North Korea: Train ride from Beijing to Pyongyang via Dandong
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!