A ride to China from PyongyangAfter spending 3 nights in Pyongyang I returned to China by train.
There is a direct train that links Pyongyang with Beijing. It runs four times a week and leaves Pyongyang at around 10am in the morning arriving into Beijing 22½ hours later at 8:30am.
You would think that a train linking the two capital cities would have a prestigious sounding name like “Sino-Friendship Express”, but sadly this train doesn’t have a name at all. In fact, it doesn’t even have a single number. It goes by the indicator “51” in Korea and K28 in China.
Monday 9th April 2018
I woke up at 8:15am after a long and very pleasant sleep. I was thankful again that I hadn’t needed to get up early with the other members of the group to catch the plane.
My rendezvous with the guides was to be at 9:15am in the lobby. I gathered my stuff together and went down to breakfast. I managed a coffee and a bread roll and then went off to the hotel shop to buy some Korean snacks for the train journey. I managed to get some suitably exotic looking savoury stuff, some chocolate biscuits and several bottles of water.
I arrived in the lobby just in time to see the three guides walk through the door. They had just arrived back from the airport. The younger of the two men told me he wouldn’t be coming to the station and so he wished me a pleasant trip back and left us.
The other two helped me check out of the hotel and then they finally returned my passport and visa to me. They also gave me a customs form and I noticed that they had very kindly filled out some of my details on it. Then they handed me my train ticket. I checked the ticket and made sure that it said Tianjin. I wasn’t going all the way to Beijing. I had elected to get off one station short at Tianjin instead.
It was already 9:25 by the time we were getting on the bus. I worried for a moment that me might be cutting it a little fine, but the almost complete lack of any serious traffic meant that within 10 minutes or so we were pulling up outside Pyongyang railway station.
It felt a bit strange sitting alone with the two guides on the bus and it meant that I didn’t feel quite as free to take pictures out of the window as before. In fact, just as we were pulling up at the station I noticed lots of soldiers in open trucks looking as though they were getting ready for some kind of exercise. It would have made an interesting photograph but with both guides looking straight at me I didn’t even dare think about it.
The guides led me off the bus, through the station building and then out onto the platform. The station had originally been built by the Japanese but it was re-built in the late 1950’s after being destroyed in the war. Its main platform was one of the widest I have ever seen.
The train was already in the platform and there were a lot of people gathering around it. We took some photographs of me standing in front of the train and of the DPRK crest of the train and its name boards. This part of the train alternates each day between DPRK and Chinese carriages, so today I was obviously going to be travelling on DPRK rolling stock.
Then the guide led me into coach 12, down the corridor and into the first compartment we came to. It was a four-berth cabin and there was a Korean girl, who looked as if she was about 20, sitting on the lower bunk bed on the left hand side. The guide said something in Korean to her and the girl got up and went out into the corridor. “This is your bed”, the guide explained to me putting stress on the “your” as she patted the place where the girl had been sitting. I sat down. The guide said something to the girl in the corridor and then after wishing me a pleasant trip got off the train.
The girl eventually came back into the compartment and with obvious reluctance sat next to me. I tried English with her but it was of no use. She sat there looking scared to death. I looked through the window and saw the two guides still waiting on the platform. I waved at them and they waved back. I smiled at the girl too but she looked as if she was about to burst into tears.
With 10 minutes still to go, I decided to go into the corridor to give the girl some space and explore a little bit. There was a schedule of the train on the wall of the corridor. It listed the departure time as 10:10am. This was strange because on my ticket it said 9:55am.
As I wandered back to the external door of the train I saw the two guides still looking into the compartment. They seemed worried that I wasn’t in there. I realised that they were still responsible for me until the train left. I went back into the compartment and waved at them.
Just before the train was due to leave two middle aged Korean women barged into the compartment carrying what looked like very heavy suitcases. They took the two berths opposite mine. They greeted the young girl in Korean and just nodded to me. I tried English again but it didn’t get me any further.
With all four occupants now in our compartment and with the guides still watching on the platform, the train slowly moved off at exactly 9:55. I watched as the guides waved at me one last time, turned and exited the station. The train hadn’t even cleared the platform when it came to a sudden halt with a clatter and a bang. We waited until 10:10 and only then did we resume our progress north. Mystery solved: It leaves at both 9:55 and at 10:10 I thought!
I sat in the compartment and looked out of the window. Opposite me the two ladies were talking excitedly and incessantly. I wondered what on earth they were discussing. I would have loved to have been able to understand them. The girl sat next to me silently still looking as though she was quite upset.
After we had cleared the suburbs of Pyongyang I went for a wander around the train to explore.
The train was in 3 sections. Immediately behind the locomotive were the four or five carriages that formed the domestic portion. These carriages would be terminating in the DPRK at the border town of Sinuiju and presumably contained those travellers who had no right or desire to travel to China.
The last coach in this section was the dining car and this was only carriage in the first section that was not off limits to me. Any attempt to go further forward than the diner was met with a polite but firm refusal by the train staff. It was clear that there was to be no mixing with anyone who wasn’t leaving the country.
The second section was the part of the train that I was in and it was comprised of just two cars. They were numbered 12 and 13 and these numbers signified their position in the Chinese train later. These were both two-tier (soft class) sleepers. They were actually the only part of the train that would be going on to Beijing.
Each of the two carriages was looked after by a Korean sleeping car attendant who, along with a third member of staff, would work through to Beijing. Each of the 9 compartments in both coaches was full but I noticed that I was the only western person in this section.
Finally there were another 4 coaches tagged along behind coach 13. These were actually hard class “3-tier” sleepers (compartments of 6 berths arranged 3 each side) but they were being used as day coaches on this trip. This part of the train was also heading out of the DPRK but it would terminate at the first station in China; Dandong. This section was also crowded and there were quite a few westerners dotted around who were obviously heading back from the Marathon.
I stood in the vestibule at the end of the carriage and watched the passing scenery. Train 51 uses the Pyongui Line to reach Sinuiju. This 140 mile (225 km) line is electrified and whilst it does have a few sections of double track most of it is single. Former DPRK leader Kim Jong-Il (who did not fly) used this route several times on his visits to China, as did his son, current leader, Kim Jong-un, just a few weeks before my own trip.
The train moves slowly and the average speed is around 30mph for the whole Korean part of the journey.
The scenery was mostly agricultural and there were few large settlements on the way through. There was little machinery apparent in the fields and most of the agricultural work seemed to be being done by hand. I didn’t see much motorised road traffic either. Even in the towns there were few cars. There were a lot of people on bicycles and just the occasional bus.
Back in the compartment the two ladies were still talking non stop and the girl was now lying down on the top berth. I tried to make conversation and I showed them my marathon photos on the iPhone. For a while we communicated a bit but it was quite a difficult and strained experience.
It was still only 11:30 but sellers were already coming around with boxed lunches to buy. I decided to head to the dining car. I thought it was a little too early for lunch but I knew the dining car would provide a better place to sit and watch the scenery go past on both sides.
The dining car was about a third full. The other occupants were mostly Koreans but there were a couple of German lads sitting at one of the tables. I chatted to them briefly about the marathon and then sat behind them and ordered a coffee.
The waitress didn’t really speak English and the “black coffee without sugar” I asked for came to me full of milk with plenty of sweetening. I made the drink last and I sat there for more than half an hour sipping it whilst observing the other diners and looking out of the windows.
The waitress caught me a couple of times with the iPhone trying to take a picture out of the window. She stopped and said “no photo”. In the end I developed a routine of waiting for her to disappear into the kitchen before taking a few shots.
The train continued to move along at about 30 miles an hour. The scenery was pretty unchanging but every so often we would pass through a station. I thought the stations were quite well presented, almost all of them were brightly decorated in white paint and all of them had the inevitable portraits of the two leaders adorning their main buildings.
I noticed that all the Koreans were eating lunch and it seemed they were all eating the same thing. I worked out that it was probably the only thing on offer. I decided to order the same by pointing to the couple across the gangway and putting my finger up to indicate “one”. The waitress smiled and said “one lunch set?” and I nodded.
A few minutes later she brought me an array of small dishes, a bowl of clear vegetable soup and some rice. The whole thing was surprisingly tasty and very cheap. I washed it down with some water and a bit of tea. I stayed for a while looking at the scenery and enjoying the atmosphere and then I paid my bill and left.
I wandered back to my compartment and I found that all three ladies had purchased boxed lunches and were enjoying them together. The young one was now sitting in my seat and was talking animatedly to the other two. They beckoned me to come in and the young one offered to move, but I decided to leave them to it for a while and went back to standing in the vestibule.
We passed through another station and I saw an electric locomotive waiting between duties in a siding. It had obviously just had a repaint and even sported white wheel rims. In the UK white wheel rims are normally a sign of “celebrity duty”. I wondered if this locomotive had hauled Kim’s train to China a few weeks before.
When I finally went back to the compartment I found that the two older ladies had done a good job of cheering the younger one up. The three of them were now talking freely. For some reason this made me feel good. I managed a few smiles and nods but we still couldn’t really communicate.
The conductor came round with customs forms but I told him that I already had a form. The other three started to fill theirs out and I noticed that they had a different size to me. I said Beijing? and they all nodded. I said “for work?” but they just looked at me blankly.
At 12:47 we made our only stop in the DPRK at Jongju.
The scenery had been unchanging but the vistas slowly started to get wider and then on the left side I noticed there were lots of skyscrapers in the distance. At first I thought it was Sinuiju but it seemed to be in the wrong place. It took me a while to work out that what I was seeing was China on the other side of the Yalu river.
Soon the train began to curve into the Sinuiju itself. We passed through some suburbs and then with 226km behind us we pulled up bang on time at 14:57.
The train was scheduled to leave again at 16:43. This meant that a whole 1 hour and 46 minutes had been scheduled for what was obviously going to be a lengthy and quite vigorous customs and immigration check.
As soon as the train had stopped the immigration and customs officials, dressed in their military-style green uniforms, boarded the train. The first (male) official took away our passports and disappeared down the corridor without saying anything.
The next official was female and she stepped into the compartment and spoke to the three women for a while whilst collecting their customs forms. She then turned to me and seeing that my form was a different size she shook her head and told me it was no good. I was given a new form to copy onto. Not a good start.
After she disappeared I began hastily filling out the information again and I had only just finished when after 5 minutes she reappeared and asked all of us to step out of the compartment into the corridor. At least that is what I thought she said. As I was following the three women out she held out her hand and ushered me back into the compartment by myself, followed me in and closed the door behind us.
It took me a few minutes to work out that I wasn’t being singled out. We were obviously all going to be checked one by one and it was just my turn first. She looked at the list of reading material and electronic goods on the form and said “Camera”. I offered her my iPhone but she shook her head. I got my camera out and handed it to her. She switched it on by herself and then spent the next 5 minutes going through all the shots I had taken. I was relieved when she finally handed it back.
Out of the window I could see the front, domestic, section of the train had been uncoupled and was now being pushed back on an adjacent platform. It would have made a nice picture but I thought photographing a train at that moment probably wouldn’t have gone down too well.
Next I was asked to open my luggage up and we spent 5 minutes or so discussing the contents. She was quite thorough and it was a little intimidating, but to be fair she remained relatively friendly at all times.
Finally it was over and I was ushered into the corridor and one of the three ladies was invited in to take my place. I spent the next 40 minutes or so in the corridor waiting whilst the three of them were checked in turn. I tried to get off the train but was immediately ordered back on board. I guess Sinuiji station wasn’t the sort of place you went for a wander.
When all three ladies had been checked we all went back into the compartment and the four of us sat silently for a while. Eventually, the customs lady came into the compartment and sat with us. She spent a while engaging in, what I assumed was, casual chit chat with the three ladies before finally getting up and leaving.
It was fast approaching the departure time now. Finally the first official re-appeared and meticulously checking who was who handed us back our passports. I opened up my own passport and saw that the visa had been removed. There was no stamp to say I had ever visited the country.
Seemingly satisfied that they had completed all their border checks, the immigration and customs people finally stepped off the train and headed back to the their office on the platform. The train stood in the platform for a few moments and then, bang on time at 16:43, it slowly began to move.
I had my last glimpses of the DPRK as we eased out of Sinuiju and onto the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge that spans the Yalu River. The bridge is just less than 1km long and about half way across it the Yalu River Broken Bridge comes into view.
That bridge, originally built by the Japanese in 1911, was half destroyed by American bombing during the Korean War. Today it has been totally dismantled on the Korean side but is preserved as a tourist site on the Chinese side.
As we reached the banks of the river on the Chinese side the train slowed and moments later we halted in Dandong station. The journey from Sinuiju had actually taken less than 10 minutes but with the time difference it was now only 16:23.
The immediate contrast with the DPRK couldn’t have been stronger; there was a Chinese bullet train in the adjacent platform and the station was modern and brightly lit.
As soon as we had left Sinuiju people had started to congregate in the corridor in order to alight from the train as quickly as possible.
The three ladies in my carriage began gathering their belongings up too. One of the older ones presented me with a pear and an apple pronouncing the English words for both items perfectly as she did so. I said “thank you” and she smiled and said “you are welcome”.
I smiled to myself and wondered why she had suddenly developed the ability to speak some English. I must admit that I was looking forward to possibly speaking more English with her after the journey resumed later.
Once we had halted in the platform at Dandong I let the ladies, and everyone else, get off and I took my time leaving the train. Getting off at Dandong was compulsory even for the through passengers, but I knew we had more than two hours to wait so I didn’t hurry.
I was almost the last in the long queue in the large immigration hall adjacent to the platform. The queue moved quickly though and before long I was through Chinese immigration and loading my bags into the x-ray machine for customs. As soon as I was through customs I followed a sign that said “Beijing Passengers” and joined a group of about 15 people waiting with the 3 Korean sleeping car attendants in front of a locked door that led back on to the platform.
It seemed that the vast majority of the passengers, including all the westerners, were heading straight out into Dandong. As the last people emerged from customs the Koreans did a head count and seemed satisfied. It didn’t make any sense to me. The two through carriages (12 & 13) had been full, they both had had about 9 compartments of 4 people, but now there were fewer than 20 of us waiting. The 3 ladies from my compartment were not with us either.
I was still wondering what could have happened when the door to the platform was unlocked and we were led back onto the train. I found I was alone in my compartment and only 3 of the other compartments in my carriage were now occupied.
The train then began to move. A shunting engine had been attached at the back and it began to slowly pull us out of the platform and back in the direction we had come. After a few moments we reversed again and were pushed back into another part of the station. With carriage 12 now at the front we were slowly attached onto the rear of Chinese train K28 already waiting in the platform.
During this shunting process the empty Dandong “day carriages” had remained attached, but now they were removed. Carriage 13 was now at the back of the train.
By now it was 17:30 and, as there was another hour to go before departure, I decided to explore. I didn’t get far. I walked to the end of carriage 13. I noticed that it was as sparsely occupied as carriage 12. Where had everybody gone? I turned around and walked back to the front of carriage 12. I tried to make my way via the corridor connection into the Chinese train. I knew that I would need to visit the dining car later and I wanted to check it out first.
The three Korean attendants standing next to the connection were not having it and they blocked my way through. I protested and making the hand gesture of eating I said “Dining Car?”. They simply shook their heads. Then I tried to get off the train onto the platform but I found the external doors were locked. The attendants watched me and shook their heads again. I was trapped.
Back in my compartment I remembered the packets of Marlborough I had bought at Beijing airport. I quickly grabbed the cigarettes, returned to the front of carriage 12 and presented the attendants with one packet each. They thanked me in Korean. I smiled and they all smiled. I made the gesture of eating again but they shook their heads again.
I spent most of the next hour reading alone in my compartment and I hardly noticed when, at 18:30, the train began to move. I started to wonder about dinner and whether I should start eating the Korean snacks I had bought or whether to have my wine gums first. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. I opened it and found one of the attendants standing there smiling at me and making the hand gesture of eating. I jumped up and followed him back down the corridor. He guided me through the corridor connection and into the care of a Chinese attendant on the other side. It was almost like crossing the border again.
Now I was in the Chinese train and I started to make my way through to the dining car. It was a long walk, 7 or 8 carriages, but it was fascinating. Almost all of the coaches were three-tier sleepers. The beds were arranged in groups of 6 and there were no partitions to divide them from the corridor so you could see right into each section. This part of the train was absolutely crammed with people and I walked through watching everyone settling in to their bunks, chatting or sitting in the corridor eating the food they had brought with them. The atmosphere was vibrant and quite exciting.
I finally made it to the dining car and found it was almost empty. I sat down and immediately the waitress approached me and said “Fast food only, it is okay?”. I agreed it was okay, not really understanding what she meant, and I ordered a beer. She brought me a Budweiser and said “Fast food, one piece, is it okay?” I nodded again and then I started to wonder if I was going get a burger and fries for my dinner on a Chinese train.
I needn’t have worried because she eventually returned and presented me with a large plastic tray with little compartments filled with hot, freshly cooked Chinese food. There was a little bowl of egg soup with a tomato in it on the side too. It was all delicious and probably tasted all the more so given I had expected to be locked in my carriage with a packet of Korean crisps all night. I had another beer and stayed in the dining car for the stop at Fenghuangcheng at 19:20. Then I paid my bill and walked back towards the end of the train.
It was when I was walking back through the Chinese carriage that I finally realised what had happened to everyone in Dandong. I noticed some of the westerners from the Dandong day carriages and then I noticed the three ladies from my compartment sitting together on the bottom of a three tier compartment. They smiled at me and I smiled back and wished them well. It was clear now that rather than pay the full first class through fare, they had all purchased new tickets for the Dandong to Beijing train. It made perfect sense now.
I made it back to the end of the Chinese train only to find the corridor connection to the last two Korean carriages locked. There was no sign of the Chinese attendant either so I spent about 5 minutes banging on the door until one of the “Marlboro men” appeared and unlocked it for me, let me through and then locked it again.
I settled back into my compartment. I used two or three sets of the extra blankets to make a really comfortable bed. It was dark outside so I put the compartment light off and watched the sky scrapers, advertising neon signs and motorways flash past through the window. The train was going quite fast now and it was amazing to see how much development there was in this part of China.
I was awake for the second stop at Benxi at 21:00 and then shortly after that I fell into a long and lovely sleep. I stirred a few times in the night but on the whole I slept really well and I had possibly one of the best nights on a sleeper train ever.
Tuesday 10th April 2018
My iPhone alarm went off at 6:30am and I looked out of the compartment window to see it was already getting light outside. I made my way to the end of the carriage and used one of the washbasins there to freshen up and clean my teeth. The Korean attendant greeted me and pointed to his watch and said “Tianjin”. This I took to mean that we were on time and we would be arriving at 6:49am in just a few minutes and I should hurry.
I gathered my stuff from the compartment and presented myself in the corridor. The attendant nodded and smiled. The train slowed and finally came to a stop in the vast Tianjin station. The attendant unlocked the door and guided me out onto the platform. I bowed and thanked him, using most of the Korean I know, before I began to walk up the platform to the exit.
It was then that I saw the outside of the Chinese train for the first time. In contrast to the last two Korean carriages it was mostly in the standard green Chinese Railways livery. As I walked along the platform I figured that most of the passengers on their domestic sleeper from Dandong to Beijing would probably be totally oblivious of that little bit of the DPRK locked up and attached on the end of their train.
I watched as the train departed for Beijing and then I went up the escalator to the main station in search of a left luggage locker. As I emerged into the modern concourse I immediately saw a Starbucks and a McDonald’s. I felt like I was in an airport terminal rather than in a railway station.
I was certainly a long way from Pyongyang now.