If you are an American you will leave North Korea by air. Americans, naturally, cannot be trusted to behave for five hours without a guide. All other nationals have the option to leave North Korea by train, as we did. Those leaving by train now have the option to do a stopover at Sinuiju right on the border with China. If you don’t take this option, though I recommend you do, you will continue on from Sinuiju to the Chinese border city of Dandong where you can alight or continue on through to Beijing.
The full trip to Beijing from Pyongyang takes around 24 hrs. Pyongyang to Sinuiju takes around 5 hours while the short hop from Sinuiju to Dandong takes a couple of hours, most of which is spent passing though North Korean immigration and customs procedures. Trains connecting through to Beijing run about three – four times a week. As our tickets were included in the cost of our tour I do not know the cost of this train trip.
As with all other travel with the DPRK, our tour bus took us from the hotel to the train station in Pyongyang (a short 10 minute ride). En-route, our passports and Tourist Cards were returned. These had been collected by our guides on arrival into North Korea for ‘safekeeping’. I actually cannot recall if train tickets were distributed on the bus or at the train station but suffice to say we were each given one. On arrival at the station we were shepherded into a rather posh (by North Korean standards) waiting lounge – replete with sofas and chairs, the backs of which were covered by rather unattractive crocheted seat protectors.
At the appointed hour (not a long wait but sufficient for me to walk into and toss over a brochure display) we were led out onto the platform for boarding. At this point the train backed in to the platform which precluded my getting a photo of the engine. I am thus unsure if we were hauled by a Chinese or North Korean locomotive. I suspect it was a Chinese locomotive and not one of the standard Korean locos depicted below. There were no further opportunities to see the engine.
One’s seat on the train is determined by one’s final destination. The train comprised a number of Chinese carriages, a North Korean dining car and two North Korean carriages. Those, including us, leaving the train at Sinuiju were assigned seats in a North Korean carriage. The North Korea carriages (six berth sleepers) are much less luxurious than the Chinese carriages though the latter could not be deemed luxurious either.
That said, our cabin in the North Korea carriage was perfectly adequate for a five hour journey most of which were be spent in the dining car anyway. Clean toilets were located at the end of each carriage.
We were lucky to have a cabin to ourselves (2) and the journey itself was very pleasant and guideless! We almost felt undressed. It took us though countryside readied for planting of the seasons rice crop and very similar to the scenery encountered elsewhere in the countryside on our trip.
I sensed less military presence as we journeyed north though the towns and villages were as dull and drab as elsewhere outside Pyongyang. Apart from a few chickens, ducks, goats and the occasional beast of burden attached to a plough no livestock was in evidence. Again, while I saw very few tractors and the like the quality/uniformity of ploughing suggested that a substantial part of it had been done with tractors as opposed to human or animal effort.
The track was of good quality making for a very smooth journey with stations basic though functional and not unlike those in other developing countries apart from the images of the Great and Dear Leaders (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il) which were liberally displayed.
A fixed menu lunch is available on the train (5Euros) with beer (including Heineken) and a limited range of other drinks available for purchase. The food was surprising good and indeed some of the best we had during our trip. Ironically photographs were not permitted in the dining car – I was reprimanded for attempting to take one. Technically photography is not permitted anywhere on the train or out of the train windows.
One word of caution, the dining car represents a sort of ‘no-mans’ land between the Korean and Chinese parts of the train. As few foreigners alight at Sinuiju staff may try redirecting you back to the Chinese section of the train from the dining car, assuming that’s where you belong. That said a few of our friends from the Chinese carriages visited us and had hassles getting back though ‘no-mans’ land into the Chinese part of the train. If you are going to wander around the train, do so well before you get to the border area as the train is split at this point. On arrival in Sinuiju, the trains first and only stop in North Korea, troops surround the Chinese part of the train which is secured and locked – lest everyone tries to defect into North Korea! Just make sure you are in the right section of the train by this point.
Should you continue on into China, North Korean customs and immigration formalities are carried out on the train at Sinuiju station. This can take over two hours before the train continues to Dandong in China (approx. 2 kms) where Chinese formalities are carried out rather more quickly. Be aware that there is a much higher chance that officials will go through your photos here than if you leave the country by plane. I later heard that one lady was asked to delete nearly half her photos but nearly everyone else escaped a ‘photograph inspection’.
Sinuiju station, were we alighted, looked like a bomb had had just hit it. It is actually being refurbished and extended so to be fair it is currently a building site with only one small part of the refurbishment having been completed at the time of my visit. Yes, you have guessed it – the entrance hall which displays the obligatory pictures of the Leaders. Talking of which, a giant bronze statue of Kim Il-sung outside the station was not available for viewing due to a refurbishment which will, per our guides, include the addition of a bronze Kim Jong-il.
I have written about how we actually got from Sinuiju to Dandong (by bus) in a separate review and have also written a separate review on the Pyongyang Train station which is quite an impressive building.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries providing general and background information on The Rambling Wombat’s trip to, and travelling in, North Korea which I recommend you read in a particular order. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Getting out of the DPRK by Air. If necessary, go to my North Korea introduction entry – And now for something completely different – to start this loop at the beginning.