Archive for the ‘Beijing’ Category

“What kind of place did I just leave that entering China feels like gaining freedom?!”
That’s what I was thinking upon leaving North Korea for the second time – because leaving the second time definitely felt different.

When I crossed the border at Dandong a few months prior I felt a bit wistful. Something was dragging me back instantly, I was mesmerized by my experiences. Dandong felt very surreal, like a completely different world. And although I wasn’t 100% serious that I would visit the DPRK again when I promised to do so to my Pyongyang guides, I somehow had a feeling that it wasn’t totally out of question.
When I was leaving North Korea for the second time I was actually glad to get out of there. The trip had been way too interesting to be considered a bad one, but this time was much more intense, I witnessed and found out things that would take me much longer to process than the lifetime worth of experiences I made in Pyongyang.

After Pyongyang I started writing right away. I went there ignorant on purpose, I wanted to enjoy the show and embrace the deception – which is so not me as I hate being lied to, but I figured it would be easier to go with the flow when visiting North Korea. (It’s definitely tough going against it when living in Japan…)
After the Northeastern Adventure I took a lot more time, hoping that I would be able to use it to process and structure my thoughts – to make sense of what I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, felt. In hindsight probably not a good idea as I don’t think it helped much, but I started to forget details. Details that weren’t essential, but details nonetheless. At least it gave me the confidence to write everything as I remembered it, because after my return to Japan (and seeing how messed up in its own way this country here is) it took me less than a week until the urge to go back rose. I wasn’t lying awake night after night trying to find a way to “go back to the island”, but North Korea is a decent size country that is opening up to tourism more and more, which is great for the half dozen travel agencies offering trips, because they can lure customers back easily. “You’ve been to Pyongyang, Kaesong, North Hamgyong and Rason, but… XYZ is open now – and you can be part of the first tourist group to get there!” And that is one of the selling points of North Korea, to boldly go where hardly any man has gone before.

Do I want to go back to North Korea? Heck yeah! I’m a sucker for remote and unusual places that offer photo opportunities, that’s what this blog is all about! Of course I would love to go back to North Korea, despite the fact that I was really angry (and happy to leave!) last time.
Will I go back to North Korea? Most likely not. Not under the current regime.
Why? Because I have the ability to remember. I remember Robocop and how he treated that boy at the market in Rason, I remember how I felt being ratted out by that old woman in Rason, I remember looking at GoogleMaps, realizing how close we came to some of the death camps – which hopefully will be remembered as a stain on the history of humankind once this ridiculous regime dissolves and all Koreans enjoy (relative) freedom.

There are some voices out there on the internet who are convinced that North Korea can be opened little by little if more and more tourists visit the country – sadly most of those voices are actually either fooled Pyongyang tourists or western tour guides to the DPRK. And I am not sure what to think of the idea. North Korea is so full of contradictions, yet the system survived for so long – can a couple of thousand tourists driven around in busses with tinted windows really make a difference? After thousands of tourists before didn’t make a difference?
When visiting Pyongyang you kind of get the image that the DPRK is a misunderstood country which is struggling to survive and doesn’t want no harm to nobody in the world; but that’s the microcosm Pyongyang, where only the elite is allowed to live and where resources from all over the country get concentrated. In North Hamgyong and even in the comparatively rich Rason I felt transported 20 or 30 years back in time – and I started to wonder why North Korea even allows those tourist tours, because like so many things in the country, the tours don’t really make sense. I don’t think it’s about the money, because there are not nearly enough tourists to the DPRK to justify the effort. In Pyongyang I can see it being about changing foreigners’ minds. The regime will never win over the western media, but they can create positive word of mouth. But why allowing western tourists to North Hamgyong and Rason? Korean is not the most common language in the world, but there are always one or two people in each group who are able to speak it – and if not, people know people who know the language. Sure, while at the clothing factory in Rason I didn’t know that one of the slogans on a pillar said “Ideology First”, but it didn’t matter, because I knew a few days later, so congratulations to the factory management, you fooled me for a couple of days! But that didn’t keep me from telling a couple of thousand readers that, while you seem to treat your workers well, you also bombard them with propaganda music and propaganda slogans – and that you use “Made in China” labels. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as you know, since I mentioned all the little things in the previous eight articles.
So why is North Korea allowing foreign tourists in the country, when it fails to deceive them and continues to indoctrinate its citizens. When things like the electric fence are continuously brought up (or maybe even revealed) by tourists? Why allowing small scale foreign aid that doesn’t get mass media attention, when Juche, Korea’s autarky, is the state’s ideology and most important goal?
The answer is: I don’t know. North Korea is full of contradictions, almost everything there is tied to a contradiction. The more you know about North Korea, the less it makes sense. And I’ve spend a lot of time in 2013 talking about North Korea and actually being there…

That being said I am very glad that I did those two trips. I made a lifetime worth of experiences, good and bad, met some extraordinary people (also good and bad…), saw and did things I wouldn’t have thought of in my wildest dreams. First I went there during the political crisis of 2013 and then again just weeks before Merrill Newman was arrested and Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed – and in-between I could understand very well why some friends and my whole family were worried about my security.
If you are interested in visiting North Korea, I hope my two travel reports were helpful to you. If you are just interesting in North Korea, I hope I was able to show you a different, a neutral side of what it is like to be a tourist there. And if you are mostly interested in urban exploration, I hope you enjoyed both series nonetheless – thanks for sticking with Abandoned Kansai, I promise I will make it up to you on Tuesday with a mind-blowingly amazing deserted hotel! (There will be two or three more articles about North Korea in the future, but none of them will put my urbex articles on hold for weeks…)
Since I came back from my second trip I’ve been asked a lot of times where I will go next, by both friends and strangers. Where can I go next after I went to North Korea? For a while I didn’t have an answer, I was considering Siberia or Alaska, but now I can tell you what the main event this year will be: I will go back home to Germany for almost three weeks (a.k.a. annual leave) to celebrate the wedding of one of my best friends – and I can’t wait to do so!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps**Like Abandoned Kansai on Facebook* if you don’t want to miss the latest articles and exclusive content – and subscribe to the *video channel on Youtube* to receive a message right after a new video is online…)

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It takes almost a whole day to go by train from Pyongyang to Beijing – and it’s quite an experience…

One of the few limitations Americans have when visiting the DPRK is the fact that they are not allowed to ride trains as the railway system is considered a military installation; so if you are American and you want to travel to North Korea you have to enter and exit by plane. All other nationalities usually take the plane in and the train out (or vice versa) – not because it is cheaper (it actually isn’t, at least not for the customer, probably for the travel agency though…), but because it is part of the fun. 23 hours on the train, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature! Well, to some people. Not to me necessarily. So I decided to split the train ride in half and have a 24 hour layover in Dandong, right at the border between China and the DPRK.

My last hours in North Korea began with the usual morning routine, but instead of going sightseeing after entering the bus, we went to Pyongyang Station – and I wish I had taken some photos outside instead of rushing inside with the flock as the square in front of the huge station looked quite modern, including some advertising and huge screens. Instead I spent another 15 to 20 minutes in the waiting room for international travelers, featuring the last gift shop before leaving the DPRK.

Pyongyang Station actually isn’t that busy and it seems to have only one platform – a gigantic platform where you can park buses crosswise. Nevertheless it serves four lines: One to Nampo, one to Rajin in the far North, one to Kaesong (theoretically to Busan via Seoul, but you know the problem there…) and one to Sinuiju; the one our group took.
The standard procedure is the following: The train leaves at around 10.30 in the morning for Sinuiju with several stops at stations along the way. At around 15.30 you arrive in Sinuiju, where you have to go through customs on the Korean side, which takes about two hours – sometimes more, sometimes less. Then the train crosses the river Yalu to Dandong, China. There you have to go through Chinese customs, which takes about 30 minutes. (Don’t forget to adjust you watch as China is in a different time zone!) Then you have about half an hour before the train continues at 18.30 to Beijing, where it arrives at 8.30 in the morning. At no time you have to leave the train – customs on both sides take care of everything on board. People going to Beijing directly are located in nice 4 bed compartments, travelers getting off at Dandong enjoy the 5 hour ride plus 2 hour long customs process in a smelly wagon with open 6 bed compartments. Since I opted for the layover in Dandong I was with the latter group…
We had seen lots of settlements and fields on the way to Kaesong and Nampo, but the northern part seemed to be a bit greener – and the train wasn’t nearly as shaky as that bus, so I was able to take some nicer photos and a really decent video.

The train ride through the North Korea countryside was actually quite relaxed, despite the fact that the 160 km long trip took a whopping 5 hours. The reason for that is the fact that the railway system was in abysmal condition. Like I said, we were not allowed to take photos and although we said goodbye to our Korean guides back in Pyongyang I stuck with it – out of respect and out of fear to get in trouble at customs. Our train was by far the most modern one on the way as all the other ones looked like they were from back in the days when Japan was still in charge of the country. The stations were in decent condition, but the trains… it’s actually hard to describe. First of all I don’t remember seeing many of them being in working condition, we saw only a couple of them with passengers in them. The trains and wagons parked within stations… half of them looked like they were involved in fires or explosions, the other half looked like they were rusting away for decades. I guess shock and surprise was another reason why I didn’t take photos. People thought the East German railway system was in bad condition when the FRG “bought” the GDR – but damn, this was a whole different level! Another sign that there was no to barely any railroad modernization since the 1930s or 1940s were the electricity posts along the track you can see in the video and on one of the photos. I’ve seen similar ones in Japan. Along railway tracks. Abandoned tracks! The DPRK must have spent quite a chunk of money on maintenance, but I am sure the railroad system in the 1960s was in better condition than it is now… except for the rather luxurious overnight wagon to Beijing.
Customs in Sinuiju took indeed a little bit more than two hours, but they weren’t really thorough. We occupied 5 or 6 beds in the smelly wagon, but they didn’t look at any of our photos and even forgot to look inside one of our suitcases…
Customs in Dandong were even faster, basically a passport and visa check, they didn’t even open any of our luggage. After the Chinese custom officers were done we left the train, said goodbye to our fellow travelers continuing to Beijing and left the station, where our 24 hours in Dandong began; three people from my group, four people of the other group. More about that on Friday!

24 hours later we were back at the station – well, me and my other two group members Patrick and Juliette as the group A guys actually stayed for 48 hours in Dandong.
This time we checked into one of those luxurious sleeper cars with four beds and a door, shared with a young Chinese woman travelling from Dandong to… somewhere in China. The train stopped every couple of hours and she left maybe two hours outside of Beijing. When I woke up in the middle of the night we just had stopped at one of those stations and I took a photo over my head aiming outside of the window – it turned out to be a quite nice one, so I added it to the gallery.

Overall the train ride to Beijing wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be, probably because I was able to split it into two halves. Arriving in Beijing though my bad luck in the city continued: While at the *Mansudae Art Studio* I bought a lithography too big to put in my suitcase, so I was having an eye on it for almost a week. At Beijing Railway Station I left in a hurry and after about three minutes I realized that I didn’t have the lithography in my hand anymore. Despite the masses, the heat and the humidity I immediately ran back to the train compartment where the cleaning personnel already started their work, less than five minutes after I left in this huge, loud, summer smelly crowd – of course nobody understood me or had seen anything. I don’t think I’ve ever lost anything since I was five years old! But that was just the beginning of another horrible, horrible stay in China’s capital…

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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Air Koryo is the state owned and government run airline of North Korea, based at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. It was founded under the name SOKAO in 1950 as a joint venture between North Korea and Soviet Russia, but had to suspend business shortly after due to the Korean War. A successor was established in 1954 under the name of Choson Minhang and started operations in late September of 1955 before being renamed Air Koryo in 1993. Air Koryo from the beginning was placed under the control of the Civil Aviation Administration, a part of the North Korean Airforce – which means that all pilots are military officers. Due to North Koreas close affiliation with the soviets all airplanes in the fleet of Air Koryo are Russian models. Antonovs, Ilyushins, Tupolevs. During the Cold War Air Koryo flew to more than three dozen destinations within Korea and all over the world – nowadays there are only three regular international connections (Beijing three times a week, Shenyang twice a week and Vladivostok once a week) plus a couple of charter flights. In Europe Air Koryo is blacklisted since March 2006, though that ban was lifted four years later for two newly acquired Tupolev Tu-204s.

It was on board of one of those two machines that my fellow travelers and I started our trip to Pyongyang in Beijing. Some websites still recommend using Air China (or the 24 hour train…) to get to North Korea’s capital, but I would have chosen Air Koryo anyway if I would have been asked to choose. How often do you have the opportunity to fly Air Koryo?!
Interestingly enough our predominantly white Air Koryo plane was parked right next to a predominantly blue plane by Korean Air – the flag carrier and largest airline of South Korea. Since the Korean Air machine took off before we even boarded I had the great opportunity to take a photo of both machines at the same time when the Seoul bound machine was on its way to the runway. Two planes, one photo. It didn’t cross my mind at the time, but I am sure North Koreans would have loved the picture, them being all about one united Korea. (And so would have the dozen Christians wearing “A United Korea 4 The World” sweatshirts that boarded the plane with us. I seriously hope they were able to leave the country without running into trouble – they might love Korea, but (North) Korea doesn’t love missionaries. And those guys looked like they were on a mission from God…)

Air Koryo actually was the first positive surprise of my *trip to the DPRK*. After using *Ukraine International Airlines to Kiev* three years prior, my expectations on (former) communist airlines were as low as they can get; but the Tupolev Tu-204 was a perfectly fine modern plane with the usual seat spacing, the flight attendants were as friendly as they were beautiful (and they were gorgeous!) and the food was living up to international standards, too.
When checking in I was asking for a seat away from the wings to be able to look outside and maybe take a quick video secretly. At that point the photography situation was a bit up in the air (no pun intended…) – we were told that it’s okay to take photos on board, but not of the stewardesses; and nobody asked about video or footage through the windows. So I took a few quick snapshots until one of the other foreign travelers was shut down when he violated the instructions we got and took photos of a flight attendant… Even worse: After we all settled in and were ready to take off about a dozen Koreans boarded the plane and occupied seats all over the aircraft cabin. Just a coincidence? Or a way to keep an eye on the foreigners at a time when the official guides were still waiting for our arrival in Pyongyang? I felt a bit uneasy, but decided to give the rather young fella sitting next to me the benefit of the doubt. Which turned out to be right about an hour later. Lunch was just served and I was wondering if it was okay to take a photo of the meal – as we all know from Western media: Taking pictures most likely is a crime… So I slowly unwrapped all the small containers and before I could even start to eat my meal the guy in the neighboring seat pulled out his smart phone and took a photo himself. Easy going! The same situation a couple of minutes later. While I was wondering whether it was okay to take some photos of the landscape passing by (there could have been airports or train stations or military camps – or worse!) we were informed that we just entered Korean airspace – and all of a sudden everybody took photos, including our late arriving Koreans. Lesson learned: Don’t shove a lens into somebody’s face and you can take photos of pretty much everything you want…

Air Koryo’s home airport Pyongyang Sunan International Airport is as small as you think it is – two landing strips, one of them closed permanently. There are 10 regular international flights a week at Sunan (7 by Air Koryo, 3 by Air China), plus charter flights and some cargo flights – that’s it! There are no official statistics about flight movements within the DPRK, but I doubt that there are many, given the rather high cost of air transport and the regime’s problem to get fuel.
On the positive side: Immigration is a piece of cake. You show your filled out forms, your passport and your visa – and then you are in. No bag checks, no other bullshit. When you want to enter Japan on the other hand you get treated like a criminal as they take your finger prints and a photo. Every… friggin… time! I’m on my third Japanese long-term visa, I never ran into trouble, I always pay my taxes – nevertheless I get treated like a murder suspect every time I come back from an overseas trip… Welcome home! (Of course this treatment only applies to foreigners, Japanese people just waltz in…)

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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I grew up in Germany, a country that was divided for 45 years. When the wall came down I was 12 years old – and not interested in politics whatsoever, but of course I understood that this was big news, like *Chernobyl* three years prior. My family didn’t have relatives in East Germany, so I didn’t have a personal relationship to the German Democratic Republic, as the neighboring country was officially called. I learned about the situation in school, but like most kids that age it was stuff I learned because I had to, not because I wanted to – my interest in history started to bloom a couple of years later…
You can’t fully understand the history of Japan without knowing at least a little bit about the history of China and Korea, so after I enrolled at university to dedicate my next few years to Japanese Studies I also took seminars and lectures about China, Korea and Taiwan. At that point Germany’s reunification was history for more than a decade, but Korea was still divided; still is to this very day. Like most people I grew up “knowing” about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (isn’t it interesting how most states using the term “democratic” are everything but?), nevertheless I actually didn’t know much about it, so the university studies sparked my interest.

History lessons in German schools are not necessarily set up to teach you about history in general, they are conceptualized to educate you to be a good democrat, a person who cherishes freedom and despises dictatorships. You usually start with the Old Greeks, to learn about how democracy was invented. Then you jump to the French Revolution, to learn about how modern democracy came to Europe. Next you jump to the year 1848, to learn about the revolutions in the German States – and after you know how the good things started you learn about the opposites, World War 1 and World War 2; especially World War 2. It seems like 50% of German history lessons are about World War 2 – which is good and bad at the same time…
At university I finally understood that history is so much more than just Greeks, French and World War 2 – and that you have learn about history in general to fully understand how everything is connected, though you only learn pieces at school.

In 2006 I moved to Japan, and my attitude towards visiting North Korea was still ambiguous. On the one hand there was this attraction of evil and the many similarities to East Germany’s history – on the other hand it was morally totally out of question that I would ever go there, supporting the system of supervision, nepotism and torture with hard currency.
That attitude changed gradually while living in Japan – mainly because of two factors:
1.) Japan’s obsession with pachinko that rolls 200 billion Yen a year into North Korea. (Again, that’s 2 billion US Dollars or 1.5 billion Euros currently!)
2.) Japan’s concept of honne and tatemae.
As I mentioned in the previous article, it wasn’t until I explored an *abandoned Pachinko parlor* in Shikoku that I realized that the money I would spend on a trip to North Korea wouldn’t change the course of the world. Those trips are not cheap, but even if the DPRK would earn a couple of hundred bucks it would be nothing in comparison to the billions the Japanese transfer indirectly and probably partly unknowingly every year.
A friend of mine back in Germany once told me that I was “too honest”, so understanding und living with honne and tatemae for years helped me to deal with certain expectations the local guides in Korea would have on me. “Honne” (本音) describes a person’s true thinking, their feelings and desires. “Tatemae” (建前), literally façade, stands for how a person acts in public – often in contrast to their “honne”. 10 years ago I wouldn’t have bowed in front of bronze statues of a dictator, but sometimes you gotta be a two-faced bastard and go against your own principles for the sake of peace and harmony… which Japan is all about.

In late March I finally booked a tour to the DPRK, basically last minute and on the height of the 2013 tensions. German media outlets were all over the topic, even reporting that tours to South Korea had to be cancelled due to German Angst, but Beijing based *Koryo Tours* offered a “May Day Long Tour” from April 27th to May 4th – which coincided with a series of national holidays in Japan, generally known as Golden Week. So I took 5 of my 15 paid days off (no Statuatory Sick Pay in Japan…) and went on vacation from April 25th to May 7th, adding a couple of days in China before and after the main event. I had to be there on the 26th anyway, because technically the trip to the DPRK started with a briefing at the Koryo Tours office – the next morning we met to go to the airport to catch our plane to Pyongyang (more about that in the upcoming *Air Koryo* article…). From that point on it was a group tour till we left Pyongyang by train via Sinuiju / Dandong – which I used for a 24 layover in Dandong with some fellow DPRK travelers before returning to Osaka via Beijing.
Contrary to the widespread opinion that there is no visa needed when travelling to the DPRK you actually have to have one. Depending on where the travel agency is located you might not get your passport stamped though. Visas issued by travel agencies based in Beijing for example are a separate piece of paper you barely ever see; and Koryo Tours does all the paperwork anyway. (If you look at the highly censored scan (censored by myself obviously…) please note the mythical winged horse Chollima and that the dates are given according to the Juche calendar, based on Kim Il-sung’s birthday.)
The visa for China on the other hand I had to organize myself – I was able to get in and out the first time on a 72 hour transit visa, but that is only available when entering / leaving through Beijing Airport (or Shanghai Airport), so for entering by train at Dandong I needed a regular visa. Which turned out to be a much bigger problem than I thought, given that I am a German citizen living in Japan. The German consulate in Osaka referred me to the Chinese consulate in Osaka – and they told me to go to a Japanese travel agency, which had no idea what to do, because Japanese people can enter China for 15 days without a visa. And what Japanese person has the time to do that? So Japanese people usually don’t apply for Chinese visas, which means that Japanese travel agencies don’t know how to get Chinese visas. After half a dozen agencies, including the big players that have offices all over Japan, I gave up and got in contact with Koryo Tours. Luckily they were able to help: 2 passport photos and 60 Euros would get me a Chinese visa issued in Pyongyang. I wasn’t happy with the solution as I would have preferred to get things done before starting the trip, but sometimes you gotta roll with the punches. So on April 28th I met a guy from the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang and a couple of days later I had my visa to enter China by train. To make a long story short:
It is easier to get a Chinese visa in Pyongyang than it is in Osaka!

(Please *click here to get to Abandoned Kansai’s North Korea Special* and *here for a map about the tour at GoogleMaps*. If you don’t want to miss the latest article you can *follow Abandoned Kansai on Twitter* and *like this blog on Facebook* – and of course there is the *video channel on Youtube*…)

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