Tunneling Beneath the City
The DPRK has excellent tunneling technology, and in P'yongyang it is visible to us when we make our guided visit to the local metro. The tour is between 2 stations only, Puhung, near the Mansudae Art Studios, and Yonggwang, close to the Pyongyang Railway Station. The stations are the most recently built, on the Cholima Line.
Your guides will secure your entrance, so sadly, no opportunity for a souvenir ticket. When we visited, the stations were relatively uncrowded, and it was easy for us to secure seats on the train for the short journey. The long escalator ride brings us nearly 100m down to the platforms.
Both stations are are grandly decorated, reminiscent of the circle line stations of the Moscow metro. The rolling stock seems similarly familiar. A mosaic view of P'yongyang and its monuments graces the walls of Yonggwang's platform, whilst a beaming Kim il Sung accompanied by factory workers standing before a golden industrial backdrop of socialist plenty gazes down the length of Puhung. Both stations are lit by multicolored chandeliers.
On posts on the platform are copies of the local newspaper, provided for the commuters.
We board the train at Puhung, accompanied by and are whisked off down the line. Dear Leader and Great Leader watch over our group as we travel and disembark. our guides ensure that no one is left behind! There is time for photos to be taken at Yonggwang, before we are disgorged once more into P'yongyang's autumn sunshine, to snap photos of the environs of the station before being met by our trusty tour bus.
Flight from Beijing
Apart from Air China, the only other way in to North Korea by air is with their national carrier - Air Koryo - infamous for being the only airline to be rated 1 star currently by Skytrax. As part of my trip itinerary, I flew in from Beijing with Air Koryo on an old looking Russian plane called an Ilyushin II-62M that, I think, was built in the 1970's. The first photo of it is at Beijing whilst the 2nd and 3rd are at Pyongyang. I sat next to two German ladies, one of which has been working in North Korea for the last couple of years helping them out with agriculture as they have suffered from bad floods in recent years. The plane was surprisingly fairly full with a mixture of western and Chinese tourists and businessmen and North Koreans allowed out on good behaviour in order to do business with the Chinese.
I got given two pieces of reading material - the first was called "The Pyongyang Times" which was a very thin A3 newspaper with a few photos on the front of Kim Jong Il visiting some industrial complex. The date at the top was Saturday, May 31, Juche 97 (2008). Juche is the official state ideology of North Korea which was developed by Kim Il Sung. Juche 97 is 97 years after his birth in 1912. The second piece of reading material was a nice large A3 glossy magazine with some very nice photo's, some of which look very staged and look like they could have come straight out of a 1970's fashion catalogue. The first sentence I read from it was "Korea fell into ruins owing to the three-year war (June 1950-July 1953) provoked by the US imperialists." And this was even before we had even landed in North Korea! (there's a website you can visit - see below. Click on "The Pyongyang Times" or “Korea" for online past editions).
Food was served during the flight which was rice, some kind of pork and potato dish with sauce, salad, sponge cake and tinned like fruit. It would have been better if it wasn't all stone cold. Drinks were also served and I helped myself to my first introduction to North Korean beer which was frothy and strong tasting. We came in to land over 100's of rice paddy fields with dark brown soil in the middle of nowhere with just a few buildings dotted around, after being in the air for a couple of hours. We all then got off and headed to the small terminal building full of guards and airport officials. Passport control was a breeze and then I had to wait for my bag which was then scanned through an X-ray machine. I was asked if I was carrying a mobile phone or a laptop to which I replied no and I then walked out to where my fellow tour members were waiting beside a small bus. I managed to get my copy of Lonely Planet Korea through but I had to show my camera and iPod which I then took through with me. Easy! I was expecting a full bag search and for it to take ages but there was no such thing. People even got their laptops back but mobile phones were confiscated, only to be returned at the end of the trip.
Metro system to P'yongyang
When your in Busan and you want to travel to P'yongyang you should take a train using the metro system. The Korea Railroad (KORAIL) operates three types of trains ― high-speed (KTX), express (Saemaeul), and local (Mugunhwa) ― along an extensive nationwide network. The KTX trains link Seoul with Busan, Mokpo, East Daegu, Gwangju and Iksan. Since even the longest KTX trip is under three hours, there are no dining cars, but passengers can purchase snacks and beverages from service carts provided.
This was one of the main things I was looking forward to in Pyongyang - a ride on the city's metro. Firstly, we entered down some steps off a street into Yonggwang station which is located just to the north of the main overland railway station. We hung around by some ticket barriers waiting for our guides to get coin tokens which cost 5 won each (about 4 US cents). We were shown an electrically operated map on the wall which showed us 2 lines - the north-south Chollima line (named after a mythical flying horse, the Korean Pegasus) and east-west Hyoksin (Renovation) line. When you pressed a certain button at the button of the map, the relevant station would light up to tell you its location - futuristic stuff! There are 17 known stations altogether, although it is believed that more lines and secret stations exist for military and government officials. Stations have names like Paradise (Rakwon), Triumph (Jonsung), Renovation (Hyoksin) and Reunification (Tongli) which beat our boring station names like Baker Street and Paddington on the London Underground! The whole metro system is entirely underground and is the world's deepest with many stations being more than 100 metres below the surface. We were lead down a step, long escalator with no advertising on the walls unlike any other metro system I've been on and reached the platforms which features lovely wall murals and sculptures. The best thing at this particular station are the enormous chandeliers which are coloured pink, green and yellow. A train came in to the station whilst we were taking everything in and taking photo's and a whole crowd of well dressed people got off and walked past us without taking much notice of us in jeans, t-shirts and shorts! It is said that all of this is staged for each tourist visit and it did have a Trueman Showesque about it. Make the most of this as it'll be your only time that you get to mix with 'everyday' North Koreans. Yonggwang station features columns that are shaped like Olympic torches with arches sprouting out of the top, which look like flames. After spending about 10-15 minutes on the concourse, we got on a train which had the portraits of the Kim's looking down on you and then got off at the next station. I've added a short video taken by tour cameraman. More excellent information can be found by visiting the website below.
Pyongyang to Beijing train
We left Pyongyang on a train bound for Beijing at shortly after 10am in the morning. The last two carriages on this train where going all the way while the rest of the train would terminate at the Chinese border at Dandong. There were 12 people in my tour party, so we had three 4-berth compartments. Just before we departed, we said our goodbyes to our two tour guides who gave us back our mobile phones which were taken off us when we went through security checks after we had arrived at Pyongyang airport. The train itself was fine and it seems to be OK to take photos from it as long as you're not too blatant. The train has a buffet car we tried out where the food was OK - fish, rice, veg etc. We arrived at the border at about 4pm, after going through mostly flat and plain landscapes of rice paddy fields, and this is where the fun began. North Korean border guards got on border and took our passports with them to be checked. This took some time. A guard then came to our compartment and asked for camera's. This wasn't a good sign. He started with mine and I had a horrible few minutes sitting opposite him thinking that he would delete all my pictures. Lucky for me, he started going through a couple of thousand photo's I had taken in China at the beginning and so didn't have time to get to the one's I had taken in North Korea. What a relief!!! We got our passports back and went over the river that flows between North Korea and China. The difference between the two countries is stark.
Trolleybuses & trams
Both the trolleybuses and trams are just like the ones I saw in St Petersburg. The tram system runs for 53km (33 miles) whilst the trolleybus system runs for 150km (93 miles). One thing that I noticed is that waiting passengers seem to face in the opposite direction to where the tram or trolleybus was coming from, which I didn't understand and thought was a bit strange. Also, given the power shortages that happen in the city, they must have plenty of delays. Of course, you're not allowed the opportunity to ride of them.
Our tour bus
This was our rather inconspicuous tour bus throughout our tour around North Korea. It stands out like a sore thumb doesn't it?! We were allowed to open the windows in order to take photos from it which I thought wouldn't be possible to do and as a consequence, I took some 600 photos of Pyongyang alone. Funny thing is, given that the Japanese occupied Korea and the hardships that they brought on the people, the bus is actually Japanese and right-hand drive. It even had Japanese Yokohama tyres.
Into the bowels
In most cities around the world tourists would rely on the metro system to move around swiftly and cheaply. But not in Pyongyang. If you are lucky, you may persuade your guide to let you ride from one station to the next. You'll descend deep under the city on one of the longest escalators you have ever seen. The Pyongyang metro serves not only as a mass transportation system but also as a series of bomb shelters in the event of attack. The stations – at least, those which tourists are allowed to see – are adorned with marble and chandeliers. There are no advertisements in the trains, only the ubiquitous portraits of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader.
Driving old Cliffie
Travelling by bus in many parts of the third world can be rather hazardous, as many drivers tend to trust in whatever deity they believe in to keep them safe. But the driver of the bus which took old Cliffie and his group around Pyongyang was courteous, friendly, careful and safe. Of course, the cynical might say he didn't want to jeopardise his cushy job of driving rich foreigners, with the opportunity to rest whenever the bus stopped at some site or other and with the expectation of a good hard-currency tip at the end. Never mind, Mr Lee avoided the potholes and smiled at all his passengers as they got on or off.
By train to Beijing
24 hours trip from Pyongyang to Beijing (or vice versa) is cool way to leave the country. You can still watch what's left behind you without your guides (or guards). Be careful on border with your camera, they take it and erase photos they don't like so switch cards before they enter or hide card where are the HOT photos.
Train is international, clean, comfortable, usually without N.Korean passengers. There are many Chinese and Russian on the train (apart from tourists).
When you reach China, you can expect to feel relaxed and free (!!??!) and finally ask your fellow co-travelers for their real profession.
Don't know the price, usually included in price of whole trip.
Air Koryo from Beijing
You can reach Pyongyang by air from Beijing. If you are traveling with agency (which is 99% of entrance for foreigners) you don't have to worry about ticket, everything is arranged before.
You must check in 3 hours prior to departure (we didn't realize why).
The only care is if you can handle old russian aircraft of Air Koryo (Tupolev or Ilyushin), allegedly all the pilots are army pilots so they can handle any situations that occur during the flight.
Flight attendants are cool, pretty, helpful etc.
Your mini bus
Another thing you don't have to think about. During your stay in North Korea, you'll always have your own transportation (usually mini bus).
Local transport in only for locals (you'll see often how electric buses aren't driving due to shortage of electricity). The only time you can use local transport is when they show you 2 metro stations.
You've two choices, a very...
You've two choices, a very long and interesting train trip from Bejing, or a short hop in one of Air Koryo's two aircraft. I'd take the train. You will meet some North Koreans on the train (if you try)and it will be the only time you do without your ever-present guide.
Avis do car hire in Pyongyang. And they hire flying pigs as well.
You'll be taken everywhere by minibus, and that's it on the getting-around front. Strolling around to take in the sights is not overly encouraged (i.e you can't do it). This is a picture of the subway, which is the closest you'll ever get to going on it for more than one stop! Note the massively ornate murals created from coloured stone. The stations themselves are a masterpiece of ornate work which are at least as impressive as the Moscow subways. if you want to see a lot more about the metro system, visist the excellent site at www.pyongyang-metro.com