Sunday, October 18, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #516] The road to Pyongyang

Towards the beginning of this year, amidst the eMail chatter that Lottie, Simon, Kimb'uh and I engage in during the workweek, Lottie (who else?) asked if anyone would be interested in going to North Korea.  I've been wanting to go for years, so chimed in immediately that I would; Simon and Kimb'uh were decidedly silent.  So after planning an itinerary with Berlin-based Pyongyang Travel, securing North Korean and Chinese visas, and coordinating flights on SAS, Lottie and I headed off together to the Middle Kingdom.

We decided we wanted to enter North Korea by train, so our first stop was an overnight stay in Beijing.  Lottie and I were both there in 2007 as part of a trip with Cass.  I did not like Beijing then, and I do not like it now.  There are many individual stunning architectural triumphs, but the city as a whole is thoroughly uninviting.  It's sprawling, polluted, unfriendly, aggressive, malodorous and generally unpleasant.  It's everything I do not like in a city.

Lottie found us a charming place in a hutong (classic low-rise neighbourhood, now mostly razed in central Beijing) just North of the Forbidden City, which was great, but this meant no concierge and negotiating with the city on our own, which was without fail unagreeable.  If I ever end up in Beijing again I will do what I usually do not: I will stay in an upscale Western hotel and have a driver ferry me between the hotel and whichever architecture is on my itinerary.  But I really hope it never comes to that.

Our home in Beijing.

The streets of our hutong.

The streets of our hutong.

Dancing fountains framing Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square.

Looking through the pea-soup smog towards Mao's mausoleum.

Tasty treats on offer.

The next day we collected our train tickets at a hotel near the main railway station and battled our way through the security apparatus and crowds to the bar near our platform, before joining the other tourists, Chinese travellers, and few North Koreans transporting HDTVs and other goods on train K27.  The route takes a full 24 hours through Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, so we were assigned a sleeper cabin, which we shared with two German girls.  The majority of passengers depart in China, and most of the railway cars are detached at Dandong, the last stop in China - only two carriages carry on into North Korea.

It was a great way to start off into the unknown; all the Westerners were equally giddy with the prospect of the adventure in such an unknown country.  This was to be an exceptionally busy tourist week, by North Korean standards.  The government was set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea on 10 October, and those of us inclined to visit a pariah state thought that would be an ideal time to visit.  We spent a pleasant evening chatting on the train, first over wine in our cabin, and later in the dining cart all the way at the opposite end of the train.

When we awoke in the next morning we were at a standstill in Dandong, a "small" Chinese city of 2.5m on the Yalu River, separating China from North Korea.  The train slowly shuffled around the station as they removed the cars that weren't continuing onward and they manoeuvred us onto the track heading to North Korea.  We sat on the train for about two hours while Chinese officials came aboard and collected our passports and exit papers.  Eventually our passports were returned and the train revved up, and we headed out of the station, across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, and into the Hermit Kingdom.

Lottie at the bar in the station with our beer on the rocks.

Our chariot awaits!

Showcasing the luxurious digs for our journey.

Hanging out in the dining car.

Waiting in Dandong.

Midway across the Yalu River a second bridge comes to a stop; at its end, tourists congregate on a platform fit with telescopes to peer into North Korea.

The last sight before entering North Korea is the glimmering towers of Dandong.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~
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