Air Koryo has advantages. Quick flight, the socialist airline experience. But taking a train is our favourite way to enter Pyongyang – with the bonus that it’s the cheapest way to get there.
You get to know your fellow travellers before the tour proper gets underway. There really is nothing like an overnight train journey to bring people together. By the time you arrive in Pyongyang you’ll feel like old friends, and if you’re travelling alone you’ll probably have worked out who you’d prefer to share a room with. Gazing through the window as the train trundles through the Korean countryside is almost a tour in itself; a rare chance to gain an insight into how the majority of the people live. If you fly straight in and out of Pyongyang, you only get half the picture.
Also worth a mention is the brief stop at the border town of Dandong. There’s usually enough time to grab a picture of the colossal statue of Mao outside the station before walking to the riverbank to catch a first glimpse of the DPRK across the Yalu. The onboard food on both sides of the border is great value for money. The Korean “set” meal is particularly recommended. On the Chinese side you don’t even need to walk to the dining car – a trolley service will bring a variety of meals to your carriage. Did I mention the booze? You won’t be the only one if you choose to enjoy a few drinks during the journey. You can bring it with you or buy it aboard, and until the lights go out you’re pretty much free to make as much noise as you like.
If you’re taking the train, you may not have any questions now, but you will once the journey gets underway. Here are a few that we’re frequently asked:
Can I change seats?
Yes, of course, if you can find somebody who agrees to swap. But it’s essential that on boarding the train you go to your seat first, and wait until the journey begins and your ticket has been checked. Then you can start looking for a suitable swap. The conductors won’t let you enter a carriage you don’t have a ticket for, and the interconnecting doors are locked until the train departs.
How do I find my seat?
In the top right of your ticket there are two numbers; the carriage and the row. After this are some Chinese characters that tell you whether you are top, middle or bottom. As you probably can’t read Chinese, just ask a local. Point at the ticket and mime confusion while gesturing at the bunks. They’ll understand and be happy to help you.
What are the toilets like?
Surprisingly decent, all things considered. They’re mainly squat jobs, but there are sit-down loos at one end or other of the soft sleeper carriages. Paper is rarely provided, but if you’re desperate (and not too obvious) you can grab a handful of paper napkins from the dining car.
Are there showers?
It’s a public train, not the Orient Express. But most carriages have washing areas with basins.
Is there hot water?
Yes. It’s scaldingly hot and perfect for making tea or instant noodles. It’s also safe to drink (when cooled down a little, of course). There’s usually a tap somewhere at the end of each carriage.
What is the border crossing like?
It’s all part of the experience, and we don’t want to spoil the surprise too much – but it’s far more relaxed than you might think. Delete your naked selfies or any other naughty pictures from your phone/tablet/laptop before you reach the border. The DPRK officials may check your photos in the carriage, and all your new friends will be rubbernecking. There’s a real danger that your close-up, err, “self portrait” could become the talk of the tour.
Don’t panic when your passport is taken away from you. While most of the process happens onboard, the paperwork happens in a nearby office. And don’t panic when you’re given a form printed in only Korean and Chinese. Your guide will help with this. (But don’t ask your guide what your “ethnicity” is. That’s up to you to decide, and the officials rarely check this anyway. You’d be surprised at how many Klingons enter the DPRK)
You don’t need to worry about buying tickets, as we take care of that for you. Likewise with any other issues you may encounter along the way, you’ll always have one of our experienced YPT guides to help and advise.