North Korea – Exit

And then it’s the dash for the border. We’re leaving the country by train, and Mr Lee proudly hands round timetables of international routes from Pyongyang, as if to suggest that boarding a train in, say, Milan or Barcelona, and ending your journey in North Korea, is as easy as catching the Metropolitan line from Baker Street to Regents Park. We’ve been told that a strict ‘no cameras’ rule applies on the railways, and that fellow passengers will report instances of photography to the guards, so the first time on the tour we stop snapping everything that moves.

It’s the best part of a day to Beijing, and different people have different ways of spending the time. Some catch up on much-needed sleep, others head to the dining car to get drunk, getting slowly stewed under the watchful gaze of the two Kims. I’ve done border crossings before in this part of the World, and experience tells me that the last place you want to be with a full bladder is trying to get into China when the train toilets have been locked, so I settle back with a book for the duration.

The journey is mainly uneventful, the border crossing at Sinuiju generating the only real excitement. North Korean border guards board the train first, taking our passports and searching our bags, before we’re let out to stroll along the platform. Beer and snacks are available to purchase from a stand, but there’s little to do except to stare curiously at the locals milling around while they eye us in return.

Back on board, the train grinds it’s way out of Sinuiju, the last few hundred metres of the town cloaked in complete darkness, and creeps onto the Sino-Korean friendship bridge that straddles the Yalu River. From here we can see China, and the difference is immediately apparent – neon everywhere, brilliantly lit skyscrapers, and search beams soaring unnecessarily into the air. It’s as if the Chinese have a message for their cousins across the water: you don’t have enough electricity? Look at us! We have so much we can afford to waste as much as we want!

Chinese border formalities follow – the toilets are locked again, passports are collected, and our temperatures are taken by means of a hand-held contraption pointed at our foreheads, checking for the presence of bird flu. Setting off again, the entire train is disinfected with spray, leaving those of us unlucky enough to be standing next to open windows soaked.

By breakfast time we’re in Beijing. It feels alien after what we’ve been through – busy, noisy, dirty, and completely in-your-face. There are adverts everywhere (in North Korea there’s virtually no advertising, apart from a few billboards extoling the virtues of the Whistle, a car built using Fiat parts in a joint venture with South Korea’s Pyeonghwa Motor Company), and the familiar shop fronts of McDonald’s and Starbucks are omnipresent. There’s obviously nothing for it but to throw ourselves straight back into a western lifestyle, so we head to Steak & Eggs, a restaurant where no amount of pleading will ever prompt a plate of kim’chi or a bowl of dog soup.

And that’s it.

I’ve assembled the majority of the photos I took into a Flickr set, as well as tracking down the stories and photos of several other travellers and compiling the links on a single page alongside some other useful links. Happy reading.

24 Comments

  1. That was an excellent little travelogue Mr. L. Very enjoyable reading.
    So where’s next?

  2. Blimey. Sounds entertaining…

  3. Great stuff Fraser, and much safer than Turkmenistan. For a rogue state it’s pretty easy going in terms of personal safety.

  4. Wow! after lurching and posting the occasional off-topic response, I take one more opportunity to say… WOW! oh and thank you for blogging your travels.

  5. Yes, brilliant tragelogue, like the good people say. I’ve found myself flicking through your blog like a daily paper for a while, now, always entertains & educates me.

    I introduced Kittenwar to my boyfriend in the weekend…he hates me, because he got addicted to it and couldnt explain why. :)

  6. Transnistria isn’t all that interesting though. It’s just a bit of old Sov Russia to look at. There was a BBC4 docco about it. You need to go somewhere with decent food (or dog) for a holiday. Or Kamchatka.

  7. Ooh. Kamchatka. Now there’s a thought… I like bears.

  8. I’ve always been intrigued by Kamchatka. I think it’s something to do with it being a strategic bit of the Risk boardgame map.

  9. Excellent series there Fraser, thanks for that. Really enjoyed it, even though my comments were often trite. (But then they always are… apart from now… oh, bugger.)

  10. enjoyed your travelogue.
    what do you do to relax now?
    and where’s your luggage?

  11. My luggage got home a week after I did. My complaints to Air France hve so far fallen of deaf ears.

  12. I have some interesting literature on Kamchatka. You’ll be crying out for the bright lights of Vladivostok after a week.

  13. That was a fantastic series of postings. Thank you very glad.

  14. I would like to add my thanks for the interesting and entertaining postings on the trip to Korea. Are there nothing but monuments?

  15. A very elaborate and fun to read travelogue. So far I have only peared into Noth Korea from several borders post on the Chinese Side. From the top of Changbaishan (Mount Paekdu as the N. Koreans know it) and from a deserted border bridge in Linjiang. With some huge binoculars it was kind of eerie to watch North Koreans going after everyday life. What surprised me was that roughly every 150 Meters along the banks of the river YALU the North Koreans had built small bunkers which where manned with soldiers yielding AK-47′s. Kind of a little Eastern Germany trying to prevent their people to run away…

  16. Although you posted this travel-blog over a year ago and it’s probably somewhat old news to you and those you know, I have to say that I’m certainly glad I stumbled upon it while searching for pictures and information on North Korea in cyberspace. For the past year, I have increasingly become more interested in this “hermit” nation, and the bits + pieces of information I had been receiving from the ever-informative media here in the United States just wasn’t enough to satisfy my Orwellian cravings (it was my realization that North Korea is perhaps a living modern example of an Orwellian dystopia that inspired my delvings into the topic–so THAT’S why I was having so much trouble finding information!). Ironically, but somewhat appropriately I suppose, the less information I found, the more I was intrigued. The few photos, half-facts, and stories that the Western world has been able to ascertain only did so much for me; your account of your travels really shed some light on the “hidden” life of that land and its people. Not to mention that it was well-written, entertaining, and humorous. Your subtle sarcasm, wit, and the amusing picture captions made it worthwhile to go back and read the whole thing several times. I hope I didn’t just make you blush if you’re reading this. Now I’ve found myself browsing your other travel blogs, which I’m sure will prove to be just as entertaining and perhaps inspire me to take up a new geographical interest…how do you manage to take so many trips?

  17. Thanks so much for this! It was a great (fun!) read and very enlightening!

  18. Thanks so much for this! It was a great (fun!) read and very enlightening!

  19. I know these totaliter countries. They only advertise and lie.
    And their people, but few ones, live in the worst situation.
    .

  20. Excellent website. I enjoyed it very much!

  21. You’re a great writer. I really enjoyed what you wrote. I’m a Canadian who lives in South Korea. I’ve always wanted to go North Korea but I’m not sure how they would treat me there considering the circumstances.
    Anyway I really admire you’re writing skills! props!

  22. hello, my name is bruno im currently working in china, im from brazil and want to go to north korea , how much is the total cost?

  23. ALEXANDRE SCHMIDT

    Apparently I’m a bit late over here, but this is a fascinating travelogue! We all know people there live in poor conditions, but North Korea looks so intriguing and I wanna visit it so much before the current system falls, too bad I live in the other side of the world (Brazil). Maybe I should start considering Cuba hah.

    Congrats again!

  24. Mildly amusing.

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