Day 2: Joining our Chinese tour and entering North Korea (DPRK) by train. Going through terrifying North Korean border control, taking a half day train ride to Pyongyang, meeting our North Korean tour guides, and arriving at the Yanggakdo International Hotel.
We met with our tour at 7 a.m. in front of the office. After our checking names on a list, we were gathered into the building’s lobby where hawkers tried to sell gifts for us to bring across the border. As a group, we were led to the Dandong Train Station passing by a giant greeting Mao statue.
Inside, we lined up according to our names on their list and handed over our passports. In this format, we went through China’s customs and sat in a waiting room with comfy leather couches.
This was our first encounter with North Koreans. There were some in military uniforms and some in plain clothes, but all wore the notorious pin on their breast of their leader.
We were careful not to make eye contact as they could be speaking to the North Korean immigration later.
Soon the train arrived and the gate was opened. The group poured out onto the platform snapping pictures of the train and terminal.
Chinese immigration officials showed up and in a seemingly random order called out our names and handed back our passports, which was our signal to board the train. A North Korean train operator handed out immigration forms as we boarded.
It was quite chaotic when we first got on as our group of 28 were waiting to be assigned to cabins. Our tour guide from Dandong eventually got us settled in. Christina and I managed to change our setup to stay in the same cabin.
There were six people per room, with three beds on each side and a small table in the center. Our cabin-mates included our Dandong tour guide, a young Beijing guy from our group, and two North Korean ladies.
The train headed towards North Korea across the Yalu River on the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. The Yalu River Broken Bridge and the China coast slowly disappeared along with our freedom.
Our train creaked to a stop. We had arrived in Sinuiju, North Korea.
North Korea Border Control
The station was under construction and had a few unfinished concrete columns with rusty rebar sticking out the top. A soldier smirked in conversation while leaning on his shiny black H2 Hummer. Further down the track, a white van with two tuba-sized megaphones mounted on top blasted Korean music towards a ragged group of workers. These “construction workers” were a mix of young and old, men and women. They were very thin and darkened by the sun. Besides a few rudimentary hammers, they had no tools and worked with their bare hands. One man in a grey uniform stood watching with his hands clasped behind him. Around them were young soldiers patrolling with AK-47s.
On further inspection, it seems that they were trying to break the old concrete off of the steel rebar to reuse for the building of the new train station. A few shirtless guys dragging long pieces of mangled steel confirmed my suspicion.
We must have looked visibly shocked as our Dandong guide, a young guy in his early twenties, sensed our anxiety and smiled. The immigration is a hassle but don’t worry!
Easy for you to say.
Our train jerkily moved back and forth on the track several times, possibly to switch tracks.
Then the officials came aboard.
First a group of uniformed men walked through the cabins clearing the bathrooms and peering into every room with curiosity. We were to sit on the bottom bunk to await inspection.
Then another uniformed man came through collecting our passports. He reviewed each passport photo with the person that handed it to him. Then holding a neck-high pile of passports, he left the train.
A set of young male officers came through with metal detectors and physically patted down each passenger. One of them slapped my butt and laughed… Awkward.
Then a heavy-set wide-faced officer came into our cabin and yelled to see the visa list. Our tour group had a multiple page document with all our pictures and information on it that served as a single group visa. The guide took out the list with annoyance and smugly gave it to the officer.
He went through our bags, though not very thoroughly. Unzipping a bag, he would peer inside and seem to lose interest. He did make a point to check all our mobile phones and register the phone we were bringing in, by writing it on the back of our immigration form. Apparently this is the first year that they allow mobiles (including iPhones and smartphones) and laptop computers to be brought in.
As each bag was checked we were dismissed from the cabin and waved out. The two North Korean ladies were the left and he did a very thorough search of their bags and packages. He even took out a knife and cut open a box to reveal some hot packaged lunches. Later we saw him leaving with one of the lunches in hand.
After the bag check, we all returned to the cabin. One of the ladies almost sat on the knife he left open on the bed. I warned her and handed the knife back to the officer.
Then started the most intense immigration questioning I’ve ever experienced. At first the man just sat down as if to relax and chit-chat. I noticed the two North Korean women had large forced smiles, nodding and laughing at everything the officer said. He sat very close to me, leg touching mine and constantly slapped my knee when laughing or joking around. He randomly questioned people throughout the room as if to catch someone off guard in hopes of someone slipping up.
He would look straight at me and shoot off a long sentence in fluent Korean and stare at me for an answer.
I’m sorry I don’t speak Korean…
Then in fluent English, he would ask a very specific question like ”Where were you born?” or ”How old are you?”
I would answer him and then he’d check the answer against the visa sheet in front of him with all the information clearly written out.
At what seemed to be the end of his questioning, he spurted something in Korean before yelling “Welcome to Pyongyang!” and slapped my knee with a burst of laughter.
It was a nerve-racking process because you knew he was trying to trip you up. The fact that his leg was pressing against mine, didn’t help the situation. Then I thought, he may be checking if I am nervous by the tremors of my leg. The more I thought about it, the more stressed out I was getting and then imagining being trapped in North Korea, I was really starting to tremble.
Fortunately, he got up and left the room. Then we waited in awkward silence for the passports to clear and be brought back. I was wondering if they were doing internet searches of our names (which in my case could reveal this site).
Another man came through to confirm our phone registration again.
During the down time, the officers seemed to be living the life. Casually handling women inappropriately, officers laughed and joked with each other. They enjoyed the small “bribes” of food and cigarettes taken from the passengers (mostly North Korean). The image of the soldier wearing the typical North Korean hat with the oversized brim, cracking open a can of Coca Cola with a wide toothy smile on his face was priceless. I wish I could have snapped a picture of it: a product of extreme communism enjoying a product of iconic capitalism.
Our Dandong guide asked some two guys and I to help him carry in the food. I was glad to volunteer and get out of the train. We stepped outside and followed him. It seemed like the whole platform was watching us. I tried not to make contact with the teenage looking soldier holding his AK in hand. We walked down the train tracks to another platform where there were four boxes of set lunches and bottled water for us to carry back to the train. As we were picking up the boxes, a frantic man ran over to confirm how many people from our group got off the train.
Finally after over an hour’s wait, the man came back and handed our passports back, one at a time.
We were in.
Train to Pyongyang
The six hour or so train ride to Pyongyang was surprisingly relaxing. We mostly rested and snacked on our bunks, watching the rural North Korean landscapes flashing by.
Though we weren’t allowed to take pictures, there were no people checking except the conductor who walked by a few times. The tourists felt more at ease and started snapping away. We were a bit more cautious with the two North Korean ladies in our cabin, but still took a few.
The majority of the scenery was composed of lush green rice fields and other crops with the occasional river. Due to the recent storm many crops were flooded or washed away.
When our train went over rusty steel bridges, I wondered if the foundations were affected by the storm and raging river…
We saw locals around the small villages mostly walking around, working in the fields or bathing in the rivers. Tractors and other farm equipment seemed to be a rarity.
Towards the end of the trip, the two North Koreans who mostly kept to themselves, offered us some cakes. Unfortunately we couldn’t really communicate with them.
We arrived at the Pyongyang Station and saw the crowds waiting for family members. We grabbed our stuff and were ushered off the train to a specific exit door. Military guards stood on both sides of the door eyeing each person passing by. Some North Koreans in line were told to use another exit.
Outside we were shown our tour bus and told to get on. We weren’t given time to wander or take pictures.
On board we met our North Korean tour guides who would accompany us for the next few days. They were both young ladies and spoke fluent Mandarin. The lady on the bus speaker system introduced the activities of the day and blurted out factoids as we passed certain points of interest. People walked and bicycled around. There were almost no cars on the road, meaning Pyongyang had some of the best traffic of any capital city that I’ve been to!
The bus took us directly to our hotel, which was a short drive away.
We entered the lobby of one of the best hotels in North Korea, ranked “special class”. The large marble walls and clean interior looked promising.
Our guides collected our passports for the check-in process and keycards were slowly handed out. Passports were not returned. Then we went up to our room on the 9th floor. The elevator was quite slow and jerky.
The hallways were lifeless and drab. On entering our room, we found amenities that looked like they were from the 80‘s. We had two twin beds and with the understanding that this was indeed a real hotel, I ignorantly went to the reception desk to request a queen/king room.
Our Chinese guide intercepted me to see what the issue was and forwarded the message to the North Korean guides. They looked at me and immediately knew who I was, which was a bit unsettling.
They spoke with the reception staff who didn’t seem to speak any Chinese or English and eventually handed a key to me. They explained that as the hotel is running at full capacity, they do not have many rooms available, so I could try that room which may or may not have a single bed.
I went to the 8th floor to have a look. This floor seemed to have people living on it year-round with much more wear and tear and decorations around the room door frames. The room was the same set up as the last one, but located in a worse position, so we decided to keep our first selection.
After closer inspection, the perceived 4-star hotel was closer to a two-star. Small details give away the fact that the building is very poorly managed and up-kept, like wall paper peeling, dirty hallways and carpets, old appliances, and countless examples of shoddy patch work.
We rested in the room for thirty minutes before heading to the banquet hall for dinner. The dining room was huge with impressive paintings on both walls. The dinner was already laid out on the table. Servers walked around in black tie attire. The empty hall reaffirmed that the 1,000 room hotel was no where near full capacity…
The food was satiating, though most of the dishes were cold and bland. With many vegetable dishes, we also had rice, fish, and beer.
Conversation around the table was very limited as everyone was still unfamiliar with each other.
After dinner we browsed the souvenir shop and bookstore. I picked up my Country Shirt and some propaganda books conveniently translated into English.
With an early start the next day and the fact that we were not allowed to leave the hotel, we decided to get some rest and process the experiences of the day.
Full day of sightseeing tomorrow!