The time has come!
After spending almost a week in Beijing, it was finally time to move onto what this trip is all about…
I had a couple of hours to kill before meeting up with my travel group, so I decided to just head out and casually walk through the neighborhood where my new hostel was.
Of course, wouldn’t you know that the sun was out and the wind was nowhere to be found on my last day in Beijing.
I stopped in to a Bank of China to do an exchange of some yuan to euros for tips for my North Korean guides (apparently euros are their preferred currency).
The whole process to exchange money took over a half hour and involved me filling out 3 forms and having my passport scrutinized.
By the time it was all over it was actually time to briskly walk back to my hostel to grab my bag and be on my way.
At 2:30 I met up with my group and English tour guide Shane at a hotel in town for a preliminary initial meetup and information session.
My group consists of:
Shane, a tour guide from Galway, Ireland living in Beijing. He’s been doing tours for Young Pioneers for 2 years and has been to North Korea over 50 times.
Vivek, my roommate while were in North Korea. Of Indian heritage and originally from Manchester, he now lives in London and is in the middle of a year long trip around the world.
Peter and Katherine, an older couple from Germany who have also traveled to quite a few destinations around the world the last year.
Andi, a suave looking Swiss man from Basil, Switzerland.
Matthieu, a Frenchman now living and working in Beijing for Mercedes Benz
Sam, a vegetarian from Sussex south of London.
Juana, an older woman teaching Spanish in China from Seville.
Rainer, a German also living in Beijing
Tim, from Manchester, who also is living in Beijing.
The 24 hour train ride is actually two trains.
The first train is a long 17 hour overnight train ride from Beijing to Dandong, a border city in northeast China right on the North Korean border.
The second train is 5 hours and takes us over the North Korean border and onto Pyongyang.
Out of the 10 people on our group, surprisingly, only two of us – myself and Juana – joined our tour guide Shane on the 24 hour train ride to Pyongyang.
I fully expected most people to take the train in as not only would you get to experience more of North Korea but you’d also save a whopping $400 for the 2 hour flight.
Anyway, I will admit I was a bit apprehensive about the looming 24 hour train ride as I had never been on a long distance or overnight train before and only had nightmarish visions of what it all entailed.
Imagine my surprise when we went aboard and I found clean train cars and normal bedding.
Sure the beds were narrow and bunked up 3 high but I was fortunate enough to be on a bottom bed so I was loving life.
At 5:30 our train was heading out of the station in Beijing onto our transfer city of Dandong.
Amazingly with all my travels to different areas of the world, I’ve avoided the dreaded long distance overnight train.
Some backpackers love it as it gives them a true feel of traveling like a local but for me, I like to avoid it like the plague.
I’ve always had these visions of 3rd world old Soviet style train cars with metal beds and the like.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I boarded the train to find the pretty luxurious looking compartment where I’d be spending the next 17 hours.
I mean, it’s not totally luxurious as there are 6 beds in each compartment stacked three high and there’s something like 80 people per train car with two toilets.
But still, compared to what I had envisioned, I was put at ease about my impending long journey.
As with most things in China, the train car was kept clean throughout the entire journey with toilets being cleaned on the hour.
Food carts would go wheeling up and down the aisle every half an hour or so and, although I didn’t bother to explore the train, I’m told there was a dining car as well.
I got lucky enough to score a bottom bed so I could just lie there watching the world go by while the others in the higher beds had to fight for the limit seating available to them in the train car.
Shane told me the train had about 1000 passengers and only about 10 of us were foreigners (about 0.1%).
I chatted with Shane til about 8pm and then he went to his train car and I settled in for the night.
After watching stuff I had downloaded beforehand for a couple of hours I went to bed at just after 10pm as that’s when they turn the lights off in the train cars.
As for the sleep, it wasn’t that bad.
The beds are pretty narrow so when you lie there, your arm is hanging off the edge which makes it a bit awkward. They also crank up the heat at night so you kind of start stripping down layers as the night wears on.
Oh, and the cigarette smoke – ick!
My bed was right at the end of a train car where people would go through the door and smoke in the toilet area so there was a constant waft of cigarette smoke lingering about.
But, like I said, it wasn’t actually that bad and certainly much better than I had expected.
At 6am the lights were turned back on and we all woke from our slumbers.
I was actually surprised there were no big lineups for the toilet this morning and even more so to find that was spick and span. Like I said, they’re always cleaning in China.
Into North Korea
We arrived into Dandong shortly after at 7am.
After a quick stopover at the nearby KFC for breakfast (yeah, don’t ask), we headed back to the train station for our 10am train into North Korea.
Security here is pretty intense and I would say it’s actually more thorough that any airport I’ve gone through.
As we went through our first security check, the officer actually had me take a sip of my water which I guess was to see if it was, I don’t know, poison? Gasoline? I honestly have no idea what they think I’d be taking on the train in my water bottle but I was happy I didn’t have to throw it out like you do at the airports.
After going through all the security checks we boarded our train into North Korea.
It was really happening!
I was going to North Korea!
We crossed the bridge from China into North Korea alongside the broken, bombed out bridge left over from the Korean war.
After a brisk 5 minute trip we were, indeed in North Korea.
Now for the fun part – a two hour stop for immigration.
There were about 400 people on the train, a mix of North Korean nationals coming home and of foreigners like myself.
The immigration soldiers came on board and checked everyone’s baggage.
As they went from compartment to compartment they would scrutinize everything with a keen eye for any electronics you were bringing into the country.
In fact, on the actual declaration form you fill out when entering the country there is actually an area on the back of the form to list all your electronics you’re bringing in.
The officer inspecting my stuff looking over the electronics I had placed neatly on the bed and they riffled though my bags looking for, among other things, books.
Books on religion, politics or pornography are a big no-no here in North Korea.
On our way again
Around noon we were finally back on our way to Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea.
We went to the dining car right away before all the tables were taken and, sure enough, we managed to get the last table available.
There’s really only one meal you order and it’s “lunch”.
For 58yuan ($12) you get a sampling of 10 plates of Korean delicacies.
The ten courses were: kimchi (of course), garlic bulbs, marinated cucumbers, mushrooms, fish, dumplings, eggs marinated in soy sauce, a meatloaf type pate finished off by rice and cabbage soup.
This method of serving food would show up several times in the following days but when it first happened I had no idea how many plates we would be getting and as each one arrived you were pleasantly surprised.
We sat there for a couple of hours eating and drinking while a North Korean variety show played on the TV overhead (another thing I would see several times in the coming days).
Around 2pm we headed back to our compartment and while I watched the North Korean countryside go by, Juana and Shane took a nap.
We finally arrived in Pyongyang at 6pm.
Even though we had actually already been in North Korea for 7 hours, arriving in Pyongyang was cause for celebration.
This was the North Korea I had come to see and I had finally arrived!
We were picked up by our two North Korean guides Ms Pak and Mr Pak (no relation), our bus driver and the 8 others who had arrived by plane an hour earlier.
We all hopped onto our bus and we were on our way to a nice dinner before checking into our hotel.
Yeah, the food is really good here in North Korea!
By 9pm we were checking into our hotel and I gotta tell ya, that shave and shower I took after being on the road for over 24 hours was mind blowing.
Soon after I was tucked away in my comfy bed.
I had arrived!
I was in North Korea!
Let the adventure begin…