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Korea, North Visit: 2008-9
2009-02-10 - In september I travelled all the way from Vienna in Austria to Pyongyang in North Korea by train.Despite the long distance, going by train from Europe to North Korea is not that difficult.There are direct train services from many European cities (amongst them Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Berlin, Basel, Vienna, Venice, Belgrade, Sofia, Prague, etc) to Moscow. Usually there are sleeping-cars of the Russian railways travelling this routes, the trip takes between 1 and 3 nights.From Moscow onwards there are two direct train services to Pyongyang via the famous Transsiberian railways. These are not complete trains, but only 1-2 direct sleeping-cars attached to different trains en-route. So it is possible to travel from e.g. Paris to Pyongyang with just one change of trains in Moscow.One of the two Moscow-Pyongyang services is provided by Russian Railways. Every friday two Russian sleeping-cars are attached to the Moscow-Beijing train. Departure is friday at 23:55. This train runs across Siberia (via Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Chita), then through Northern China (Harbin, Shenyang) to Beijing. At Shenyang the two Pyongyang-bound sleeping cars are uncoupled and attached to a Bejing-Pyongyang train. They cross the Chinese/North Korean border at Dandong/Sinuiju and from there it's only 250 km till Pyongyang. Arrival at Pyongyang is on the following friday at 19:30.The 2nd direct Moscow-Pyongyang service is a bit more interesting: Twice monthly the North Korean railways send a sleeping-car to Moscow.It's route doesn't go via China, but it crosses the 17 km long Russian/North Korean border at Khasan/Tumangan.From Moscow it is attached to the famous "Rossiya"-train (Moscow - Vladivostok, 9258 km in ~145 hrs, leaving Moscow on uneven dates at 21:25). It runs across Siberia to the Russian Far East. At Ussuriysk, already 100 km close to Vladivostok and the Sea of Japan the sleeping car to Pyongyang is uncoupled from the main train and attached to a local train following a branch line down to Khasan at the border to North Korea.Via the "Friendship bridge" over the Tumen-river it crosses the border to North Korea. The point in the middle of the Tumen-river were China, Russia and North Korea meet is only 300 meters from the "Friendship"-railway bridge.From Tumangan onwards to Pyongyang the sleeping-car is attached to a domestic North Korean train.The line from Tumangan to Pyongyang crosses whole North Korea and is 860 km long, for which the train needs 30 hrs.The total distance from Moscow to Pyongyang is 10270, which makes this train route the longest direct train service in the world. Departure from Moscow is on the 11th and 25th of each month at 21:25, scheduled arrival at Pyongyang is 9 days later at 21:25.According to KITC (the state North Korean tourist company) foreign tourists to the DPRK nowadays can't use the train route via Khasan/Tumangan (it was possible till the mid-90ies).Usual answers from KITC when asking for this route are "there is no such train" or just "it is not possible for tourists to use that train"... only entry via Pyongyang airport or by train from China (via Sinuiju) is offered to tourists...Of course the reason, why KITC doesn't want that tourists travel via Tumangan, is: The route on North Korean territory is much longer than from Sinuiju (860 km vs 250 km, 30 hrs vs 5 hrs) and so foreign tourists are relatively uncontrolled for more than 30 hrs inside North Korea.Once arrived at Pyongyang, the movement of tourist is controlled by the obligatory guides from KITC, without which it is not allowed to leave the hotel... but the guides are waiting only at Pyongyang at the train station or airport...However, as I found out that Tumangan is by default listed on any ordinary North Korean visa as one of three border points (Pyongyang, Sinuiju, Tumangan), I and a friend from Switzerland decided to try whether we could enter North Korea at Tumangan.We booked a individual North Korea tour with the usual sightseeing activities in and around Pyongyang, received our visas at the DPRK embassies in Vienna and Berne and then from the Russian railway we bought train tickets to Pyongyang via Tumangan...I met my friend, who was on a longer trip before, only in Irkutsk (Eastern Siberia), so I took ordinary trains till Irkutsk, and only there we boarded the North Korean sleeping car in the morning of the 15th september 2008.All our fellow passengers and the conductors were North Koreans, they were quite surprised to have Swiss and Austrian citizen as fellow passengers... and also for us it was an interesting experience to meet and talk to North Koreans.Some of the other passengers were North Korean workers returning home after some months or even years of work in Russia. They are sent to Russia to earn hard currency for Kim Jong Il's regime... and for Russia they are cheap labour forces... see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vFbWXVTBU0 (in english) and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBTaVoiGc8g (Japanese) for a report about the conditions under which North Korean workers live in Russia...One passenger was a employee of the DPRK embassy in Moscow.Of course we were quite excited whether they would let us in at Tumangan, but finally it was no problem. North Korean border guards were quite surprised about us, but they were friendly.I don't know for sure, but I assume we were the 1st western tourists who entered North Korea at Tumangan since the mid-90ies...It was also a big surprise for us that once the border formalities were done, we were allowed to walk around at Tumangan station freely and also nobody prevented us from taking photos...See my travelogue at http://vienna-pyongyang.blogspot.com/There you'll find much photos and a detailed trip description (especially regarding the border crossing)....
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