Thursday, 16 March 2017

Crossing the border: a fascinating train journey to Dandong in China

ALLIE: DAY 29: Thursday, 15th of March

Pyongyang to Dandong by train and crossing the Yalu river into ‘freedom’!

On board of the train from Pyongyang to Dandong!
Finally a decent night and a jog around the hotel complex (you are not allowed to proceed any further!). It’s time to say good-bye. We get to the railway station (picture not allowed!) and receive our train tickets to Dandong – the ticket to freedom. 

A final chat with our guides and I am wondering what they think. It must be an awful feeling to see others depart into a somehow ‘free’ and ‘modern’ country like China and having to stay here with all the propaganda and hardships and restrictions. 

But maybe they really believe in Juche, in the Dear Leader and in the great revolution and think we are just decadent westerners with no sense of the real goals in life. Who knows? It’s difficult to read their minds and they won’t talk about it.

Then we board our compartment which we share – to our great delight – not with some North Korean officials, but with two Chinese business men. Punctually at 10.10am the train sets off and slowly makes its way out of the city. We pop out the camera and start shooting out of the window.

Street scene somewhere along the tracks
Kim’s last words to us were a surprise. He said, ‘you can take pictures, but be careful when you are in the stations!’. So now we finally try to take all the forbidden countryside shots that we weren’t allowed to take earlier on during our trip. How strange is that? 

But of course shooting out of an travelling train through reflecting glass is not very easy and our first ‘oxen’ and ‘farmer’ shots are screwed but then we develop a certain technique and end up being more successful.

farming life in the DPRK
Farmhouses, red flags on the fields, ancient looking tractors, people walking, people ploughing the fields by hand, masses of people on a community work job, more oxen and people working on the fields, factories pumping smoke in the air, some lovely pine trees on the hills and empty roads.

I start chatting to the Chinese in Chinese. They came by invitation of their Korean business friends from a steal manufacturer. We exchange our experiences of not being allowed to take pictures (the same) and walking around on your own (not the same, since nobody could tell that they were not North Koreans!),

Prices (yes we agree they were horrendous) and the general backward way of everything we saw (agree). Later on I walk around our train cabin only to find that the two ‘soft sleepers’ are full with Chinese and only a very few Koreans. Most of the Chinese seem to be business men. I am not allowed to walk into second class, but every time the trains stops at the stations I see people walking off the train packed to their limits with heavy bags and goods.

3pm, arrival at the border. 

Serious looking border guards with big hats (the bigger the hat the more socialist the country!) enter the train and want to check our passports. The guys hardly speak any English nor do they speak proper Chinese. So communication turns out to be a real challenge. ‘Your name?’, ‘Address in DPRK?’, ‘What country?

Paper work is to be filled out and to be filled out again. ‘What in your bags?’ We are afraid that they might start to check our camera, but luckily they are somehow more interested in the two Chinese then in us. The guards really pester them and make the Chinese unbutton their trousers and belts and body search them! 

We get more and more scared. Then the guard asks for the camera and looks through the pictures of the Chinese. Oh God, please not our precious photographs! But then suddenly the guards disappear. How lucky is that?

Skyline of Dandong, just across the Yalu river
We have to wait nearly two hours. Then the guards are back, with our stamped passports and the train starts gradually to move towards the river Yalu. The bridge across this large river determines the border between the two countries. 

Across to the other side we can see the first high rise buildings, lots of cars and the red Chinese flag. Switch on the mobile phone – back to communication with the world again!

On the other side is Dandong, the border town. We roll into the train station and get checked again by the Chinese border guards. But what a difference! Nice smiles on their faces, just a quick check of our visas and in we are. The’ Land of the Free’, that’s how we feel after a week in DPRK!

Posh cars and a big statue of Mao in the center of Dandong
We are greeted by Chris, a young Chinese with a nose pin and funky looking clothes. Our car is a black, brand new Mercedes with all the fancy electrical kit you could imagine. The streets of Dandong are actually full of posh and expensive looking cars – the difference between here and there couldn’t be bigger! 

The only thing that reminds you of the past similarities between the two socialist (or even communist) countries, is the big Mao statue standing in front of the train station. But here Mao doesn’t look towards Korea, no he stretches his hand out and points towards Beijing and the west!

A two minutes drive takes us to our hotel called the ‘Da Lian Jiu Dian’ right in the middle of town facing the bridge. Chris leaves us to ourselves and there we are: free to wander around town wherever we want to, however long we want to and we can take pictures without asking. It really feels strange in the beginning. 
A GnT followed by beer and soup! Cheers!

But we thoroughly enjoy our little freedom stroll along the promenade. There are bars, restaurants and loads of massage parlours. All the houses and high rise blocks are brand new. 

We decide that we have to celebrate with a GnT at the hotel bar and later, after dinner, allow ourselves to be treated with a relaxing foot massage. We feel really happy!  

PHIL: Day 28/15 March

ESCAPE! After 5 days steeped in a overpowering broth of Animal Farm, 1984 and Lord of the Flies we board the thrice-weekly Pyongyang-Beijing Express. Muted ‘goodbyes’ are exchanged, during which Mr Kim emphasizes that we will not be able to contact him directly on any matter in future, and my mobile phone is returned to me still wrapped tightly in its brown countersigned envelope. 

new tractors arriving somewhere in the countryside of the DPRK

We are instructed not to use it until after crossing into China, but Mr Kim suggests we may be able to take ‘one or two’ photographs of the countryside through the train window. None must be taken at stations, goods yards etc, however. There is a distinct impression that our ‘minders’ are relieved to be rid of us.

Initially we think we may have our compartment to ourselves, but just as the train pulls out two men join us. To our relief Allie soon establishes they are Chinese businessmen returning from a visit concerning steel production. She engages them in Putonghua and they openly compare DPRK with the China of 30 years previously, whilst preparing their own cameras to shoot previously forbidden rural scenes. 

Working on an irrigation project
We follow suit. The countryside between Pyongyang and the border with PRC is heavily cultivated with wet rice but little else. 

Only occasionally does a tractor seem to have supplanted bullock carts and single-share wooden ploughs. Communes of traditional ceramic-tiled single-storey houses dot the rolling landscape.

After four hours the train pulls up at Shinijo, the last town before the Yalu river. Three hours are spent whilst a variety of Korean officials in uniform (and a pack of sniffer-dogs) swarm over the two carriages destined for China inspecting belongings and our persons, including asking the Chinese to drop their trousers. We have an anxious moment as a random check of camera images is made, but we had the prescience to insert a memory card from earlier in our visit. 
new housing blocks along the train line to Dandong
Finally the truncated train rumbles slowly over the cantilever bridge into China at Dandong.

I see a group of soldiers jump smartly to attention and salute as we pass a guard post beside the Chinese flag and am , after only five days, so conditioned to military sensitivities that I fail to take a photograph.

Welcome to the 'free China'!

We all breathe an audible sigh as the station announcer blares in English as well as Chinese “ welcome to Dandong, China”.

Our rather dizzy local tour guide, dressed in black jeans and a shell-suit top, has a brand-new Hyundai saloon with driver ready to take us the 500m to our hotel. 

Allie needs her ‘digestivo’ walk after seven hours cooped up in a train, so we walk the Dandong riverfront promenade faced with high-rise blocks, some of which are still under construction.

A few hundred metres to the east across the Yalu we can see the sun setting on shabby, derelict houses and smoking chimneys. The contrast with DPRK is complete.


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