desktop view

 

| Travel Diary | Countries |
| Blogs | Superblogs | Treks |

 

Home > Blogs > North Korea > 187

previousNext
 
 
 
 

Arriving in North Korea

Arriving in North Korea
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Date:
Location:
Country:
Latitude:
Longitude:
Altitude:
05 September 2016
Dandong - Pyongyang
North Korea
40°N
125°E
5 - 90m ASL
Google Maps Link
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

FOLLOWING an overnight journey through the foggy countryside of Manchurian China, the train arrived in the eastern city of Dandong.

Misty highrises of Dandong

Misty highrises of Dandong

I had just enough time in Dandong to see the square with the large statue of Mao Zedong, before re-joining my group at the train station for what was going to be a rather unique border crossing into the world’s most secretive country.

It seems common perception that the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea is extremely difficult to get into. That wasn’t my experience. Sure there are heavy restrictions, one of which requires you have to be part of a tour group closely supervised by Korean guides on a government approved tour. You can’t rock up at the border as an independent traveller and go in by yourself.

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong

There are a number of reputable tour companies which you can join. All you need to do is sign up for one of their tours, pay for it, provide the tour company with usual details requested at immigration, and a passport photo and a copy of your passport, and they organise all of the immigration for you.

The other restriction involves the transport you get into and out of the DPRK. At the time you could only catch the train or fly in from Beijing. If you were travelling on a USA passport the train isn’t an option. Some of our group were from the USA so they will be flying in this afternoon and we will meet them when we arrive.

Front of DPRK visa

Front of DPRK visa

At yesterday’s briefing in the middle of Beijing, we were provided with our visas. Now most countries will stamp or print your visa into your passport. DPRK does it differently. They give you a blue piece of paper folded up to insert into your passport (although it is a little larger than your passport which is a bit annoying). On the front it has “Tourist Card”.

Inside of DPRK visa

Inside of DPRK visa

Inside is the photo you provided and your details written in Korean. On the back is a map of Korea – both North and South shown as a single country. Apparently the North Koreans don’t recognise South Korea as a different country and believe the American invaders posted at the DMZ are preventing the north and south reunifying. I think both sides want to reunify, but each side has very different ideas how this should happen.

caption

Back of DPRK visa

We entered the chaos of the Dandong Station and headed upstairs to the international customs area carrying our bags and tickets through the rather chaotic immigration procedures handing in my “Alien card”. This is the Chinese exit card with my immigration details and instructions at the back referring to international visitors as “aliens” giving the card its name. Finally I reached a booth where the Chinese guy at the counter took my passport, checked it was me, handed back my DPRK tourist card then sent me on my way to the waiting area without my passport.

caption

Chinese alien card

After about an hour the train heading to Pyongyang was ready to board. An official arrived with our passports open and stacked one by one in a huge pile. Over the next half hour he gave them out to everyone entering the carriage we were taking. They were all open to the photo page making it a bit easier for him to hand out to the right people in the scrum that had formed around him. Now for some reason we were in a standing carriage – even more crowded than the overnight train, but my Western leader said we would transfer to the next carriage once we had been cleared in Korea.

Platform at Dandong Station

Platform at Dandong Station

The carriage was packed with ourselves, a few other travellers joining another tour group, and a surprisingly large number of Koreans who were returning from a trip in Mongolia, clearly on some government approved business. I would later find out that Koreans are not allowed to move around different parts of their own country, let alone leave it, without government approval.

I did find a seat along the corridor beside the window. It was very tightly packed but somehow we all fitted in with seats. The train started chugging along the tracks at a mournfully slow speed crossing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge over the Yalu River, the border between the two countries. On one side were the towering high rises of Dandong, on the other side were the relatively primitive low rise buildings of Sinuiju, our first port of call in Korea.

Part of The Broken Bridge

Part of The Broken Bridge

The chunky steel railway bridge built by the Japanese during their occupation in the 1930s and 40s headed across the muddy river. Next to it just sixty metres downstream was an older bridge extending only half way across the river on the Chinese side. Both were destroyed during the Korean war in the early 1950s, but only the one we were travelling on was repaired and put back to use The older bridge has been renamed “The Broken Bridge”, and is only used by Chinese fishermen these days.

After what seemed like an eternity the train reached the other side of the river and drew to a stop in a large covered platform. The steel roof standing very high with a smallish station building with the images of President Kim Il Sung and his son General Kim Jong Il prominently engraved keeping eternal watch over their people.

Yalu River at China/DPRK border

Yalu River at China/DPRK border

Numerous people in army uniform suddenly appeared out of the station, with several boarding each carriage. There were both men and women all dressed in army uniform. They were of short stature, it is said North Koreans are several centimetres shorter than their southern counterparts. They were all of slim build and their uniforms were immaculate, made of a very high quality material with not a thread out of place as a display of the pride in their country. Each were wearing two pins one of each of their past leaders immortalised over their hearts. That being said I noticed the Korean passengers were wearing the same pins, it seems to be part of their unique culture here.

Inside the train

Inside the train

One soldier took our passports and tourist cards and returned to the building to process them. We also gave them separate immigration sheets with all the questions written in Korean – fortunately one of the guys in my group was South Korean (travelling on a Canadian passport) who was entering the country for the third time, so he helped me and a few others in my group fill it in. It just had the usual details.

Fortunately the border was open. Often it closes almost without warning. When the Ebola virus struck in western Africa a couple of years ago, the borders into North Korea were shut for several months. They also sometimes deny entry to citizens of countries whose leaders publicly criticise North Korea. Fortunately there wasn’t any serious illness going around the world today and thankfully our leaders hadn’t made too many comments to upset the regime of late.

caption

Sinuiju suburbia

Whilst our passports were being processed, several soldiers came on board to do the quarantine inspection. Amongst other things they checked our cameras. Although there is a common outside perception that photography isn’t allowed, that is not at all true, but there are a few restrictions. You can’t use GPS-enabled cameras nor can you bring in telephoto lenses over 250mm. The camera I brought in does support GPS but needs a separate accessory attached to it to make it work. The soldier checking the cameras went through the menus ensuring there wasn’t functioning GPS, and checked the size of the lenses before nodding and moving on. Another soldier checked literature. Religious books are forbidden and he was asking if we had bibles. No we didn’t. The locals can be executed for having a Christian bible so any religious material is a big no no. They also don’t allow travel books about the DPRK written outside the country, and they seriously frown upon any form of pornography. They did a quick search through our bags (much easier said than done in such a crowded train, so they only looked at the tops half of our bags), but we all passed okay. Another soldier came through checking over us with a metal detector. They were all very nice and friendly though, certainly not uncourteous like the Chinese or (as I’d later find out) unfriendly like the Russians.

Mountainous countryside

Mountainous countryside

Interestingly the soldiers were relatively lenient on us tourists, but with the locals returning from Mongolia, they went through everything, taking quite a long time. There was a lady going up and down the platform with a cart of drinks to sell, but everyone was too busy going through quarantine.

Eventually the officials came out of the station with the piles of passports and proceeded to go through the carriage handing them all back to us. Now we were officially in the country – the most secretive nation on Earth cut off from the rest of the world.

Taeryong River

Taeryong River

From here contact with the outside world will be very limited. Internet access is almost non-existent. Being caught trying to use wifi would result in a $US1500 fine. It is possible to send e-mails from the major hotels in Pyongyang at great expense and the hotel staff read through it to ensure there was nothing hostile in the content. Phone calls were possible from some of the hotels as well, but again they were very closely monitored and extortionately expensive.

We collected our bags and headed out onto the platform and into the next carriage where we had our own room. It was of a slightly better standard than the overnight train we had taken, and a lot better than the carriage we had just been in.

Farming cooperative village

Farming cooperative village

Over the following hours we passed through the vast maize fields of North Korea, along the plains and valleys between the coast of Korea Bay unseen and the rolling green mountains with steep pinnacle summits creating the broad backbone of the country. The countryside was much quieter and more scenic than the industrial chaos of China. Almost all work here was done by hand – no tractors or other machinery. Occasionally we would pass through towns of apartment blocks or single storey houses all looking rather dilapidated having been built in a time when the country was largely supported by the Soviet Union before its collapse in the early 1990s. There were lots of people walking and riding bikes along the dusty roads through the towns, but there were very few cars.

Fields nearly ready for harvest

Fields nearly ready for harvest

Eventually as the sun was getting low in the horizon, I could see the distinctive triangle of what my tour leader called “The Rocket”. It was the 105 storey Ryugyong Hotel towering high above the rest of the city, now covered in, but sitting unfinished as an eerie reminder of the collapse of the Soviet Union – it’s funding source.

Upon passing the magnificent tower the train penetrated into the heart of Pyongyang until pulling up at the busy Pyongyang Station.

Sun drawing low

Sun drawing low

Here we were very warmly greeted by our two Korean guides who were wearing the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lapels. Speaking excellent fluent English of a far higher standard than I would have expected in such an isolated country, they whisked our group through the station out into the heart of the city. At this point I’ll mention that at no point in these blogs will I identify either my Korean or Western guides as anything I say here the DPRK government doesn’t like could very well get them into a lot of trouble.

Coming out of the front of the station loud speakers from the top of the building were playing very nice choral music with angelic singing. This was in stark contrast to the random chaos outside the Beijing and Dandong railway stations. This was for me the first hint of North Korea’s uniquely fascinating culture.

Ryugyong Hotel

Ryugyong Hotel

Normally I research a country as much as possible before arriving. North Korea was an exception to this rule. I knew that outside perceptions of this country weren’t exactly positive, so I steered away from doing any research, and at the time I hadn’t been watching television for several years. I wanted to come here with a completely open mind to discover this mysterious country from the inside out.

We were led onto a surprisingly nice bus. I had been psyching myself up for really roughing it here in North Korea, so was pleasantly surprised with the luxury. Some of the seats were already occupied by the rest of the group who had been picked up from the airport an hour or so ago. Fortunately the bus was big enough, and the group small enough, for everyone to have their own window seat.

Pyongyang Station

Pyongyang Station

We headed through the city as the sun set in the orange sky, reaching the base of a hill where we stopped. Our Korean guides took us through a park, mostly cobbled with large cobblestones and having several very large fountains. In the background surrounding these were large stone government buildings. This could have been like any other city, but one impression I quickly got was the cleanliness of Pyongyang. There wasn’t any trace of litter and everything was perfectly in place. I have never seen a city like this before. It was polar opposite to Beijing.

Sunset in Pyongyang

Sunset in Pyongyang

Following a quick tour around the fountains, we reached two huge images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the founder of DPRK and his successor. They were mozaics of ceramic and set with very well-manicured gardens around them.

From there we walked up the hill where we purchased a large bunch of flowers each for five Euros. We then took the bus to the top of Mansu Hill as the sky started to grow dark.

Fountain

Fountain

We walked up the last section along a wide stone path with hidden speakers playing soft symphonic band music, leading us to a huge marble platform where the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stood. I had seen pictures of these before but never realised the enormity of them. We were instructed to form three rows, then carry our flowers to the base of the statues, then return to a point and bow before them.

Upon approaching the statues I realised just how massive they were. They towered twenty two metres high, very impressive especially as Kim Jong Il only stood 160 centimetres high in real life, being one of the shortest heads of state in recent history. The huge bronze statues stood massively against the darkening sky with the crescent moon above them. Their reverence was emphasised by the solemn symphonic music being softly played through the hidden sound system. Behind the statues stood a huge ceramic mural of Mount Paektu, Korea’s highest and most sacred mountain, a large dormant volcano considered a holy place where Kim Jong Il was supposedly born (actually he was born in Siberia).

Mosaics of the leaders

Mosaics of the leaders

We placed our bunches of flowers amongst large numbers of other fresh bunches of flowers placed here in recent hours before returning to the middle of the platform and did a solemn bow, as we would at the statues of every city we would visit on this tour.

Surrounding the statues on either side were large five metre high statues of Korean soldiers going forth to conquer the Americans, their mortal enemy. Some distance away stood the Chollima (Pegasus) Statue standing as a symbol of the speed and perseverance of North Korea’s workers.

In front of the huge statues

In front of the huge statues

Although we were just going with the flow doing this for the show, during my time exploring Korea I would discover this was a very unique culture, still a very communist state when most other communist countries have moved on to a capitalistic model. Whilst no religion is allowed in the country, they worship their leaders, particularly President Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country whom they consider to be their god. Upon the president’s death in 1994, the leadership was passed to his son Kim Jong Il, and upon his passing in 2012, has been passed to his son Kim Jong Un. Although Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un are worshipped, it is the Great Leader, the eternal president Kim Il Sung who is most revered.

In our Western Culture, worshipping our leaders as gods is a completely alien concept. In Australia we have come to absolutely despise our leaders, fuelled largely by the Rupert Murdoch (and co.) propaganda media we are constantly fed. A combination of the propaganda and our small poppy syndrome problem largely contributes to Australia's almost annual turnover of Prime Ministers. If our apparent hatred towards our leaders sits at one end of the spectrum, then the DPRK’s worship of their leaders surely lies right at the other extreme.

Mansu Hill

Mansu Hill

This culture shock was going to take quite some getting used to over the following week as we were going to explore this mysterious country isolated from the rest of the world.

 
 
 

previousNext

 
 
 
 
Home
 
| Travel Diary | Countries |
| Blogs | Superblogs | Treks |
 
Who is Walkabout Jeff?
 
Follow Walkabout Jeff
 

© walkaboutjeff.com

Copyright - Disclaimer