Easy enough to organise– but not without surprises
The problem of the best way to put together a visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and to then be in the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for the 100th Anniversary of the Great October Russian Revolution seemed to have been solved when the option of taking the train from Pyongyang – the capital of the DPRK – direct to Moscow – the capital of the former Socialist country – was presented to me.
At first the arrangement seemed fairly straightforward. Instead of heading back to China at the end of the 11 Day Party Foundation Tour (which I had initially considered) I would now say my farewells to the group as I headed for the railway station in the centre of Pyongyang as they headed off to the airport for a relatively short flight to Beijing. My journey was going to be far from ‘short’ – the first stage (from Pyongyang to the biggest city in the north-east of the country, Rajin) would take 33 hours but I wasn’t in any real hurry (there being the best part of three weeks before the anniversary of the Revolution on the 7th November).
Matters started to get confusing as soon as I started to confirm my travel arrangements. It didn’t help in understanding the situation when the people I was dealing with didn’t seem to fully understand the situation either – the travel company in Berlin as well as those who worked at the Korea International Travel Company (KITC) in Pyongyang. It may be useful to remind readers here that independent travel to the DPRK is not an option and some officially recognised intermediary is a necessity.
Although slightly frustrating, as it wasn’t until I was actually in the country that I got to know my exact itinerary, it did have its plus side. People didn’t know what the situation was as not many people had actually made this journey before and they were making statements based upon what could, theoretically, be done without having a lot of actual practice to back it up. Though not a trail-blazer I very soon realised (and learnt even more so as I progressed along the almost 10,000 kilometre journey) that I wasn’t following in many others’ footsteps.
The ‘problem’ arose as it seemed to be impossible to get an exact date from Pyongyang until a matter of a week or so before departure. The date for the departure from Tumangang (the last station of the DPRK side of the border with Russia) was fixed in stone. On the other hand departures from Pyongyang seemed to be quite flexible. I couldn’t understand this as the ‘reason’ that ‘they do things differently’ in another country doesn’t make sense when it goes against all logic, especially when it comes to train timetables. After all it was around rail transport that time took on a different meaning during the Industrial Revolution in Britain, from the early part of the 19th century onwards.
The other issue with being a foreign tourist was that although the train that I eventually took from Pyongyang would go through to the terminus at Tumangang I had to get off in the city of Rajin, spend a night there and then get taken to the border station by road the next day – in order to make a late afternoon border crossing.
As an aside here I’ll comment on how information is transmitted by the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America to foreign tourists when the people giving the ‘information’ don’t have any idea of what the actual situation might be. Anyone who has travelled extensively in any of those parts of the world would have invariably come across similar situations at various times. The consequence of this is that the information that is imparted has little more practical value than what could be found in a novel.
I must stress here that the ‘information’ that is given is not passed on with any malice. What happens is that they a) don’t want to say they don’t know and b) don’t want the foreigner to leave with nothing. The theory seems to be that something, however inaccurate, is better than nothing. This meant that I received, in an authoritative tone, all kinds of answers to my questions that bore no relationship to actual reality.
In the context of the proposed journey of nine or ten days on a train there is another factor that has to be taken into account. Although not directly stated by the people I dealt with in Pyongyang they definitely thought that someone who would choose to travel all the way from Pyongyang to Moscow on a train – when they could take a flight that would take fewer hours than the train takes in days – must be crazy. People who have little chance of travelling to and from such places are probably even more bemused.
Although many people, more often than not those who have never (and don’t intend to) set foot in the DPRK write and talk about not being able to travel without being accompanied by local guides having them with you does make life an awful lot easier. The main Pyongyang Railway station was only a matter of a couple of hundred metres from my hotel, the Koryo, but on the day of departure I was collected and driven there in the mini bus that had been ‘mine’ for the three days I had had a private tour.
Tipping in Socialist Countries
Before leaving the mini-bus for the last time there was a ritual that had to be gone through and that was the tipping of the driver. This is something that is being expected in China, as well as the DPRK, as foreign tourism becomes more popular. This is expected to be paid in either Chinese Yuan or Euros (US dollars aren’t welcomed) and is one of those aspects of tourism in what are supposed to be Socialist countries which has been problematic for a long time.
Working with foreigners where, for example, meals are taken in westernised ‘Korean’ restaurants, beyond the means of many local people, a small group of a few hundred people in Pyongyang live a different life-style from their compatriots. Getting from 5-10 Euros per day from each member of the group (which is the recommended amount from virtually all the travel companies I investigated before booking my trip) means that they can, in theory, receive an income far in excess of that of the other people in their country who do much more important, useful and worthwhile jobs than cater for a bunch of over-privileged foreigners, some of whom (though by no means all) are there to find fault with as much as possible in order to return home with their ‘horror’ stories.
Unfortunately, nothing has been learnt from the experience of the Beryozka stores in the Revisionist Soviet Union where goods could only be paid for in foreign currency. In 1973 I had the experience of witnessing the guide for the group of which I was a member pulling out a roll of various European and North American currencies, which she had obviously saved up over a period of time, to take advantage of the luxury foreign-made goods that were not available in normal shops and to the vast majority of the population. The existence of such places is an anathema to Socialism and only served to perpetuate inequality and breeds corruption. I’m not aware of an equivalent shopping situation in the DPRK (although there are supermarkets in Pyongyang that will accept Chinese Yuan and Euros) but foreign currencies in the hands of a select few can only but be a cause for concern.
On top of that potential of undermining any development towards Socialism there is also the question of what role tipping should have in a society claiming to be constructing Socialism. Tipping under capitalism is used to supplement poor wages and employers use them as an excuse to pay less than the rate for the job. Any country that claims to be building any version of Socialism – as the DPRK does with its Juche variety – should outlaw tipping, considering the practice one that comes from a class divided society and the giving of which insults the worker.
But when you are at the mercy of such an arrangement it becomes churlish to not participate.
At the station there was a steady stream of people going in through the main entrance but myself and the two guides went through a door (at the left hand side of the station façade) that looked like an entrance to an office. This was the door that foreigners have to use and so we ‘jumped the queue’. I wasn’t aware that anyone really controlled that entrance but the way it was set up inside it appeared as if it was also the entrance for those who were travelling in the soft sleepers – what would be the equivalent of ‘first class’ on other rail systems. My guides had to sort out a platform ticket (so they could get out again when the train left) and no more than three or four minutes after arriving at the station we were standing on the platform.
On the platform things looked chaotic around the last carriage of the train – my soft sleeper. This was due to the fact that there were many more people seeing off friends and relations than were actually travelling – when the train did move off the carriage was far from full.
The taking of photos in the DPRK is not as restrictive as many would have you believe but a foreign tourist is always at the whim of their guides and although the two young women who had been my guides for the last three days of my trip to the country were friendly, approachable and efficient they also had an attitude of not allowing me to impose of their fellow countrymen and women.
Although I would liked to have taken a few more pictures of the station to record an impression of what it’s like in preparation for a long distance train journey in the country I do respect the idea that some people might not like having a camera pointed at them to satisfy the whims of someone from the other side of the world. In my photography in the countries I have had the chance to visit I tend to concentrate on things rather than people – not being a person who is too happy to be the subject of another’s photo myself. And anyway, the single picture I did take, of the destination board on the side of the carriage, was later deleted by the immigration police before I left the country to cross over to Russia from Tumangang – but, again, more of that later.
The journey of 10,000 kilometres starts with the first turn of the wheel
The train departed at 07.50 on the dot and worked its way through the centre of Pyongyang, passing many of the places I had visited in my 11 day trip. The train never gathered anything like the speed of trains in Europe, not least because it was a single track for much of the way and of a narrower gauge than that used in the west. This made for a more interesting journey as life outside the train didn’t go by in flash and it was possible to see much of what was taking place in different parts of the countryside. Most tours to the DPRK will take in some places outside of Pyongyang but seeing the world from the window of a mini-bus is very different from the window of a train.
(I didn’t have the information with me at the time but anyone planning this journey might find it useful to copy the relevant information about the route and the stopping stations from this website. At a speed of (very roughly 25 km per hour) you can make a guess of the station or have something to show local people to get confirmation. So many times in life ‘if we only knew then what we know now’.)
Meeting the ‘locals’
Much is made in the ‘west’ about the fact that foreigners don’t have the opportunity to meet and talk with local people when travelling in the DPRK. If these are ordinary people who are just regurgitating the pap fed to them by the capitalist media they are very often the same sort of people who go on holiday to southern Europe (here I’m talking about people from the UK) and stay in resorts where the only contact they have with the ‘locals’ is in a bar or restaurant – or even worse stay at ‘all inclusive’ holiday resorts where they never leave the complex. In a way that makes sense. They don’t go into areas with which they are unfamiliar and where they can’t be understood (most English depending upon the ‘locals’ to speak English, in whatever part of the globe they might be visiting) because they will be like fish out of water. However, when it is not permitted all of a sudden it’s something they must do or their ‘freedom’ is being limited.
If they are arrogant journalists like the BBC’s Rupert Winfield-Hayes they want to go where they are asked not to go because being part of the BBC they think they have the right to do whatever they want, wherever they want to do it. He was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016 when in the country filming for an episode of the BBC news programme ‘Panorama’. I like to think that the DPRK security forces arrested him for a joke, just to put the fear of God up him. He was such an ineffectual prick he could have done little harm.
However, there is one way that a visiting tourist can get to ‘know’ the locals and that’s by travelling on trains. Again, the travel options, at present, are limited (the route from Dandong in China and this route to the Rason area) but there’s every opportunity to meet people from the country with no one there to oversee the conversation. On the journey into the country we (I was travelling with my brother on that part of the journey) got into a conversation with someone returning home after a trip in China. He had a bit of English and the conversation was the sort you normally have on such occasions, more passing the time of day than an interrogation about conditions of life within the country. Any more than that and you go outside what is considered the norm in any country. What would the British think if every time they met someone from Europe they were asked to justify their stance on the European referendum, whatever side they took?
When you are travelling in another country there’s no sense in creating conflict with someone you don’t know, when you will only be in their company for a very short time and will almost certainly never meet again. Not least because anywhere in the world you won’t get any controversial information from someone who doesn’t know you. It takes time for people to develop trust and a train journey, or a chance encounter in a street, does not allow that trust time to develop.
You pass the time of day, possibly share a drink (as we did on the way to Pyongyang) and part wishing each other all the best.
If that’s what you wish to do when travelling then a long, overnight train journey is as good a place as any to start.