Tuesday, September 16, 2014

North Korea: Train ride from Beijing to Pyongyang via Dandong

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Few people realize that North Korea or the DPRK, as they prefer to be called, is not as isolated as we perceive it to be. There are regular tours that leave from Beijing which almost anyone can join. It was an exciting prospect that I've been wanting to do for several years now. This year was it!

North Korea visa
North Korea visa
I made inquiries and a booking several months in advance. You need at least a month to allow the tour company to process your visa applications. All nationalities need a visa to enter, except for Malaysians, and Singaporeans on a business trip. You get issued a Tourist Card for your visa. That's also where they place entry and exit stamps. And unfortunately, you don't get to keep it. There will be no proof in your passport that you visited the DPRK unless you have a local North Korean embassy in your country which will place a visa sticker.

The cheaper option to get in is to take a 24-hour train from Beijing to Pyongyang via Dandong. But for those who can't stand long-distance travel, there are flights from Beijing to Pyongyang, which cost about €100 for a round trip ticket.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Since taking a train would allow me to see views of rural North Korea, and since it was also the cheaper option, a hard sleeper it was! The train left the Beijing Train Station at 5:27 p.m. and arrived in Dandong, the border city of China, at 7:17 a.m. the next day.

If you arrive in Dandong on time, there's a nearly three-hour stopover, enough time for you to take a walk around the city to see the Yalu River Bridge, which was bombed by the US Air Force during the Korean War, and the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge which connects Dandong with Sinuiju, North Korea on the other side of the river.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
The train for Pyongyang leaves at 10:00 a.m. But you'll have to go through China Immigration first before leaving. They have different procedures here. First you'll go through the usual Immigration counters where they will collect your passport and place the exit stamp. They won't return your passport to you yet. You'll have to board the train and drop off your stuff in the cabin, then exit again and wait outside the train car. Once all passengers have gone through Immigration, the officers come out with all the passports which have been sorted out by train car. They call your name and give you your passport, after which you have to enter the train. I realized they do this to make sure that the passenger is actually on board the train after the exit stamp had been placed in the passport.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Once everyone is on board, the train departs for Sinuiju just across the bridge. Make sure you look outside on the right side of the train while crossing the bridge since you'll be able to see the end of the broken Yalu River Bridge.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
The trip across the bridge is just ten minutes. But you arrive at 11:10 a.m. because of the one-hour time difference. This is where the long wait inside the train begins since Immigration and Customs procedures are done on board. We were given two forms, the Arrival Card and Customs Declaration which you fill out with the help of the tour leader. In the Customs Declaration, you will be asked to list down all your electronic devices, especially cameras, computers, and mobile phones, publications you may have like travel guides, and the amount of money you are bringing in in various currencies. They are very strict about GPS. If your camera or mobile phone says GPS, that will get confiscated. You'll be able to get it when you exit the DPRK. Also, while you may bring in books for personal reading, you may not bring publications that are religious or political in nature.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
First, the Immigration Forms are collected. The officer then asks you to present all your mobile phones for inspection since they jot down the brands in your Immigration Form. Then the Customs Declarations are collected. The officers go from one cabin to another searching every bag to make sure prohibited items are not brought it. The whole process takes close to two hours before the train finally departs for Pyongyang.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
From Sinuiju to Pyongyang, the scenes are mostly rice and corn fields, and small villages and towns. It was nearing harvest, so there was a beautiful glow as the rays of the sun hit the green and golden stalks of rice. The rural views were immaculate, like posters from the social revolution.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
The train was traveling at a slow speed. And for some reason, we made a really long stop at one of the train stations along the way. We should have arrived in Pyongyang at 5:45 p.m. But it was nearly 7:30 p.m. when we finally exited the train to set foot on North Korean soil! Our local guides were eagerly waiting for us.

Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
Train from Beijing, China to Pyongyang, North Korea
We went out of the Pyongyang Train Station amidst revolutionary music. The pictures of the two former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were displayed in a place of honor and prominence above the main entrance of the train station. A large LED screen was showing clips from cultural performances. Indeed, we were in North Korea!


Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Register now for Heritage Conservation Summit 2014: Revitalizing Old Downtowns

The Heritage Conservation Society, City Government of Iloilo City, and Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council (ICCHCC) bring you the Heritage Conservation Summit 2014: Revitalizing Old Downtowns from October 24-26, 2014 in Iloilo City.

The Summit, which is being organized for the third time, has adopted the theme “Revitalizing Old Downtowns.” It is aimed at bringing together a wide spectrum of participants representing national government, local government units, local historical and heritage societies, academe, heritage conservation practitioners and allied professionals, architects, planners & real estate developers, the tourism industry, and the media. Its primary objective is to discuss and exchange knowledge on revitalizing old downtown areas and best practices in heritage conservation in historic old quarters and districts in the Philippines, its recent developments and the challenges and opportunities faced in the conservation of heritage. The presentations will include successful experiences of local government units and community conservation groups in revitalizing their historic downtown areas.

October 24, 2014
9am – Heritage Tour of Iloilo Province (Optional/Booking Required)
1-5pm – Adaptive Reuse Workshop for Iloilo Heritage Building Owners (Tentative)
6pm – Welcome Dinner (By Invitation)

October 25, 2014
Heritage Conservation Summit 2014
8:30am – Registration
9:00am – Welcome Remarks - Gemma Cruz-Araneta, Chairperson, Heritage Conservation Society
9:10am – Opening Address - Ivan Anthony S. Henares, President, Heritage Conservation Society
9:20am – Keynote Address - Hon. Jed Patrick E. Mabilog, City Mayor, Iloilo City
9:30am – FAQs on RA No. 10066 - Atty. Karen Lucille M. Isberto, Head, NCCA National Committee on Monuments and Sites
10:00am – Coffee Break
10:15am – Case Study: Escolta, Manila (Revitalization of Historic Business District) – Mr. Arturo Dy, President, Escolta Commercial Association Inc. (ECAI)
10:45am – Case Study: Calle Real, Iloilo City (Revitalization of Historic Business District) - Dr. Kristin G. Treñas, President, Iloilo City Cultural Heritage Conservation Council (ICCHCC)
11:15am – Case Study: Cebu City (Revitalization of Historic Downtown) – Dr. Jocelyn B. Gerra, Executive Director, Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, Inc. (RAFI)
11:45am – Open Forum
12:00pm – Lunch Break
1:00pm – Case Study: Taal, Batangas (Revitalization of Historic Town) - Mr. Ernesto Villavicencio, President, Taal Active Alliance Legion
1:30pm – Case Study: Angeles City, Pampanga (Removal of Street Wires in Historic Center) – Dr. Richard Daenos, City Tourism Officer, Angeles City & Ms. Joy Cruz, Angeles City Heritage District Working Committee
2:00pm – Creating Style Guides for Heritage Districts - Dr. Fernando Zialcita, Cultural Heritage Studies Program, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ateneo de Manila University
2:30pm – Open Forum
2:45pm – Coffee Break
3:00pm – Round Table Discussion on Revitalizing Old Downtowns
Moderator – Archt. Manolo LC. Noche, HCS Trustee
Panel – Dr. Felipe de Leon, Jr., Chairperson, National Commission for Culture & the Arts
Dr. Maria Sereno I. Diokno, Chairperson, National Historical Commission (NHCP)
Mr. Jeremy R. Barns, Director, National Museum
Hon. Jed Patrick E. Mabilog, City Mayor, Iloilo City
Mr. Ivan Anthony Henares, HCS President
Archt. Paulo Alcazaren, HCS Trustee
Mr. Angel P. Bautista, Acting Assistant Director, National Museum
Archt. Wilkie B. Delumen, Chief, Historic Preservation Division, NHCP
Dr. Kristin G. Treñas, President, ICCHCC
Dr. Jocelyn B. Guerra, Executive Director, Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, Inc.
Archt. Joy Martinez-Onozawa
4:15pm – Mapping Iloilo: Geotagging and Promoting Pride of Place in the Digital Age - Mr. Bernardo Arellano III
4:30pm – 360 Immersive Imaging in Heritage Documentation – Mr. Fung Yu
4:45pm – Closing Message

October 26, 2014
9am – Heritage Tour of Iloilo City (Optional/Booking Required)

On-site registration is Php 2,000 inclusive of conference kits and meals.

Pre-register by Wednesday, September 26, 2014, to avail of discounted rates:
Php 1,700 for professionals and government
Php 1,500 for HCS members in good standing, masteral students with ID, or group discount (minimum of 8)
Php 500 for undergraduate students with ID

Please issue check payments to "Heritage Conservation Society." Cash or check payments could be deposited to BPI C/A No. 8105-8153-61. Remember to e-mail your deposit slip to info@heritage.org.ph and keep the original deposit slip which you have to submit on the day of the summit.

Again, take advantage of discounted rates by paying on or before September 26, 2014. See you in Iloilo City!

Here is the updated program: https://www.dropbox.com/s/dwfkek2f9rut06p/Heritage%20Conservation%20Summit%202014%20Invitation.pdf?dl=0

Monday, August 25, 2014

Australia: Applying for an Australian visa in the Philippines

Applying for an Australian visa in the Philippines will require some lead time, at least four weeks. Here are tips to help you apply for a Visitor visa (subclass 600), that will allow you to visit or remain in Australia for tourism or other recreational activities (holiday, sightseeing, social or recreational reasons or to visit relatives or friends).

1. Call the Australia Visa Service Desk at telephone no. +63 (2) 790 4900 and request for the latest Checklist for Tourist Visa. Note that the checklist and application form change quite often. And it's important for you to get the latest versions.

2. The good thing about applying for an Australian visa is that you do not need to submit your passport. Photocopy the information page and any stamps from previous travel. Do not include original documents as well. Should original documents be required, you may be requested to provide them at a later date.

3. Remember that visa processing takes at least one month for most cases. Mine was processed in two weeks. Here is more information on the Visitors visa.

4. Make sure you submit copies of all the documents stated in the checklist. The decision on your visa application may be decided based on the information and documentation included with your application at time of submission. Submitting incomplete documents may cause delay or denial of visa. The checklist (as of this writing) asks for the following requirements:
     A. Application Form 1419 or the Application for a Visitor visa – Tourist stream completed in English which you can download here. You can type your answers in the .pdf form.
     B. Visa application charge of AUD130 in Philippine pesos via a manager's cheque payable to: Australian Embassy. The exact fee will depend on prevailing exchange rates and you will need to confirm this when you call. Even if I called, I was unfortunate that the fee increased by Php100 while my application was in transit. So it delayed my application by a week. As a result, I was required to submit an additional manager's check for Php100 for the papers to move.
     C. Copy of your passport – This includes the photo page of your passport and any pages with amendments, endorsements, visas and entry / exit stamps
     D. One (1) passport sized photo attached to the front of the application form
     E. Evidence of your financial status and capacity to support yourself during your intended stay in Australia, such as: (a) copies of your bank deposit books showing your history of savings or salary; (b) copies of bank statements or payslips over a period of time; (c) credit card statements and limits; (d) letter of support from Australian contact with the above evidence of financial capability; or (e) evidence of current employment or documents supporting business ownership.
     F. Evidence of intended purpose of travel (this can include airline, hotel and tour bookings, etc.)
     G. Invitation letter from Australian contact (if applicable). If supported by Australian contact, evidence of relationship to Australian contact i.e. birth certificate, marriage certificate etc. and a copy of the photo page of their passport.
     H. For applicants below the age of 18, copy of the child’s birth certificate, showing names of the child and both parents.
     I. For children traveling without one or both parents or legal guardians, provide: (1) copy of each non-traveling parent’s ID; and (2) signed written authorization (or form 1229) by non-traveling parent(s) stating their agreement to permit their child to travel, the approximate date and duration of travel, whether a single visit or multiple trips are permitted and their contact information.

5. Once you've completed the checklist, you can call the Australia Visa Service Desk at telephone no. +63 (2) 790 4900 to set an appointment or have your documents picked up by courier for a fee. I chose to have my documents picked up by courier and was required to include a manager's check for Php1220 payable to VFS Services Philippines Private, Inc.

6. From the time of submission or pick-up, you just have to wait for the Visa Grant Notice to arrive. The reason they no longer ask for your passport is because they do not place visa labels on them. Instead, the Visa Grant Notice is printed on bond paper informing you that you've been granted a visa. If you need a visa label on your passport, you can get one for an additional fee of AUD150.

7. When you arrive at Australian Immigration, you simply need to present your passport (but make sure you bring the Visa Grant Notice just in case). Here's a tip, upon exiting Australia, they no longer stamp your passport. But you can request for an exit stamp as a souvenir, which is what I did.

VFS Services Philippines Private, Inc.
Mezzanine Floor Ecoplaza Building
2305 Chino Roces Ave. Ext. Makati City 1231
Phone No. +63 (2) 790 4900
E-mail: info.auph@vfshelpline.com
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