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Overseas Study Tour of North Korea (DPRK)
October 2015

Report by Keith Jones

The LCGB advertised participation in Juche Travel Services tour to North Korea, a country which had been on my list for several years. The itinerary showed a good level of rail content. Having liaised closely with Colin Miell I decided not to travel from Moscow, Irkutsk, or Vladivostok via the Trans-Siberian, but to join at Yanji in China. The decision was vindicated when I heard reports that those travelling through Russia had shared their sleeping car with an infestation of cockroaches!

After long flights from Glasgow to Beijing via Dubai, and an overnight in the CITC Hotel near Beijing Airport, I arrived in Yanji off a China Southern flight at lunchtime on Saturday 17th October. On leaving the airport terminal the sound of a diesel horn alerted me to the sight of a DF4B Co-Co diesel with a long passenger train passing just beyond the car park boundary. An almost perfect photo opportunity…but unfortunately my cameras were packed away!

A taxi took me to the Yanbian International Hotel, a large tower block with a good view from my 20th floor room, where, to allow “recovery time”, I had booked two nights. Yanji is a modern city with a population of around 600,000, of whom about 60% are of Korean background. It was served by a frequent service of local buses.

Exploring I found that unfortunately like most Chinese stations the one at Yanji could only be entered after passing through security, so I didn’t enter. I did find a reasonable photo location where a railway bridge crossed one of the city’s main roads, missing the chance to photograph two lengthy coal trains on different occasions, hauled by powerful General Electric Co-Co freight diesels of class HXN5.

At 6pm on Sunday 18th October a motley group awaited delivery of their North Korean Tourist Visa. The writer represented the LCGB, two had booked directly with Juche Travel Services and a few more had booked through Tanago Tours of Germany. Still to arrive were several of the German group who were traveling by train, and Martin Gregg of the LCGB, who had missed a flight connection in Beijing.

As for our visas, it took a 'phone call to David Thompson of Juche Travel Service, then in Vladivostok, from Peter Patt of Tanago, to galvanize a local agent for the Korean International Travel Company to appear an hour later with our precious Tourist Visas, flimsy pieces of blue paper.

Monday 19th October - fortunately Martin had arrived safely along with the rest of the Tanago contingent. We gathered at 07.45 to board the bus for the border. Much of the way was on motorway, from which there were glimpses of railways, including a high speed line. Eventually I saw the sign denoting end of motorway in 500metres.

Sure enough we suddenly found ourselves driving on a rubble roadway. Fortunately within about 200 metres we came to a T-junction with the road to the border. About 2½ hours drive brought us to the Chinese border facilities where we left our bus, and also our not very helpful Chinese guide.

After having our passports stamped and exit cards collected, along with, for some reason, 90RMB, we joined another bus which took us over a decrepit concrete bridge into North Korea. A new road and bridge is under construction, along with new facilities at the DPRK Border post.

At the North Korean border post we were met by two very helpful tour guides who were familiar to some of those making a return visit to the country. They remained with us, or more specifically the German contingent, for the rest of the tour. We were assisted through the formalities - less onerous than I expected, but we did have to hand over passports and complete customs slips listing books, cameras, i-pads and mobile phones. Finally we boarded the third bus of the day and headed towards our immediate destination, Rason.

The roads were noticeably poorer on the North Korean side of the border. For some of the journey we passed through an area of recent flooding that had devastated local infrastructure, including the main road, so we had to drive over some particularly uncomfortable tracks.

A few kilometres from Rason a passenger train hauled by a North Korean “Red Flag” electric locomotive was seen, and it was agreed to stop the coach, although not everyone was able to exit in time for a good photograph. The driver however entered into the spirit of the occasion and the train was chased to a suitable spot where a good side-on shot could be obtained, much to the bemusement of the local residents waiting at a bus stop, who had probably rarely seen western tourists, let alone those wielding expensive cameras jockeying for a photographic position!

At lunch in a local restaurant we were joined by those who had crossed the border on the recently dual gauged bridge from Russia, and who had left their train at Tumangang. The LCGB party now totalled eight, out of a tour group of over 30. We were also met by our additional English speaking guides, including a young lady called Kim, who was nearly always smiling and was our main source of information from then on - and very helpful, informative and understanding she was, given the constraints of the system we were working under.

After lunch we had our first experience of the bizarre nature of small town tourism in the DPRK, with visits to the huge brand new statues of Kim II Sung and Kim Jong Il, where David placed flowers and the remainder of the party bowed. Next on the tourist circuit was the town’s new bank, a general store, a primary school, where we were introduced to pupils in the English language class, the harbour and a local textile factory, where a large number of ladies were making yellow hi-viz fluorescent jackets, probably to be branded as made in China!

The harbour was of particular interest as coal was imported there and then moved to Russia by rail. A small oil tanker, some fishing boats, and a Cambodian cargo boat were seen and photographed. We transferred to a local brew-pub before our meal in a local restaurant. Finally it was overnight at the Pipha Hotel, which was located next to the seashore.

Tuesday 20th October - we enjoyed a brief tour of local coastal scenery before heading to Rason station for an 09.30 departure to Chongjin in our private train, hauled by a DFH3 diesel hydraulic loco. number 923 - believed second hand from China (there is a similar locomotive in the Beijing Railway Museum). Two ex BLS corridor first class carriages, a first class sleeper with en suite facilities, a second class sleeper, and a restaurant car staffed by two attractive young ladies, accompanied the train, plus various uniformed officials, including railway police and an official Video photographer from the tourist organisation.

For much of the way we travelled along the coast, with some excellent scenery, an aspect of North Korea about which I was unaware. Several trains were passed on this stretch, including passenger, freight and military workings. Signalling seemed to be a mixture of semaphore and colour light.

Over the next few days we were to travel over electrified routes, but diesel and electric motive power was equally in evidence. In recent years there have been reports that trains in North Korea can be long delayed due to power cuts and locomotive unreliability. Perhaps that is why we were diesel hauled throughout.

Electrically hauled trains seen were largely in the hands of what are collectively referred to as “Red Flag” electrics of earlier or later varieties; the earlier machines were effectively Skoda E499.1 class machines, as used on Czech railways; later versions being more angular in appearance. There were four or six axle versions and also a two section articulated heavy freight version.

The most common diesels noted were Chinese built DF4s, I suspect acquired second hand. Several Kolomna M62s were seen, and a couple more DFH3s. North Korea acquired at least 56 M62 locomotives from Russia over the period 1967 to 1995, with another 50 from DB, PKP and Slovakia in the late 1990s. Two more were assembled locally. At least 15 of the original batch were converted to 3000v DC electric and a few of these were also seen during the trip. Some Russian TEM1 road switchers and a derivative of the Czech class 748 shunting diesel were also in evidence.

Also noted were various electric locomotives converted from TEM1 and other diesels, and some “home made” machines, both locomotives and permanent way equipment. A few EMUs were also seen –conversions to 3000 volts of former Pyongyang metro trains, both the original Chinese designed units, and the very box-like ex Berlin Stock built in the 1980s. Unfortunately it is quite difficult to work out the origins of much of the locomotive fleet, as it is only now that information is becoming available on the internet, and some of it is conflicting!

Reaching Chongjin at about noon we were again met by a senior representative of the local tourist organisation, and were taken once more to pay homage to the former leaders at a statue identical to the one visited the previous day! Thereafter we were taken to the main square for a trolleybus ride at a pedestrian pace, thanks to the poor condition of the overhead. Daytime frequencies appeared to be every 20 to 30 minutes.

Then we returned to the station for the big surprise of the tour, spending the rest of the afternoon with steam motive power, thus resolving the several year’s speculation as to whether any steam locomotives were still operational in the country!

What appeared to be a Japanese built 2-6-2T, No.1319, stated to still be used at the local steelworks hauling coal wagons, was turned out in immaculate condition and attached to our two Swiss carriages. Perhaps the only thing out of place was the slogan above the smokebox door.

Ample opportunity was given for photography before the train pulled out, after which we followed it in our buses to river and canal bridges, where more photography was encouraged. We then headed for the outskirts of the city, with an opportunity to photograph from the bus the city’s only tram line, which has a fleet of Tatra T65Bs in a blue and white livery. There is a single route with kerbside running, connecting the steelworks with residential areas.

At Kyongsong Station, about 20km from Chongjin, the locomotive was detached but ran forward into a hilly section where further photos. were taken. There then followed some parallel running between our road vehicles and 1319 on a section where road and rail ran side by side.

To conclude a very professionally organized afternoon, we were returned to Kyongsong, and joined the train for a pleasant journey back bunker first to Chongjin Station, passing the steelworks where another 2-6-2T, No.1718, was seen dumped.

The day concluded with a visit to the Sailors’ Club for a draft beer, then to a restaurant for a meal and Korean musical entertainment, and eventually to the Chongjin Tourist Hotel for a welcome sleep, to be followed by a very early rise.

Wednesday 21st October - an early start at just after 05.00 from our hotel was followed by an 05.30 start from Chongjin station. No.923 was still in charge, and indeed remained so until we reached Pyongyang.

Around dawn we passed a passenger train hauled by a red and white liveried “Red Flag” electric; buffet breakfast was served in the restaurant car, as we continued southwards, again mainly following the coast.

From Chongjin the line was noticeably busier with passenger, freight and military trains. Flat wagons carrying military vehicles each carried several soldiers on guard - on a cold and miserable day one could only sympathise with these men, some of whom were clustered round makeshift fires on the trucks. Others sat in vehicle cabs.

In one case a fire had been lit on the track below the wagon to provide a primitive form of underfloor heating! Obviously a substantial delay was anticipated. After a long day, our private train arrived in Hamhung at about 18.45, and we were taken by coach to the 5* Majon Hotel.

Thursday 22nd October - another dull day with some drizzle as we toured Hamhung and the adjoining city of Hungnam, served by a trolleybus network. Inevitably the tour started at the Grand Monument to pay homage to the erstwhile leaders, followed by a visit to the Hungnam Fertiliser Factory! Production was however suspended for annual maintenance, but we were taken to a couple of areas within the factory to view the machinery, with an opportunity to photograph their diesel shunter.

Paralleling the tracks of the narrow gauge Hamhung-Hungnam commuter railway, we travelled to the Traditional Old House of Hamhung Bongnung, used by a former King of Korea. As we were leaving we saw a red and yellow electric locomotive on the narrow gauge line and a quick bus departure allowed a further photographic opportunity about a mile along the road, as we headed back towards the main line station.

Our train left at about 12 noon for Wonsan, which was reached about 15.00. As we left Hamhung there was a good photo opportunity of the narrow gauge railway depot. At Wonsan, another seaport, where the trolleybus system appeared dormant, we were taken to the Old Railway Station Revolutionary Museum, from where Kim Il Sung departed for Pyongyang after the defeat of the Japanese in 1945.

A Japanese built Pacific, bearing the number 3, is displayed in the old station building, along with a carriage. After also visiting the city’s new orphanage, we headed to the 5* Masikryong hotel, which serves a modern ski resort, although reached by a very rough concrete road. Unfortunately arrival and departure were in darkness, so we didn’t have an opportunity to admire the views.

Friday 24th October - we had another early departure, leaving the hotel at 06.10 for a 07.00 departure from Wonsan, for a journey over the route by way of Sunchon, Kaechong and Kujang to Hyangsan, a line over which we were apparently the first tourists to travel. Again electrified, the journey involved a reversal at (Kaechong?). The line is very scenic, but again weather conditions meant we could not see the mountains at their best.

For the last half hour or so as we approached Hyangsan we followed the Chongchung River, with its many hydro-electric dams. We reached our destination at about 17.00, taking the opportunity to photograph an ex-East Berlin U-Bahn train converted to a 3000v DC EMU. There was also an interesting ground frame located on one of the platforms. Thereafter we were met by the coaches that we would use for the remainder of the tour, and conveyed to the 5* Hyangsan Hotel.

Saturday 24th October - sunshine at last! Our hotel was surrounded by glorious autumn foliage. We were today visiting the International Friendship Exhibition, a vast celebration of the personality cult surrounding the country’s leaders over the previous 70 years, as exemplified by gifts donated from Countries, organisations and individuals.

What was on display was fascinating, and represented most countries of the world, from small items such as pottery, pens and paintings, to the star of the show, an Ilyushin 14 aircraft, effectively a Russian version of the Dakota, donated by Stalin. There were two presidential rail carriages donated respectively by Stalin and Mao Zedung in 1945 and 1953 respectively, along with two armoured limousines, one weighing 8 tonnes, donated again by the ever generous Josef Stalin. We did not have time to see a second pavilion with gifts to Kim Jong Il.

After a chance to enjoy a tea or coffee, while also enjoying the glorious scenery in which this extravaganza is located, we moved to the adjacent Pohyon Temple and adjoining buildings, which represent the Buddhist faith, and appear to be well looked after by an active Buddhist community. It was then back to the hotel for a Korean barbecue lunch before heading to the station for our 15.00 departure for Pyongyang.

We retraced the route of the previous evening along the Chongchun River. Again at most loops we either passed or overtook trains, either diesel or electrically hauled. Freights were often loaded with sacks of what I presumed was rice. Indeed as we got closer to Pyongyang, agriculture seemed more productive.

After darkness descended we approached the bright lights of Pyongyang, and at about 19.00 the main station was reached, and final photographs taken of No.923 and our train. The attractive façade was floodlit, and also made a good photograph before we were whisked away to the twin towers of the nearby Koryo Hotel, where we “enjoyed” a somewhat mediocre meal.

Sunday 25th October - another day of sunshine. I was able to enjoy the view from my room, which included the loco. sidings and roundhouse. Our day started with a tour of the Metro, covering both of Pyongyang’s underground lines, with many opportunities to photograph trains, and station interiors, which were usually highly decorated, and illustrating in romantic style the development of the country and the enduring influence of Kim Il Sung. Trains are former West Berlin D class twin units, coupled into 4 car sets painted red and light green, and numbered in the 700 and 800 series.

They are well maintained and looked after, the only sign of graffiti being scratches on the windows in German! Published information states that 108 sets comprising 216 carriages were purchased in 1999, replacing Chinese built trains, some of which were transferred to main line usage, or returned to Beijing. The depot is several kilometers north of Pyongyang and appears to be accessed over main line railway tracks. Almost unlimited photo. opportunities were allowed and we travelled in some very crowded trains. Train despatch from stations was in the hands of uniformed young ladies in white ankle socks…also a feature of the female traffic police uniform!

We were then taken for another Korean Buffet lunch on a floating restaurant, which also doubled as a venue for wedding photos. The boat undertook a circuit of the river between two bridges, with opportunities to photograph dredging, canoeing and water-skiing! Attached to our boat were two motor boats - when static one was occupied by a fisherman, the other by two gentlemen with smart suits and dark sunglasses, giving a good impersonation of secret policemen!

After lunch we walked to the international bookshop, before heading to the Mansudae Fountain Park, where homage was paid to extremely large statues of the two leaders, located between Soviet style heroic statuary. The park itself was very attractive in the autumn sunshine, and close at hand were some of Pyongyang’s most prestigious high-rise flats.

Then to the Juche Tower, from where superb views over the city were obtained, followed by the Three Charters Monument, with giant hammer, pen and sickle. It was a short walk from there to an art gallery, after which it was back to our hotel and dinner.

Monday 26th October - rain returned, but fortunately the day was dedicated to museum and other visits, starting with the Mansudae Artists Studios, an area dedicated to Ceramics manufacture, art galleries, etc., where the country’s most talented artists were said to carry out their trade. Then to the Three Revolutions Exhibition, where we visited the Technology Hall. Outside, but under cover, was a display of rail and road vehicles.

Rail vehicles included two locomotives manufactured in DPRK, including a locally assembled M62 diesel and an electric locomotive. It was not clear whether they were mechanically complete. A selection of modern carriages and wagons were also on display; the road vehicles included a modern trolleybus and various lorries and tractors. Inside was a large hall dedicated to engineering, particularly mining, but also transport, shipping, manufacturing in North Korea and architecture. Next we were taken to The Grand People’s Study House (or City Library) - visits were made to an English Language Class, and a Music Laboratory, where we briefly listened to music by the Beatles!

After lunch in a restaurant, conveniently close to a tramline, we visited the Pyongyang Metro Museum situated in a huge building in the city-centre. This consisted of various rooms illustrated with photos and maps showing construction of the system. At the entrance a huge painting representing the opening by Kim Il Sung welcomed us, and inside there was also a superb diorama showing the construction.

Having enjoyed photo. opportunities galore during our visit to the system the previous day, it was somewhat disappointing to be faced with a strictly no photography policy, except for the items mentioned in the previous sentence! There were several interesting models, along with a full size motor bus, with rail wheels added, used by Kim Il Sung when visiting tunnel construction work, which would have made innocuous enough camera subjects!

The day was completed by a visit to the National Liberation War Memorial Museum, recently subject to an extravagant refurbishment, and containing a vast selection of photographs, relics and dioramas of the wars leading to the liberation from Japan, and thereafter the founding of a separate South Korea. Perhaps the interpretation of history would appear unusual to us.

Although the 'no photography' rule applied to the inside exhibits, outside, but under cover, were various relics of the Korean War, those on one side of the park being from the defeated side, with the mangled remains of American equipment and captured weaponry, including a helicopter. On the other side, in pristine condition, were Korean and Russian weaponry, including several MIG aircraft.

We were also given a guided tour over the 'USS Pueblo', the USA’s spy ship, captured in 1968. In the evening our meal was taken at the Pyongyang Pizza Restaurant, a pleasant change from local cuisine, and with a variety of toppings served.

Tuesday 27th October - this was our day visiting the DMZ and Kaeseong, little of rail interest, but a fascinating day nonetheless. We drove down a deserted dual carriageway, stopping at the Sohung Tea House, a restaurant built over the road Motorway style, but almost devoid of passing trade, except for our party.

Once we reached the DMZ itself, we had to wait for our military guide, who was an affable individual. Although a sensitive area, there was no problem with photography, either in the pavilions where the 1953 Armistice negotiations were held and the Agreement was signed, or elsewhere within the 2km sector of the zone in DPRK.

We were then taken to the border itself. On the South Korean side there were various buildings which appeared to contain high-tech monitoring equipment. On the actual border there is a row of buildings which are little more than huts. The central one is the Military Armistice Commission Negotiating Hall, and this is where most tour parties are taken. In the middle is a table and halfway across this lies the border, on the 38th Parallel. Most of the party spent a few moments south of the border, to add South Korea to the list of countries they have set foot in!

We returned to the city of Kaesong (noting some concrete tank traps set close to the border) for a traditional lunch in the Kaesong Folklore Hotel. This meant sitting on the floor at a table only a few inches above ground level. Unlike at least several other LCGB members, I turned down the offer of a local delicacy for an additional 5 Euro… soup - very tasty I was told! It was interesting to see two South Korean coaches and a car at the Restaurant parking area on a special tour to see the local folklore sites. Of interest was that their registration plates were covered over.

After visiting the UNESCO listed folklore museum, the stamp shop, and an ancient bridge which is also a UNESCO Heritage Site, we returned to Pyongyang after a full and fascinating day.

Wednesday 28th October - another sunny day. A not too early start, as we first headed to a park containing the cottage said to be Kim Il Sung’s birthplace. It was adjacent to North Korea’s version of Disneyland, an amusement park with a monorail and cable car.

Next stop was the tram depot for route 1, where we joined our special Tatra KT8 tram No.1002 for a journey to the main station. We learned that trams and trolleybuses are allocated to individual drivers, who return their vehicles to the depot on finishing their shift. They are awarded a star, proudly displayed on the vehicle, for every 50,000 km of safe travel.

Our tram had a large number of stars, and was also purported to have been travelled on by Kim Il Sung at the opening ceremony of the system in 1991. After a couple of photo. stops we had a lengthy ride, taking in Kwangbok Street. We alighted at the station where there is a turning circle; at one time the line here proceeded further and crossed the river to serve other areas of the city, including the Three Charters Monument, but this route was closed due to issues with the bridge. After a few minutes a coupled TatraT3 set arrived, Nos 1197/1198, disgorged its passengers and then we boarded. It had previously served in Prague, and from photographs of previous tours this set, along with 1002, are the trams generally allocated for special group use. Pyongyang also has a fleet of T6/5B trams, and second-hand T4s from several German systems.

For a full review of the operations see Light Rail and Urban Transport’s Factfile 87, published in the December 2014 edition of the magazine, but also on the LRTA’s website. We returned not to the depot, but to a restaurant for yet another buffet lunch. In the afternoon we enjoyed two trolleybus rides, one in an elderly articulated vehicle, with too many stars to count, and the other a slightly newer single unit. We returned to the hotel by way of a walkabout in central Pyongyang. We also had the chance for some evening photography, before our (also rather mediocre) farewell dinner.

Thursday 29th October - another sunny day, so we walked to the station to enjoy a last chance for street photography - the luggage went by bus! At the station we said farewell to our guides before joining the sleeper for Beijing. We were in a North Korean carriage, but built in China to modern Chinese specification. Departure was at 10.10 with a North Korean crew. Indeed one of the dining car waitresses had served us on our special train the previous week.

With one stop at Jongju we reached the border at Sinuiju at 14.57, slightly late. There followed a prolonged border stop, where passports were taken away, customs forms checked and various other formalities were carried out. Eventually an hour late we bade farewell to the DPRK at 17.43. Crossing the International Friendship Bridge, the bright lights of China prefaced our arrival at Dandong station ten minutes later at 17.23, allowing for the time difference of 30 minutes between time zones, for still more formalities. The current bridge parallels the remains of an earlier bridge partly demolished by American bombing in the Korean War. The Chinese side was left untouched.

We had seen a great deal of North Korea, with not too many restrictions in respect of photography. We had hoped to ride the Hamhung Narrow Gauge, but that was not achieved, neither was a visit to the metre gauge tram line using ex. Zurich Swiss Standard trams to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are buried. We were also told that the Railway Museum in Pyongyang was closed for maintenance.

Our train journeys proceeded smoothly, and to time. Pyongyang presented itself as a modern city receiving a lot of investment. The same could not be said for outlying towns and rural areas. As a first time visitor I felt safe, except on some of the most potholed roads, and the country was certainly not as intimidating as press reports imply. The lack of freedom to explore on your own, even in Pyongyang, is restrictive, but there is an impression that the country is becoming more at ease with visitors, and I suspect this rule will change in a few years.

Everyone steered clear of discussing politics. The country is pleasantly free of motor traffic, but vehicle numbers are growing, particularly in Pyongyang -maybe the famous traffic girls will soon have to work for a living! More steam tours are promised in future years using a couple of Chinese built JF 2-8-2s.

After our carriage was shunted to another platform and attached at the very end of an internal Chinese train, departure from Dandong was at 18.45, after some of the lost time had been recovered. As soon as we had safely left the border area, the crew in our carriage started unscrewing the panels leading to the false ceilings above the vestibules and removed various well wrapped boxes - some form of smuggling was obviously taking place!

After we passed the steelworks town of Benxi it was time to sleep. Dawn was before 07.00, and soon we were amidst the choked road network and high-rise flats around Beijing, where we arrived on time at 08.30.

Farewells were said, but Colin, Steve and Lorna Clark and I were booked on the 13.05 High Speed train from Beijing East Station to Guangzhou South. In the meantime there was an opportunity to sample the Metro and walk through Tiananmen Square in glorious sunshine - one of the rare clear days in the city. In Beijing even Metro stations have baggage scanners. How long before this becomes commonplace in Europe?

The substantial nature of the new High Speed network was evident as we made our way at 300kph through relatively flat scenery until darkness set in. There were about a dozen stops during the journey, all in brand new and extensive stations. After a prompt arrival at Guangzhou at 22.20, we made our way by Metro to our respective hotels, Colin and I to the Vertical City complex, where our hotel accommodation was eventually found after considerable difficulty and confusion!

Saturday 31st October - by Metro from Vertical City to Canton Tower, where we were able to photograph the tramway opened in December 2014. Based on super-capacitor technology, the tramline is wireless except in stations. Then to the East Station for the departure formalities prior to joining the 12.03 to Kowloon/Hong Kong. Unfortunately our booked seats on a full train were close to the bulkhead, severely limiting what could be seen from the carriage windows.

After a somewhat pedestrian journey Hung Hom Station, Kowloon, was reached a few minutes late at 14.10. It was but a short walk to our hotel, the Bauhinia, in Tsim Sha Tsui, near the vibrant Nathan Road area and very close to the shuttle bus to the Airport train. After over two weeks of Korean and Chinese food it was good to be able to buy a Marks and Spencer sandwich!

The next couple of days were spent enjoying the trams, busses and ferries of Hong Kong, before Colin and I departed on the 18.00 Etihad flight, via Abu Dhabi, back to the UK.