Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Boarding the direct train to Pyongyang


On that day we departed from Irkutsk for Pyongyang. The trip was in the direct sleeping car Moscow – Pyongyang, which runs twice monthly (11th and 25th at 21:25 from Moscow, 4 days later from Irkutsk). It is a sleeping car of the North Korean railways, which makes it very interesting. It is attached to train no. 2 "Rossiya" (Moscow – Vladivostok), one of the most famous and prestigious trains of Russian railways (RZD). With this train it runs from Moscow to Ussuriysk, about 100 km before Vladivostok. There it is detached in the early morning of the 18th and 4th (of course one day earlier after a month with 31days..) and continues in the afternoon with a local train to the border station Khasan, where it arrives late evening. Only on the next day (19th and 5th) at lunch time the sleeping-car crosses the border to North Korea to Tumangan, from where it leaves in the evening attached to a domestic Korean train Tumangan – Pyongyang, to arrive finally at Pyongyang the next evening at 21:25 (20th and 6th of each month).
However, it sometimes happens that the sleeping-car runs with 2 days delay from Moscow. The departure of 11th july was delayed by two days, as I found out at http://train.mza.ru a few days before the 11th. I then checked also the further departures, but they were all on-time (25th july, 11th august, 25th august), so I hoped that our trip wouldn't be delayed by two days...
But already before leaving from Austria I found out, that our sleeping-car would - according to http://train.mza.ru run - on the 11th september from Moscow.

With 10272 km the Moscow - Pyongyang sleeping car is now the longest direct train connection in the world. Total travel time from Moscow to Pyongyang is 211 hours:

 | station                           |  arrival  | departure | train    |
Day 1:
 | Moskva Iaroslavskaja              |           |      21:25|     2MJ  |
Day 2:
 | Wladimir Pass                     |      00:18|      00:36|          |
 | Gorkii Mosk                       |      03:27|      03:39|          |
 | Kirow Pass                        |      09:43|      09:58|          |
 | Balesino                          |      13:26|      13:46|          |
 | Perm 2                            |      17:22|      17:42|          |
 | Swerdlowsk Pass                   |      23:20|      23:43|          |
Day 3:
 | Tjumen                            |      03:58|      04:18|          |
 | Ischim                            |      07:51|      08:03|          |
 | Omsk                              |      11:17|      11:32|          |
 | Barabinsk                         |      15:03|      15:45|          |
 | Novosibirsk(RUS)                  |      19:14|      19:33|          |
 | Taiga                             |      22:52|      23:03|          |
Day 4:
 | Mariinsk                          |      01:17|      01:42|          |
 | Bogotol                           |      03:33|      03:35|          |
 | Achinsk 1                         |      04:36|      04:38|          |
 | Krasnojarsk Pass                  |      07:25|      07:45|          |
 | Saosernaja                        |      10:22|      10:24|          |
 | Kansk-Enisejskij                  |      11:34|      11:36|          |
 | Ilanskaja                         |      12:06|      12:26|          |
 | Reschoti                          |      13:34|      13:36|          |
 | Tajshet                           |      14:39|      14:41|          |
 | Nishneudinsk                      |      17:13|      17:25|          |
 | Tulun                             |      18:53|      18:55|          |
 | Sima                              |      20:44|      21:14|          |
 | Tscheremchowo                     |      22:52|      22:54|          |
 | Usole-Sibirskoe                   |      23:47|      23:49|          |
Day 5:
 | Angarsk                           |      00:12|      00:15|          |
 | Irkutsk-Sort                      |      00:47|      00:49|          |
 | Irkutsk Passajirskij              |      01:03|      01:33|          |
 | Sljudjanka 1                      |      03:40|      03:42|          |
 | Ulan-Ude Pass                     |      08:40|      09:10|          |
 | Petrowskij Sawod                  |      11:12|      11:14|          |
 | Chilok                            |      13:43|      13:58|          |
 | Tschita 2                         |      18:14|      18:39|          |
 | Darasun                           |      19:51|      19:52|          |
 | Karymskaia                        |      20:33|      20:51|          |
 | Shilka-Passajirskai               |      23:17|      23:19|          |
Day 6:
 | Priiskowaja                       |      00:06|      00:07|          |
 | Kuenga                            |      00:47|      00:48|          |
 | Tschernischewsk-Saba              |      01:53|      02:18|          |
 | Silowo                            |      03:41|      03:43|          |
 | Ksenewskaja                       |      05:47|      05:48|          |
 | Mogocha                           |      07:40|      07:55|          |
 | Amasar                            |      09:26|      09:46|          |
 | Erofej Pavlovich                  |      11:41|      12:02|          |
 | Uruscha                           |      13:44|      13:45|          |
 | Skoworodino                       |      15:31|      15:33|          |
 | Magdagatschi                      |      18:30|      18:45|          |
 | Tigda                             |      19:45|      19:47|          |
 | Schimanowskaja                    |      21:59|      22:01|          |
 | Swobodnij                         |      23:09|      23:12|          |
Day 7:
 | Belogorsk                         |      00:03|      00:33|          |
 | Ekaterinoslawka                   |      01:47|      01:49|          |
 | Zavitaia                          |      02:28|      02:30|          |
 | Bureia                            |      03:11|      03:13|          |
 | Archara                           |      04:04|      04:07|          |
 | Oblutsche                         |      05:55|      06:10|          |
 | Bira                              |      08:07|      08:08|          |
 | Birobidshan                       |      08:48|      08:51|          |
 | Chabarowsk 1                      |      11:00|      11:30|          |
 | Wjasemskaja                       |      13:23|      13:38|          |
 | Bikin                             |      15:11|      15:13|          |
 | Lutschegorsk                      |      15:55|      15:56|          |
 | Dalneretschensk 1                 |      16:54|      16:55|          |
 | Rushino                           |      17:44|      17:59|          |
 | Spassk-Dalnij                     |      19:29|      19:31|          |
 | Mutschnaja                        |      20:07|      20:08|          |
 | Sibirzewo                         |      20:25|      20:27|          |
 | Ussuriisk                         |      21:27|           |          |
Day 8:
 | Ussuriisk                         |           |      09:05|     966  |
 | Baranovskij                       |      09:44|      09:46|          |
 | Olenevod                          |      10:01|      10:03|          |
 | Senokosnaya                       |      10:19|      10:21|          |
 | Vinevitino                        |      10:40|      10:42|          |
 | Provalovo                         |      11:12|      11:14|          |
 | Primorskaya                       |      11:54|      12:09|          |
 | Kedrovoj                          |      12:24|      12:26|          |
 | Bamburovo                         |      13:01|      13:06|          |
 | Sukhanovka                        |      14:10|      14:15|          |
 | Gvozdevo                          |      14:43|      14:48|          |
 | Makhalino                         |      15:08|      15:13|          |
 | Khasan                            |      16:10|           |          |
Day 9:
 | Khasan                            |           |      05:00|          |
Korean time is 5 hours ahead of Moscow time
 | Tumangan                          |      10:19|      17:50|       8  |
 | Radzhin                           |      19:47|      20:12|          |
 | Chhondzhin                        |      23:20|      23:52|          |
Day 10:
 | Kilju                             |      03:58|      04:10|          |
 | Chamchin                          |      12:04|      12:28|          |
 | Kovon                             |      14:20|      14:41|          |
 | Pyongyang                         |      21:25|           |          |

There is also a 2nd direct train connection from Moscow to Pyongyang. The weekly train no. 20 (Moscow – Beijing) conveys direct sleeping cars Moscow – Pyongyang. They go via China and are detached from the main train at Shenyang, wait there for some hours and the continue with the Beijing – Pyongyang train. Departure from Moscow is every friday at 23:55, arrival at Pyongyang is one week later at 19:30. Distance is 8625 km, travel time 158h35min.

Train no. 2 with the sleeping car to Pyongyang stops at Irkutsk Passashirskiy station from 1:03 till 1:33 Moscow time, that's 6:03 – 6:33 local time. In Russia the railway everywhere uses Moscow time.
We got up at 5:00 and went to the station with a pre-arranged taxi, as public transport only starts at around 6:00. It was still dark and cold, and few other cars were on the street.
Our feelings where quite ambivalent at that time, as we now started an adventure with an uncertain end – will we succeed to enter North Korea via Tumangan or will there be problems? All we heard is that this route is not open for tourists…. so our plan was quite crazy (especially considering what kind of country North Korea is…) and out of the rules.

I can therefore not recommend trying to repeat what we did and I ask for your understanding that due to the special situation I can not here or via e-mail tell more details about our prior preparation and organization of the trip via Tumangan.
But of course I will tell about what happened in Tumangan and on the further trip – the travelogue won't stop at Tumangan(Gr).

But now back to Irkutsk in the morning of the 15th September 2008: "Well, let's forget about the concerns and just go" that's what we thought and did at this time.

My tickets for this adventure:

Ticket+reservation Irkutsk – Pyongyang:

Ticket+reservation from Khabarovsk to Pyongyang:

Oliver had the same for places 18 and 20, so we had a whole compartment for us (places 17, 18, 19 and 20).

We arrived at the station at about 5:55. Train 2 was announced to arrive 5 minutes late:

There was still no platform indicated, so we waited. We already noticed some Korean people with much luggage.

After 5 minutes the platform was announced, so we and many other passengers went there. I knew that the Korean sleeping car is the 2nd last car of the train (the last is the through-car Moscow – Komsomolsk, which is detached from the main train at Khabarovsk), so we went to the Moscow-bound end of the platform.
As I already once used this Korean sleeping car for a domestic trip inside Russia, I knew that it is mainly used for carrying various goods from Russia to North Korea. It is brought to the stations by Korean people temporarily living in Russia (for work).

The train finally came in the station and although it was still dark, the Korean sleeping car could be recognized from the distance, as it looks different from the Russian cars.
After the train stopped and the conductors opened the door, the Korean people (there were about 5 of them) began to load their big, heavy cartons with unknown content. When we approached the door and wanted to show our tickets, the conductors, who were "guarding" our "entrance-door to North Korea", said only "zdes neljsa, zdes nelsja, drugoj vagon" (which means "here forbidden, here forbidden, other vagon"). They even didn't want to look at the ticket and didn't understand me (or didn't want to) when I said "my do Phenjana edim" (We are going to Pyongyang). I wanted to show the passport with the North Korean visa, but it seemed that they didn't want to have anything to do with us, the conductor only continued saying "drugoj, russkij vagon" and so on. Around us the Korean people were still loading stuff and looked at us strange backpackers…
What to do now? Will our plan already fail in Irkutsk?
At this moment a Russian conductor ("provodnik") from the Komsomolsk-bound sleeping car noticed that we had some problem and came to us. We explained him the situation.
Then the following happened (you have to know, that the RZD-conductor was quite tall and wearing the authoritative-looking RZD-uniform): He shouted "Provodnik!" to the direction of the door of the Korean sleeping car and gave the man, who reacted, an unmistakable sign to come here. He then showed him the ticket and – without speaking any word – first pointed to the car and place number on the tickets, then on us and then towards the Korean sleeping car. Unbelievable!
In the face of the Korean conductor we could notice his respect for the Russian conductors and he said only "khorosho, khorosho" – and let us in! Perfect, the first hurdle is done!

On the corridor of the sleeping car it was quite dark, cold and the air was smoky. Koreans were shifting cartons around and looking at us like at aliens. The conductor showed us our compartments and we put down our backpacks on the beds and left the car again.
Oliver said goodbye to his girlfriend and she took a photo of us with the North Korean sleeping car:

We were joking that now the "Songun-era" (*) will begin for us ;-)

"Dear Leader Comrade Generalissimo Kim Jong Il's Songun politics are the lifeblood of the Korean people single mindedly united as one in harmonious steel-strong rock-hard heroic ranks of invincible mass-valour and undying loyalty for the Leader and a banner of perpetual victory over the cravenly cowardly criminal capitalist US imperialists, their satellites, henchmen, hirelings and servants.
As long as Dear Leader Comrade Generalissimo Kim Jong Il the brilliant statesman, political genius, prodigious humanist, intellectual giant, prolific songwriter, superb theorician, and invincible military commander leads the Juche-based man-centered Korean-style socialist perfect system freely chosen by the Korean people in single-minded profound respect and admiration for Dear Leader and his invincible Songun politics, the criminal capitalist crooked contrived consumerist US imperialists will never defeat, stifle, or browbeat the great invincible prosperous powerful Democratic People's Republic of Korea into submission thanks to Dear Leader's invincible Songun politics that are the lifeblood of the Korean people.
Hmmm, let's see how the Songun-era really is…

The train departed on-time at 1:33 (6:33 local time). Apart from us, only one passenger boarded the sleeping-car in Irkutsk. The other Koreans were just bringing packages to the train…
The North Korean sleeping car consists of 8 compartments, one of them is used by the conductors, so 28 places can be sold to passengers. That's the theory, in reality most compartments are filled with luggage.
Please watch my video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1wMqNCeG0w to get an idea about how it looks like inside the North Korean sleeping car. I've made the video on my trip from Moskva to Usole-Sibirskoye (within Russia) in december 2006.

It was cold inside our compartment – no heating, maybe 10 degrees. On the train which I took from Moscow to Novosibirsk, the provodniza told me, that the heating-period, during which the train is electrically heated with power from the locomotive has not yet begun. If it's cold outside this period, the cars are individually heated with a coal stove, which is located in every car (this also applies for trains hauled by diesel-locomotives, which can't provide electrical power for the heating).
However, individual heating requires that coal is available – and this was not the case in our North Korean sleeping car…
But no problem, we had warm clothes. However, I wonder why they can't just switch on the electric heating also outside the official heating period…
However, the water-boiler was working, so preparing tea, coffee and instand-noodles was possible.

15 minutes after Irkutsk one of the conductors came to us to take the tickets and check our passports. Now he already made a friendlier impression.
I think the conductors just couldn't imagine at all, that backpackers like we go to Pyongyang, hence their reaction when we wanted to get on...

About 1,5 hours after Irkutsk the Baikal-lake appears outside the train-window. The train goes down to Slyudyanka and then runs along the shore for more than 2 hours.

The corridor of the sleeping car:

Inside our compartment:

We found out, that some windows on the corridor-side as well as the window in the toilet can be opened – good news regarding photos!

The mountains near Slyudyanka:

A small village:

Station Vydrino:

The Baikal-lake:

After leaving the Baikal the train route follows the Selenga river up to Ulan-Ude, which it crosses about 30 minutes before reaching Ulan-Ude:

Selenga valley:

30 minutes stop at Ulan-Ude:

East of Ulan-Ude:

As it was quite cold, the passengers kept their compartment doors closed on the 1st half of the day. Now in the afternoon it was a little bit warmer (17 degrees according to the thermometer on the corridor) and one young North Korean passenger started talking with me (in Russian). He said that he was working as a construction worker at Nishniy Novgorod for one year. Now he returned to his family, he had a wife and one three-year-old son in Pyongyang. Of course he was also interested, for what reason we were going to Pyongyang.
It was just small-talk as usual…

Apart from us, there were only 5 passengers in the sleeping car: The 1st compartment was the conductors compartment, the 2nd and 3rd were also used by the conductors to store luggage and to sleep. The 4th compartment was occupied by the man, who boarded at Irkutsk (the other three beds were full with luggage). The 5th compartment was ours. In the 6th compartments there were 4 passengers – one from Moscow, three from Nishniy Novgorod. The 7th and 8th compartment were again luggage-compartments…
After Irkutsk the number of passengers (but not the quantity of luggage) remained unchanged till Pyongyang.

Somewhere east of Ulan-Ude there was a quite long section with three tracks:

However, I don't understand, for what reason they've built a 3rd track exact here. The number of trains here is relatively low, and I think a 3rd track would make more sense between Omsk and Novosibirsk, where the train frequency is really high (on my way between Omsk and Novosibirsk I counted the passing freight trains between 9:53 and 10:27: 9:53, 9:55, 9:59, 10:03, 10:07, 10:10, 10:13, 10:15, 10:17, 10:27 – this line is really full with trains).

At Petrovskiy Zavod:

This trip was also my first trip on the Transsiberian railway east of Ulan-Ude. And I was very impressed by the landscape here. The terrain is hilly and the area is even less populated than the more western parts of Russia. And the coulours of the autumn made it even more beautiful:

I the late evening (18:14 – 18:39, 0:14 – 0:39) the train stopped at Chita. On the square in front of the station there is a nice church:

The station building:

On the platform:

The five conductors:


Fortunately we had enough blankets in our compartment, so it was not too cold for sleeping. In the morning the temperature was 7 degrees on the corridor and maybe 5 degrees warmer in the compartment…

Landscape between Zilovo and Ksenyevskaya:

As I have noticed that the conductors have power outlets in their compartment, I asked them whether I could charge my electric shaver there. They were just having lunch and it was not only possible to use the outlet for my purpose, they also invited me to have lunch together with them in their compartment. Now they all were very friendly and I explained them our trip by drawing a world-map with the route from Vienna to Pyongyang. Of course – no such lunch without some Korean schnaps…

The food was very tasty too: Meat, rice, soup, kimchi (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimchi), onion…

The service compartment next to their compartment was used as kitchen, there they had two cooking plates – with electric connections, which don't really comply with European safety regulations… ;-)

Between Ksenyevskaya and Mogocha (video):

Approaching Mogocha (sheduled stop 4:40 – 4:55):

Mogocha station:

VL-60 with victory day inscriptions:

Between Mogocha and Amazar (video with passing freigh train):

The next stop was at Amazar (9:26 – 9:46):

Russian village life:

Here we bought some delecious "vareniki" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varenyky) from the "babushka":

It seemed that here such private "shops" are forbidden on the platform (as it's usual at many other stations). No problem, then the "shops" are just located on the other side of the fence surrounding the platform…

Amazar river:

Erofey Pavlovich (11:41 – 12:02):

Barrier-free crossover...

EP1-309 with train no. 2 "Rossiya":

West of Erofey-Pavlovich there are some serpentines:


Travelling in the North Korean sleeping car through such a vast landscape gives you already a cut-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world-feeling, alltough we where still in Russia…but already somehow isolated. It was really strange.

Maybe to overcome this feeling we decided to visit the dining-car – just to ensure that the rest of the world still exists…
The dining car was not – as usual – located in the middle of the train, but after the 1st sleeping car (totally the 4th car, behind the locomotice there were 3 luggage and/or post cars). So it was a relatively long walk. The Russian sleeping cars were all very modern and clean, the heating was working – also quite a contrast to our North Korean sleeping car. Of course we never had regrets, that we made this trip to North Korea and and an old sleeping car is also much more interesting than this modern stuff – but I think nevertheless you can understand the ambivalent feelings…

The dining car was nice, the service was friendly, the menu also in english – the rest of the world still exists ;-)

First we were the only guests, but then some other guests came. They also were tourists from Europe.
We talked with two of them, they were a couple from Switzerland, travelling to Habarovsk, then to Vladivostok and then by ship to Japan. They also did the whole trip from Switzerland by train, using the Basel-Moscow sleeping car. And we found out that the man was working at the Kanton Solothurn and was there responsible for organizing local public transport. So especially Oliver (he is a SBB-employee) had some interesting topics to discuss…

Somewhen after passing Skovorodino we returned to our sleeping-car.



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: