Pyongyang to Moscow by train – with comments and observations along the way – Part 1

National Reunification

National Reunification

Pyongyang-Rajin

Easy enough to organisebut 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.

Pyongyang Station

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.

Next

The ‘East is Red Square’ Nanjiecun

The East is Red Square, Nanjiecun

The East is Red Square, Nanjiecun

Nanjiecun (South Street Village) is in Linying County, Henan Province in the central part of the People’s Republic of China. What makes this place special (with a population of no more than 13,000 people) is the fame it has achieved as being ‘the last Maoist Commune in China.’ 

Whether it’s really possible for such a small place to maintain a Socialist Revolution is more than questionable, having to depend upon both loans from the Chinese capitalist banks as well as external, Japanese, investment. It can really be no more than a tolerated anomaly, a curiosity or a tourist theme park. If it ever posed a threat to the present day ‘capitalist roaders’ in Beijing then Nanjiecun would be crushed, both literally and figuratively, out of existence. 

The fact that Nanjiecun exists (as does the politics and the actions of its people in the village of Marinaleda, in southern Spain) only goes to show the limitations of a small group of people attempting to build something better in a huge ocean of exploitation and oppression. Their efforts may be applauded and, at times, admired but we should never forget that to extend such ‘experiments’ demands the destruction of the present capitalist structure and until that is achieved (on a long-term, multi-generational basis) all is but chimera.

However, the merits or otherwise of Nanjiecun are not the subject of this post. A proper analysis of what has happened there – and why only there – since the destruction of Socialism in China would need a thorough study to understand why the Chinese people, in general, have rejected a past where the potential for the betterment of all has been rejected for the benefit and advancement of a relatively few corrupt thieves who are now some of the richest people int he world. It would also require a proper analysis of how we actually measure ‘poverty’. Capitalist standards are only concerned with ‘things’ and not the, sometimes, financially unquantifiable social capital that Socialism brings – the ‘iron rice bowl’ in the Chinese context.

No, this post is concerned with a single area of this present day commune – The East is Red Square.

In the Socialist societies in Europe (including the Soviet Union) the Communist Parties sought to commemorate the revolutionary past (and present) with statues. (One of the fallen statues, of Frederick Engels, from the Ukraine has even been recently installed anew in Manchester.) This preponderance of statues was not the case – at least to the same extent – in China. Yes, there were innumerable posters of Chairman Mao and his image was everywhere, on posters, in paintings and on the badges worn by most of the population. However, statues as such were relatively few. This means that when a statue has been installed – at the same time as the renegades within the Communist Party of China are going further and further away from Chairman Mao’s ideas – there’s always a story behind the decision, although sometimes that story might be difficult to find.

The large statue of Chairman Mao in front of the railway station in Dandong (the principal border crossing point between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a case in point. So far I have failed to find out any information of why or when.

The situation is clearer in Nanjiecun.

The people in the village decided to reject and roll back the ‘de-collectivisation’ and privatisation that was becoming the norm in China with Deng Xiaoping’s claim that ‘to get rich is glorious’. Selfishness, that had been challenged in the years following Mao’s declaration of the People’s Republic in 1949, was turned into a virtue and the predominantly peasant population of the country fell back into the insularity and individuality of their backward, pre-revolutionary, rural culture. 

Nanjiecun’s ‘experiment’ must have been relatively successful in the 1980s as there was enough surplus for them to pay for the installation of a large statue of Chairman Mao in what is now known as ‘The East is Red Square’. The statue was erected in 1993 and I assume it was inaugurated on the 26th December – the centenary of Chairman Mao’s birth.

At some time in the next decade the four large portraits of the ‘greats’ of Marxism-Leninism – Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Joseph Stalin – were added to the monumentality of the square. (I, personally, would have added a fifth – Enver Hoxha of Albania – but I know a number of Maoists would not agree.)

There’s always a potential problem when it comes to Socialist art – nuance can be everything. To give an idea of how this is an issue I’ll refer to capitalist commentators who can ‘see’ subversion in a painting or a musical score produced in the Soviet Union that went unnoticed by the authorities (i.e., the ‘intellectuals’ were too clever for the ‘stupid’ Communists) only seconds after arguing that art is ‘apolitical’ and that capitalist art doesn’t aim to perpetuate the system. It’s not their analysis I dislike and detest – it’s their crass hypocrisy

I’ve always argued that art IS political and so it’s valid to critically evaluate any new monuments or ‘celebrations’ of the past (in whatever form they might take place) that might be appearing in China. As the present leader, Deng IV, seems to be attempting to take on some of the trappings of Mao – stripped of any revolutionary, Communist ideology – this might become an issue in the not too distant future.

It’s possible to attack Mao by praising Mao – this was something that took place during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. After attacking the so-called ‘personality cult’ of Mao from the late 1970s those enemies of Maoism could well create a new ‘personality cult’ of Mao based solely on the person.

Chairman Mao in Dandong

Chairman Mao in Dandong

The Chinese Revisionists and Counter-revolutionaries have been unable to achieve the same rejection of Mao as happened in the Soviet Union with Lenin and Stalin or in Albania with Hoxha. Mao is still seen in China, by the overwhelming majority of the population, as a great Chinese leader – millions still queue every year to visit the Mao Mausoleum in Tienanmen Square in Beijing. It’s possible, therefore, that those who seek to establish greater legitimacy and maintain their hold on power will try to play the nationalist card and turn Mao into a purely ‘Chinese’ personality – the antithesis of how Mao would have seen his achievements – thus turning the country inward. This is not that far-fetched as it might seem as the level of nationalistic fervour has been stoked up in recent years to justify China’s imperialistic ambitions.

All this doesn’t accept what made Mao great in the first place – that was the taking of Marxism-Leninism, applying it in the Chinese context and by learning from both the success and mistakes of the past Socialist revolutions developing the theory of the Cultural Revolution and taking Marxism to a new level, (although becoming a bit of a mouthful) to Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.

The statue of Mao in Dandong is one such example of this new, depoliticised, depiction of the great Chinese leader. There’s nothing on, or around, the statue which refers to what made him such a great leader in the first place, his uniqueness as a leader of the world proletariat and peasantry – his being a revolutionary Communist. It’s a great statue but you get the impression that, like the statues of the Roman Emperors, you could just replace the head with whoever was in power at the time and there would be no real difference. As it stands at the moment it’s just a statue of a 60 year old wearing a big overcoat who, for some unknown reason, has his right hand raised and pointing to some unknown location in front of him.

The statue of Mao in Nanjiecun doesn’t suffer from that defect. Coming from those who knew the importance of the politics, of the necessity of a Communist Party, of the necessity of a revolutionary ideology, all these attributes are represented in the statue itself in a very simple and almost unobtrusive manner, but there nonetheless, – and that’s the star on the cap he holds in his hand.

The Red Star

The Red Star

As I’ve written in a number of posts about the Albanian lapidars (such as the mosaic on the Historical Museum, the mosaic of Bestrove, the Durres monument to the anti-Fascist struggle, amongst others) where the star has often been the target of the fascists and reactionaries – eradicate that and they think they can eradicate Communist politics. So including it in a ‘new’ monument the people of Nanjiecun made their own political statement.

That political statement was made even stronger with the addition of the four portraits of the Marxist ‘Greats’. Whether whoever designed the layout of the square considered how it would look when completed what we have now is a history of the development of Marxism thought through; successes and failures; revolutions and counter-revolutions; twists and turns; suffering and sacrifice; elation and despair, to arrive at where we are now with Maoism being the pinnacle of the development of the revolutionary theory of the working class. We are not in a situation that we would have wished just over a hundred years after the October Revolution of 1917 but we are where we are. At least the revolutionary theory has moved forward. Whether we make the most use of all that history is another matter.

In a sense the statue and portraits in The East is Red Square are in a bit of a time warp – that of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Mao’s image is of what he would have looked like in the mid 1960s and the paintings of the four Marxists are almost exact copies of the coloured posters that were available throughout the world from the late 1960s until the counter-revolutionary coup of Deng and his goons after the death of the Chairman in September 1976.

JV Stalin

JV Stalin

The portraits are behind Mao as he looks to the east. In front of him, on either side, are two large billboards with a lot of text in Chinese characters. (In fact for a Socialist political monument there’s a lot of text full stop – including on the plinth upon which Mao stands. Although unusual it shows the level of literacy that the Socialist state had achieved during the time of Communism. The people can actually understand what is written – unlike most religious locations throughout the world where emphasis is upon image due to the high level so of illiteracy.) 

The one on Mao’s right also carries an image which looks very much like the photo of him making the declaration of the People’s Republic in Tienanmen Square in October 1949. Unfortunately I’m not able to understand Chinese characters but would surmise that the text is that very declaration.

Declaration of the People's Republic of China 1949

Declaration of the People’s Republic of China 1949

On his left the image is of an older Mao, probably from the 1960s, so I would hazard a guess that the text is from one of the exhortations he made from the podium over the Gate of Heavenly Peace to the massed Red Guards in Tienanmen Square.

The area has changed over the years. I’ve seen photos where there were trees behind the statue. They might have been OK as bushes but started to become a bit much after a few years and they have been removed so the immediate area around the statue is now clean and clear. I’ve also read that there was a permanent ‘guard’ at the site but there was no evidence of that during the (regrettably short) time I was there. Also there was no music playing (as is often reported) so don’t know if this is the now permanent situation.

I made a number of mistakes and got to the village quite late in the afternoon and many of the places immediately next to the square were closed so I wasn’t able to get a feeling of how the area had been developed for the growing number of tourists that visit Nanjiecun. 

Getting there

It’s possible to stay in the Commune’s own hotel, which is located right next to the square. The problem is one of communication as the staff only speak Mandarin.

If a day trip is all that is looked for then getting to Linying railway station is the best bet and then walking a kilometre or so or getting a taxi to the village. There are also regular buses from Zhengzhou (the nearest big tourist destination) to Linying.

GPS:

33.80611111

113.95416667

DMS:

33º48’21.9”

113º57’15.2”

 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – Arriving by land from China

Chairman Mao - Dandong

Chairman Mao – Dandong

Towards the end of 2017 I had the opportunity to make a visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the DPRK (more normally referred to as ‘North Korea’ in the capitalist countries). As many people will be aware travel in that country is not as easy as it is in other parts of the world so I was on a pre-planned, organised tour. To that tour I added a three day, private, individual tour where I was able to negotiate my own itinerary – within limits.

So I was there for a total of twelve days as a tourist. There was no official, governmental involvement and the impressions and observations (with a little bit of up to date practical information) are made based on my experience of travelling quite extensively in other parts of the world and with a world view that tries to understand those societies and cultures I have had the privilege to encounter.

In my visits to other countries – especially, but not exclusively, in Africa, Asia and Latin America – I have tried to understand how those societies work (or don’t) and how I see the people within those societies. On previous occasions I have spent many months in some countries so a period of less that two weeks is not enough time to get to know a place. However, as ignorance about the DPRK is rife throughout the western world I consider these observations and comments to be part of a debate – a debate that should be happening (but isn’t) when the drums of war are resounding around the world.

Those drums are drowning out any real discussion, any attempt to get to know anything about the country or its people.

Dandong Railway Station – Sinuiju Railway Station

Hopefully some useful information for people planning to make the overland journey to Pyongyang from Dandong in China. (The increasing acceptance by the ‘international community’, i.e., the most powerful and selfish capitalist nations on the Earth, of sanctions against the DPRK might make some of this information redundant but it is hoped that common sense, and not the fake news that pervades most public discourse, will prevail and normal communications between China and the DPRK will prevail.)

Before entering the station spend some time to have a look at the magnificent, red stone statue of Chairman Mao which stands in the square in front of the main entrance to the building. With his right arm raised in a salute he seems to be greeting the rest of the country from one of China’s most north-westerly cities. I have no information about this statue. It looks in a very good condition so I assume it is relatively new, or at least one that has been erected after the nationwide victory of the ‘capitalist roaders’, led by the renegade Deng Xioaping. Some cities and locations throughout China are starting to restore monuments that used to exist to Chairman Mao, or even installing them in places where they didn’t exist before. One such notable place is Nanjiecun in Linying County, Henan province.

Nanjiecun Square

Nanjiecun Square

The ‘international’ trains depart from the first floor (English, that is, i.e., upstairs) on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday at 09.30. (The overnight train from Beijing is due to arrive at 07.22. Information I’ve seen indicates that there’s a through train but this is not the case. It’s a completely different train that crosses over the Yalu River on the ‘Friendship Bridge’. ) The train leaves from the same platform as the waiting room (which has a small duty free) and normally consists of three, ‘hard sleeper’ carriages – that is carriages with compartments that are designed for up to six people. There’s also a baggage compartment and a travelling generator that sits behind the engine.

Friendship Bridge - Yalu River

Friendship Bridge – Yalu River

For reasons I don’t understand almost everyone gets to the station hours before the train is due to depart, end up shoving and pushing to go through immigration and customs only to then wait around for the train to leave. Probably one of the reasons for the scrum is that some people travel with a vast amount of luggage which gets wrapped up in plastic sheeting and placed in the luggage van. At least the luggage is not too much of a problem in the passenger section of the train.

Tour companies will tell you to get there an hour before departure but don’t do so any earlier, you’ll just have more time sitting around. After the initial crush the whole area becomes very quiet and you can just sail through immigration. Perhaps arrive at the station, relax and just monitor the situation.

Most of the passengers will be returning Koreans or visiting Chinese tourists – a four day tour of the DPRK has become quite popular with Beijing based Chinese people (but, again, that might change with the demand from the US that China does its bidding and cut ties with the DPRK).

If you don’t already have (or have lost) a Departure Card they are available on a desk, on the left hand side, after passing through the metal detector and X-ray machine for luggage but before the passport control booths. If all paperwork is in order it’s a relatively painless process.

Entering the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Even though I reject all the hype and the scaremongering that is associated with travel to the DPRK it still gets through to you and there’s an element of apprehension as you prepare for a visit to the country. Choosing to arrive by train means leaving from the Chinese border town of Dandong, crossing the Yalu River and after a very short, but very slow journey, arriving in the Korean border town of Sinuiju.

However, the heightening of tensions internationally at the moment, and especially as the Chinese are now weighing in on the side of the Americans, it pays to be circumspect when the train arrives at the Sinuiju border post. The ubiquity of smart phones and their ability to take video means that people can be tempted to film the crossing of the river and the arrival at the station. Even though on the Chinese side of the river there are, at least, three separate monuments that commemorate the friendship between the Chinese and Korean Peoples during the War of 1950-53 that relationship is becoming strained now and it’s not wise to put local patience to the test.

Monument to Volunteers of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea

Monument to Volunteers of War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea

My approach to why the people and government of the DPRK take the stance that they do I will come back to later. My point here is that anyone who visits the country without at least a basic understanding of the present international situation and how sensitive that makes people in the DPRK – especially government officials – feel are being, at best foolish, at worst reckless. What maybe seen as a mere schoolboy’s prank in the US can take on a greater significance in the heightened atmosphere of the DPRK threatened with imminent destruction – as an American tourist found to his cost in 2017.

Customs and Immigration

If the journey across the river is short the stop at the station of Sinuiju would be long, two hours being allowed on the timetable (as well as the clocks going forward a half an hour). Once the train arrived a swarm of officials left the station building who divided themselves up between the three passenger carriages. Apart from these officials the military presence was minimal, a young soldier, not seriously armed, standing at either end of the platform to monitor that no one left the station. In a country where we are led to believe the army are everywhere the first impression was that things are much more threatening on passing through a major airport in the UK than entering the DPRK by land.

Although there were a couple of small groups of Chinese tourists the rest of the passengers were Koreans returning home – and us two Europeans. I don’t know how many Europeans/Westerners might choose this route but I wouldn’t have thought many but there was no real impression of surprise when the customs or immigration came to visit. What many people who have not crossed borders by rail won’t understand is that in these circumstances people don’t have to get off the train and parade in a room to get their passports/visas checked and stamped. An immigration official comes along the carriage, compares your face with the photo in the passport, piles them up and takes the whole lot to an office. I assume that if there’s a problem that person might be asked to leave the train but otherwise the next time you see your passport is when it is handed back to everyone, normally just a matter of minutes before the train leaves.

The curtness of the customs officer was down, I believe, more to lack of common language than anything else. With the Koreans or Chinese he could communicate in a meaningful manner, with us it was just one word communication – and he seemed more concerned about a mobile phone than anything else.

Here it might be useful to mention those things that are, and aren’t, permitted when entering the DPRK. Computers and cameras are no problem whatsoever – he barely looked at mine when I opened my bag. Make sure there’s nothing compromising on your computer hard drive, just in case one of the customs officials is feeling inquisitive the day you arrive. There’s no chance of a wifi connection in the country but, at a price, it is possible to send emails from the communication/business centre that you will find in all foreign tourist hotels.

Mobile phones are also not a problem they now being as ubiquitous in the DPRK as they are in most other countries in the world – all parts of the country and not just the major cities from what I saw. However, for visitors so-called ‘Smart Phones’ will function more as a recording device than anything else as roaming doesn’t exist. This ability to surreptitiously film anything might be what is in the back of the minds of the customs people (all men, I didn’t see one female customs or immigration person at the border) but if people want to do so then it’s almost impossible to stop them and the only way would be to check everyone on leaving – and that would be totally impractical, although random checks are made (as I discovered when I left by train to cross over to Russia at the end of my visit to the country. In many ways I understand their thinking but as technology races on it would be like Canute attempting to stop the tide from coming in so a more relaxed recognition of this would make life easier for all. Most regular tourists are there to try to get an understanding of the country – few would be there looking for opportunities to return home to denigrate the country and its people – journalists, on the other hand, are a different matter.

I understand it is possible to buy a local sim card but then the question would be why? I think the emphasis on the mobile was to do with making sure people were open about what they were carrying. No point in lying if at any time they can turn out all your belongings – the same as at any other country’s customs.

It’s also unwise to take in any religious books or any which criticise the country in any way – that includes guide books which seem to think they have the right (if not the obligation) to churn out the same propaganda that comes from their respective governments and media.

As an aside it’s always amused me that there are certain countries in the world where guide book compilers seem to think they should make some sort of comment on the society – normally the same propaganda churned out by their respective country’s governmental departments or the ‘facts’ reproduced in the biased media. This is especially the case in those countries that have attempted to build socialism – even in countries like China and Vietnam where socialism was ditched in favour of capitalism decades ago.

However, you don’t get the same ‘analysis’ of the political situation in countries such as the UK. When reading about Coventry where does it say in the tourist brochures that the city is the home to the biggest and busiest food bank in the country? Where does it say in guide books about the UK that it is the aim of the Tressel Trust (the biggest food bank charity in the country) is to establish a food bank ‘in every town in the country’? They want to perpetuate poverty not eliminate it. Where does it say in guide books to the UK that virtually all major cities, the length and breath of the country, have seen an exponential growth in the number of people who are sleeping rough on the street and the problem of homelessness is becoming a national disgrace? I could go on. This is just another example of the chauvinistic, parochial and xenophobic attitude that is characteristic of arrogant capitalist hypocrisy. More on that later.

Returning to the customs check. If anyone was getting any extra attention it was the Koreans who were returning to their own country – the tourists and their luggage just going through the formalities. And that makes sense. Those people more likely to be bringing in contraband of any sort would be those who knew what to do with it once in the country. But even here there was a relaxed atmosphere as it looked like some of the passengers on the train knew the officials as many of them made regular journeys, on business of some kind, to China on a regular basis, as was the case with the two Koreans in our compartment.

One thing I did learn, or more exactly had reconfirmed, is that customs officials worldwide don’t like rummaging through rucksacks. Even though they can make you turn out everything if they so wish from my experience they only peek into the top and then give it all up as a bad job.

Once the customs had left the carriages and the passports were in the hands of the immigration people everyone relaxed. People started to leave the train and stretch their legs on the platform. When I went to look at the engine (not having had the opportunity in Dandong) it was indicated that I was straying into a place I shouldn’t be going, that is too close to the end of the platform, but there was no hostility involved – the young guard just doing his job.

A matter of minutes before the train was due to leave the different piles of passports were carried from the station building and everyone returned to their space on the train – more likely to get their passport back with no problems as they are handed out in the order they were collected. A foreign passport is something of a novelty in a number of places where I’ve travelled and it’s not uncommon for there to be a slight delay in getting yours back as people on the way flick through the pages, both for the document itself, which is often different from their own and also to have a look at any stamps and visas. Some more confident will often come up and ask to have a look and within the confines of a bus or a train that is moving that’s not a possible scam but a genuine curiosity about other people and their travels.

Everyone with their passports and no one – to the best of my knowledge – left on the platform the train pulled away from the station, leaving China behind and headed, at a gentle but not too slow a pace, towards Pyongyang, about 5 hours away.