After 6 months anticipation finally crossing into North Korea was a “don’t believe it till it happens” moment. Our minibus from the Dandong railway hotel pulled into a waiting area at the base of the bridge to North Korea. We sat in the bus whilst the driver stepped outside and our guide went into the Chinese departure building, presumable to get the permits for the minibus sorted. We all had a bit of a nervous chatter and then our guide returned and we unloaded ourselves and our bags from the mini bus and entered the terminal building. We appeared to be the only people crossing although many Chinese guys were hanging around waiting for something.
After about a 30 minute wait we were called over to the passport control counter. Our passports seemed to be looked at very thoroughly There were long stares at one guys passport due to his one year Taiwanese student resident visa. Once we were all through we loaded our bags into one minibus and boarded another. We realised that our guide was in the other bus with all our visas. Our bus trundled over the bridge, which seems to instantly get worse in quality half way across (but I’m not sure if I imagined that or not). At this point the reality of entering the DPRK is getting very real. We are stopped by a checkpoint where a KPA guard wants to see our passports and visas. We thankfully manage to explain the visas are in the other bus and we are let through after some stern looks.
We disembark the bus, one of our group unfortunately falling off the bus, an unlucky way to enter the country. At this point we are introduced to our Korean guides, Mr. Han and Ms. Kang. Mr. took mostly a supervisory role as a senior guide and Ms. Kang was a junior guide new to the job.
Immigration revolved around us digging out all publications and digital devices we had. The only publications to attract attention were a Korea lonely planet which, was returned after they perused the section on the DPRK, and the other was someone’s magazines on American politics, I have no idea why they thought bringing those was a good idea, but these were returned after it was pointed out they were European publications and not ones actually made in the US.
After being cleared through immigration we boarded our minibus for the rest of the trip and went to local hotel for lunch. We went past a guy urinating in the street which I thought was an interesting first sight in the DPRK. Next we passed a man hand painting a propaganda billboard with a paintbrush on a wooden pole. We pulled up to the hotel near the Rail Station and entered the lobby. The first shock was the lack of heating meaning that inside the hotel the temperature was something like -10 degrees Celsius. We had our first of many looks around a gift shop where I bought some postcards of monuments to send home to friends. We were called into the lunch room which consisted of around 5 round tables and brightly coloured decorations around the room. As we sat down food started to brought to the table. The meal consisted of a very thin soup, a gristly beef patty and a fried egg. Not the nicest food but better than I was expecting considering where I was. In the corner of the lunch room was a television playing inspiring footage of Korean people working and Kim Jong il making visits, all accompanied by fairly load revolutionary music that I couldn’t help but think sounded surprisingly like progressive metal.
We didn’t have to listen to the music for long as the power promptly cut out. After the food we had to kill time until the train was ready to bored, I think they didn’t want us hanging round on the platform so waited until the very last minute. During this time a couple people decided to wander onto the pavement outside to take some photos down the street.
Mr. Han (Our local Korean guide) got a phone call and quickly rushed us back into the minibus which drove us down the road towards the station where we were quickly moved through a side entrance and onto the platform. We marched down the platform with heads turning all the way down until we ducked into one of the carriages into 8 seats arranged around two tables.
This carriage was straight out of a time machine, I was suddenly in the 1950’s. Initially the train ride was fine but Mr Han mentioned that there are regular delays and what may normally be a 4 hour train journey can end up taking a lot longer, as unfortunately we soon found out. At first the novelty of the train ride was overwhelming, surrounded by Korean soldiers and what appeared to be Party workers and their families. I was surprised to see a lot of the people were dressed in western style sportsware and most of them were playing games on their mobile phones.
After a while we all started to notice how cold it was in the carriage. The -20 Celcius air from outside was evidently beginning to seep in. I went to the next car which was restaurant car, before heading off I asked our guide if it was alright to go, he said yes if I was quick. I was surprised how nervous I was already about this whole place. The restaurant car was empty except for two women manning a small counter with a small selection of drinks. The selection included local beer, russian vodka, canned coffee imported from switzerland and surprisingly Heineken. I grabbed the coffee as I didn’t particularly want to start drinking, a decision I would soon regret.
Going to bathroom in the carriage was surreal as it was located at the opposite end of the carriage to where we were seated. As I walked down to the carriage everything stopped and everyone stared as I walked past, some appearing curious and a few visibly scowling. The toilet was western style but just all very old wood that looked like it might fall through onto the tracks.
We all tried to get some sleep on the train but it was then that we all realised exactly how cold it was. You’d fall asleep for maybe 20 mins and then you’d make up due to the pain in your feet from the chill. At this point I was wearing two pairs of regular socks with my thermal trousers tucked between them and then a pair of thermal hiking socks over the top plus my shoes and my feet were still going numb from the cold.
To add to this gradual torture you’d fall asleep only to later wake up and find that the train has not moved since you were last awake. We never did find out why the train kept stopping, at a guess it either kept breaking down or it was constantly stopping in sidings to let other trains past, a possibility as locomotives went past each time we stopped.
I think the soldiers were starting to get bored as well. I went for a walk to the space between the carriages as they seemed to be a few people milling around doing something. They were having cigarettes and I was quite surprised when they asked we where I was from in broken English. I said London, England and they seemed to perk up a bit, they mentioned that they though we were Americans.
They started to open the doors to get out of the train onto the tracks and I was ushered away, as this would be the perfect time and place to evade my ‘captors’, surrounded by miles of snow and mountains with 100 armed soldiers sitting in a cabin behind me.
Back in my seat the boredom was clearly getting to the other occupants of the carriages as well who, not unlike chavvy kids in London, where playing music out loud on their mobile phones, although it was much more communist revolutionary in style. I also noticed a few of them walk past with the large bottles of local beer and russian vodka I had noticed in the restaurant car. It would soon became even more difficult to sleep due to the singing and myself being slightly nervous about drunk guys with holstered pistols.
It was around this time I looked over at our guide, this was his fifth trip to North Korea, as I was expecting him to be fine having experienced this before but he looked at me and said “This is grim” and explained he’d never organised a tour in winter before, and would be reluctant to again. (I later saw he’d organised another one for winter 2013 but with a disclaimer about the weather!).
Mr Han was constantly making calls possibly to determine how much longer our journey would be and eventually declared about an hour. It was now 2am and we all got very excited about the prospect of getting to bed. We finally pulled in at around 3:30am and were rushed off the train (14 hours after out departure). I caught a glimpse down the station and counted at least 16 carriages so there must’ve been at least a couple thousand people on the trian. Much like when boarding the train we were again rushed out a side exit of the train station and onto a preheated mini bus. Heaven. We drove through the late night centre of Pyongyang. I kind of knew where we were going as I always like to study cities on Google Maps before I visit and even though it was pitch black I could guess when we were going over the bridge onto the island that houses the Yanggakdo hotel.
I immediately saw the hotel out of the windscreen of the minibus as it was the only building that appeared to have electricity. It’s a large 40-50 story building, white with three faces and a revolving restaurant sat on the top. We quickly rushed through the cold from the van and into the lobby of the hotel. It was a fancy marble clad lobby like you’d see in most international 4 or 5 star hotels. We were given our keycards and were then told by our tour guides that our wake up calls would be at 7, roughly 3 hours away. Eurgh. This was then followed by the announcement that dinner would be served in 15 minutes. What!?. At 4 am? I remembered the food situation in the country so I didn’t refuse and we all plodded over to a section of the lobby that had the entrances to 3 restaurants coming off of it. Restaurant 1, Restaurant 2 and Chinese Restaurant.
The doors to all of them were locked and no light or sound was being emitted from the gaps around the doors. Our guide Ms. Kang banged on the doors profusely. After around 10 minutes of this I could barely keep my eyes open and said I really had to go to bed, she seemed slightly disappointed but in my daze I was walking away immediately. An attendant called the lift for me, he was wearing gloves, I’d later find out why. The lift was fast, with a glass side looking out over the front of the hotel. As the lift climbed I wondered why on earth the guides would be so keen for us to eat dinner at such an absurd time, settling on the idea of the wanting to impress us with kindness. Much later when I thought back I realised that the guides were likely being fed much better whilst working on the tours and were very keen to eat themselves.
I got out on the 42nd floor and when to room 19,which I would be sharing with one of our group once she came up after dinner. As I stepped through the door I was hit with a blast of hot air as they’d put on an electric heater for us in the room. I cannot express how happy I was about this as I still couldn’t properly feel my feet at this point.
The room was the standard type you’d expect to see in a upmarket hotel. Rectangular room with an en suite bathroom in a corner by the door opposite a build in wardrobe. An AC unit installed above the entryway. Two single beds separated by a bedside table with built in controls for all the lights in the room plus a radio. A phone, a dresser with a TV, albeit quite an old looking CRT one, and two small armchairs with a table by the window. I quickly popped on the TV to confirm whether or not the channels were mostly just Kim Jong il doing things, an image of him flickered on and I turned the TV off. I got in to bed and fell asleep immediately.
To be continued…