Monday, September 29, 2008

Beijing, Tianjin and back home to Austria

2008-09-26

In Beijing we had booked a hostel in advance via www.hostels.com. Originally we planned to stay one night in Beijing, then take a night train to Shanghai, stay another night there and then fly home from Shanghai.
We had already booked the flight from Beijing to Vienna via Dusseldorf with AirBerlin, but some weeks before the trip, we were notified, that this flight would be cancelled. AirBerlin offered a full refund of the ticket price (~450 EUR) and a discount of 150 Euro for any other AirBerlin-flight.
So we booked a flight from Beijing with them and due to the discount it cost only 304 EUR. This flight was on the same day as the other flight from Shanghai, so we extended our stay in Beijing by two nights. The hostel for the 1st night (Beijing Downtown Backpackers) was already fully booked for the other two nights, so we booked another hostel (Wangfujing International Youth Hostel) for the 2nd and 3rd night.

After arriving from Pyongyang at the main train station, we went to the hostel by taxi. Going by taxi in Beijing is relatively cheap and easy. It is just necessary to have the destination written on paper in Chinese. Fortunately the hostels adress was written also in Chinese on the booking confirmation.

The hostel was in a quiet narrow road north of the city center. As both of us had already been to Beijing before, we were not in a hurry to do as much sightseeing as possible. We decided to make a day-trip to Tianjin with the new highspeed-train, but apart from that we had no plans yet. It was also good to have some time to work through all the impressions of our trip to North Korea and sometimes we couldn't believe that we really had sucessfully done the Tumangan-route to Pyongyang.
On of the 1st things I did after arrival at the hotel was checking my e-mails and telling relatives and friends that our trip was a success and we were still alive. As expected there were also some e-mails from our travel agency in my inbox, which I could read only now. Our last-minute-announcement about the "modified arrival details" for Pyongyang caused – initially – a lot of confusion and then a lot of troubles at the travel agency (Korea Konsult) and within KITC. But it was not possible to prevent us from entering at Tumangan…
However, it seemed that our trip was quite a shock for KITC and that they would now do everything to prevent that something similar happens again.

Well, back to Beijing. After hanging around at the hostel for some hours we decided to make a walk around downtown Beijing.

The narrow road, where the hostel was located:



We made a lunch break at a restaurant in Jingshan Xije road, then headed for the Jingshan park.

View from the hill in the Jingshan park, Beihai lake in the foreground.


It is quite unusual to have such a clear sky in Beijing which even allows to see the distant mountains! Usually one cannot see further than one kilometer due to the fog/smog…

View from Jingshan park to the east:


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We then went around the Forbidden City down to Tiananmen Square.

Forbidden City, palace moat:



Meridian Gate of the Forbidden city:




Tiananmen Square:







The Qianmen Dajie road leading to the south from Tiananmen Square had been totally rebuilt since my first visit to Bejing in 2005. It is now a pedestrian zone, all houses are new, but everything looks very kitschy and artificially…




I prefer the smaller and more traditional roads like Dazhalan Xijie with lots of small shops and sales booths for everything.








It is not necessary to have a car to transport big and heavy things – we Europeans should learn from the Chinese people regarding that ;-)







In the evening we went to the train station to buy tickets to Tianjin. We asked the hostel staff to write our ticket request on a sheet of paper, but we also found a ticket booth, were english was spoken.
Due to the low price level we decided to travel in 1st class. The one-way-ticket for the 130-km-trip cost just 69 Yuan (~ 7 EUR).

2008-09-27

After breakfast we took a taxi to get to the station Beijing South, from where the highspeed trains depart. The ride took about 45 minutes.


Arriving at the station by taxi:




The station is more like an airport with all that security checks at the entrance:




The departure boards swtich between English and Chinese:
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The waiting area:




Ticket office:




Everything is kept clean:




We found some "propaganda" about the Chinese railway plans fort he future:

Map showing the highspeed line Beijing – Shanghai (under construction):




Planned new train station and airport at Shanghai:



Two local girls checking out the station plan (Beijing South):







Beijing South station:



(it seems that even more underground tracks are planned in the future, they don't seem to exist already)









A few minutes before the departure the boarding starts and we can go to the platform. There we still had some time for a few photos.

Our train was a Siemens-"Velaro" train (CRH3):
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The impressive steel construction of the station roof:

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Train ticket Beijing – Tianjin:

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The train seemed to be fully booked. Inside a 2nd class wagon (only ~10 Yuan cheaper than 1st class):




1st class:




The ride was smooth and fast – 334 km/h was the top speed:




After 30 minutes we arrived at Tianjin, and the first thing we did there was buying the return tickets. The ticket office was quite crowded. There were also some ticket machines and we decided to use them, as the "spoke" also English. For the Chinese people it was quite unusual to see Europeans buying tickets themselves at the ticket machine, everyone was looking over our shoulders. And when they saw, that the machine could be switched to English, everyone was quite surprised… ;-)
We bought tickets for a train departing in the afternoon, so we had some time for a walk.

Ticket office:

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Station square: 



Skyline near the station:



Downtown Tianjin has some quite European looking buildings from the colonial era.















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By the way, we noticed that especially here in Tianjin, but also in Beijing, many people now were using electric bikes or other electricity-powered vehicles.

I do not know who they were and why they were marching lock-step…anyway quite funny.




Back to the station we took such a taxi:




Small booth selling the Chinese railway timetable book:



Tianjin station:




We were lucky, on the way back we had a CRH2-train, so we experienced both types of trains used on that line:




Ticket Tianjin – Beijing:




Inside 1st class waggon:



Some videos of the train ride with more than 300 km/h:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXoLQPlSZr4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5-3q--KHzY


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4msgn7lLIto



Exit gates at Beijing South station – it's important to keep the ticket till leaving the station:




We took a taxi to our hostel, where we just picked up our backpacks and continued to the other hostel for the remaining two nights at Beijing.

In the evening we rented bikes to ride around, which was quite funny. We also stopped at the main station to take some photos of the international train to Moscow, which departs from Beijing every friday (there is a 2nd weekly train going via Mongolia):

Chinese dining and sleeping car to Manzhouli (at the border to Russia):




New Russian waggons:








At Shenyang two similar wagons coming from Pyongyang are attached to this train. These wagons are the officially (by KITC) accepted way to travel from Russia to North Korea or vice versa by train…

Departure of the train to Moscow:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F2OA2iH0TY

Of course I would have preferred taking this train over flying to get back home to Europe, but my job was already waiting for me…. I'd need more holiday ;-)


2008-09-28

It was quite an unspectacular day for me. Oliver decided to make a trip to the Chinese Wall, he had not been there before. As I felt al little bit tired and had already done the same trip in 2005, I decided to stay in Beijing and make a lazy day.

I started to sort my photos, made another bike trip, had lunch, did some shopping etc.

Beijing by night:









No visible evidence of communism….


2008-09-29

That was a long day for us. We got up at 6 and left the hostel at 7. A taxi brought us to the airport, where we noticed that we were at the wrong terminal. So we had to take a bus to the other terminal. But we were not in a hurry, departure was only at 11 or so.

The plane to Dusseldorf:




The route of the flight was via Mongolia, Siberia and the Baltic Sea. Only till the Sayan mountains (just west of the Baikal Lake) we had clear view to the ground, so it was quite boring for most of the time.
I have to admit that take-off and landing is quite spectacular, but apart from that I prefer train travel. A week on a decent North Korean train is more comfortable than 10 hours economy class…
We arrived at Dusseldorf in the late afternoon (local time). Oliver's connecting flight to Zurich was within one and a half hour, whereas I had to wait for four hours.
The flight to Vienna took 90 minutes and after a 30-minutes train trip with a suburban train I arrived at the small station Wien-Traisengasse at 10 p.m. local time (already 4 a.m. Chinese time) – the same station, from where I had started the adventure 22 days before…
Two more minutes walking and I was at home in my apartment - 22 hours after getting up in Beijing.


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That was it...I hope you liked the travelogue and I appreciate your patience, as it took me nearly a year to write this travelogue.
And I also apologize for typing errors and grammar mistakes, English is not my native language, and so it might not be perfect, but I wanted to make the report available for a greater audience, so I decided to write in English instead of German.
And I ask all of you, who are not so much interested in railways, for your understanding for the many rail-related details in the travelogue...


Apart from that I hope, that the travelogue provided some useful and interesting background information about the DPRK, which you don't get from the news on TV.
I think that a country must not be reduced to it's government in the personal perception. I don't support the North Korean regime and I don't deny the problems which exist there, but the country doesn't exist only of Kim Jong Il, nuclear bombs, concentration camps and starvation.
Most of the people there are also just people as everywhere, they live under quite hard circumstances, but they also have family and friends, make jokes, make love, go to work…of course our contact to them was limited, but the few encounters with North Koreans, we had (train staff, fellow passengers, border guards at Tumangan and of course our guides), were very nice and interesting and I hope that one day I can meet some of them again….

I still often think about this trip. Sometimes I have the feeling as it was just some days ago, but sometimes I feel that it was already very far in the past or that it even didn't happen at all. I think that this is due to the fact that the places, to which we have been, are so hard to reach…
I still hope that there will one day be a happy end for the situation in North Korea and that North Korean people will be able to travel like we did and that we will be able to travel across North Korea more freely.
If possible, I will visit this fascinating country a 2nd, 3rd, etc time and I hope I will one day have the possibility to explore especially the regions which we crossed by train on the way from the border at Tumangan to Pyongyang.
There is still so much to see there. After our trip my interest into this country grew even more and now I often think, that I should have kept my eyes even more open on the trip. And that I should have taken even more photos during the train trip, especially of everyday life. But on the other hand, we were glad that we could take this route at all and too afraid to take photos when people were looking at us.
I also appreciate the feedback of all of you, I received a lot of e-mails and comments on my blog from all over the world. Please apologize, that I couldn't answer personally to every mail due to lack of time. I tried to answer all e-mails containing questions, but maybe I just forgot some e-mails. So if you still have an unanswered question, please send me an reminding e-mail.

If anyone can provide additional information about trains in North Korea and especially the Tumangan-route, please write me an e-mail.
And I would also like to get in contact with others, who have 1st hand experience with the Tumangan-route. As this route was open to tourists till around 1995, I'm sure that there are more people who travelled this way. I personally know three other people, who did this route before 1995.
Or if one day somebody succesfully repeats our trip – please report!!!
I also found a report from some Russians, who recently took a train from Pyongyang to Chongjin and then further via Tumangan/Khasan to Russia on a business trip. They visited the Russian consulate at Chongjin, so maybe they were Russian diplomats. Their report is at http://www.ermanok.net/news/comment.php?1591 (sorry, in Russian only, you might use Google to translate it).

I also decided to create a blog dedicated to the North Korean railways at http://dprk-railway.blogspot.com/
I hadn't yet much time to create a lot of content, there are just some photos of another rail-related trip to North Korea done by a friend of mine in 2005.
But I plan to collect more information about the railway system in North Korea, please just be patient!
If you're interested, please subscribe there as a follower. Any important news regarding the Tumangan-route will also be posted there.

Last but not least I also want to apologize for the troubles which our trip caused for "Korea Konsult" (the travel agency with which be booked the trip) and for anyone else.
I admit we were quite egoistic when doing this adventure. It was no one elses fault, that we could enter North Korea via this back door – it was just our crazy plan and we had to realize it at that time, as the timeframe we had choosen for the trip, turned out to be perfect for the experiment during the planning phase (a small mystery – the ideal time for such a trip has something to do with the number 106,5...ho has an idea?).
And if you want to travel to North Korea yourself (on "legal" routes), I really recommend "Korea Konsult", they did a good job!

Or if you just want to get some special experience you can reapeat what I did in 2006: Just take the North Korean waggon for a domestic trip (like Moscow - Irkutsk) inside Russia. This is totally legal and it's likely that you will be the only foreigner among North Koreans on board of this waggon. If your're interested, just contact me.