There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 14 September 2013

By Train out of the DPRK: Part 11 of Beijing, North Korea and Shanxi

On the short ride to the railway station B made good on his promise to respond to the singing of our Korean hosts the previous evening.

In the 1960s the press would have described B as ‘flamboyant’, a word that falls sadly short as a description of his performance of  'Hey, Big Spender'. He attacked the song with a panache that Shirley Bassey would have admired, flirting outrageously with the young male Korean guides, who seemed uncertain how to react. The rest of us enjoyed it enormously and joined in where appropriate. North Korea is busy arming itself to resist a military attack that will never come, they have no defence against western decadence.

Station formalities were surprisingly minimal and we soon found ourselves on a wide and increasingly crowded platform. 
Waiting to board the train, Pyongyang Railway Station
Once permitted to enter the train we settled into a four-berth sleeping compartment identical to the Chinese soft-sleepers we are well used to.

We rolled northwards at a leisurely pace, past fields of rice and maize, orchards and villages of traditional houses. We saw no towns before the border and few people, except once, where the whole village had turned out to plant rice. Distant glimpses of farmers driving ox carts suggested that animal power was still much in use.
Ox carts in rural North Korea

We were called to the dining car at 12.30 and as it was our last opportunity for a Korean lunch we took it. The meal consisted of five dishes, cucumber with chilli, potatoes and veg, pork with veg, squid and a dish of very recently defrosted spam. The veg, pork and squid were all served with the same sauce which was pleasant enough if rather repetitive. The squid tasted dodgy and seemed well past its sell-by date, so we left it.

Rural North Korea
The service was interesting. First beer bottles were put on the table, then half the food arrived. After a while glasses were produced followed by the rest of the food. It was a long and frustrating sit before anyone turned up with a bottle opener.

Rice fields, North Korea
A Swiss luncher across the aisle attempted to photograph his last North Korean meal. The lead waitress was very quick to come across and tell him very firmly that photography was forbidden. Of course it was, lunch is obviously a state secret.

Rural North Korea
Horse drawn carts in the stream and a traditional village beyond the fields
We reached the border town of Sinuiju in late afternoon. It looked run down, with crumbling tower blocks and rubble-strewn open spaces. The formalities took place beside a derelict platform on which a border guard station was being built. The only completed section was the giant rectangle which would later hold pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Passports were checked and men – though not women – were run over with a hand held metal detector. The customs man asked us to open our hand luggage. He was very interested in Jw’s papers – the itinerary for our journey and several copies of the Pyongyang Times, (the DPRK’s English language paper) which he went through looking at the pictures. From my bag he pulled out my book of Killer Sudokus. He looked rather puzzled, then opened the book and started laughing. He checked one of my solutions, turned to another page, still laughing, and checked another. Satisfied that a) I can do Killer Sudokus and b) no Sudokist could be a subversive, he left us in peace without checking the last two bags.
We had heard stories of border guards examining cameras and demanding the elimination of pictures. That did not happen - it would have taken all day - but as it was we sat for a couple of hours before moving off. A few minutes later we were crossing the broad Yalu River and leaving the DPRK behind. The four in our compartment heaved a collective sigh of relief, which was, I believe, replicated in the other compartments. Across the water was the shining beacon of freedom that is China – visiting the DPRK can strangely alter your perceptions. I was glad I had been to North Korea, but I was also pleased to be out and to know that I never have to go there again - though now I rather fancy a trip to South Korea.

Village children turn out to do some planting
North Korea, just south of the Chinese border
We crossed the river on the Chinese-Korean Friendship Bridge, which runs beside an older bridge destroyed in the Korean War and left like the Pont d’Avignon as a memorial of sorts.

The end of the bridge over the Yalu River destroyed in the Korean War
Darkness was falling as we rolled into Dandong. The Chinese border town seemed full of life and bustle after the moribund DPRK, the streets were ablaze with neon lights (the Chinese do like a bit of neon) and busy with traffic. The city even has a Tesco – how civilised can you get?

The formalities took place beside the gleaming platforms of Dandong station. We saw Je being taken away by the border guards, which was a little worrying. Apparently he had neglected to equip himself with a double entry visa. This, we thought, must happen every week, if not every day and the judicious application of a little cash would doubtless solve the problem - they could hardly send him back to North Korea.

He was still missing when the attendant arrived to announce that dinner was ready. Our section had been detached from the Korean train before crossing the bridge but had not yet been attached to the Chinese train so we had to get out and walk up the platform to reach the dining car - it was a long train.

We sat down and beer was distributed. The cans of Pabst beer bore a military motif and were dedicated to the American forces of World War II. Considering the attitude of the people we had just left, this caused an ironic smile followed by the thought that only in American and North Korea would this be considered appropriate – enemies often have more in common than they realise - and the line between ‘socialist realism’ (see the paintings in the Pyongyang metro) and the ‘Hollywood realism’ of the beer cans was thin indeed.

[ inform me these special edition cans were made only for the Chinese market (why?). I have stolen the artwork below from their website.]

Pabst beer can - Heroic American Soldier
A can with bad taste inside and out 
We ate a mushroom dish with onions and chillies, meat balls and a vegetable dish with little pieces of meat. Each had been carefully prepared in its own individual sauce; it was like eating in colour, after the monochrome of the DPRK. Much as I enjoyed the food, the beer was poor compared to the surprisingly characterful North Korean brews.

Heroic North Korean soldier and youth on a monument in Pyongyang
Better beer, but equally dire artwork

Nobody attempted to photograph their dinner, but if they had no one would have stopped them. Freedom sometimes involves not bothering to do something that nobody wants you not to.

The return to our compartment involved a long walk through the second class sleeping area, the bunks stacked three tiers high. We travelled this way from Guangzhou to Yichang in 2005, it was fine, but I am now old enough to admit that I prefer the comfort of the soft sleepers.

Je had returned with his passport properly stamped; our earlier conjecture had been right. Darkness fell and we rolled on through the Chinese night. I did not sleep well, though there was no good reason for that, and we arrived at Beijing Station pretty much on time at 8 o'clock in the morning.

Beijing is a big bustling city at the heart of a big bustling country, and Beijing Zahn is a big bustling station. There were crowds, there was noise, there were people moving purposefully – welcome back to the world.
Beijing Railway Station
(photographed nine days earlier)
We said our goodbyes as our group split up and we went our separate ways. L and I trundled our case the short distance to the City Line Hotel, where for the second time in ten days we attempted to check in while other guests were still eating breakfast.

They were, again, very obliging, though they did send us away for an hour while they prepared a room. We sat drinking coffee in a little restaurant near the station, surrounded by locals – it would have been nice to have done the same in the DPRK. The North Koreans do not understand that, indeed do not want to understand it. That was why, for all their hospitality, the perceptions of the DPRK we had before we arrived were largely unchanged by the experience of actually being there.

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