Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The 13.000 km train trip starts at Vienna

I wrote this travelogue primarily for some railway-related forums, so it contains many photos and information which might be boring for you, if you're not interested in railways that much.
If you're interested especially in things concerning North Korea, you can skip some of the parts and go directly to:

The start of our trip with the North Korean train (still inside Russia):

Approaching the border between Russia and North Korea (the last kilometers inside Russia):

Inside North Korea:


The trip started at about 10:45 at the urban station Wien-Traisengasse(3 minutes walk from my flat), from where I took a “S-Bahn” to the Südbahnhof (Southern station). This first trip took only about 10-15 minutes.

Wien Traisengasse:

At 11:28 the local train to Bratislava departed from the Südbahnhof. It also conveyed a direct Ukrainian sleeping car from Wien to Kyiv, but as I was going further to Moscow, the Russian sleeping car Kosice – Moscow was more suitable for me.

Wien Südbahnhof:

The trip to Bratislava took about 70 minutes. I met an old man travelling to Chop. He was told that this train goes direct to Chop, but appearently he was not told that only the sleeping car goes there. The conductor – not knowing where Chop is located – thought that he was in the wrong train, but I explained them that everything is OK and that just several changes of trains (in Bratislava, Kosice and Cierna nad Tisou) are necessary to reach Chop.

In Bratislava I had a 70-minutes layover. It is also possible to take a later train from Vienna to shorten the waiting time at Bratislava, but as I wanted to buy some cheap Slovakian train tickets for my friend in Moscow (tickets for domestic trips inside Russia can often be cheaper in Slovakia than in Russia…) such a layover was OK.
The old man wanted to upgrade to the sleeping car, but the Ukrainian conductors told him, that there were no free places.
As he was not seeing well and was a little bit confused, I helped him (when chanhig trains) on the further trip to reach Chop. He was glad about that and later he said that withouth my help he wouldn’t have reached Chop.

From Bratislava my onward express train no. 609 to Kosice departed at 13:47. Train 609 consisted of about 10 Slovakian cars and the Ukrainian sleeping car. Some of the cars were already modernized with air-condition, but in my compartment-car the air-condition didn’t work so I (and the old man from Vienna) moved to a open-cabin-car with. BTW, the 83-year-old man told me, that he was born in Western Ukraine and had moved to Austria already 35 years ago. This was his first trip back to his homeland.

En-route to Kosice:

In Kosice the train arrived 5 minutes late at 19:55. The connecting local train to Cierna nad Tisou departed at 20:07. We changed to that train, to which also the Ukrainian sleeping car was attached. I boarded the Russian sleeping car to Moskva and also the old man bought an inofficial upgrade for this sleeping car to avoid a further change of trains at Cierna nad Tisou.

At Kosice:


I had booked a place in a “Double”-compartment, as the 3-bed-configuration on Russian international sleeping cars is too narrow for longer trips like this. “Double” requires a 1st class ticket for the Ukrainian and Russian part, but instead of one 1st class ticket, I had a 2nd class Citystarticket for 2 persons, which after some explanation was also accpeted by the conductor. The other place in my compartment was not booked and I stayed the whole time alone till Moscow.

The sleeping car was a modernized RIC-WLABm of RZD. It was air-conditioned and there was a small refrigerator in each compartment (below the seat). Some windows on the corridor-side could be opened to take photos.

Inside the compartment:

Arrival at Cierna was at 21:56 and there the 2 sleeping cars are attached to another local train, which goes just over the border to Chop.

Shunting at Cierna nad Tisou:

The Slovakian border checks took place at a new checkpoint almost at the border (built with EU money), whereas the Ukranian border checks took place during the stop at the station Chop. Formalities at this boder are fast, easy and not worth mentioning compared to what we experienced on other border crossings during this trip. I sayed goodbye to the old man, who left the train here.

Slovakian border checkpoint:

At Chop also the boogie exchanging procedure is done. It is done for the 2 sleeping cars coming from Slovakia as well as for some other sleeping cars of the “Tisza-Express” coming from Budapest. After that procedure all the sleeping cars from Wien, Kosice, Budapest, Beograd, Zagreb are rearranged and attached to a “domestic” train from Uzhgorod to Moskva. Departure from Chop was at 3:32 (East European time, one hour ahead of Central European time).

Regauging at Chop:


(due to darkness not much can be seen, but nerds might like the typical sounds during the regauging procedure...)


Train trip across Ukraine via Lviv – Ternopil – Hmelnizki – Vinniza – Kyiv. I already used this line several times (the last time was only 3 weeks ago), so it was already a little bit boring – the same procedure as every time…
BTW, train 15/16 (“Tisza”) uses the Shmerinka avoiding curve. In Lviv and Kyiv sleeping cars were detached.

At Lviv:


15 minutes stop at Grechani:

At Hmelnizkij:

Near Shmerinka:

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Arriving at Kyiv:

In the evening the Ukrainian border checks took place at Konotop, still more than 100 km from the actual border to Russia.


From Konotop the train ran non-stop to Brjansk, already more than 100 km inside Russia, where finally the Russian border checks take place at the uncivilizised time of 4 a.m. (Moscow time, one hour ahead of East European time). Apart from the horrible time, the border checks also here were no problem.

After some more sleep I finally arrived at Moscow at about 10 a.m. at the Kievskaya station. My friend Alexander was waiting for me and we drove to his flat to have some breakfast together.

Arriving at Moskva Kievskaya:




Eurasia 2005: ~35.000 km by train from Europe via Ukraine, Russia and Mongolia to China and back to Europe via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan:

Total solar eclipse 2008: Trip to the total solar eclipse in the Altay mountains (1st august 2008), including a 6-day trekking trip:




me said...

those sensors are probably RF readers that they put on trains and boxcars for tracking purposes. The USA freight system uses them as well.

tracks direction also as each boxcar will have a tag on each end.

Mirna Altan said...

Hello! My name is Mirna. I'm from Rosario, Argentina. My English is not very good, sorry. First, I congratulate you for the trip has been wonderful! I tell you that I am a professor of geography and your travel journal and photos by the siberia used with my students, so thanks! Here in Argentina, we had one of the rail networks importartes most of South America, but now dismantled almost all of this by the privatizations. But you can not hear el tren de las nubes (salta) and Trochita in Ushuaia, the world's ferrocarril more austral

Unknown said...

It's wonderful for me to start to see your trip. I'm Thai woman 47..wanted to travel by train but it's so complicated for me..i'm planning to go to Myanmar soon..now i see your blog,that made me no more afraid anything..
thanks for your blog..surly i will see all your writing even if i'm not good in english

WaG! said...

Just started reading your very interesting travel blog... Just had to comment on the detector gates. They are detectors for radioactive materials. See the gates here:


And more about the company TSA Systems here:


Anonymous said...

Your travel could have ended other way than you had planned. Congratulations on having seen NK and a fantastic story, however, you put yourself at risk. I am pretty baffled how much effort do you guys put in getting to another part of the world by train. Did you already get contacted by someone of the American Embassy staff? Are you following the counter-surveillance measures in order to stop being followed by the North Korean agents in Europe? They already know everything about you, you even put online your SBahn station in Vienna online. In North Korea, you could have got kidnapped, forced to spying, accused of spying, gone through staged trial then been killed in North Korea, you could have been put in a concentration camp in the remotest and the most secret part of the world. The North Korean beaches that you have seen have been used by NK agents and very rogue spy operations when Japanese nationals have been kidnapped from mainland Japan in '70s-'80s and then smuggled into NK by sea, probably by submarine ships. I hope that you now enjoy the memories of your travel but I also hope that none of your guides or official NK travel agency members have been put to death in a concentration camp because you have chosen to enter the country through a non-official channel. They for sure are quite decent people and they have families. Also, mentioning how you have hidden the photos in your laptop, pretty not so wise step to read it by the whole world online.
There is also a bit deeper feeling to know what did you want to know or accomplish by simply riding the train for some three weeks. If you have wanted to simply "be" there, then all is fine but there was hardly any sightseeing going on, you scarcely spoke to anyone beside train compartment, you have never visited a rural house in Russia (in NK the secret police would arrive in minutes if you happen to do so), all what we see are the photos of a nature, the countryside, sad, grey colours of former Communist infrastructure in Russia and even more greedier and blackest in the NK.
I must congratulate you on achieving such a trip but sometimes life is simply too precious to take such risks. You will probably be denied entry if you would ever want to visit NK again. How do you think you help people living under such horrendous regime? Isn't better to offer your help and money to the associations of defectors from NK, to the charities who deal with all sort of NK problems, even to some carefully chosen charities who help people in some most abandoned and impoverished regions of the world.
Hope this comment will get through your moderation. There is not really a reason not to publish it, is it?

Helmut said...


First of all, I know that our trip was a risky experiment and in some way egoistic. However, if you have a difficult aim, you just must not think so much about the risks involved and about failing. A mountain climber also must not think about what might happen if he makes a wrong step and falls down. He has to concentrate his thoughts on how he can achieve his aim, otherwise he has already lost before starting. Adventures don't happen if you're too afraid.

The aim of the trip was to make a quite usual North Korea tourist trip combined with an unusual way to get there. The train route from Russia to North Korea via Tumangan was one of the most mysterious and least documented international train routes and we wanted to end this vacuum of knowledge by using this route personally and publishing the story on the internet. The intention wasn't politically, it came mostly from a railfan's point of view.

And the aim was not to do sightseeing in Russia, a country which we already knew well from a couple of trips before.
I don't care whether anybody else understands our motivation, but these are the facts.

Second, no I've not been contacted by anyone of any embassy (neither the US embassy, nor the North Korean embassy…). We broke the rules for tourists in North Korea (but it was not totally illegal, we had a visa with Tumangan listed as possible entry point) and escaped from North Korean control for quite a while during the train trip, but I don't want to overrate the relevance of the trip for intelligence services.
The impressions of the country were not so different compared to the other officially available line for tourists (from Pyongyang to the Chinese border), it was just a much longer trip and we didn't uncover any military secrets or something similar. And I don't see why our guides should have any problems after all.

Regarding your point about spending money for a trip like this vs. supporting charities – what do you want? A world where travelling is forbidden and where it is decided what people do with their money? I hope you don't want that. I'm glad to have the freedom to travel and I think that travelling can and should be ecologically and socially sustainable and that it can be a way for better understanding between different cultures.

I respect other cultures and prefer unusual destinations about which many people have prejudices (I mean also places like Romania or Russia, about which many people here in Western Europe have a complete wrong or non-existent perception).
I also try to avoid planes as my personal contribution to reduce CO2-emissions and I think that spending money locally at restaurants, hostels and so on can be seen as a contribution to keep jobs there.
However, I admit that the money spent in North Korea didn't help any ordinary North Korean citizen – but yes, nobody is perfect and in this case my curiosity to see exotic countries was bigger than the intention not to support a dictatorship.
And, BTW, I regularly donate to human right organizations.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for letting it in, my last comment. I had no goal to blame you or intimidate you because of what you have done or rather the way you have done it. I hope you will read my comment once more, so there will be a deeper understanding, some kind of revelation maybe....I have a feeling that you did not understand me in full.
What you have said in your answer, it sticks up for your own purpose as I had pretty thought of before even writing my first comment. The idea that I am against the world travel and visiting places that normally require a visit scheduled and tailored by the most closed and remotest nation is wrong. Everybody is free to go and use its own money wherever its wish desires, some of them end up being caught, hurt, killed or missing then end up being rescued by any means by the forces of almighty democratic countries so the media may breed on it for weeks like in that story about two female American journalists stepping on a border of a frozen Tumen river in order to get a feel of country you just wrote about but.... this is the way the risk or rather an idea for it fulfills and drives our lives. It is such a horrendous misunderstanding in comparing mountain climbing where the personal goal and efforts and a combat with human body and its mental forces are ultimate to a rail travel through a country under the most cruel regime that usually puts its own citizens to death for staged reasons. And I am really sure saying that you had no real knowing what kind of regime you have let yourself visiting so I cannot let myself to expect you would understand my point of view.
You should visit www.chrisguillebeau.com, a blog by one guy whose a simple goal is to visit every country in the world. He has now some 65 countries left and he yet has to visit Afghanistan, a country or rather a parody of it that he probably will not put his feet in. He scarcely stays more than one day in a place, he is in constant travel, earning airline miles and eating them like a burger, driven by the giant marketing strategy and his 1.000.000 miles status. But do not get me wrong! No real comparison with you and no my will to blame anyone. It is just interesting to know what people's real motivation are.

Ashtree said...

Hi, Helmut ans Oliver!
Really an amazing trip! I admire your brave.
I'm a Bulgarian,. born in Moscow, now living in Sofia. Since my childhood I traveled a lot both by train and by plane between Moscow and Sofia and back, but nothing can be compared as experience to travelling by SZD/RZD train! It is not only a traveling, you get a lot of social contacts, you meet different people, drink vodka with them in kupe and talk about life.... I also traveled a lot by train around the firmer USSR - Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan... I know every sleeper and joint on famous Moscow-St.Petersbourg line...There I had the chance to ride ER-200 in 1988. Living in Moscow I also often traveled to Warsaw in PKP WLAm 's. One of my childhood dreams was to become a loco engineer and drive the huge 4TE10, or to become a provodnik on Rossiya train... I didn't become a professional railwayman, now I'm a translator, but I have the wonderful chance to work for railwaymen on an important project for BDZ - the modernization of our old TE109 (BDZ Series 07, DB Series BR-232, "Ludmila"), performed jointly by Russian and German specialists.
Korean "kupejnyj" resembles an old Ammendorf Wagonbau, used on RZD (SZD then) in 70-s. As i see the name plate, it is made in NK. Is that true, or they had just modernized (otkaveerili) the old RZD Ammendorf?
Best regards

Renato Favero said...

What a crazy journey!! But I was traveling along with you. Is this kihg of thing that gives the "spice" our lives. Congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Hi...I think the detectors on Slovakian-Ukainian borders are searching for cigaretts, witch are used to be hidden in trains, especially cargo cards...smuggling of tobbaco and alcohol from Ukraine, where are these product far more cheaper than in EU is very serious problem on slovakian Eastern border as far that smugglers are usually connected with ukrainian (and in the past also with slovakian) border authorities and railway personnal

Anonymous said...

Great story. Thanks for sharing.

Martin Lipocky said...

Hello! If I'd known of you two years ago, I'd have asked you for taking me to your company. Your trip is highly exciting! I'm from Bratislava and can speak German as well, and can remember some speaking from mandatory Russian language from school. :)

Unlike you, I like traveling to the Alps. While you were preparing to travel across Siberia, I returned from Interlaken and Badgastein, arranged by myself without travel agencies. But the trans-siberian railway attracts me as well and will travel there once! ;-)

Dmitrii said...

I don't know what these detectors for but similar ones are located in the Eastern side of Khasan station. Seen them while walking around the station.

Dave said...

A fantastic blog my friend. I really enjoyed reading about your adventures to Pyongyang! I wish you many more safe journeys!!

Laszlo VONDRACSEK said...

My name is Laszlo VONDRACSEK and I am from Romania (Bucharest). I whish to thank you very much for this wonderful reportage about your trip in North-Korea (via Russia), carried out by train.It was so real, my self I made effectively a "vitual" trip Vien-Bratislava-Moscow ....untill Pyongyang. Congratulation for your professionalism !

Anonymous said...

Bizarrely, you can find the route you took on the german rail website bahn.de. Just use the normal search and enter Moskau, Pjöng Yang, and pick a date which is the 25th of the month, and it will show you the route. Expand it, then click on the train number '652EI' and it will show you all the stops on the route from Usiriisk to Pjöng Yang (including Khasan and Tumagang). Unsurprisingly, the 'book' button is not active.

Tomo1976 said...

Great blog, great trips and great photos! :)

Anonymous said...

I think the sensors are x-ray scanners which have been build to search for smuggled goods in cargo. German police uses them as well to search for cigarettes from Poland.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely great blog, danke schön

Anonymous said...

Hello I must admit, that I really just envy your experience with this trip of yours. I am dreaming of to repeat this trip the same way as you have done it. I had been looking at the website of the Russian Railways, and as I just found out, it seems to be possible to book a ticket straight to Pyongyang via Tumangang ( from Moscow of course ). Just the train number is differs of the Rossia express you have had used before. It had offered me a trip by a train number 100, going maybe more around the Baikal Sea, via Ulan-Ude. I do not remember exactly, if you had went the same way. Do you think it would be possible to take this way and have you got any advices for me? Thx. for the answer. I would like to buy a standard trip to the DPRK of course by the North Korean agency.

Helmut said...

Hi Col Ca,
thanks for your comment. Regarding the direct train service to Pyongyang: Yes, meanwhile the North Korean sleeping car is attached to another train inside Russia (train no 100 instead of train no 2), but the route is still the same as it used to be in 2008.
Recently some tourist groups were allowed to enter/leave North Korea via the boder at Tumangang, but taking the ordinary train between Tumangan and Pyongyang is still not considered an appropriate way for tourists to get to/from Pyongyang.
Travel agencies will probably try to prevent you from takiung this route, if they know about your plans in advance. So you can only take the risk as we did and try to take the train via Tumangang to Pyongyang without announcing your plan in advance. I cannot guarantee that this will work again...
Or you can also join a tour which includes the Rason area and combine it with the train trip Moscow - Tumangang. This seems possible, but transport between Rason and the rest of the DPRK seems to be only by chartered bus or plane. At http://www.koreakonsult.com/gruppresor%202015_eng.html you can find such tours.
If you have any furter questions, you can contact me via e-mail to kim-hel-mut@gmx.at

manhuel said...

Muy interesante, me encanta esta página web, y me encanta Rusia. Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting blog. It sounds like such a trip could be risky these days.

Wilelm said...

This is an interesting blog. It seems such a trip could be risky these days.