. There wasn’t much to discuss on the subject as it was pretty much set in stone and the evening was mostly about having a few local Pyongyang beers and getting to know our guides. Mr Yang had been a guide for 8 years and Mr Um for 3 years; and as it turned out he’d been one of Youth’s guides the previous year! Both looked the part, dressed smartly and had their KITC identity badges around their necks. Having had a decent chat and a few beers, they could tell we were flagging a bit and were keen for us to get a decent night’s sleep; so, we took a couple of beers back to our room and did a load of washing in the bath before hitting the sack. It had been a long day, but despite the relatively easy journey, we’d had a lot to process and I was dossed out before Flossy had finished in the bathroom…..
Gen for Sunday 19th May 2019
DF11G-0003/0004 T27 1727 (P) Beijing – Dandong (from Shenyang)
LH106 95 1000 Dandong – Pyongyang (to Sinuiju)
LH105 95 1000 Dandong – Pyongyang (from Sinuiju)
5223 at South Sinuiju with a northbound passenger
290 next shack with a freight
LH101 at Tongnim with 96? xxxx Pyongyang – Dandong
5163 at Galli with a northbound passenger
M62-710 with a southbound freight
Moves for Sunday 19th May 2019
|DF11G-0003||Shenyang||Dandong||1727 (18/05) Beijing – Dandong||K27|
|106||Dandong||Sinuiju Chongnyon||1000 Dandong – Pyongyang||95|
Photos for Sunday 19th May 2019
Monday 20th May 2019 (A day in Pyongyang, North Korea)
Breakfast at the Yanggakdo Hotel was a free-for-all in one of the restaurants on the ground floor. The place was already rammed with Chinese tourists when we got there and with all the tables being large and round, to seat at least 8, we ended up sharing with an old couple from Singapore. As the majority clientele were Chinese, the breakfast buffet was designed to suit them, so we ended up with toast and hard-boiled eggs, after getting a coffee from the counter and asking a waiter to bring us some butter. We’d been pre-warned at our Koryo briefing to be wary of the time it could take to get from breakfast to our room and back down again, with the amount of people using the lifts during breakfast time. Sensibly, we took our bags down to breakfast with us and were able to walk straight out of the breakfast hall, into the lobby and meet up with the waiting My Yang & Mr Um; and off we went into the big wide world of North Korea.
The hotel car park was as chaotic as it had been the previous night but thankfully our driver was waiting close-by and we could get out of the car park quite quickly, where tour buses were loading up left, right and centre. While not on our agenda, a walk around part of Pyongyang should have been part of our agenda the previous night but as the train had been late and it had been raining, we didn’t bother. Before our walk could commence though, we had to meet one of KITC’s employees to have new photos taken for new visas that they were going to issue for us both. It turns out that our original visas didn’t show our exit from north Korea via Tumangan and into Russia, so new ones had to be issued. Once our minds had been put at ease and Mr Yang had confirmed why we’d met his colleague, the walk then turned out to be a nice walk, through streets that gave an impression of grandeur, were spotlessly clean and everyone using them was well dressed. Vehicles were few and far between, and we by no means got the impression it was rush-hour, but people sometimes rushed by as if they were in a hurry to get somewhere; and just as quickly as our walk had started did we end up back in the van and we were off to somewhere else.
That somewhere else should have been the Mansudae Fountain Park but Mr Yang wanted us to visit the Mansudae Monument instead, which I assumed we would anyway. After stopping close-by to pay €5 for a bunch of flowers, we headed straight to the imposing sight that is the Mansunade Monument. The statues of Kim Il-Sung & Kim Jong-Il tower above the city and their standing in Pyongyang could not offer a better view at all. When we arrived, nobody was at the monument, so we were taken to about 10m from the statues, where the four of us lined up and we all bowed simultaneously to show our respect. The flowers we’d bought were then presented to the leaders, and only then were we allowed to take photos of the statues; but making sure we got only the whole figures in our photos, and didn’t cut any part of either statue out of any photo. While we were taking photos in the square a big group of tourists lined up in front of the statues, to pay their own respects, and it was then time for us to move on. Because we’d visited the Mansudae Monument though, we had no time for the Mansudae Fountain Park as we had to be at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum for 0930.
Our guides were panicking a bit that we’d be late, and they joked with the young female officer, who’d become our guide of the museum, when we arrived 3 minutes late! After a security check we were led into the site of the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which is very grand and very new; with the old site of the museum being visible and redundant behind this massive new site. Lining either side of the courtyard leading up to the main building are the remains of machinery from the Korean War, either those captured from the US Imperialists, as our guide kept calling them, or Korean war machines. Some of the US planes and tanks on display had been shot down or blown up during the war and looked in a sorry state; which is what I guess the Korean’s want to show? Their big prize though, is the USS Pueblo, a spy-ship captured in Korean waters in 1968, which they have moored up in the water near the museum. During our tour of it we were shown a video giving a whole run-down of the “Pueblo” affair, how it came about and how the US denied the fact it was a spy-ship; yet still issued a formal apology to North Korea anyway, before their crew were released 11 months after its capture.
We were then shown inside the very impressive new Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, which has one of the grandest entries of any museum I’ve ever been in. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take any photos, and I now regret not buying the book produced on the museum at the time as well! Our young officer guide was very good at what she did, explained everything in fluent English and wholeheartedly believed everything she was telling us; as she led us from exhibition to exhibition, which led us through the whole US/DPRK conflict from pre the war, to when it started on 25th June 1950, to after it finished in 1953 and beyond, culminating in us being led into a revolving room which was fantastically designed to depict the war through the ages, with sound and vibrations to boot. I had to hand it to the North Koreans at this point, as they really didn’t do things by halves! And, having not understood much about the Korean war before visiting North Korea, I was quite impressed with what I’d learnt during our time at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum; assuming it was accurate of course.
Next on our agenda was a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, which ended up being a two-stage ride on the Chollima line, with the first ride only being one stop from Puhung to Yonggwang and the second ride then onwards to Kaeson, 5 more stops down the line. Mr Um purchased our tickets and we headed down the escalators to the island platform at Puhung. Trains seemed to arrive and depart every few minutes while we were there and ran quite empty mostly. Each station we got off at had a wide island platform and each platform had a uniformed young attendant dispatching the trains. The stations were all very well decorated, with each being in theme with the station name we were told. In the middle of the platforms were stands with the day’s newspapers on display, for all to read, and plenty of people stood around the stands while waiting for the next metro to arrive. The trains were clean and efficient and ran like clockwork, form what we saw, and one of the two we ended up on was quite full as well. There was no messing about when we arrived at Kaeson though, and we were straight back up to street level to be transferred onwards to the Arch of Triumph.
After waiting for a few minute’s it was evident that there was something not right and when Mr Yang started joking about getting a taxi but didn’t tell us what was wrong, I did become a little concerned as our bags were in the van. When a fresh van, with its own driver, eventually came hurtling into the car park to collect us, I was relieved to see our bags on the seats; and all was well. Although, seemingly not for our previous van, apparently; which is all we got told, other than it had been involved in an accident but that the drive was ok. The translation got lost in this situation we think as it turned out to be something wrong with the van as opposed to a collision of any sort, and our driver was back with us the following morning; which turned out to be bad news for us by the end of the following day.
Still, onwards we went and our fresh driver and van were way better than our original one, in both personality and driving skills and he soon had us at the Arch of Triumph. We’d not originally planned to go inside the arch and use the lift to the top but we’re glad we did as the views from it are fantastic and the traditionally dressed female guide was brilliant, spoke excellent English and even risked her life to take photos of us in the middle of the road after we’d gone back down and walked down the road to get some more photos of the arch. Bless her, it was quite windy too and she was being blown all over the place but she was a bundle of smiles, all the same.
Lunch was next on the agenda and we were taken to a restaurant in an area of Pyongyang that looked like it was from the future. The buildings were brightly coloured and very randomly, yet uniformly shaped, and stood many story’s high. Our restaurant had a table set for us, otherwise it was empty. Again, there was plenty of food and on the table including local vegetable delicacies, fish, beef, dumplings and even mini sandwiches. There was plenty left when we left, as was becoming a theme already on our North Korea adventure; although this time we ate with our guides and driver.
The Juche Tower was our first stop after lunch, which is visible up the Taedong River from our Yanggakdo Hotel. It towers above most things in the city and the lift from bottom to top took almost a minute. Despite only having 8 floors shown on the display, it’s easily as tall, if not taller than our 42-floor hotel! The views over Pyongyang were again excellent and the views from each side of the building offer something different and each gives an understanding of the scale of Pyongyang and how well built it is. Its quite unlike any other city I’ve visited anywhere in the world, its very unique.
Our time at the top of the Juche Tower was limited as it was very windy of an afternoon and we were soon heading out of town to the Songshan Tram Office on the east of the city, adjacent to the Mangyongdae Pleasure Ground (amusement park). We were joined by a lady from New Zealand for our chartered tram ride back to Pyongyang Railway station, which took about 30 minutes. Tram number 1002 was provided for our jaunt, which has special regard in Pyongyang as both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il were on board that very tram on its inaugural run in the city; and a plaque above the driver’s cabin commemorates the fact. It was a pleasant run through the city and we even had time for a photo-stop along the way, where the New Zealander’s guide explained that the stars painted on the side of each of Pyongyang’s trams, buses or trolley-buses represents 50,000km of incident free running and that each tram, etc is only driven by a couple of drives, who’s responsibility it is to keep their equipment in good shape. Tram 1002 had 21 stars painted down its side!
At Pyongyang station we were picked up by our driver and whisked away to what we thought was going to be the Rawkon Microbrewery but turned to be just a bar that served us a couple of beers. There was no evidence of a brewery being on site and no selection of beers behind the bar; an our guides seemed a little confused when we queried this with them, not quite understanding when we were trying to explain about the brewery side of things and the fact we expected the vats to be visible. It was a bit of a let-down really, but the stop did take the sting out of the otherwise hectic day. Which had one more surprise up its sleeve.
As our original plan in Pyongyang had been put back by a day because the train to Tumangan was departing a day later than originally planned, we were to visit the Kwangbok Supermarket the day before the journey to stock up on goodies for the 36-hour trip. Despite the train being delayed by a day, our visit to the supermarket hadn’t, so off we went; and it was an experience. This was the only time we were allowed to spend the local Korean currency, Won, and we had to exchange money at a booth inside before Mr.’s Yang & Um then left us to our won for an hour, while they did their own shopping for the train journey as well.
The lower floor was for grocery shopping and looked like every other supermarket in the world, apart from the section where we watched a fish escape from its tank and two girls had to try ad grab it to put it back in. It probably wouldn’t be long before someone picked it out for dinner anyway, so its escape attempt was a bit fruitless. With a basket of bread, crisps, cheese slices (or so I thought), pot noodles and pop we ended up at the alcohol aisle and couldn’t resist half a dozen bottles of the local Taedong beer. We needn’t have bee concerned about our basket full though as a young army lad nearby was piling cases of the stuff into two trolleys, that we later saw him with at the checkout. As the highest denomination of Won seemed to be the 5000 note, the girls at the checkouts had their work cut out when counting through the wads they were presented with, but did it as quick as any money counting machine I’ve seen; and made it look easy. After our little shopping spree, we found our driver and van parked outside, dumped our bags and went for a walk around the upper two floors of the supermarket. The second floor had clothes, hardware and jewelry while the third floor, which was relatively empty, was a massive canteen area. On which we found somewhere selling beer from vats, one lot for 1000 Won and another for 7000 Won; and everything we saw being served was done so in bowls and not glasses! Of course, we went for the good stuff, with the exchange rate being about 14,500 Won to the £1 and got the best beer we had of the trip for our 50p-worth. Not only were we served it in glasses, but it was a very tasty and refreshing wheat beer and went down a treat. We sat drinking it in the regimental style canteen while everyone else went about their business around us, which mostly involved drinking beer from a bowl. The 20 minutes we spent on the third floor of the Kwangbok Supermarket were by far the best of the hour we had there and watching people and the world go around, especially in a place you’ve never watched it go around in before, is a rare experience. And nobody seemed to bat an eyelid at the two out of place foreigners sat in the middle of the canteen drinking beer either, which made the experience all the more interesting.
When we got back downstairs to wait for our guides at the agreed time, they jogged our minds and a mad dash back into the supermarket for bottled water followed, and at 900 Won for the good stuff it was rude not to grab an armful! While I was back buying water Mr Yang did ask about the remainder of our Korean Won, which we’re not allowed to take out of the country, but he was told we’d spent it or changed it back. We were keen to keep some anyway, just in case our train journey ended up being 12 hours longer than it needed to be; like Youth’s journey to Rason had been in 2018.
Due to the long day the following day our optional evening trip to a funfair was politely declined, much to the relief of our guides I think, and we headed straight from the Kwangbok Supermarket to the restaurant that would provide us with our evening meal. Again, it was devoid of people other than ourselves and tables were already laid out for us. On the menu this evening were local veggies, some nice rice balls, Chinese dumplings and duck. Again, the young Korean girls serving were very attentive and just kept bringing the food out until there was nowhere left to put it. Not being a big fan of fish, I did try the fish that was put in front of us, just as a show of respect.
With a long day ahead of us the following day we were left to our own devices back at the Yanggakdo Hotel, which again I think our guides were quite pleased with as they were flagging a bit, just like we were. Mr Yang couldn’t apologise enough for the mix-up with the van earlier in the day and for the fact we’d missed out the Mansudae Fountain Park, which he’d try to fit in the following evening when we returned from Kaesong; but our van and driver had other ideas on that….
As it had been a clear day the view from our room in the morning had been brilliant with the sun shining on all the buildings below us and it was equally as spectacular at night with the lighting around Pyongyang giving an indication that we could have been in a futuristic city elsewhere in Asia. The newly constructed, 20000-room hotel that stood well above the rest of the city dominated the skyline. We’d been told it had been built with foreign investment but that the investors had left the DPRK and the hotel would have to be completed by North Korea if it was ever to open to the public. Allegedly, it had 20000 rooms and was a luxury hotel, yet the building remained empty until completed. Of course, the skeptics out there would just say it’s a sham built to impress and project an image to the western world, and that it was never to be a hotel anyway. Either way, the lighting on it at night was impressive, none-the-less. And it gave us something to point our cameras at while relaxing with a beer before bed. We’d had a hectic day, while discovering a city that not many people will ever visit and the opinion I drew of Pyongyang after our day there was that it is unlike any city I’ve ever visited in the world, the scale, the size, the décor, the different styles of the buildings, their height, their character and their vibrant colours. All that coupled with a rat-race in the streets below that doesn’t seem to fit with the city they’re inhabiting, with streets wider than some big American cities and not the road traffic to warrant it. It was all a bit surreal I guess, but don’t let that take away anything from the fact it is a very impressive city even if it does have an air of fakeness to it in some respects. It is still very real and at the end of the day, it is what it is and if that’s what North Korea want to project to the outside world then so be it, and if the inhabitants of Pyongyang thing that their city is normal, then so be that too. At the end of the day, I was impressed…
Gen for Monday 20th May 2019
701,02,03,04 Pyongyang Metro – Chollima Line
757,58,59,60 Pyongyang Metro – Chollima Line
1002, 102 Pyongyang Tram
Moves for Monday 20th May 2019
|701,702,703,704||Puhung||Yonggwang||Pyongyang Metro – Chollima Line|
|757,758,759,760||Yonggwang||Kaeson||Pyongyang Metro – Chollima Line|
|1002||Songshan Tram Office||Pyongyang Railway Station||Pyongyang Tram|
Photos for Monday 20th May 2019 – Kim Il Sung Square & Mansudae Hill Grand Monument
Photos for Monday 20th May 2019 – Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
Photos for Monday 20th May 2019 – Pyongyang Metro
Photos for Monday 20th May 2019 – Kim Il Sung Stadium, Arch of Triumph & Tower of Juche Idea
Photos for Monday 20th May 2019 – Pyongyang Tram Ride
Tuesday 21st May 2019 (Kaesong, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and Koryo Museum)
In an attempt to get a longer sleep we dismissed the idea of breakfast and made our own coffee in our room before heading down to meet our guides for our 0730 departure to Kaesong and the DMZ: a 2h30m drive south. They seemed quite surprised that we hadn’t done breakfast, just as we seemed quite surprised to find our original driver from the previous morning back with us for the day. He’d not been a particularly good driver anyway but at least the journey to Kaesong was down a straight main road.
Once out of the city the whole landscape becomes rural, all the way to Kaesong, with everyone tending to their rice or vegetables along the way. Despite it being a sunny day some of the farmers were wearing the plastic body suits we’d seem some wearing in the rain two days previous. A lot of ploughing seemed to be done by ox and in the rice paddy’s tractors have their rear wheels adapted to be like steamboat paddles to allow them to move easily through the mud, along with having a make-shift cab on them. Everywhere there are Korean slogans standing 6ft high, mostly red, and sometimes with red flags all the way along the field. It’s a shame we couldn’t ready any of what was written, and we didn’t want to keep pestering our guides to read them out; especially with what they were.
Halfway to Kaesong we stopped at a big pink building that spanned the whole width of the road, where there were stalls selling drinks and snack and the car park was full of Chinese tour buses all going to the same place we were. It provided a break from the monotony of the van journey and there were toilets there too. During the journey south from there we hardly passed a thing and once all the tour buses had overtaken us, we were the only vehicle on the road. It was a bit strange, as was the fact we had to go through 4 checkpoints, which our guides had paperwork to allow us through. When one of our pieces of paper allowing us access back into Pyongyang accidentally went out of the window there was a mass panic and Mr Um was soon running back up the road to collect it. He was brought back to us by one of the traffic marshals on his moped, which saved him a bit of a walk. It was a little concerning that without that little bit of paper we wouldn’t have been able to get back into Pyongyang that evening; and even more concerning that it was needed in the first place. Still, just holding the piece of paper in the van window as we approached the checkpoints did the trick, and the gates were duly opened before we came to a stand. I got the impression that nobody used the road to/from Kaesong at all and had to have permission to do so if they did. The road wasn’t in particularly good shape either but got us to where we needed to be, by the time we needed to be there.
Arriving at the DMZ, our guides had to go into an office and do what they needed to do, after which we were shown around the souvenir shop, which we came out of with a lot less money in our pockets! The posters that North Korea have up on their streets, at stations and pretty much anywhere in cities giving the North Korean people words of wisdom and spearing them on, were available as hand painted posters in the DMZ shop and between us we ended up with 9, which at €30 a piece dented our stash of Euros but we’d always planned to buy some anyway, so were prepared to have to spend a bit of money to get them. The spending didn’t stop there though, and we ended up with plenty of other bits n bobs, including a t-shirt for myself and a North Korean army had for Flossy. It was the first time I’d ever bought an XXXL t-shirt, let along an XL!
When everything had been processed all the tour groups were lined up in front of the gate to the DMZ and we were then invited to walk through the gate on foot, before joining our bus on the other side. Each bus is then accompanied by someone from the Korean Army until it exits the same gate after the tour. The guy accompanying us seemed to be the main man of the day, a young guy who was talkative, although he spoke no English. He did ask some of “those” questions, including what we thought about the UK taking part in the Korean War; but he wasn’t malicious at all and made sure we were always first into buildings we were allowed into and looked after us well. A packet of cheap Korean cigarettes at the end of the tour got us some photos with him as well, thanks to Mr Um asking his permission.
We were first shown to the Armistice Talks Building, where the original documents are still kept on the very tables they were signed on. Our army guide did his speech in Korean while a Chinese guide translated for the masses and Mr Um translated for us. After the talk we were allowed to take photos inside the building and sit in the chairs that the documents were signed in. The Chinese made it very hard to get the photos we wanted but our army guide was relaxed about us hanging around when everyone else had gone back outside; seemingly understanding our frustration with the Chinese just wanting to take photos with everything but not taking the time to understand where they were. Before leaving the area there was a good view of the North & South Korean flags from behind our van, which Mr Um had pointed out to us. When we walked to the edge of the car park to get the photos though our army guide asked us to get back into the bus, for our own safety. Apparently, he was concerned that the van might roll back and injure us!
From the Armistice Talks Building we were taken round to Panmon Hall which overlooks the North/South Korea border, which most westerners have seen on the new during their lifetime. There are 7 buildings that straddle the concrete border, 3 blue South Korean ones and 4 silver North Korean ones. Our army guide very welcomingly got us through the door of Panmon Hall first, so we could get a good vantage point after we’d walked up the stairs to the viewpoint, and Mr Um made sure we got where we needed to be. It was a very surreal 5 minutes of our lives, standing where few westerners will ever go, all the while being very wary of just where we were and what the buildings, we were looking at meant to those around us. On the way back to the van Mr Yang told us about a Russia student who ran across the border while on a tour, some 20-years previous, who managed to get away but the North Korean guard that chased after him was shot dead immediately by the South Korean guards.
After accompanying us back in our van to the DMZ gate, our army guide bid us farewell in English and that was us heading back to Kaesong and the Koryo Museum. Inside which are very well decorated Korean style traditional buildings that house relics from the Koryo dynasty, including ceramics from the 9th century through to the most recent of the Koryo ceramics. It was quite interesting to look around and was quiet when we visited as well, making it easier to do at our own pace.
Lunch was at a local restaurant, with, surprise, surprise, nobody else there but us. 12 mini dishes were already on the table when we arrived, containing local delicacies and they were accompanied by rice and other bits, leaving us stuffed by the time we left for Jannam Hill and the view of the Concrete Wall. The journey to which was a good 45 minutes and for the majority we were accompanied by a stern old army guy, who wasn’t very talkative at all. Still, when we got to where we were going, he let us into a classroom, gave a speech with a map as his aide and Mr Um translated for us. The whole speech was centered around the “Concrete Wall” that had been erected by the South Koreans on their side of the DMZ and was what we were there to see. Mr Um told us that this was his first visit where the weather had been good enough to allow him t see the wall, which was visible 4km away on this very clear day. The army guys on site provided ancient binoculars and some more powerful mounted old binoculars, which did allow us to see the Concrete Wall clearly, but, we could only see a small section of this wall, which is said to be 244km from end to end and slanted on the South Korean side so as to give the impression that it doesn’t exist to the South Korean people. All we can say is that the section we could see definitely exists, I’ll be consulting Google Earth to see whether the rest exists.
When we left the viewpoint, we still had one more place to visit in the Kaesong area and after dropping our talkative army officer back off in town we headed straight for the Tomb of King Kongmin. Which was a very pleasant way to finish off the afternoon. There was nobody else there and the walk up to the tomb of the 31st King of the Koryo dynasty was I glorious sunshine. The tomb of King Kongmin and his wife are domed with grass and surrounding both are various stone carvings that were well lit in the later afternoon sunshine. While we were there Mr Yang told us a story about how King Kongmin had picked the spot of his tomb while he was still alive by using fengshui men to attempt to pick the best spot but if the spot wasn’t satisfactory the fengshui man was killed on the spot. At this particular location, so legend has it, King Kongmin had gone up the mountain at the opposite side to the spot of his tomb and told his men that he’d give a signal if the site wasn’t to his liking, which it was. But as it was a hot day, his men took him wiping his brow with a handkerchief as a signal to kill the fengshui man; so, none survived, not even the one that chose the correct spot!
We were Pyongyang bound after leaving the tomb and all was going quite well until Flossy thought he heard one of the rear tyres pop and then start to deflate. Having told the driver, he got out, checked it and assured us all was well; only to stop 10 miles further along the road with a flat tyre! It then took him an age to get his spare out, which wasn’t fully inflated but at least wasn’t flat. Neither of us were too enamored with the way he’d jacked the van up, or the fact he’d done it on a hill, or the way he put the new wheel on and didn’t seem to have tightened the nuts well enough. Despite our protests to Mr Yang, who saw for himself that the new wheel was wobbling, the driver assured him everything was ok; I’m pretty sure he ended up tightening the nuts at the pink building on the way back though and he definitely wasn’t impressed with our interference with proceedings.
It was gone 8 o’clock when we rolled back into Pyongyang and the pace of the van slowed to almost a crawl, which just added insult to injury. Thankfully, when we eventually got to our restaurant for dinner, the barbequed duck was probably the best duck I’d ever tasted. It was all cooked on an open BBQ in the middle of the table by one of the young Korean girls in the restaurant, which had only us in it, for a change. By the time we got back to the hotel it was gone 2200 and we were ready for bed. With an early start beckoning the following morning. Randomly, a quick glance out of the window revealed a completely different landscape to that of the previous night, with no new hotel light show and hardly anything lit up at all. All-in-all the day had been very pleasant though with the DMZ being a must on anyone’s itinerary to North Korea. We’d been well looked after all day and all the army guides we’d had, had done their bit well. It was worth the trip just to get the posters though! The day was marred only by the incompetence of a poor driver, who not only couldn’t drive very well, he couldn’t change a tyre very well, or make his vehicle safe, in my view. I half expected to lose the wheel on the journey back to Pyongyang…
Gen for Tuesday 21st May 2019
Photos for Tuesday 21st May 2019 – Yanggakdo Hotel & En-Route to Kaesong
Photos for Tuesday 21st May 2019 – Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
Photos for Tuesday 21st May 2019 – Kaesong Area
Photos for Tuesday 21st May 2019 – The “Concrete Wall” along the DMZ
Photos for Tuesday 21st May 2019 – Tomb of King Kongmin near Kaesong
Wednesday 22nd May 2019 (Start of the train journey from Pyongyang to Tumangan on the DPRK/China/Russia border)
Having packed everything up the previous night we were ready for a quick getaway after a 6 o’clock get-up. Mr Yang had given us an 0650-meeting time in the hotel lobby but neither he nor Mr Um were there until 7am; but or trusty driver was outside waiting. Its only a short 5-minute journey from the Yanggakdo Hotel to Pyongyang station and having handed our room key over the Mr Yang, who in turn took it to the hotel front desk, we were on our way to the station for part 2 of our North Korean adventure to begin.
After our driver dropped us at the station, Mr Yang seemed to be giving him a bit of a talking to, before he had to bid us farewell. At which point I handed him the pre-filled brown envelope with his tip in it; which we hoped might buy him some driving lessons, and maybe even a van that worked! The €100 tip we gave him was probably well over the odds but unfortunately with these trips it is expected, and we were asked to budget for it when taking money into North Korea. I had two other brown envelopes in my bag with a €150 tip for the guides in them, which meant we’d spent €200 each on tips alone; a definite downside to the trip, especially with how much it cost anyway.
Pyongyang station was quite busy when we arrived and getting onto the platform was as simple as walking through the entry point and onto it. I’d been expecting there to be a bit more red tape than that and I’d also been expecting our soft-sleeper coach to be at the rear of the train, so when we were directed to the back by the station staff we were a little surprised to then be sent to the opposite end of the 14-coach train. Though there was no complaining at all from us when we discovered our coach to be the front passenger coach on the train with only two luggage vans ahead of us; and with ex Chinese DF5 LH231 at the head of the train we were hoping for a good run and a bit of noise from the engine too. The windows in 4-berth compartment had an inner and outer window, both of which came up with enough of a gap to then get your head, or camera out of through it. The compo itself was a bit cramped though and the whole of train #7 0750 Pyongyang – Tumangan was formed of North Korean stock.
When we asked Mr Um to take us up to the loco so we could collect its number we were surprised when we were allowed to take photos of the train, platforms and station sign; which then included anything else in adjacent platforms of course. Nobody batted an eyelid at all at us taking photos, but we did observe the golden rule of not photographing any army personnel. It was quite strange as everyone else we knew had said they hadn’t been able to take photos of trains and yet when we’d asked Marcus at our Koryo briefing he’d said we could and our guides didn’t seem to hesitate when we’d asked either. If they were the only photos we’d got of trains in North Korea on the whole trip, we’d have been happy, but there were more to come. And just before departure a rather nice looking yellow and red electric came into the platform with huge metal Korean letters on the side of it, making for a cracking photo of or train loco and it together in contrasting colours.
Our coach was quite full, contrary to what we’d expected. We’d hoped that we’d have a compo to ourselves and our guides would have the same but there didn’t seem to be an empty berth when 231 got the train underway from Pyongyang; after a flurry of horn-blowing prior to departure. After crawling through the city suburbs, we were soon out in the sticks and starting to climb, which was when our DF5 could be heard at the front of the train. Despite some of the slow speeds on Korean Railways the driver didn’t have a choice but to give it a bit when going up the steep hills. Which have seen electric locos come to grief and need banking assistance in the past. No such luck for our DF5 but randomly when we started going downhill, we ended up with a loco attached to the rear of the train as a brake loco. We’d been running downhill for quite a way at the time and doing running brake tests way too often up until electric 5321 was attached to the rear at Munpil. Thankfully I’d been peering out of the window on the way into the station and noticed 5321 in the headshunt at the end of the station. Also in the station had been a DF5 and an M62 on freights and when 5321 was detached from the rear of our train at Dunjeon there was a freight with an M62 there waiting to go back up the hill, so maybe it would bank that back up and had only been hitching a lift down with us? Either way it had been a bonus.
Unfortunately, the boiler in the coach wasn’t working and the young Korean coach stewardess was boiling up water on a stove in her compartment at the end of the coach. Mr Um, having eyes like a shithouse rat had already been trying to chat her up and was using our English coffee & milk sachets as gifts to try and get on her good side, which did work to some extent but not to the extent he wanted! We managed to get boiling water for coffee at lunch time and then again in the evening for noodles. While our guides had noodles at lunch as well, I broke out the bread and cheese slices, which actually turned out to be more like cheese spread and they had to be squeezed out of their packets. Thankfully the crisps I had added a bit of substance to the sarnies, which were a bit shit but under the circumstance had to do.
Our guides seemed to let their hair down a bit during the train journey and dinner time became a bit of a feast, starting with two bags of the local firewater, which Mr Yang didn’t hold back on. They made sure we had enough to eat and had enough food to feed us and them if need be but we had our noodles, which turned out to be a meal in themselves and I can see why they’re so popular in this part of the world. After dinner the beers were broken out and when we opened the second bottle the majority of it ended up all over the floor when it fizzed up. Luckily, we managed to move our bags out of the way before the spillage got to them, before finishing off our beer in the cardboard bowls our guides had provided to drink from. It was an interesting day and probably about as Korean a day as we’d get while in the country, with both us and our guides confined to barracks for a long period of time. They experienced what we do on a regular basis when travelling around the world by train, and we experienced their boredom while they struggled to get to grips with the long journey. At least Mr Um had done the journey a few times before, whereas Mr Yang had never been to Rason by train before and hadn’t been looking forward to the journey at all. It was a good experience for us all and by the time night fell we’d been through rice plantations, uphill and down dale, reached the coast of North Korea and seen more army staff on stations than anywhere else in the world and that didn’t include the hundreds of army staff travelling on the train either; it was phenomenal, they were everywhere we looked like ants outside a nest, all clambering off at station stops to smoke and getting back on when the engine was started up to continue on its way.
Along the way during the day we’d seen plenty of trains with a whole host of different types of electrics and quite a lot of diesels too. I’d managed to point my camera out of the window at a few of them too, with our guides being ok with it of course. The ruling seemed to be that we cold take photos when we wanted but only from within our compartment and without sticking the camera outside of the window; thus limiting what the locals saw us doing, especially the army staff on board and on the platforms. Unfortunately, with the electric locos not having numbers at one end I didn’t get the numbers of everything I managed to photograph, the strange looking electric I managed to snap at Galli being one such time. I did manage to spot electric 6044 at Chasan, was allowed to photograph the North Korean Leaders at Sungchon and then noted 5315 at Singsongchon. Electric 2032 was at Gowon in the late afternoon and electric 4062 at Pupyong. Photographing for the day came to a halt after I’d been allowed to photograph the North Korean Leaders again, at Hamhung this time, shortly before it started to get dark. At which point the coach stewardess came around asking everyone to put their windows down. It was starting to get a bit chilly outside anyway and my bed was calling. It had been a busy few days and we were looking forward to the fact there was no alarm call the following morning and no mad dash to head out to see things.
Gen for Wednesday 22nd May 2019
231 7 0750 Pyongyang – Tumangang (load 14)
Thing at Galli
M62 at station after Galli
6044 at Chasan
5315 at Singsongchon
5321 Munpil to Dunjeon on rear of train 7 as braker
2032 at Gowon (Kowon) at 1625
4062 at Pupyong before Hamhung
Moves for Wednesday 22nd May 2019
|231||Pyongyang||Tumangang||0750 Pyongyang – Tumangang||7|
Photos for Wednesday 22nd May 2019
Thursday 23rd May 2019 (Day 2 on board the Pyongyang to Tumangang train, then an afternoon in Rason)
By the time we came around of a morning it was almost 8 o’clock, although I’d not really slept that well at all. Hot water for porridge and coffee was provided the moment we asked for it and the first big station we arrived at that morning was Chongjin Chongnyon, where a lot of the trains occupants alighted and our loco ran round to detach the rear four coaches, before dropping back onto the front in readiness for the final slog to Rason and Tumangan. We had plenty of time to walk around the platform while all the shunting was taking place and were pretty much left to our own devices by this point; having reached a mutual understanding with our guides. During the stop at Chongjin it seems that Mr Yang had changed the ballgame for himself and Mr Um, who had to get back to Pyongyang after handing us over to the local Rason guides. We’d initially got the impression that they’d accompany us to Tumangan and then back towards Rason by road, and hand us off at the Rason border, without realising that we’d have to go through Rason to get to Tumangan in the first place, which they weren’t allowed into without authorization. So, it now seemed that rather than going all the way back to Pyongyang by bus, a journey that would take them 2 days, they’d be returning to Chongjin and staying there until the train went back to Pyongyang; as they couldn’t face the bus journey!
It wasn’t that long until we had to bid farewell to Mr Yang & Mr Um either and we were into Pangjin, the handover point, before we knew it. Everything there happened so quickly, we were introduced to our new guides Miss Jang and Mr Jon and Mr Yang & Mr Um were away. To be fair to them, they’d been brilliant wit us, with Mr Um being the more relaxed of the two that we could have a better conversation with. Mr Yang was the guide who had to be Korean and ensure we understood his customs and culture, while making sure he did his job and told us what his company told him he had to. Still, he wasn’t a bad lad, even if he was a bit annoying at times. Mr Um on the other hand had learnt plenty of Yorkshire English while he’d been with us and as we’d been straight with them at every turn he’d been great with us, even insisting that I should take photos of things that he could probably see I’d been itching to take but hadn’t because I’d been unsure whether I could. He’d been an absolute pleasure to have as a guide and played the backseat role to Mr Yang very well, who’d been exactly what KITC had wanted him to be and I get the impression that he was trying too hard to fit in at some points, rather than just being himself. Still, they’d had their time and treated us well, but it was up to Miss Jang and Mr Jon to get us through the next 24 hours, as far as the Russian border.
We had plenty of time at Pangjin to get acquainted before the train headed on towards Tumangan. Miss Jang had been a guide as far back at 2005 but had changed jobs in between times, before returning to being a guide in 2012, whereas Mr Jon was fresh out of guide-school and didn’t speak much English as a result either. It was a bit full-on transmit after first meeting Miss Jang but she was an absolute pleasure to have as a guide and finished our trip off nicely, even if she didn’t shut up when we first met her; when all we wanted to do was go to sleep.
The whole way from Pangjin to pretty much Tumangan was spent admiring the surrounding scenery, which included mountains inland and the coastline on the opposite side of the train with the views of Rajin and Songbon, along with Pipa Island being great from the train. Miss Jang didn’t miss a trick either and used every opportunity to give us information on the surrounding area, whether it be about industry in the Rason area, or beautiful flowers and trees we could see from the train window. It reminded me of a journey we’d done many moons ago along the Bodinayakanur branch in India where a young Indian lad kept pointing out trees, men, rice and anything else he knew the English words for along the route.
Miss Jang was quite surprised that we wanted to ride the train through to Tumangan as most tourists get off in Rajin, where we’d have to drive back to that afternoon anyway; and she did make sure we didn’t want to get off the train at Rajin when we approached it. She’d never been to Tumangan by train herself and seemed quite excited to be doing so. I was quite excited myself and the journey through Rason was a very pleasant one, on a very empty train by this point as well. At Tumangan there must have been about 15 people get off the train in total. Our Chinese DF5 had done us proud and got us to destination spot on time, without missing a beat anywhere along the way. The crew had even been cleaning the clag off the side of the loco at various points during the morning. As we immediately left the station area and were bundled into a new van, with an expert driver, who caned the hell out of it down the 12km straight road from Tumangan towards Songbon. It was apparently North Koreas second longest straight road, with the longest being 42km long! It wasn’t paved or tarmacked though and if we’d had to brake, there was no chance we were stopping on that surface.
As we’d had everything explained to us on the way to Tumangan we were spared another lengthy talk on the way to the Namsan Hotel in Rajin, which took us just under an hour to get there. We were allowed an hour to sort ourselves out before we had to begin our tour that afternoon and it was an hour we needed; my face was absolutely filthy with constantly sticking it out of the window and I looked like a right scruff. The Namsan Hotel was situated in the centre of Rajin and offered decent views from our 3rd floor window. The room was actually nicer than that in the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang and had three beds in it, split into two rooms. There was no air-con but as the temperatures in the Rason area were cooler at night it wasn’t needed. While the water was hot at the Namsan, the shower was shocking and was about as much use as something not very useful; but still, we persevered with it and even managed a shave before presenting ourselves downstairs at bang on the time we’d been told to be there.
It was a whirlwind tour of Rajin of an evening, with a breeze around the local Korean art gallery where Miss Jang explained there were many beautiful paintings and pointed out everything in each painting too. From there we were straight round to the greenhouse where the two national flowers, Kin Jong-Ilia and Kim il-Sungia were being cultivated. We had no time to dwell though as the local market would close at 1900 and we needed to get in and out by then. No photos were allowed in the market, which had three levels and sold pretty much anything and everything and was just like the Sunday market in Doncaster, but larger. Each section had the same wares on sale with many people trying to sell the same stuff to the same people and not seeming to be doing very well at it. You could want for nothing while shopping there though and it was a very different experience to that in the Kwangbok Supermarket in Pyongyang.
Before our evening meal we had just enough time to walk through the Seafront Park before the sun dropped behind the hills behind Rason. Miss Jang was always concerned about us taking our phones, wallets and passport out of the van with us and we ended up explaining to her what a bossy-boots was, which she reveled in! She was an absolute treat but a nice treat, one to be enjoyed and on the way back to the van we came across the Czech beer bar in the Seafront Park, where it would have been rude not to stop for one, and we left just in time before the mad rush of Chinese tourists wanting their evening meal invaded.
Our own food was served as soon as we got back to the Namsan Hotel, where we were the only people in the restaurant. The platter thrown at us was among the best we’d had in North Korea with flounder, which I wasn’t keen on, potato croquette type things, rice cakes, veggies and some nice beef and mushroom Chinese style dish which went well with the sticky rice. We were stuffed afterwards and hadn’t left a great deal for a change. We were allowed to take some beer up to our room for the evening and were told to be back in the reception at 8am, having negotiated that from the original 0730 we’d been given. Miss Jang understood we’d have a long day the following day and that the later start would be appreciated.
Gen for Thursday 23rd May 2019
0711 at Chongjin Chongnyon
5125 at Pugo plus another thing
Pangjin change of guides
Photos for Thursday 23rd May 2019
Friday 24th May 2019 (Heading from Rason, North Korea to Ussuriysk, Russia)
There was no doubt about it, we slept well after not being in a proper bed the previous night. Outside the hotel it was shaping up to be a glorious morning, but it was a little misty initially. By the time we’d dealt with breakfast and left the hotel the sun was beaming down and there was no mist at all. Breakfast was ok at the Namsan hotel and there were a few other westerners stay too; apparently in North Korea for 4 months to learn Korean while in Rason. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to manage being in North Korea for that long, with two guides constantly in your life, all day, every day; no matter how friendly they were.
As we needed to be in Tumangan for our train to Russia in the early afternoon, our tour of Rason, or more like just Rajin, was a whirlwind affair. Starting with Pipa Island which is linked to Rason by a man-made concrete road. Its not a massive island but the views from it are quite good and it was nice and peaceful while we were being walked round the brand-new concrete walkways that had been constructed around the island’s edge. Miss Jang was very impressed with the ned concrete road and the bollards at the water’s edge, that hadn’t been there on her last visit, which she constantly told us about; bless her. She wasn’t impressed with the painters that were washing their bowls out in the sea, in what they probably thought was secluded area of the walkway and we were quickly turned around when she spotted them. She hung back a little bit and I’m quite sure she went to give them a bollocking when we were out of earshot! Before leaving the island we were quickly shown inside the kitchen of the hotel on the island, which had a whole host of local seafood, alive, in bowls on the counter; all ready o be cooked at a moments notice for the stream of Chinese tourists that would flow through the island during the day. As we left in the van there were boatloads of tourists being taken out into the bay on a ferry ride, which had been optional for us but we just didn’t have the time for it; and after my recent Sri Lankan seasickness ride, I wasn’t keen on repeating it again anytime soon anyway.
Just on the mainland, the very imposing Emperor Hotel & Casino dominates the landscape, which is otherwise devoid of buildings in that area anyway. We were taken into the grand lobby for a look around and ended up having a quick walk around the in-house casino. I’d never been in one before, ever, and it had a very serious atmosphere going on, certainly from the bankers at each table. Everyone gambling was Chinese and the bankers that had nobody at their table just sat patiently in silence with their upturned arms stretched out on their tables, as I f to beckon people in to play. As we had a little time on our hands, we were going to have a coffee in the sea view restaurant, until we were quoted £6 for one coffee; we left straight away ad were taken straight to the local Trout Farm.
While the Trout Farm is not really a tourist site, it is a site that the North Korean’s clearly want to boast about, and it’s not really just a Trout Farm either, although there are Trout on the site. It was actually worth the quick look we had, if only to see the massive crabs and scallops that were being bred. Everything is locally sourced and supplied to restaurants in the local area only. With the number of tourists passing through the area I’m guessing most of it ended its days in their mouths!
After the Trout Farm we left Rajin and headed straight to Tumangan and the Tri-border viewpoint, which offers direct views of the Tumangan area of North Korea, towards Khasan in Russia and into the Jilin area of China. The Tumen River naturally splits North Korea from China, until it reaches the railway bridge that takes the train from North Korea to Russia and then the river naturally splits North Korea and Russia; with China randomly digging quite deeply into what should be Russian territory south of Hunchun in China. It was a very clear day and the views were fantastic. Miss Jang couldn’t help but point out the beautiful flower and beautiful lagoon, which was visible from the vantage point. Unfortunately, we left about 5 minutes too soon as on the way back to Tumangan station in the van, we watched an RZD TEP70 come over the bridge with the three coaches forming 652 Ussuriysk – Tumangan; that would then form our 651 1500 Tumangan – Ussuriysk later in the afternoon.
Lunch was at a local place over the road from Tumangan station, which we’d clearly turned up early at as the fish for everyone’s soup hadn’t even arrived at that point. Thankfully, Miss Jang had figured out that I didn’t like fish and I got pork instead. To be honest lunch was a right faff, which I wasn’t too pleased with. The soup was cooked in front of you, on the table in its own bowl that had a flame beneath it, which made it way too hot as a result. My pork was too fatty and as the place had no knives at all I had to mess about with my spoon and fingers to separate the meat from the fat; and there was way more fat. While Flossy’s fish was apparently quite tasty, the fact that its eyes were peering out of the soup before he devoured it was enough to put me off. And, in what had become a very Korean thing, for the last time on the trip we were treated like children as Miss Jang insisted on adding the spices and sundries to our soup and mixing it up for us. Thankfully, there were other bits on the table that filled me up, including a nice plate of potatoes, like jeera aloo. I didn’t do well with the soup and was glad to get out of the place in the end; and that was pretty much that as far as North Korea was concerned…..
We were driven over the road to the station, where we had to wait outside the entrance, which is a separate entrance to that used by domestic passengers. Once a group of waiting North Koreans had been processed, we were invited into the building, where our passports and visas were checked while Miss Jang spoke with the staff. We were then invited to put our bags through the x-ray machine and after collecting them we had to go to a little table, where we wrongly assumed our bags would be thoroughly searched and our cameras checked. None of that happened though and after emptying the contents of our pockets onto the table we were patted down and run down with a mini metal detector before being told to put everything away and pointed in the direction of the passport booth. At this point we waved goodbye to our guides and after handing my passport over, the visa was checked and stamped but the passport wasn’t. After it was handed back to me, I was free to head out on to the platform and wait to board the train like a load of North Koreans were. Flossy soon followed suit and once through the door of the building and onto the platform we’d officially departed North Korea. Miss Jang and Mr Jon were waiting in the building when we left, we assumed they wait there until the train departed, just in case there were any issues and things needed translating, which there weren’t, and they didn’t.
It was still a glorious day but we kept our cameras firmly in our bags, despite the temptation of Korean electric 900-23 sitting in the domestic platform with a single coach, and when RZD TEP70-0537 dropped onto the three coaches that were sat over the way on the furthest road from the station; which must have been the only CIS gauge road in the station as we all had to cross the tracks and walk along the ballast to board! We had the pleasure of sharing a compartment with a North Korean, until Khasan, when he was moved into the next compartment by the coach attendant; which had been vacated by a group of Russians on their way to Moscow, who were going from Khasan to Vladivostok by road to then fly to Moscow. Very sensible of them and they’d probably be in Moscow before we made it to Vladivostok the following day!
Our RZD Kupe coach (4-berth sleepers) was clean and quite modern, although the boiler wasn’t hot until well into the journey, so there wasn’t any water for hot drinks. Shortly before departure from Tumangan the young guy from the passport booth swept through the train checking all North Korean passports but didn’t want to see ours. Then once we departed the platform North Korean army staff were scattered all about the line, right up to the point where it entered the bridge over the river; at which point there were a group of Chinese tourists taking photos of the train running onto the bridge! If only we’d known that option was available, and we’d have been there for the bloody thing arriving into North Korea earlier!
We trickled over the lengthy bridge and then trundled the short distance into Khasan station where Russian Border Security were on hand to board the train. Customs staff swept through the train first, along with a sniffer dog, before our passports were taken for processing. It was probably about an hour before our passports were returned, at which point we were officially in Russia and I was quite surprised to find a computer-generated Russian Arrival Card in my passport, already stamped; which saved a bit of writing if nothing else. Surprisingly, we managed to take photos of the TEP70, after it had been started back up, and nobody blinked an eyelid at us doing so. Although, once the border staff had finished their job, they locked the place up and disappeared off by road to whence they’d come from.
From Khasan it was a decent run towards Ussuriysk, with only the one booked stop at Suzanovka where we passed TEP70-0538 on one coach, forming what I later figured out to be 6708 2013 Riazanovka – Khasan: thanks to the excellent RZD App. While we were in need of sleep, we couldn’t take advantage of the empty compartment as Ussuriysk came about all too soon and we were on the platform there a little before 1am. TEM2-1545 eventually shunted the three coaches out of the station, to then shunt them onto the rear of 099E 0051 Vladivostok – Moskva Yaroslavskaya when it arrived over 2 hours later. TEP70-0537 went onto shed and wasn’t seen again during our wait.
Gen for Friday 24th May 2019
TEP70-0537 652 2137 (P) Ussuriysk – Tumangang, 651 1500 Tumangang – Ussuriysk
TEP70-0538 6708 2013 Riazanovka – Khasan (at Suzanovka 2040)
TEM2-1545 shunt 651 to 099 at Ussuriysk
Moves for Friday 24th May 2019
|TEP70-0537||Tumangang||Khasan||1500 Tumangang – Ussuriysk||651|
Photos for Friday 24th May 2019 – DPRK
Photos for Friday 24th May 2019 – Russia