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.