Overseas Study Tour of North Korea (DPRK)
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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…..dog 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.
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
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.
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
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.