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Treading on thin ice … our days in North Korea (Part 1)

Train schedule. They are punctual.

Train arrived Sinuiju, Korean border. Sinŭiju (Sinŭiju-si) is a city in North Korea which faces Dandong, China across the international border of the Yalu River. At Sinuiju, officers came on board and checked our luggage. We did not need to get down the train. Our passports and visas were taken away. Luggage checked thoroughly. Books and media materials, offensive in their own definition were confiscated. Some people’s laptops and books were taken away. All our mobile phones were checked. Photos and some apps were screened. We were asked whether our phones have GPS. We said no. The Lonely Planet Moscow I borrowed from library was almost confiscated, fortunately, after I explained why I need the book, officer returned it to me. A female officer was called on board to check female passengers. Super thorough. The strictest immigration check in my life. At a confined area with many army officers on board the train, our passports, visas taken away, we could not do anything to obey. Even money we brought along were checked. 2 envelopes with big stack of Chinese renminbi, Russian Rubbles, Euros…definitely attracted unwanted attention. But WE MUST COMPLY. Another senior officer came and demanded to check Goh Sia Hwa’s computers. The junior officer who checked us earlier on was reprimanded for oversight. All officer carries tasers. Clement’s presence diluted tension. Still, the tension was at the peak and exploding! An hour check in our cabin felt like an eternity. When Goh Sia Hwa went to toilet, he bumped into the senior officer. Senior officer asked softly for CNY200 pocket money. Small money to buy our safety. Worth-while. We set our phones to airplane mode before we left Dandong, China. From Dandong until Vladivostok 22-26 Dec, we were lost in radar. No trace we had been to DPRK except controlled photos, videos we could take and souvenirs we bought there.

“NORTH Korea has banned Malaysians from leaving the country until “the incident that happened in Malaysia is properly solved”. Today’s headline (7 March 2017) about North Korea. 

This could be a weird time to post my travelogue about North Korea. However, we’re grateful to be one of the few that stepped in the world’s most secretive country.

21-22 December 2016
We don’t transform from tourist to traveler overnight. Like a marathon, it needs training and experience and some guts to do the first one. In 2010 we took 2 weeks to travel 3 countries and self-drive. We realize we like “Amazing Race” holiday. 
Our travel, in figures:

2 weeks 4 countries, 9 cities. 

China – Tianjin, Beijing, Dandong (border town)

DPRK – Sinuiju (border town), Pyongyang, Kaesong

Russia: Vladivostok, Moscow

Finland: Helsinki
5 flights on 4 airlines

First time on these airlines: Scoot, Air Koryo, Aeroflot, Finnair

1st time on Airbus 350-900 (Finnair AY81)
SGD16k: cost of 5 people’s air-tickets & sleeper train tickets, accommodation, visa, DPRK tour, visas

SGD4k: cash expenses on food, daily transport, souvenirs, miscellaneous. 
We brought along SGD10k equivalent of foreign currencies.

Out of the SGD16k travel expenses, SGD10k goes to the trip to North Korea (DPRK), train & flight and in/out of this country. This is super budget already.
Homework: The only time investment is on air-tickets, booking Air BnB and communicating/payment of the DPRK trip. It’s only in early November that we got a little anxious and started to ask question about DPRK, apply Russian visas and clothing. Visas are costly. Because of work, we have no time to plan on where to go and stuff like that. 
No foreigners can enter DPRK without booking with an authorized tour company. After a few Q&A via email, we decided take train from Beijing to Pyongyang and flight from Pyongyang to Vladivostok. Americans cannot enter Pyongyang by train. 
DPRK hates USA, yet Americans are not banned to enter. Visa is the thing that worries us a lot until we got it when we were in Beijing less than 24 hours from our train departure to Pyongyang. 
Did I tell you the tour company does not have an office in Beijing?
Planning a trip to the most secretive country on Earth, naturally, invite questions from relatives and friends. We have lots of questions in our minds too when we set foot in Beijing. Even with answers from your company, we were skeptical. After all, we don’t know anyone who had been to DPRK. Even someone’s experience may not represent what you will encounter. What if we run into some trouble in the train, money stolen when we’re in the train, they don’t let us enter? 
Trust…important element in our travel. We have faith in the people that we meet along the journey and doing business transaction with us. The train journey from Beijing to Dandong and from Dandong and from Dandong to Sinuiji and from Sinuiji to Pyongyang is enough to write a chapter in a book. 
All these years of traveling to so-called medium to moderately high risk countries in Singaporeans’ eyes, we realized that fear of the unknown is created in our own minds because we watch the only news we got from mainstream media is all about sanction, nuclear weapons, behavior which are weird and unthinkable in our eyes…
The best part of the trip is the experience and people we met on the train…the most heart-stopping moment, the conversation we had with the first DPRK person we met. He can speak English and more surprisingly… HE HAD BEEN TO SINGAPORE!!! 
So, here is our version of DPRK experience…

Last hours in Beijing.

We almost didn’t meet the guy who supposed to pass us the tickets. After a frantic phone call with Beijing representative (she hasn’t woken up yet), she messaged me on wechat the phone number of Dandong guy. Immigration check was very strict and Dandong officers were very fierce, shouted Korean and we didn’t understand. We were the only “alien” there: non-China, non-Korean. Photos are not allowed in another part of the immigration. Only photo taken there after immigration clearance.

Residential area near the train station.

First photos of Kim II-Sung and Kim Jong Il. In Pyongyang, their photos were in most places we went.

Train from Beijing 北京 to Dandong 丹东 takes 13 hours. We met another guy from Dandong 丹东 who passed another set of train tickets to Pyongyang 平壤 to us. The best part of our train trip to Pyongyang is chatting with this North Korean guy. He can speak good English and he visited Singapore before. Surprise!

US passport holders are unable to come here due to restrictions against using the border crossing between Sinuiju and Dandong (China).


About Pamela's Online Journal

Working mother of 3 boys, loves travelling & writing.


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