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Pyongyang to St Petersburg by train

Pyongyang to St Petersburg by train
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Date:
Location:
Country:
Latitude:
Longitude:
Altitude:
12-30 September 2016
P'yang - St P'burg
Nth Korea - Russia
39 - 60°N
126 - 30°E
5 - 1510m ASL
Google Maps Link
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

THE WORLD'S longest scheduled railway passenger service is commonly thought to be the Moscow to Vladivostok Trans-Siberian express journey. There is another even longer journey, a monthly train service running from Pyongyang to Moscow, the two furthest apart neighbouring capital cities in the world. This non-stop service is available exclusively for the North Koreans, so I did the next best thing – an even longer trip from Pyongyang to St Petersburg with stops in Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, Irkutsk and Moscow.

Catching the train in Pyongyang

Catching the train in Pyongyang

Starting at the mysterious Pyongyang Station, I boarded a train with a group of new friends I had made travelling around North Korea. , staying in a little cabin on one of the carriages, the train pulled out of the Pyongyang Station heading through the city’s northern suburbs, passing the mammoth glass cone the Ryugyong Hotel out into the countryside.

Ryugyong Hotel

Ryugyong Hotel

The countryside of North Korea is mostly rice paddy fields and paddocks of maize, nestled beneath jagged hills. Here the land is farmed using the most traditional means, with hardly a tractor or other machine about. The paddy fields had numerous wading birds resting on their migratory journey between Siberia and Australasia, this shores of the eastern side of Korea Bay having the only remaining unspoilt wetlands along the Eastern Asia coastline.

Rice fields in North Korea

Rice fields in North Korea

Occasionally we would pass through a small town of dilapidated apartment blocks built during socialist times. These blocks stood in the smaller valleys between the steep hills. In each village, many people travelled riding bicycles. There were no cars.

Rural apartments in North Korea

Rural apartments in North Korea

Eventually we reached Sinuiju, the border town on the banks of the Yalu River marking the border between North Korea and China. The train stopped to be boarded by numerous Korean customs officials wearing their immaculate silk uniforms providing one last hint of a country still at war over its southern neighbour in the otherwise forgotten battle between communism and capitalism.

Farm in North Korea

Farm in North Korea

With immigration procedures completed the train limped across the bridge over the Yalu River into the modern Chinese city of Dandong, projecting us forward in time from the 1950s to the 2010s.

Crossing Yalu River into China

Crossing Yalu River into China

Upon crossing the river. we stopped at the large boxy Dandong Station. Here we underwent even more rigorous immigration procedures with the Chinese customs officials. China is North Korea’s only friendly trading partner, where coal and precious noble metals used in the manufacture of mobile phones and other computers are still imported from the mineral rich mountains of North Korea.

Dandong

Dandong

The sun was setting just as we left Dandong on a crowded train with six bunks to a carriage. Fortunately, I had a bottom bunk. The train rode through the night negotiating its way through the rolling hills of Manchuria, occasionally stopping at some of the many substantially sized cities.

Approaching Beijing

Approaching Beijing

The sun rose bright orange through a sickly smog as we passed city after city along a spaghetti network of railway tracks until eventually reaching Beijing at midday. Here I would stay for a few days before catching my next train.

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I returned to the very crowded and dark Beijing Station, entering through the ticket gate (my Beijing guide had given me my pre-booked ticket). From here on I was travelling alone, no longer with the group I had travelled North Korea with. After a short wait in the dark departure hall my train to Ulaanbaatar arrived.

Trans-Mongolian train at Beijing

Trans-Mongolian train at Beijing

I climbed on board finding my cabin which I shared with one other person who had been teaching English in a nearby city for the past four years and was on his way home to London. There were a couple of other people in the entire carriage, but it was very quiet compared to the crowded carriage I had travelled to Beijing in from Dandong. The dining car was twelve carriages behind us making for a long walk through the train.

Smoggy mountains out of Beijing

Smoggy mountains out of Beijing

The train set off from Beijing heading through the smoggy city until the buildings gave way to spectacular craggy mountains. Tiny farms perched on the small terraces through the deep gorges where the train cut through, passing through many tunnels.

Mountains in China

Mountains in China

After several hours passing through these mountains, the smog began to clear and the mountains lowered to low rolling hills at the start of the plains of Inner Mongolia. The sun quickly set to a spectacular sunset over the approaching Gobi Desert.

Sunset approaching the Gobi

Sunset approaching the Gobi

Following several hours of sleep the train stopped. We had reached the border at the end of China. Chinese immigration officials arrived on board to collect our passports and alien cards.

Dining car on the train

Dining car on the train

Following the somewhat lengthy but straightforward immigration process, the train shunted a few hundred metres into a huge workshop where each carriage was lifted on enormous jacks. The narrow-gauge bogies were replaced with new ones for the wider track used throughout Mongolia and Russia. The Russians had deliberately used a wider gauge than China railway to hinder invasions.

Changing the bogies at border

Changing the bogies at border

With the new bogies installed, the carriages were reassembled and shunted up to the next station with a slow and rigorous immigration procedure into Mongolia, although the officials were very friendly.

Sunrise in the Gobi Desert

Sunrise in the Gobi Desert

With the immigration procedures done, the train shunted up to the next station where it sat until almost sunrise to be attached to a new engine heading across the Gobi Desert into Ulaanbaatar.

Station in the middle of the desert

Station in the middle of the desert

It was a long crossing over the arid flat plains of the Gobi Desert. The plateau was elevated at over 1500 metres above sea level and completely uninhabited apart from the occasional village and nomadic farmers with their herds of horses and two-hump camels. Their homes were small white canvas ger tents, easily portable when the scant grass runs out forcing them to move.

Farm on the Gobi Desert

Farm on the Gobi Desert

The sunny skies eventually covered with cloud, and in the late afternoon the train began winding down a small gully which turned into a huge valley with the first river I had seen since late yesterday.

Outskirts of Ulaanbaatar

Outskirts of Ulaanbaatar

Ahead were the brightly coloured houses of Ulaanbaatar, filling the valley. We arrived at the large station in the middle of the surprisingly modern city. Here I stayed for a couple of days.

                          ---

The sun was setting in a brilliant array of colour as I caught the train from Ulaanbaatar on the next leg of the journey.

Catching the train in Ulaanbaatar

Catching the train in Ulaanbaatar

Sharing a cabin with a guy travelling around the world, but had been stuck in Ulaanbaatar for two weeks whilst organising a Russian visa. I had organised all my visas in advance to save the trouble of delays. Through the night, it headed through Northern Mongolia before eventually reaching the border in the small hours of the morning. There we were checked out of Mongolia and the carriages shunted a short distance where it sat for several hours before being shunted into the border checkpoint for Russia.

River at the Russian border

River at the Russian border

Several gruff Russian officials boarded the train taking our passports and thoroughly checking through the cabins making sure there were no stowaways or anything illegally entering the country. Although less than a third of the way across Eurasia, this was my final border crossing. Russia is by far the largest country on Earth.

Remote farm house in Siberia

Remote farm house in Siberia

The overcast conditions gradually cleared as we continued following the same river we had followed all the way from Ulaanbaatar along a wide glacial valley. The grass and deciduous trees were brilliant golds and orange colours of the autumn. Although there was no snow here yet, it was obvious the long harsh Siberian winter will be starting soon.

Lakeside house

Lakeside house

The river flowed into a large lake, with an industrial city just visible at the far end. The train passed the side of the pristine lake as the sun sank low in the sky. It was almost dark when we reached the town at the far end.

Power station

Power station

Overnight the train continued northwards until reaching the shores of Lake Baikal, the world’s most voluminous lake containing almost 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. It is also the oldest and deepest lake in the world at over 1600 metres deep.

Sunrise near Irkutsk

Sunrise near Irkutsk

From the shores of Lake Baikal we headed inland following an old valley to bring us a misty sunrise now on the Trans-Siberian railway stretching all the way across from Moscow to Vladivostok. This section of railway from Irkutsk around Lake Baikal around to Ulan Ude was the oldest part of the railway, built 100 years ago in 1916. About half an hour after sunrise we arrived in the large industrial city of Irkutsk. Remotely set in the middle of Siberia, the station and city had a distinctly European feel to it, having the reputation of being the Paris of the East.

                          ---

After staying a couple of days in Irkutsk and on the shores of Lake Baikal, I returned to Irkutsk Station to catch another train across the Tran-Siberian route on the longest leg across to Moscow, over 5100 kilometres and five time zones away.

Irkutsk Station

Irkutsk Station

Unlike the trains across the Trans Mongolian route, this train was quite crowded, but fortunately I was in a reasonably comfortable four-berth carriage. The sun set not long after leaving Irkutsk so despite the crowded conditions, I slept very well as I had done on every night so far.

Catching the Trans-Siberian train

Catching the Trans-Siberian train

The following day was marked with low hills covered in pine trees and silver birch trees with leaves yellow with the Autumn fall. I took the time to explore the carriages seeing the very crowded six berth per cabin carriages along the back half of the train and the bright green dining car near the front dividing the four berth cabins from the first class two berth cabins in the front of the train.

Sunrise in Siberia

Sunrise in Siberia

Occasionally a road would cross the tracks. At each road crossing was a small manned building where a controller could look out for trains and manually operate the bells. This included a large plate of steel that would angle itself upwards away from the tracks. Anyone silly enough to try to drive across would have their cars abruptly stopped against these lethal stops. It would also stop any vehicles from drifting onto the tracks to be hit by the trains.

Signal crossing

Signal crossing

Looking out the window I followed the white signposts indicating the number of kilometres from Moscow. I had seen these since crossing the border from Mongolia. The track has a signpost every kilometre marking the number of kilometres from Moscow, and in between each signpost were round markers labelled 1 to 9, so I could quickly determine how far away from Moscow we were, down to the nearest hundred metres.

Krasnoyarsk

Krasnoyarsk

A brilliant sunset marked the end of the day, so we all turned in once more for a good night’s sleep again.

Inside the carriage

Inside the carriage

The following morning heading across the western side of Siberia, the land was quite flat, and although much of it was covered with pine and silver birch forests, the ground here was obviously a lot swampier with small lakes spread out over the plains. The water would have been cold and within weeks they will be freezing solid for the long winter.

Omsk Station

Omsk Station

In the middle of the morning the train stopped at the city of Omsk where the family staying in our cabin left, leaving just two of us there for the rest of the trip, apart from the occasional railway worker who could come on board, climb up onto the bunk and sleep their way through the journey. It made for a much quieter cabin today.

Endless railway and birch trees

Endless railway and birch trees

Overhead were the occasional vapour trails of planes flying across Russia. The sunset was magnificent with bright orange vapour trails converging on a point to the west where Moscow would be located.

A town in Siberia

A town in Siberia

The days crossing Russia were about 25 hours long as we were travelling westward with the direction of the sun. To save confusion, the entire railway network was running on Moscow time.

Sunset behind jet trails

Sunset behind jet trails

Overnight we crossed over the almost non-existent Ural mountains leaving Asia and entering the European continent. Heading through the Volga the countryside was quite hilly. The sky was overcast today with some rain falling. A railway worker who had come on board in a city overnight spoke quite good English, so I was finally able to talk after having spent the trip so far with very limited communication with the locals who spoke very little English and me very little Russian.

Forest in the Volga

Forest in the Volga

In the late afternoon the sun came out through the clouds giving the best photography I’ve had so far since leaving Irkutsk three days ago. Once more the sun set ahead of us ready for another long night.

Final sunset on the train

Final sunset on the train

The train arrived in Moscow precisely on schedule at 4:11 AM, very impressive for an 89 hour journey across the country. In the cold darkness of the early morning, we all clambered out of the train with our luggage and shuffled into the terminal.

                          ---

Following a couple of days in Moscow, I caught the last long-distance train towards St Petersburg late in the evening close to midnight. Although this was a long-distance service, the final journey would only be 630 kilometres, very short considering the past three legs.

Station in Moscow

Station in Moscow

This train was very modern and in far better condition than any of the other trains I had caught. I shared the four-berth cabin with two corporate workers who were both based in St Petersburg and had been to Moscow for the day for meetings for their respective companies. They explained it was easier and cheaper for them to do the trip by train than by flying.

St Petersburg train

St Petersburg train

We all turned in for the night, waking up at sunrise for a provided breakfast heading across the leafy plains before arriving into St Petersburg about an hour later.

St Petersburg Station

St Petersburg Station

It was a relief to reach the old railway station after nearly three weeks having completed the extensive 9700 kilometre journey, almost a quarter of the way around the world, entirely by rail from Pyongyang to St Petersburg.

 
 
 

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