Wednesday, 13 November 2013


12th-13th Sept 2013

Our team in Pyongyang

Lots of farewells to fellow tourists in the hotel foyer and six of us went off on our final short bus trip to Pyongyang central station ( left ) for the 24 hour rail journey to Beijing. Slight hiccup here as the 'through' train was fully booked and we were to take the later 10.30am departure to Dandong on the river Yalu, the north-west border with China. We would then transfer to the sleeper onwards to Beijing.

Imperialist US Aggressors are forbidden to use the train; they obviously can't be trusted and have to go by air. Freight probably.

Song Sim and Mr Lee ( right ) stayed with us until the train moved off. We all waved at each other furiously. They were incredibly attentive, and I don't suppose it was just that they feared someone might jump ship at the last moment.
They had indeed looked after us remarkably well and it had involved, for them, a lot of conscientious hard work and long hours. However we might have railed at being too closely shepherded from place to place, this very packed tour had run like clockwork. If anything had gone wrong, or somebody inadvertently ( or deliberately ) strayed into the wrong place I have no doubt that they, not us, would have got into trouble. Maybe they did a lot of paddling under the water, but we had to respect our guides' polite and efficient efforts. They don't get much time off either. Song Sim, who has a 2 year old daughter, has one day off after we have gone and then starts another tour. She hardly manages to get home and relies on her extended family to cope.

Six of us were in one compartment for the initial stage to Dandong ( China ). A comfortable and smooth four hour ride through pleasant looking farmland to the north-west border town of Sinuiju.

We had been warned that the customs formalities at the border on the way out would be stringent, and the procedure on the Korean side could take over four hours to complete. It has been known for the officials to search through all bags and even check through photos on cameras and delete those they, for whatever reason, took a dislike to. As a result, most of us had removed and hidden camera memory cards and taken lots of boring photos of the fields on the way to the border on spares. As it turned out, with much smiling and grovelling on our behalf, they were remarkably laid-back and polite. They only opened a couple of small bags and had a cursory look. The only thing they asked was did we have any mobile phones. Everyone emphatically shook their heads, and that was fine. We must have looked very innocent.

Across the Yalu river ( right ) and into Dandong, China. Perhaps as a deliberate attempt to show off, the entrance to the city was high rise and garishly neon lit. I don't remember seeing any neon lights in N.Korean cities and certainly no adverts that were so much in abundance here. It was quite a striking contrast. Our passports were again taken away and we got off the train to await the connection. It is ( for me ) always a worry that the passport might never return and we end up on a train to Yingtong Tiddleyepo, or some such backwater, passportless.

No such misfortune and we boarded the sleeper to Beijing. Because of the change of train we had been downgraded into six berth cabins ( rather 3rd Class ) but there were many empty cabins in our carriage so we thought we would be able to spread out a bit and have plenty of space. I was not the only one who confessed to ( allegedly ) snoring like a frenzied pig at feeding time. We opened some wine and all was hunky-dory... until the next stop. Crowds of Chinese came on board with large bags, boxes, prams and much else, probably including many kitchen sinks. Our tickets indicated that we were in several different compartments and no chance of staying together. It was mayhem. I found my bunk on the top level ( 3 up ) in a packed compartment with a family ( I think ) of parents, daughter and grandparents and enough luggage to suggest they were moving house. Our 'gang' decided to gather together and take refuge in the restaurant car, but that was fully occupied by the 'superior' class passengers. We did eventually get a table and had a remarkably decent meal, of fish and other unidentifiable fare plus the rest of the wine that we had brought and plenty of beer purchased at the bar. We met up with another group of tourists ( 1st Class ) and then perhaps overdid the tasting of that revolting chemical effluent that the Chinese optimistically describe as 'gin'. Anything, in fact, to delay going back to the sleeper compartments. In retrospect this might have been a bit of a mistake.

After being kicked out of the restaurant car when it closed it was a long weave and stumble back to our bunks. As said, mine was three up. The compartment, filled with gentle snoring, was in darkness and the climb up was not easy. The Chinese family were soundly asleep and blissfully unaware of the storm about to hit them. Suffice to say that due to a surprising lack of coordination and poor visibility I caused considerable turmoil; a veritable bull in a China shop. I think at one point I fell into the bunk occupied by granny and stepped onto the faces of most of the others. After much thrashing about and several failed attempts to reach the summit amid cries of surprise and pain and no doubt Mandarin curses from below I reached my perch with only minor injury ( to myself anyway; can't speak for the others ). Peace was eventually restored until, a couple of hours later, I had to go for a pee. The descent was no less hazardous and dramatic. I think granny got another surprise visit and I seriously misjudged the final step to the floor. I fell about three feet onto some sharp edged case and painfully jarred my shins, not without yells of agony and a few good old British oaths. On return to the compartment I noticed that the light was on. They were waiting for me. I expected to be lynched or at least made to suffer some Chinese torture. Instead of which grandpa and son who, to avoid further carnage, had got out of bed and quite gently pushed and lifted me up, only gently cracking my head on the ceiling in the process, to my roost with nothing but smiles. 
Come morning and reveille, even though conditions were more favourable, I was dreading the climb down and the reception I might meet. I suspect that my snoring alone would have been grounds for a Chinese kangaroo court. I had no need for concern. All of them made sure I reached ground level safely and even granny gave me a smile and a wink.

With a sore head, pain in my ribs and limping badly I managed to locate most of our team again and we headed for the restaurant car to revive on gallons of coffee. Washing could wait. The others seemed to have had a comparatively peaceful night. The train, although not incredibly fast, gave a very smooth ride, probably because their railway tracks go in straight lines and despite the unexpected crowd in the sleeping compartment was generally much roomier and more comfortable than most of the UK cattle tucks. Even the loos and washrooms were clean and tidy. There were seats along the passageway next to the windows where I sat amongst my new-found Chinese best friends who were incredibly hospitable despite no common language and remarkably sanguine following the pandemonium in the night. They even offered to share some noodles which despite my distinct lack of appetite I felt obliged to accept.

We pulled into Beijing Main Station at about 10.00am, shook hands and went our separate ways.

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