We began our last day in Beijing by checking out of the hotel and having a walk around the hutong district, to grab some lunch and fill in some time before we met the rest of the North Korean tour group people at a hotel closer into the city.
The number of 3-legged cars is amazing. Ok, I know they’re 3-wheeled cars but that doesn’t sound as interesting. If I lived closer to work I’d get one of these babies and become a legend at school. Or a laughing stock, but I figure it’d all be in the way you hold your head as to whether they laugh with you or at you.
These things are really popular. All they are is a spiralised potato on a skewer, deep fried, but they taste really good. Chips in a row, pretty much.
We wandered around, poking in and out of shops. I wasn’t sure that my yellow leather notebook would last the whole trip, so I popped into a leatherwork shop and bought another notebook. Turns out I was able to make it last, so I have a book for next time.
Then it was time to collect the bags, grab a cab and start the next leg of our trip – the Korean one!
There were 4 guides present at the briefing, coincidentally 2 of them had their Mums with them, Helen and Matt being one. They went through what was going to happen in the next24 hours and gave a few pointers about travelling in North Korea. Basically:
- Always try to refer to their leaders by using their title, not just their names. So it is President Kim Il Sung, General Kim Jong Il and Marshall (or Supreme Leader) Kim Jong Un. This is surprisingly hard to do – it takes a while to remember which order they’re in. I’ll come back to this in a later blog post.
- When you take a photo in front of one of their statues or portraits, you must not crop any of them out. This is seen as very disrespectful.
- They don’t want photos taken of the military, or of any building projects. Seeing as most building projects use the army as the builders, then this often covers both scenarios.
- The Koreans regard their leaders with a respect verging on actual worship. So please, out of politeness, say any ‘funny’ comments about Kim Jong Un, for example, NOW and get them out of your system.
- No religious books, such as Bibles and the Koran etc are allowed, along with any books about North Korea, including travel guides. They said that in past years, before Americans were forbidden to enter the country, they used to have a lot of trouble with them deliberately leaving bibles and things in hotel rooms, public toilets, restaurants and the like.
- There are restrictions placed on your movements within the DPRK, which of course we already knew about. You have to sign a form acknowledging this when you book the trip. Once we have dinner and are back at the hotel, we can’t leave the grounds. (That was ok – we just stayed up really late drinking and singing karaoke. Try singing YMCA but substituting DPRK instead. Much hilarity.) There are ‘staff only’ floors that we aren’t allowed to go on. Personally, I can understand that the Korean guides would like a break from all of us at the end of each day. It must be exhausting to speak in English and translate for others all day, while answering the same questions all the time from each successive tour. I know I’d want to put my feet up at the end of the day!
- If we’re out and about and we see somewhere we’d like to go, ask the guides. If it’s at all possible, they’ll make it happen. But if the answer is No, then it’s no.
- Every single time they’ve had trouble with the authorities about a tourist, it’s always been because the tourist deliberately did something that they were told not to do. The message seemed pretty clear to me – don’t be an idiot.
Then we were given our visas:
The visa for the DPRK is a slip of paper that just gets put into your passport, with no stamp being put on the passport. It gets taken back when you leave the country, which is a bit of a shame. Still, considering the photo that on it, which was taken after I bleached my hair away from purple, blue and green, that’s probably a good thing.
I look like my mother…
Here’s Helen settling into the sleeper train to Dandong. There were 6 beds in each compartment and all of the YPT people were together so it was an excellent chance to get to know everyone really quickly. When everyone is sitting on the bottom beds, sharing snacks and booze, the barriers fall pretty quickly.
The accommodation is pretty spartan. Bedding is provided, with a mattress that could be thinner but I don’t actually see how it’s possible. There’s a squat toilet at the end of each carriage, with a hole that leads directly down to the train tracks. Helen told the horrifying tale of something that happened on her last trip 6 months ago – a woman decided that she’d make a quick toilet stop as the train was going back over the Friendship bridge to Dandong after their trip to Nth Korea. As she squatted, her phone fell out, down through the hole and onto the bridge. There went all of her photos of the trip…
(Apologies for the small photos. I think this is because I’m alternating between my work and home computer. These posts take around 3 hours each to do, and I’m juggling madly to get them done.) This photo shows the layout of the carriages, with the lovely Maria from Finland smiling at me. First class cabins are LUXURIOUS by comparison – 4 beds per cabin and they get a door. The dining car was right at the other end of the train, so after a while most of us headed up there to grab a meal and continue the meet and greets.
Here’s most of the group in the dining car before dinner, and before the wine started flowing. At the moment we’re polite, pleasant strangers… by the time 10 days were up we were more like family.
The meal was nothing to write home about, but OMG we drank so much! As the night went on more and more people made their way up here and with most of the crowd being 20-somethings, they were ready to party. The booze was cheap and plentiful and every time we stopped at a station and we saw more cartons of it being brought on, the boys would cheer and we’d keep on ordering.
Most people were on the beer. We ordered a bottle of “Great Wall” red, which tasted like watered-down wine. The usual suspects of vodka and whiskey were flowing, along with Chinese Baijiu, a liquor that Dan Rather once compared to “liquid razor blades.” I think that’s doing it a slight injustice, but I’ll agree that it certainly warms the throat as it’s going down! Some people stayed later, but at 5 to 10 Matt said that the lights would be going out at 10 and I didn’t fancy trying to navigate the train in the dark – especially the squatty potty. So we giggled our way back to our carriage, climbed into bed, put on our sleeping masks and earplugs and rocked off to sleep.
The next morning we were woken at 6 by a woman walking the length of the train calling out “WAKE UP” (I assume) in Chinese. I have to say that I slept like a top, turning over and over all night. That mattress was the thinnest I’ve ever slept on and it was on a metal bed base.
We arrived at Dandong at 7 AM and had a little over an hour to kill before we caught the train across the Friendship bridge to North Korea. We walked down the main road to have a look. And here is our first glimpse of North Korea. Dandong was towering with skyscrapers, while on the other side there was very little to see.
Behind us, there were people with a speaker doing exercises in the park, while the city swirled around us with commuters going to work, breakfast vendors selling food, pedestrians everywhere.
Here’s a shot of where the original Friendship bridge ends. Nowadays it’s a tourist attraction. Excitement was high as we crossed the river and reached the ground. We were here! The first stop was a station, where we’d go through customs. This ended up being a little weird…
Once the train stopped at the station, there followed an hour and a half of the most inefficient bureaucracy I think I’ve ever known. And that includes Centrelink.
We were ‘standing room only’ across the bridge, so the beds were packed with passengers, plus the corridor was packed with passengers and their suitcases. The system was a tad overloaded with all of the tourists flocking in to run in the marathon the next day. Into this sardine tin came around 6 soldiers who collected all our passports and insisted we fill in a form which was written entirely in Korean. We had to wait until Matt filled his in and passed it around, which annoyed the soldiers because it was holding them up. After about 20 minutes we were told to collect our bags and go out onto the platform. The people in the sleeper compartments were allowed to stay on the train. While we were there, they connected another carriage on the train to look after all of the ‘standing room’ people.
Then we had a stringent examination of what we were bringing in. Matt was astounded, saying that in 20+ trips to the DPRK, he’d never seen anything like it. We were asked to submit our cameras for inspection and to turn off any GPS. Our phones were glanced at. Anyone bringing in an iPad (that would be me) had to put up their hand and our names were duly noted. Then any books were very carefully looked at. Very carefully. This was all by one guy looking after 12 people on a station with a very cold wind. Then USBs. Anyone who had one of these had a mark put against their name on a passenger list the guy had. Then the USBs were taken away to be looked at. Then everyone had to open their suitcases to make sure that we weren’t smuggling any books in. I was a bit worried about my little yellow notebook but that was ok.
After that, we had to empty our pockets for inspection. Then we had to wait. And wait. And wait. The wind grew colder and we could see the other passengers on the train looking at us through the windows. The train lurched as they attached the carriage we’d be travelling in. Girls with drink and snack trolleys wheeled onto the platform, but none were allowed to come and look after us. We were watching all the other passengers buying drinks and food, but none for us.
“There’s something about our group they don’t like,” said Niall, a guy from Scotland who was on our tour. I was so glad I had my duck down coat. Even I started to feel a bit nippy as the time dragged on. Anyone who started to wander over to the drinks trolley 20 feet away was sternly told to step back with the rest of the group.
Mr Pak, our Korean guide who had come to meet us at the border, was standing about 100m away in the cold, but he wasn’t allowed to join us. The soldiers, particularly one guy, just didn’t like the cut of our group.
Finally, after an hour or so, we were handed back our passports and were able to board the train. Seeing as how we weren’t going to be sleeping on the train this time, we spent most of our time in the dining car. On the North Korean side, the food was SO much better and we were introduced to Soju, the Korean version of Baijiu, which is only 30% proof. (I had a quick nanna nap before we hit Pyongyang – that soju certainly relaxes you!)
Of course, we were glued to the windows as we were travelling through the countryside. The colours of Australia were everywhere – lots of browns, oranges and faded greens. Ploughed fields were everywhere, usually done by oxen with men manually maneuvering the plough through the earth behind the ox. We saw very few tractors. Lots of chickens, geese and goats in the fields. The fields were extensive, with what seemed like every flat surface being utilised. Rick and Helen kept saying how clean and simple it all was. Helen was saying about what a good life it would be, simple and uncomplicated, and that she wasn’t afraid of hard work and wouldn’t mind a life like that. I, however, begged to differ. It looked like bloody hard work.
Outside the train it was bitterly cold and snow was falling. Regardless, people were still out in the fields working, with some fields having open fires with people gathered around. I watched one guy ploughing as the train slowed down to come into a station. The ox was walking stolidly ahead and the man was wrestling with the plough to keep it in a straight line. It looked like it was being jolted by rocks in the earth – it looked pretty cheerless and very like back-breaking work to me. Lots of people walking and on bicycles – so many bicycles that I couldn’t help but think of Amsterdam.
The buildings in the towns we passed varied. Some villages looked pretty old, with one-storey houses gathered together, grey roofs and garden walls around bare-earth yards with outhouses. Other places had more modern apartment blocks, coloured pink, green and apricot. This was a harbinger of what was to come in Pyongyang.
A group photo at Pyongyang station. A family shot – ‘Auntie’ Frogdancer was included. We met our female Korean tour guide, Un Ha, and we jumped on the bus for a quick drive around on what was the marathon route the next day.
I had signed up for the 5KM run, after being assured that I didn’t actually have to run. The option for people on the tour was to either be in the marathon or to stay in the stands and watch a soccer match. Yuck. One 5KM walk is FAR better than having soccer inflicted upon me, and I’d have the opportunity to really have a good long look at the city.
As the bus drove, it seemed like ages until we reached the 2.5KM ‘turnaround’ spot that I’d be walking. Hmmm…
But my apprehension was nothing as to Walter’s. He was a Hungarian guy who wanted to run just one marathon in his life, so he chose this one. He was doing the full marathon, with only a couple of month’s preparation. I happened to be sitting next to him on the bus, and as the bus kept on driving… and driving… and driving… he started saying, Oh no! What have I done?!?”
Our first hotel was in the sports section of the city, so we arrived, hit the gift shop so Helen and Rick could buy DPRK tracksuits, (there were none in my size), and then we had a late dinner and an early night.
One of the first indications that this country is a little bit different was the Christmas trees on the stairwell leading up to the dining room – in April.
Can’t wait to see what lies in store!