Crossing from China to North Korea – Part 2
Crossing from China to North Korea.
June 24, 2017.
* (For the previous part, click here: The North Korea Decision – Part 1)
I was up at 06:30 to get things started for a five day/four night trip to North Korea. I had a list of jobs to work on, including going onto this website and taking down any articles that were connected to politics or political events. Also, I removed any recent stories to make Big Beaver Diaries seem dormant. Then I temporarily deactivated my personal Facebook page and my Big Beaver Diaries Facebook page. There was no point in taking chances. The risks in North Korea seemed minute, but if I could turn down some exposure, I might as well…Just in case…
I was at the Dandong train station at 08:30 to meet Sabrina from Explore North Korea Tours. She was there waiting for our group and I was the first to arrive. There would be seven local Chinese people heading into North Korea with me through her tour company.
For my Crossing from China to North Korea, I had left my entire luggage in storage at the train station with the exception of four clean pairs of underwear, four pairs of socks, three shirts, a pair of shorts, and whatever I was already wearing.
Oh, I also had two celebratory cigars I had bought in Egypt.
That was all I took, in addition to a couple of pens and a small Portuguese notepad.
I was not taking any chances.
I did not even have my own camera because mine has GPS on it and that is not allowed into North Korea. Luckily, Sabrina had a small, long-outdated point-and-shoot Cannon camera which she loaned me for the trip. My photos would not be great, but at least I would have photos. The camera she handed me was pink. The more I thought about it the more I figured I would seem pretty harmless as a westerner without much more than a notepad, a couple of pens and a pink outdated camera.
Sabrina could only follow me so far into the Dandong train station, and then I was left with the Chinese tourists who could not speak English. She told one of them to take care of me until we got Pyongyang, North Korea. From the train station there my English-speaking guide would be waiting for me and would take charge.
The North Koreans, identifiable by their red nationality pins on their chests with images of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, were heading through immigration with the Chinese tourists. The North Koreans had boxes of bananas and boxes of apples, fruit they have no access to in their own country. We were all in a huge room heading to check out through Chinese immigration. I was the only white guy in a room of about 1,000 humans. I was handed someone’s luggage to bring through immigration. That made me very uncomfortable with my North American ‘Never Carry Anyone Else’s Luggage’ background. I knew it was probably harmless, but after a couple of minutes I casually traded the luggage back to the same man for a bag that contained out lunches.
The train started to move across the nearly one-kilometer Friendship Bridge between China and North Korea and we pulled into a North Korean town called Sinuiji. That is the crossing from China to North Korea.
The train stopped at the station and North Korean immigration officials in light brown uniforms and hats were everywhere outside of our train windows. I was nervous. Why was I nervous? Likely do to the media. I have spoken with so many immigration officials in my life that there was no reason to be nervous, but this circumstance made me very uneasy.
The Chinese man who seemed to be leading the way motioned for me to get out my passport when the others got theirs out. I actually did not need him to show me what to do… I may not speak the same language, but I do have something of a sense of perception.
Immigration officials boarded the train. In our train-car, we were in sections of six with three-high rows of bunk beds. An official made his way to our section.
I was expecting stern no-nonsense faces.
The official smiled at us. I attracted a lot of attention from the locals and the tourists because I am a westerner.
The official came close to me, looked at my passport cover, and said, “Ah, Canada!” in a gentle voice.
That was my first interaction with a North Korean. He immediately softened the situation with his persona. The official was nothing like I had imagined a North Korean official would be. He exhumed a warm aura. He searched my bag with barely a look. I could have smuggled puppies into the North Korea! It was not the strict and regimented bag-search that I had been warned about.
The immigration official asked for my phone, but I was without one. The ladies in my section were scanned by a lady official with a metal detector. I was passed over by the metal detector search for some reason…
After all of our passports were taken in a giant stack opened to our photo page by the official, we disembarked from the train in the station where two trollies of snacks and goods were being sold by North Korean girls in white blouses, black skirts and stylish high-heel shoes. I had not been expecting variations of anything in this communist country… I had read somewhere that the prettiest girls are chosen to work such jobs to create good first impression. These girls were doing just that. They were also selling several products, including German and Czech Republic beer. On my Top Ten Things I have Zero Interest in Doing while in North Korea, ‘drinking beer from Germany or Czech Republic’ was certainly on the list.
One of the Chinese girls from my section bought an entire dried fish for the equivalent of $1. We had a great time taking glam shots with that fish. When our passports returned with the same official about 20 minutes later everyone got back on the train. The official went to hand mine back and said, “Meesta Canada!…” to me with a smile. It was nice. Everything was changing so fast in my mind from my previous prejudices to the present scenario.
I was not expecting any humor or personality when dealing with North Korean border agents on my Crossing from China to North Korea.
The train eventually departed the station and we headed deep into North Korea. There were three young Chinese girls on the trip who were about my age. I befriended them and got to learn that the $880 I had spent on a five day/four night trip was only $370 had I been Chinese and would have been on a four day/three night trip instead. That seems like quite a tricky amount of money for that one extra day. It must be my passport… Living and learning…
The first thing to really grab me as the train headed on the four hour trip to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, was that there were no roads anywhere and that meant that there were no cars either. Rice paddies cover the land as far as the eye can see in every direction. The paddies are built up with an intelligent system where they are terraced and irrigated from rivers within the country. The water flows through the paddies and down to the next level of paddies terraced below. Man-made channels/trenches bring the water in to the paddies, often from many many miles, and the water is distributed so that all of the paddies are constantly saturated to make the rice grow.
Farmers dot the fields to maintain the crops, and the built up field boundaries to control water flow act as walkways between fields. Often there are people on bikes riding along the narrow walkways as well. The paddies are in the open countryside, yet there are people everywhere.
Noticing North Korea:
– Occasionally there would be a large truck on a dusty path moving something (or a load of locals in the back) somewhere.
– The fields would have farmers with and ox and a one bottom wooden plough. Sometimes there would be an old tractor with steel wheels designed for being on the muddy rice paddies.
– Seeing a military tank on a train car as it is being moved across the country is quite a sight. I could not get my camera loaded quickly enough to get a photo of the scene.
– The North Korea rail hostess girls were pushing carts of snacks and beer through the train cars where we were seated. After about five passes, and me smiling at them every time, one of them winked at me. I expected them to be so shy, and she surprised me so much that I started giggling like a teenager.
– When our train tracks would cross the occasional road, there would be a soldier standing at the crossing and the arm that went across the road to keep the non-existent traffic from coming though was a wooden pole, painted in red and white colors. Sometimes the poles would be crooked and out of shape.
– At some point the train passed a monument where two sculpted bears wearing boxing gloves were sparring against each other.
– The North Korean landscape is spotlessly clean. This is unlike all other Asian nations where there are plastic bags and plastic bottles strewn about.
I was initially quite nervous about writing in a notepad on the train. The application form for a visa to visit North Korea stated that journalists were not allowed to apply. Paranoia that I could be some sort of western spy crept in during the train ride. However, there were so many things that I wanted to write down about what I was seeing and what the initial experience was like.
I had also taken a few photos, but I was edgy doing this as well. It felt like there were North Korean eyes on me when I would pull out my camera, just waiting to tell the government that there was a suspicious western man on the train with a notepad and a camera (even if it was pink!). So, I actually went into the toilet on the train with my notepad to furiously scribble down some memory trigger words about the experience. Eventually I loosened up and got comfortable jotting down notes or clicking my camera, but primarily, this was not the case.
When the China to North Korea train eventually pulled into Pyongyang and I disembarked, a young North Korean man approached me and asked, “Are you from Canada?”
“Yes, I am.”
He said, “My name is Kim, and I am your North Korea guide.”