Nervously we sat, not daring to leave our train cabin. A border guard was searching through our bags and asking questions. But this was no ordinary border and this was no ordinary border guard, for we were attempting to leave the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Would everything be checked in minute detail? Would most of our purchases be confiscated and photographs deleted?
We were on the T28 train, from Pyongyang to Beijing, about to pass over the border crossing, from Sinuiju across the river Dandong in China. More of that in a moment. I had been in the DPRK for only four days, although it felt like four months. Our small group had seen key sites in Pyongyang, rattled along a bumpy road to Kaesong in order to experience country life and see the Demilitarised Zone, and given a full dose of the DPRK’s perspective on the world. We were a sceptical liberals, social democrats, curious seekers for a real communist experience, and some older travellers with a wiser view of the world. Oh yes, a few communists were among us, keen to see old style communism still in action.
But the rail journey was a real highlight, albeit for a handful of us brave enough to travel in such a fashion. Soon enough I realised that the rest, who had opted to fly out, had really missed an extraordinary opportunity. At Pyongyang station, I was astounded at the platform: not at the architecture or layout, but at the sheer number of northern Koreans. Were they seeing off visitors, I wondered? Were they here for the sight of foreigners in their ‘closed’ country? No, they were heading out of the country for work, study, sport and what have you. I should not have been amazed by now, but old preconceptions linger. Yet each day, the T28 train leaves Pyongyang for the 24-hour journey to Beijing, full of northern Koreans, while the T27 does the journey the other way, bringing Koreans back to their country. So much for the ‘closed’ borders.
Some wore the badges of rank in the government. These were lapels pinned to one’s shirt or top. In some cases, both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il appeared on the background of a DPRK flag. In other cases, it was a single image of Kim Jong-Il in a small circle. The Russians once called them the nomenklatura – those who had shown their loyalty to the government over generations and were thereby given extra privileges. I could not help thinking of the Christian church during the Middle Ages – the last time another ideology was dominant in states. And I could not help appreciating the need to ensure that significant numbers have an investment in keeping the show on the road. They have done so now for almost 70 years.
Departing Pyongyang Station, we trundled along at a perfect pace for rail travel – about 50 kilometres per hour. Our eyes looked outward, watching the countryside roll slowly by. The train passes northward from Pyongyang, in between towering and mountain ranges capped with snow even in early summer. The narrow valley was full of crops in every conceivable corner that was remotely level – even between the railway lines. Not to be outdone by the rugged landscape, farmers also grew hardy crops on hillsides. Arable land is valuable indeed, dotted as it was with groups of soldiers and farmers working the fields. Some mechanisation was evident, but the methods – especially for the rice paddies – still used traditional hand methods.
Time passed, we talked, found our own spaces, and continued to peer out of the windows. And then it struck me: the land and its villages were incredibly clean and tidy. In Pyongyang and the other towns, I had seen many groups taking care of their collective public space, ensuring that the city remained spotless. But the countryside too was clean. Not a stray piece of paper or can or wrapper was to be seen. Did people reuse everything? I wondered. Is this a cultural tradition or perhaps due to the simpleness of life?
By now I began to feel the pangs of hunger, as did my fellow travellers. I asked a conductor in broken Chinese: is there a dining car? Apparently not, even though the brochure boasted of such a car. My companions looked askance and tightened their belts. Until I mentioned that I had some food. Ever a cautious traveller, I had stocked up with various goods on the platform at Pyongyang: water, rice crackers, fresh vegetables and fruits. My stock became the lost dining car, supplying the five of us with necessary sustenance. Yet my stocks were not designed to last the whole journey and soon ran out. To our relief, at dusk and in China, many carriages were added – including a resplendent dining car with somewhat inflated prices. All of us made our way there, to stock up with freshly cooked food and Chinese beer.
Yet before we could get to China, we had that border crossing to negotiate, on empty stomachs.
Back to our friend, the khaki-clad border guard: he questioned me about my mobile phone, since he did not quite seem to believe that all I had was an old Nokia. ‘No smart phone?’ he said. ‘No, this is it’, I said. All of the books I had bought – mostly authored by Kim Il-Sung – drew scant attention. Not so a book carried by one of my travel companions. ‘What is about?’ He asked. ‘Who is that?’ He said, pointing to the cover. It happened to be a book about a Chinese philosopher and not a foreign book about the DPRK (of which they are wary).
Another companion had a large and prominent camera, to which our guard was drawn. He sat down and skimmed through the pictures. She was nervous indeed, for she had photographed pretty much everything in town and country. The guard spun expertly through the hundreds of photos and stopped at one. It was of two women in the countryside, topless and washing clothes. Our guard laughed! Yes, he laughed and said, ‘You can’t keep that one’. My companion laughed with him, apologised and deleted the photograph. But that was it. The rest were perfectly fine.
The examination turned out to be cursory and focused. We soon realised that our anxiety was generated by stories we had heard about leaving the DPRK. Everything would be checked in careful detail, we had been told by earlier venturers. Art work would be confiscated, most photographs deleted; even socks would be turned inside out to find anything prohibited. Not so, it turned out. The guards were polite and efficient, doing a job. The art work I had purchased was not even checked, my camera was given a quick glance and not examined, and my socks remained in my bag, along with everything else.
And so we passed into China. Immediately, the contrast was obvious. How can one socialist country be so different from another? From quiet order we passed to typically noisy Chinese chaos. From painful politeness, we were immersed in Chinese openness. From simplicity we passed to complexity, from relative poverty and smallness, to relative wealth and sheer vastness.
We had little time to experience the contrast, for it was dark by the time we left Dandong, after yet another and even more cursory border check. So we settled into our bunks. ‘Soft sleepers’ they are called by local standards. If you have ever slept on a real Chinese or Korean bed, they were indeed soft. For many of us, they seemed hard enough. But that did not prevent my companions from snoring the night away. Nor did it prevent me.
Too soon Beijing arrived, my second home. Out the front of the bustling Beijing Central Station, we parted with a shake and a thanks. As is the way with travel companions thrown together for a few days, only one of them contacted me by email afterwards. Her email was laden with photographs – the ones that the border guard had waved through with a well-practised glance.