It’s late afternoon in Beijing. Beside a gloomy, concrete platform an antiquated train lumbers into place. In the dim light, people scurry about looking for the right car. This is, in fact, important. The first four carriages are bound for Dandong, a small Chinese border town, but the last two will continue on. They’ll have some 200 km farther to go before reaching their final destination: Pyongyang, North Korea. Outside the North Korean cars, people with discreet “Dear Leader” pins on their dark, well-cut suits bow their goodbyes. Small packages are handed off as passengers hurry onto the train. The 5:20 p.m. overnight to Pyongyang is ready to depart.
Inside the carriages, boxes wrapped in red, white and blue vinyl are piled up as far as the eye can see. Even the washrooms are filled with them. On top, sizable bouquets of multicolored flowers lie ready to be presented to the statue of former North Korean President Kim Il Sung. Passengers climb over the packages as a train attendant rushes about trying to make space. Another worker, bearing a large plate of food, slips behind a cabin door to the sound of happy yelps; several fluffy white puppies are jumping about inside. Jackets have come off and the smell of beer, beef, strawberries and kimchi begins to fill the air. Compartment tables overflow with food: no evidence of famine here.
There is a group of eight foreigners on this Pyongyang-bound train. For seven fun-filled days, we’ll be traveling together discovering “beautiful North Korea.” Our British guide, the affable Nick Bonner, has accompanied over 20 trips in the last five years in his capacity as codirector of Koryo Tours, a small company operating out of Beijing.
The tour includes an interesting assortment of people — Swiss, Swedes, Britons and myself, a Canadian. Our average age is about 32. Between us, we’ve journeyed to a lot of countries, but North Korea is a kind of final frontier for us all. Not generally liking group travel, I am relieved to find I like my companions.
It is possible to travel to North Korea alone. However, the price skyrockets from the basic group rate of $1,600 (double occupancy) for seven days, and individual arrangements are no guarantee of freedom of movement: No matter how much you pay, you’ll still have local guides glued to your side wherever you go.
The train chugs along and we fill up on snacks. Everyone has warned that we are going to go hungry. Dinner time rolls around, and it transpires that the dining car is on the Chinese side. We flock to the door that divides the two nations. It’s locked: geopolitics on wheels. For a fleeting second, I wonder if we’ll ever get out. But no, the train attendant takes out a big ring of keys and we escape to the other side.
We travel throughout the night, and I dream of ghosts and sumptuous dinner tables filled with plates of dog. I wake to Chinese border guards banging open doors. We’ve arrived in Dandong, with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea lying just across the water.
Nearly the entire 800-km border between China and North Korea runs along rivers. Our train must cross a long bridge before descending into northwestern North Korea. Wondering how much weight the bridge can actually take, I feel almost thankful that most of the passengers disembarked in China. Slowly, slowly, the train begins to make its way across. Behind us, on the Chinese side, tall, shiny, new buildings form a prosperous-looking skyline.
A second crossing, seemingly for pedestrians and vehicles, is running parallel to the train track. Then, without warning, it comes to an end. This other bridge just hangs there, mid-river, like an unfinished sentence, with nothing but concrete blocks jutting up from the water to show where it used to go on. The Korean side, we learn, was destroyed by U.S. and U.N. bombs during the Korean War to restrict the flow of Chinese military support into North Korea. The Chinese side, meanwhile, went unscathed.
As we approach land, North Korea comes into view. At first, it appears as if construction is going on, since cranes are visible in the distance. Then a large Ferris wheel appears. Perhaps there’s an amusement park on the waterfront.
As we get closer, a different picture begins to emerge. The cranes, the Ferris wheel, the merry-go-round — all are immobile, rusted out, deserted. Then, out of the blue, a dozen smiling school children run into the park and start playing on the remains.
We pull into Sinuiji train station, and cars are added where the Chinese carriages used to be. People bound for Pyongyang board the train. In the meantime, we are allowed to go outside and have a look around.
The platform is some four stories high, offering an excellent vantage point from which to observe the town below. In front of the station is a huge, empty, paved square, crowded with people arriving from all directions. Most are on foot, although there are a few bicycles and a couple of ancient cars. It has the air of an old movie set, but the muted colors confirm that it is real. Things look old, but tidy and well-maintained. It reminds me of an old person’s home where everything has been lovingly preserved for years on end.
Most people are wearing Korean-style Mao suits or army uniforms, together with soft canvas running shoes. Everything is in blue, gray, brown or khaki. People look healthy enough, but tiny compared to their compatriots to the south. Women have permed bangs and a 1940s look about them. With eyes averted, adults and children alike walk past us as if we simply don’t exist.
We return to the train as the border guards begin their inspection. They start at the opposite end of the car and work their way down. While we sit waiting anxiously, one guard pops his head into our compartment, sticks his hand under an upper-bunk pillow, nods his head and disappears. What on earth is going on? Noiselessly, I peek under the pillow and jump back in shock — it’s a semiautomatic handgun. Is this a setup, a hidden bribe or a prank? Alerting our guide, Nick swiftly returns the gun and tells us not to worry. He’s seen many strange things here.
Finally, the train pulls out; we are only about 200 km northwest of Pyongyang. People everywhere watch as the train goes by. There’s either not much else to do here on a Sunday or a train is an uncommon event. We pass small groups of marching soldiers, work units carryings shovels, crumbling buildings, fallow fields. I search the faces for signs of despair, but what I see is the usual array of expressions, from worry to laughter to preoccupation.
At sunset, we arrive in the capital, where we are met by our English-speaking guides, Mr. Oh and Miss Kim. Our driver, Mr. Ahn, loads the luggage onto the minibus in which we’ll be traveling for the next six days.
Our hotel, the Yanggakdo International, is one of five large first-class or “deluxe” hotels built in Pyongyang since 1985. And it is indeed luxurious, boasts 1,000 rooms, a pool, a cinema, an aquarium and a revolving restaurant on the 48th floor.
Entering the lobby, we are met with sharp, unwelcome looks, as if we have just crashed an exclusive private party. Somewhat to our surprise, there are about 100 foreign guests chatting together in the entrance hall. Slim, eastern European, bleach blondes, wearing miniskirts with low-cut blouses, hang off the arms of elderly Russian officers decked out in medals. Africans, Asians and Central Americans — all are represented here, enjoying the hospitality of their North Korean comrades.
April 15, which falls during our visit, is the birthday of “Generalissimo” Kim Il Sung, and the event is as important as Christmas. To coincide with this national holiday, a spring festival is held each year, and performers and guests from around the world are invited to attend.
International friends, we are told, are important to North Korea. For example, visiting the fascinating International Friendship Exhibition a couple of days later, the guides emphasize how people from 150 countries have given over 61,000 presents as “tokens of their unbounded respect and good wishes for the great leader Kim Il Sung.” Don’t expect revisionist history, though. A ’50s-style, 6-ton bulletproof car presented by Josef Stalin is lovingly displayed alongside a gold cigarette case from Marshal Tito and a camel saddle from Moammar Gadhafi. Name a dictator, his gift is here.
A multicourse evening meal tells us we are not likely to go hungry on this trip after all. Retiring to my hotel room, I lie on the bed and flip through the TV channels: last year’s spring festival on 1, a North Korean movie dating back to the ’70s on 2, and on 3, a music video of Kim Jong Il giving on-the-spot guidance to factory workers to the tune of “I Will Add Glory to Thee.” Having been advised that my room is probably bugged, I say good night to the walls, turn out the light and dream I have become the main character in the “The Truman Show.”
Pyongyang — the word means “flat land” or “cozy place” — is a well-kept city of around 2 million people. Trees and parks abound, and two rivers flow through the center. Both air and water seem clean, and overcrowding doesn’t appear to a problem. The latter, however, is probably aided by the fact that 8 percent of the city’s population was recently removed. According to a Pyongyang-based foreign government official, this was done to keep stocks of food in the city stable.
Roads are quite empty in the capital except for city buses, some Mercedes-Benz cars and a few bicycles. Striking, robotic-looking “girl traffic controllers” guide the flow of vehicles in place of signal lights. Aside from the bold peacock blue of the controllers’ uniforms, colors are generally muted, and there’s little in the way of street adornment. The only decorations are posters for the annual spring-festival celebration and outsize political murals depicting giant boots stepping on U.S. aggressors, the elder Kim surrounded by his people or the Taepodong missile flying into space.
The Dear Leader, Kim Il Sung, is omnipresent. All citizens wear pins bearing his image, pay homage to his statue, make pilgrimages to his birthplace, speak of him constantly and are reminded by gigantic signs that he is still with them in spirit. This deification of Kim Sr. is also evident in the enormous red numerals erected to mark his birthday this year: 4.15.88, April 15, in the year Juche 88. Where 1999 represents the years since the birth of Jesus Christ, 88 dates back to Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
Curiously, representations of Kim Jong Il are rare. With the exception of a double portrait of father and son that is displayed everywhere (even in subway cars), his image, like his real self, remains elusive in North Korea. Even locals report that they’ve never seen him, do not know where he lives, exactly who he’s married to or even if he has an heir. Maybe this shouldn’t come as surprise in a country where the citizens have never heard of Princess Diana, Michael Jackson or even the Internet.
If Kim Il Sung is the prophet, then “juche” is the faith. On a visit to an old Buddhist temple, we are told a creation story for North Korea’s governing theology. During the Korean War, people took shelter from the bombs in temples, where they prayed to Buddha to spare their lives. However, their prayers went unanswered, and they did die. This experience, so the story goes, gave birth to juche, a strict creed of self-reliance that would ensure that the people would never have to be disappointed again.
Anyone who decides to visit North Korea can expect to have a busy holiday. Guides are keen to take visitors everywhere — everywhere, that is, except the famine areas. It is certainly easy to travel around the country, with only minor delays for the ubiquitous roadside checkpoints.
Some sights are included in every itinerary: a visit to the Pyongyang circus, with dancing bears and backdrops of splendid factories; the Grand People’s Study House, where books are speedily delivered by conveyor belt (though don’t ask for anything published after 1980); the Mangyongdae Fun Fair, where you can ride a roller coaster; and Panmunjom, the historic dividing line between North and South.