The Pyongyang Metro was built between 1969 and 1973 (though most stations opened somewhat later) and officially consists of two lines set at a depth of over 100 metres below street level making it the deepest metro system in the world. Only St Petersburg challenges this assertion.
In recent years the authorities have finally admitted that the system doubles as a bomb shelter. Many eternal observers still believe that it is primarily a bomb shelter under the guise of a metro system. I will let the reader draw their own conclusion but, based on my observations, I am satisfied that it is a bone fide metro system used by commuters (more below).
On the two lines there are a total of 17 stations, one of which, due to its location by what is now the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – the two Kim’s Mausoleum, is now closed. The two lines intersect at one point near the Kim Il-sung Stadium.
Unlike other metro systems, station names in Pyongyang bear no relationship to their geographical locations – instead, here you will find stations with such revolutionary names as Reunification, Paradise, Golden Soil, Victory and Comrade.
The Metro stations are, externally, very similar. My first picture is of Kaesŏn (Triumph) station located adjacent to the Kim Il-sung Stadium. This was our last stop on the short ride we took on the Metro. The picture below is of ‘another metro station’ we passed on a separate outing.
The stations, at street level, are small. There being no shops, offices or other facilities in them, they are little more than a covered entrance to a very long escalator which takes you on your 100 metres descent to the platform. The Puhung (Revitalisation) station which we used to to enter they system is ornately decorated with marble, intricately crafted cornices and a quite stunning ceiling decoration.
I actually didn’t notice anywhere to acquire tokens/tickets for the train though passengers did appear to have them as they entered through the rather flimsy looking ticket barriers. We, tourists, passed through a separate entrance to the left of the barriers though as you can see from my picture we could have easily walked through without a token/ticket but naturally that was not permitted! While we didn’t have to pay, a ride on the metro costs 5 Won (2014) or US$0.03, possibly the cheapest metro ride in the world.
I indicated earlier that there are ‘officially’ two lines on the Pyongyang Metro and indeed this is what is shown on all Metro maps including the electronic board in each station. Many external sources maintain that there are four lines and that the total system is around twice the size of that officially acknowledged. Supposedly the other two lines connect the system to key military, party and government locations within the city, with a possible link to the airport. One of the pieces of evidence put forward to support the existence of these additional lines is the contention of experts in this sort of thing that when the original rolling stock (engines and carriages) was acquired from China, double the amount necessary for the operation of the two official lines was procured.
Unsurprisingly, I was not able to verify the existence of these additional lines and if I had been able to do so I probably would not have had internet access in my prison cell to tell you about it! I don’t know, but if they do exist Pyongyang would not be unique as such secret (and not so secret) tunnels and underground communication channels exist in cities everywhere.
Having admired the Puhung Station it was time to take the escalator into the bowels of the earth.
Having made our way to the end of the escalator we arrived onto to platform.
A ride on the metro/underground in most places is a means of getting from A to B for the average tourist. Not so in Pyongyang where the Metro and, indeed, all forms of public transport is strictly of limits to the tourist. Here visitors are taken for a ride on the Metro primarily to let them see the ornate platforms and artwork.
I will cover the platforms and the artwork in my next entry but a bit more about our ride before that!
Typically tourists only used to get to visit two stations and just ride the train between these stations. In recent years access has been extended.
We struck it lucky and actually used the Metro to specifically get to somewhere we needed to go to – the Kim Il-sung Stadium, from which we were going on a tour of the Pyongyang Marathon course, by bus, for the benefit of those of us running it the following morning. This entailed traversing six stops from Puhung (Revitalization) Station to Kaeson (Triumph) Station outside the Stadium, on the Chollima line. In addition to viewing the first and last stations we also stopped at the very beautiful Yonggwang (Glory) Station.
As metro rides go, our rides were as smooth and fast as the London Tube but without the need to ‘mind the gap’.
While there are a number of train sets in use (mostly second hand imports) the majority of those currently seen/used by tourists are vintage German sets. These trains have had all advertising removed and have been repainted in a green and red livery though apparently if you look carefully (I didn’t know to look) you can see former German graffiti though the paint. Not surprisingly, no graffiti has been added since and the trains and carriages both presented well, despite their age. On the platforms the trains are controlled and attended to by young ladies who, while not as colourful or famous as their above ground traffic lady counterparts, are equally camera shy hence my rather blurry, hastily taken, pictures.
The interior of the two carriages we took had a dark wood laminate finish which made for a rather dark and dingy ride as only a light or two actually worked in each carriage. I am not sure if this was due to sloppy maintenance or if it was an energy saving measure. Whatever the reason, it did make me wonder about the authenticity of a comment our guide had made a little earlier. She had explained how she enjoyed riding the metro and how she could relax and read her book while doing so. Perhaps she carries a torch.
One thing we could see with no problem was the pictures of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il prominently displayed above the forward end door in each carriage.
It is often written that those riding the Pyongyang Metro are actors engaged to give the illusion that this is a real transport system and that, in reality, no-one uses it. This is rubbish – the people in the carriages I was in and the people I saw on the platforms and in the stations were ordinary everyday people going somewhere on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, based on the six stations I passed through the system appears busy (but not crowded) and trains seem to be running at intervals of less than five minutes. If that were not proof enough that this is a real transport system, the following day prior to entering the stadium for the Marathon we hung around outside for maybe thirty minutes. During this time thousands of people came out of the adjacent Metro station and made their way into the stadium. If that was just put on for us then it was some show!
The Metro carries between 300,000 and 500,000 commuters on a daily basis.
Certainly our Metro ride was an interesting and rewarding experience, all the more so just because it was on the Pyongyang Metro.
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries on The Rambling Wombat’s trip to Pyongyang, North Korea which I recommend you read in a particular order. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Pyongyang Metro- Artwork. If necessary, go to my Pyongyang introduction entry – Pyongyang – A Capital City Unlike any Other – to start this loop at the beginning.