Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

What do you think of our nuclear missiles?

Wake up call is at 6:30, no time to dilly dally, we have a full day ahead of us. Breakfast is at 7:00, except that it isn’t. Our guides has forgotten to notify the staff about the time and we have to wait until 7:30. It’s a great breakfast though with juices, coffee, on-demand omelet, toast, salad, fruit and yoghurt. After a hurried breakfast we hop on the bus and Mr Kim starts off by teaching us two phrases in Korean: “Annyong hashinika” which means “Good morning/day/evening” and “Kamsa hamnida” which means “Thank you”, and then proceeds to tell us about today’s program. First we’re going to the DMZ, then to nearby Kaesong city to look at an old bridge and a history museum, then back to Pyongyang to look at their subway and hopefully we’ll have time for a quick stop back at the hotel to change clothes before the Arirang Mass Games in the evening.

So we start off on the 160 km drive to the DMZ which Mr. Kim says will take about 3 hours. We were all quietly thinking “WTF?!” about that estimate but when we reached the highway outside town we understand why. The highway is in a really sad state, striped with cracks, making it impossible to drive much faster than 60 km/h. It’s also really wide and would easily be a four-lane, maybe even six-lane, if they’d bothered to paint any lines that is. The result is that everyone drives all over the road and general praxis seems to be to honk generously whenever overtaking someone to let them know you’re coming. There’s also a lot of people walking all over the road, so it’s not only the fact that the bus is shaking to pieces keeping the speed down…

On the highway

While careening down the highway, Mr. Kim siezes the opportunity to tell us just how sincere the North Korean people are in their wish to reunite with their southern brethren and how the USA is blocking the reunion. He drones on for over half an hour even though everyone stopped listening at the ten minute mark. Eventually he tires and we’re allowed to drift off to sleep.

After a while we reach a roadblock and the bus turns off the road and onto a gravel road. After a few hundred meters we see why: it’s a bridge that is blocked off and the foundation doesn’t look in too good a shape. Probably a good thing we’re not on it… The gravel road turns into something marginally asphalted and we’re going less than 20 km/h at this point. I attempt to take some pictures, but the bus is shaking so violently that it’s impossible. It’s also too much people around, pushing bikes with humongous loads and ox carts filled with rice for me to get away with taking any pictures.

Suddenly Mr. Kim leans over and asks to see my camera. Gulp! I’m envisioning the deletion of all my pictures and a stern lecture about what’s okay to photograph. But instead he’s merely curious about the camera! He wants to know how old it is, what it costs, where it’s made, how many megapixels and so on… =P Phew..!

After some more driving on back roads we’re finally back on the highway again. Suddenly we’re passed by another, smaller tour bus (which are the only vehicles out on the road really). This seems to tick our driver off and we rapidly pick up speed. Soon we’re thundering down the highway at breakneck speed and it’s not long before we pass the other bus again and Mr. Kim turns to me with a big smile and two thumbs up: “Very fast bus, Japanese made, not Chinese!”. I lean over to see how fast we’re going, only to realize that, just as in Mongolia, the speedometer is broken…

The landscape zooms by and it’s mostly farmland. The main crop is obviously rice but we also see a lot of corn and even some cotton. We make a quick bathroom at a teahouse where there’s also a souvenir stand. I buy a Korean phrase book from 1989, containing gems like “Long live the great leader Comrade Kim Il-Sung!” and “I want to vomit”.

Souvenir stop

After some more miles on the bus we finally reach the DMZ. The first thing we lay eyes on are a bunch of people wielding actual pickaxes to hack stones to make a new porch (maybe it’s the people from last year’s tour?). Obviously we’re not allowed to photograph them… We gather in front of a big sign with a map of the DMZ and an army officer tells us all about it. It’s two km of buffer zone on each side of the actual border where all weapons are prohibited and we also get an earful of info about the buildings of which I miss most due to poor English and a general disinterest. We’re are asked to form two lines before walking into the DMZ and entering the bus again. The bus drives down this narrow road with two meter high cement walls on each side. On top of the walls are Indiana Jones-like contraptions in the form of giant square blocks perched up on a little slide with just a little stopper underneath to keep them from sliding down onto the road in the event of an invasion, very cool! After a while the blocks are replaced with electrified barbed wire and we pass over several flimsy bridges obviously designed to be collapsible.


The first building we arrive at is the one where the cease fire talks were held. Here we’re informed about how the US provoked the war and how the DPRK heroically threw back the aggressors. The US had suggested a specific spot to sign the cease fire agreement – an open air spot, supposedly so that there would be no memorial of this shameful event. But the North Koreans pulled a few all-nighters and built a large house in just five days to serve as monument for future generations. The Americans also didn’t want the flag soiled by this defeat and instead used the UN flag. The house is also filled with pictures of North Korean triumphs such as the siezing of the Pueblo, the felling of an American helicopter and the letter of apology from the Pueblo drama.

Cease fire house

Next up is the signature monument, which is just what it sounds like, a monument displaying the signature of the late Kim Il-Sung. It’s taken from the last document he signed before passing away in his office, diligently serving his people until his very last breath. The monument has a lot of symbolism built in, it’s 4.15 m high, denoting his birthday at April 15th, 7.7 m wide denoting the day of the signature. The monument is also adorned with 82 magnolias (magnolias are the state flower of DPRK and 82 is for the age of the president at the time of death). The document he signed is was a last wish for reunification with the south.

Then finally it’s time for the actual border. In the Joint Security Area, as this particular spot is called, the border goes in a north-south direction and straddling it are three blue barracks. In the middle one is a conference room where North and South meet every now and then to talk. The main table is placed so that the border runs right through it and the people on each side are still in their respective countries. We get to enter South Korea for a few meters before going back.

The border

Afterwards we go back to a larger building with a balcony from where we can get a better view of the area and can take proper photographs. We even get a photo-op with the officer guiding us (a one-time exception to the no-photos-of-military-men-rule). It’s also worth mentioning that the American guy we keep running into as his tour is taking the same route, has all the same opportunities as we do to photograph and move about.

That concludes the DMZ tour and on the bus back the officer that was guiding us leans over to me and you can really see his eyes beaming with pride as he asks “What do you think about our nuclear missiles?” I’m completely taken aback and start mumbling incoherently about it being “generally bad” and that “Sweden doesn’t have any” before being told that it’s okay and I don’t have to answer… What would you have said?! Sheesh…

He’s still curious though and wants to know what I do for a living and how much I make. I get the numbers wrong by a decimal place and answer “about 300€ a month”. He seems pleased and I take the opportunity to ask him the same question back. This seems to make him a bit uncomfortable but after a while he answers “2-300€ a month”. Now, I have no idea of how truthful he was, but odds are that my mistake made him a bit more forthcoming than he otherwise would have been. It’s a pretty safe assumption that he doesn’t earn more than that anyway. I also ask how high an officer he is and as far as I can tell he’s somewhere in the upper middle tier in whatever hierarchy they have in the North Korean army.

Next stop is Kaesong City where a large part of the population seems to be occupied with fixing potholes, using donkeys and other likewise medieval means. Kaesong is North Korea’s third largest city with about 300K inhabitants and just kilometers from the DMZ. We’re here to see the old Sonjuk stone bridge where some guy got assassinated back in the 13th century or so. This was in the time of the Koryo dynasty, from which the country has gotten its name. Afterwards we cross the road to a little temple containing two bigass turtles carrying the entire temple on their backs. I actually don’t remember the significance of this temple, but the turtles were cool. =P

Kaesong Main Street

Now we finally get to eat lunch (believe it or not but we squeezed all that in before lunch, the schedule in North Korea is _packed_). Lunch consists of a boatload of little bowls, each containing a little dish. There’s deep fried potatoes, candied rice, seaweed, kimchi, another kind of kimchi, some sort of mushrooms, omelet, squid, sauce, bean sprouts, acorn jelly, lotus root, pork, some sort of North Korean dinner liqueur (20%), rice, noodles and finally a bowl of chicken broth. Since we’re behind schedule we’re only given a little more than half an hour to eat up before moving on to the stop: the history museum.


On the way over we see several women doing the laundry, old school, in the river with a washboard and all. The actual history museum is nothing to get excited about, they talk some more about Koryo dynasty and we also get an earful about the benefits ginseng root (they’re somewhat obsessed with ginseng in North Korea). There is something cool to be learned though, and that is that they had actual printing presses as early as mid 12th century, very impressive!

After the museum we get to shop postcards, stamps and general souvenirs in a shop outside the museum. I buy some liqueur for 1€ (25%), alcohol sure is cheap in this country (beer is 60 euro cents for a 64 cl bottle (4.5%)) and four postcards, including stamps, for 6€, not exactly cheap…

That’s it for Kaesong and we get back on the bus to go back to Pyongyang. The young guide Yeoh sits next to me and we talk about this and that. He wants to know about the company that I work for (Ericsson) and is surprised at how big it is. He’s never heard of it but seem to recognize Huawei when I mention them as competitor. He’s also interested in computers and I ask him how much of the population that has computers. He answers that 60% of them do. Umm right, I’d be surprised if 60% even have power…

Being a tour guide is his full time job and he has 4-5 tours a month, from June to November is the most busy period since that’s when the Arirang Mass Games are performed. This is also the only period when Americans are allowed to visit as I understand it. The rest of the year the guides study history, geography and such.

As we come back to Pyongyang it’s time visit the subway. It’s being presented by the guides as something really special so we’re not sure what to expect. “It’s a metro for chrissakes, get over it!” was what most of us were thinking… We arrive at the station and showed an interactive map of the subway where you can push buttons and the path from this station to the one pushed is lit up, kind of impressive if it weren’t for the fact that the entire metro system consists of two (2) lines… Then we go down a really long escalator to look at the actual platform, and I have to say that I’m duly impressed. The station is beautiful with colorful paintings of happy Koreans adorning all walls and chandeliers in the ceiling. In the middle of the platform, newspapers are mounted and people are standing there reading.

The Pyongyang Metro

The train arrives and we hop on to go one station down the line. The cart is adorned with the omni-present pictures of the Kims (junior and senior) of course. Henrik has heard that the trains are old DDR leftovers and and asks Mr. Kim about it. This clearly doesn’t go over well with our guide, but finally he answers that yes, they are indeed from DDR. The next station is just as beautiful as the former, but you can’t help but wonder if we’ve seen the only two pretty stations in the entire metro system.

The second station

After a quick change into warmer clothes we’re bussed off for dinner and treated to hotpot. Not a favorite really but not bad either. We’re short on time as usual and after devouring as much we can we’re packed back on the bus. I’m looking for a place to dispose of my chewing gum after dinner but realize that there are no trash bins in Pyongyang! This actually seems true for much of the Asia I’ve seen, they seem to rely on people with brooms instead.

Mr. Kim asks if we are fed up (to general amusement) and we’re off to Arirang Mass Games! This is something that really can’t be put into words properly so I’ll stick to the bare necessities: The whole thing takes place in an open air stadium and looks like that old Leni Riefenstahl movie Olympia, or the Olympic opening ceremony times ten if you will. There are 100 000 people on the field (not at the same time though) for the 80 minutes the show lasts and on the opposite side of the stadium from the audience sit 20 000 school kids, each with plates in different colors that they hold up at certain intervals. The plates are like pixels in a giant screen and everything is synchronized like clockwork! No dead (or lazy) pixels in sight, truly amazing!

Arirang Mass Games

There is really no way to describe this, we just watch slack jawed and try to comprehend all that is going on. This is the weirdest/coolest/bestest/scariest thing I’ve ever seen.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Parting is such sweet sorrow

This is the day the group is split up and we go off to North Korea. The others go to Qindao on the Chinese coast with the evening train. I haven’t been able to get to the post office to ship my shopping back to Sweden (I’m pretty overloaded and need space for more shopping =P) so I dump it with Jacob so that he can do it for me, supposedly it costs around 500 sek to ship 10 kg by air mail back to Sweden. I follow Anna’s advice and mix in some dirty laundry with it so that it won’t be so obvious that it’s all new stuff and attract the attention of the customs people.

There’s lots of hugging but the blow is softened by the fact that we’ll actually meet once more in Seoul as we come back from North Korea and the others are there before moving on to their last leg of the trip in Japan. We get one of our Chinese guides with us to the airport and she tells us some stuff about the city on the way out. There’s something like seven ring roads in Beijing and she tells us a joke about the traffic: “The wife says to her husband: ‘How much so you love me?’ ‘As much as the traffic on the third ring road’ the husband answers.” I’m not sure I understand it but I guess it means that it’s pretty much traffic there…

In line at the airport I strike up a conversation with a couple of brits, guessing their nationality after hearing the b-word (bollocks). They’re going to North Korea as well (well duh, we’re in the same check in line after all…) and we discuss how to call someone a bastard in an amiable way. I discover that I’ve lost my departure card when it’s time for passport check, no problem though, just fill out another and I’m good to go. The passport check is kind of neat as the counter has buttons you can press to signal your level of satisfaction with the process. It’s very expedious and I press the highest button.

Coming up to baggage check I realize I left my brain back at home and packed my Leijona shot in my carry on. They start by taking that and continue on with my toilet back (which I moronically also put in my carry on…) and away goes my scissors and hand disinfectant. I get to keep my Minty Boost though.

Our ride

The airline we’re flying with is called Air Koryo and they don’t have the most modern planes. We board a really cramped Ilyushin Il-62M and find our seats. The seats are really fun because if you push the seat in front of you it flops over like a domino, I’m reasonably sure it wouldn’t pass any kind of safety standard (in fact, it turns out that it’s banned in the EU). After a brief security demo of how to put on the belt (apparently they don’t have either oxygen masks or life jackets on this flight) the cute attendants begin handing out some reading material. Imagine my delight as the Pyongyang Times and the DPRK Juche is put into my lap. They’re filled with inspirational tales like the one about the textile factory manager who was so good that his workers sang songs in his honor.

In spite of the rickety plane and the cramped seating the flight is quite comfy, mainly because it’s so silent. The Il-62M has four engines all placed at the very back making for a very silent flight if you sit up front. Landing at Sunan International Airport we’re immediately greeted by the sunny smile of the eternal president Kim Il-Sung, displayed on top of the terminal building. A bus is there to pick us up and drive us the 100 meters to the terminal, now that’s service! =P The baggage check is surprisingly light, they want to know if we have any mobile phones, but we collected them all and gave to Karina prior to takeoff. Mobile phones are banned in DPRK and are “sealed” (by sealed means put into a plastic bag, rolled into a ball and clad with massive amounts of tape and finally a paper with a stamp is affixed) and taken care of by the guides until we leave the country again.

Our ride to the terminal

The baggage check guy wants to know if I have any batteries for some reason and I show him the ones in my Minty Boost which seems to satisfy him. Before exiting I’m stopped once more and need to show that my boarding card matches the baggage tag, pretty smart actually. Some people weren’t as lucky though, there were guards over by the baggage carousel watching the luggage go by and every now and then they decided that they saw something suspicious and resolutely plucked one of the bags of the belt and carried it off for a more thorough inspection (without notifying the owner).

Outside the terminal we’re met by our head guide Mr Kim. He introduces himself and then goes inside to help Karina with the phones. Turns out that we have no less than three guides: Mr Kim – a guy in his forties, Miss Kim – a beautiful 23 year old and Yeoh (I have no idea if that’s spelt correctly), a 23 year old guy in a suit. A camera man and a bus driver are also part of our crew.

After a while Karina is ready and we head for the bus that’ll be our second home for the next four days. It’s a really old bus imported from Japan (and therefore right-hand steered) with a pimped out interior featuring chandeliers and lazy-boy seats! As we drive into town the age becomes apparent as the bus shake like the hands of a wino before the mornings first drink. The lousy road probably has something to do with it as well, they’re even worse than in Ulaanbaatar! Writing while on the road is out of the question anyway.

Sandeep enjoying the seats

My first impression of Pyongyang is that it’s pretty run down, not as bad as Russia though. It just seems like they built all the buildings some 20 years ago and haven’t done any kind of maintenance on them since. The whole city is more or less like that, with the exception of the important buildings, that are in a tad better shape. Mr Kim goes over how we’re allowed to take photos on the way: out of the bus window in the city is okay, so are nature sceneries, but people, especially close ups and military men are a definite no-no.

We later learn that the “no photos of people”-thing is more a cultural thing than anything else. North Korea, and South Korea as well to a lesser extent, is still a place where you dress up and is prepared for when a photo is taken. So taking photos of people, especially when they’re unprepared, dirty or otherwise unkempt is extremely rude.

Driving through the city I see several billboards, but none of them have any advertising on them, instead there are large inspirational propaganda posters. It’s a pretty surreal feeling… We make our first stop at the Arch of Triumph, which of course is the largest in the world, purposely made just slightly larger than the one in Paris. The fact that we can just stop and hop off to look at the monstrosity bear witness to the sparsity of traffic in Pyongyang. It’s mostly trams and cable buses milling about followed by the occasional Volvo 144, Mercedes or the domestic Pokugee.

The Arch of Triumph

The Volvos are a leftover from 1973 when Sweden delivered 600 of them to Pyongyang and North Korea decided not to pay for them. The total debt is about 2.2 billion sek and still unpaid. They’re all in surprisingly good shape though, so they must make their own spare parts or something.

We drive on and you can really tell that the North Koreans aren’t used to traffic, the driver honks every 30 meters or so at different jaywalkers and -bikers, but often they won’t even turn their head. They just go about minding their own business, seemingly not caring very much whether they get run over or not, very strange. There are also a lot of soldiers just standing around (with weapons), but given that DPRK can field the world’s fifth largest army, in absolute numbers, not percent, I guess that’s kind of expected.

The Yanggakdo Hotel

We arrive at the Yanggakdo Hotel and make a speedy check in before being whisked off to dinner. Driving in Pyongyang at night is an interesting experience, almost everything is dark, only the windows to people’s homes are lit up (as well as the monuments and propaganda posters of course), everything else is dark, even the street lights owing to the serious energy shortage in North Korea. The restaurant is a nice place where we’re treated to a traditional Korean meal with kimchi, omelet, rice, chicken, deep fried greens, and some sort of pork stew. I’d been dreading the Korean cuisine before coming here, but it’s not bad actually, it’s a lot of picking though so eating takes a while. The fact that the chopsticks are made of metal (=slippery) doesn’t help either.


After dinner we’re bussed back to the hotel and we mill about looking at the visiting Chinese dignitaries, they’re in town as a gesture in connection with the 60 years celebration. It gets old pretty soon though and we go to bed trying to digest the fact that we’re actually in North Korea.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Wallwalking and the Duck of Doom

Today we go to the great wall. Since being unanimously unrecommended the Badabing (sorry, Badaling) section (jam packed with tourists) we go to the Mutianyu section instead. You ride a cable car up to the wall and then you can wander for approximately 500 m in each direction. Jacob and I choose the steep section (surprised? No, didn’t think so…) and set off. I’m wearing my five-fingers today garnering lots of smiles and comments from the locals =)

The first part is really steep, something like 60°, and it’s on shaky legs I clamber up the steps. But as you reach the first tower the rest isn’t very steep, I’m already dreading going back down though. Two towers later you cannot go any further, well you can, but it isn’t restored and more or less overgrown so there’s little point to it. There’s a great view from up there and we explore a bit before going back. Going down the really steep section I try and film a bit to get a sense of how steep it is. It wasn’t as bad as I thought going down though.

As for going back down to the village again you have two options: Either you can walk or you can ride the toboggan; a kind of sled going down what looks like a metal water slide (without the water). Naturally we opt for the toboggan and set off down the track. After a couple of turns I get the hang of it and really let loose. It’s pretty fast when you pull out all stops but every now and then you catch up to some slowpoke in front of you and is forced to brake. But if you wait a while to get some distance between you and the next guy you get some pretty fast stretches out of it. It’s great fun and well worth the 30¥ I paid!

Down in the village we poke around in the shops a bit and I find some more of those feather kicky-ball things and buy a bunch. Then we hop on the bus back to Beijing. There’s a food stop on the way back at a Cloisonné factory. They make those traditional pots/vases that I’ve always thought were made out of porcelain. Turns out they’re made out of copper with copper thread glued on in patterns, the space between the threads is then filled with enamel powder and burned. Polish, rinse and repeat for another coat until the enamel is level with the copper wire and the vase is smooth. We get a tour of the place and then some lunch. It’s a traditional Chinese lunch with a lazy susan covering almost the entire table filled with plates of different foods, most of it good, but the sugar coated lettuce didn’t have many fans… The rest of the drive back to Beijing is uneventful and a good chance to catch up on lost sleep. We have one more stop once we get to Beijing though: the Olympic “Birds Nest” arena. It’s kind of fun but nothing more. We also see the bubble building housing the water sports and the hotel shaped like the Olympic torch.

Back at the hotel I take some time to relax and blog before Jacob and Peter suggest I join them, Johnny and Matilda in a quest for some Beijing Duck. Of course you need to try that while in Beijing so we go out to find a cab to take us to an area where the guide book says they have good duck. Trying to hail a cab we’re approached by a guy wondering if we need help. So we tell him the we’re looking for some good duck and he tells us that there’s one just down the street. We figure that we go for his recommendation and start walking. After a while we find the place and head for the entrance, only to be cut off by another guy telling us that it’s closed (looked open from where we were standing though…). He says we should go to this other place, just down the street… He describes it as being one block down and then left, a really red place.

We decide to take his advice and resume walking. After a while the guy catches up to us and says he’ll follow us there, in hindsight a good thing since I counted more like three blocks down, a left and then another left before arriving… Seems like a nice enough place though and we go inside. The staff takes us past the tiny front restaurant area, past the kitchen, up a flight of stairs, past a storeroom, past another dining area to the end of the corridor where there’s a door. They open the door and to reveal a tiny room with a large round table seating nine. We sit down and get an English menu with pretty much only one item on it: a Beijing Duck meal. It’s rather expensive, 198¥ apiece, but we’re tired of chasing ducks and order. We also ask for a bottle of Chinese liquor so that we’ve tried that as well. After a while the starters are dropping in, we also get our Chinese booze, arriving in a fancy box. The food is great and the booze – not so much… In fact, it’s horrible! It smells just like scented acetone, if you haven’t smelled that it’s a sickly sweet synthetic strawberry smell that will stay with me to the grave. The thing is that it tasted exactly as it smelled! Johnny bailed out immediately and ordered some Coke to dilute the horror. Problem is that it only makes it even worse! We managed to drink two thirds before calling it quits. I took the bottle with me to show the others at the pub later (we’d made plans to join the rest of the gang at the same place as we were yesterday).

How was the duck then? When the duck arrived we were already almost full from all the excellent starters (Kung Pao chicken among others) but we manage to eat most of it before throwing in the towel. Beijing Duck tastes nothing like chicken and is served cut into slices like a pot roast. You take a slice, dip it in black bean sauce, salt, sugar and lemon juice, then put it on a tiny pancake that you roll into a spring roll before finally eating it. Deeelicious! Towards the end of the meal the staff bring in a huge bowl of soup as well. As far as we can tell it’s the rest of the duck, made into soup. We give it a sip before leaving the place with an unsteady gait.

Since we only have a vague idea of where we are anymore we catch a cab back to the hotel. There we find out that everyone but Sanna have already gone off to bed, scandalous! Being a good sport as she is, Sanna joins us for a Gin & Tonic before we call it a night as well.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

This lovely Sunday morning, Peter, Jacob, Andreas and me have decided to go up early to see if we can catch some Tai Chi in one of the parks. So at six am we take the subway to Tiantan park (the one with the Temple of Heaven). There’s a 15 yuan entry fee but it turns out to be well spent money…

At first the park seems to be a bit empty but soon enough people come running by. And how they run! It’s like they don’t know how to run properly! They lean backward, they hardly bend their knees, some don’t move their arms, each one we meet is weirder than the previous. We happen upon a guy standing by himself doing what can only be described as a repeated Hitler salute. Suddenly we hear someone shouting and down the path comes a guy jogging leisurely while shouting at different heights. First one level for a couple of seconds, then down low, up high etc. It’s like we’ve climbed right into the Cucoo’s Nest! =D

We press on and are passed by even more hilariously running people. To our right we see a guy practicing the Diavolo, but not just any Diavolo. He’s using three meter long fiberglass sticks to control it (in contrast to the usual half meter sticks). Then we find some guys playing badminton, the first normal activity really. But to offset that there is a guy right next to them, repeatedly hitting a tree with his palms (and not in a forceful martial artsy way).

Then we hear what appears to be rock music but turns out to be, horribly distorted, regular Chinese wailing music. Listening to it is a bunch of women doing, not Tai Chi, but regular morning gymnastics. Moving on we find some guys playing some badminton-esque game but with beach tennis paddles and a rubber feather ball. Seems quite fun and we buy a set from a lady and try it out..

There’s also a couple of guys throwing a ring back and forth between them. The ring is made of cloth but still heavy enough to throw. He wants Peter to catch the rings around his neck and he obliges. Upon catching them all the guy wants to take pictures and us to thread our heads into the rings with them. Weirdo. There are also some seniors nearby kicking something that looks like a hacky sack between them. Closer inspection reveals that it’s another, more heavily weighted, type of feather ball, that’s really easy to kick back and forth. I buy one of those as well.

Further in we hear some more wailing and this time there’s a guy singing, accompanied by his friend on traditional Chinese instruments. Sounds awful, but he has a crowd of obviously appreciative onlookers so I guess it’s just us. Nearby is a guy in his seventies shaking like Shakira to no obvious rhythm and a bit further away another guy walks around clapping his hands (he’s not the first though, lots of people were walking around clapping various body parts, it’s supposed to be soothing or something).

At this point Andreas and I go back to the hotel for some breakfast, but Peter and Jacob stay and, among other things, reported seeing a large group of people dancing the Tango.

Back at the hotel I latch on to Anna and Karina to go to Ya Shong market (more or less like Pearl market). We split up to do our separate shopping, but Anna and I make loose lunch plans. I’m hopeless at haggling, so I pay much more than I need to but end up buying lots of stuff anyway. For example a pair of dress pants and nice shoes to wear at the mausoleum in Pyongyang (they have a very strict dress code there), a camera battery, some jeans, regular shoes and a lot more. I run into Anna a few times and she helps me haggle a bit. After a while we decide it’s time for lunch and go to the top floor restaurant/food court. We’re met by a girl who shows us a table and brings over a couple of plates with sample food, nice! We order some of it and after a long wait, no less than seven plates descend upon us! We do our best but still leave more than half. Upon paying we’re in for a bit of a shock, the meal costs 170 yuan, excluding beer! At least I get a compliment from the waitress about my beautiful wife =D Anna insists she’s my mother though…

After some more shopping Anna decided to get eyelash extensions; for 180 yuan they glue individual eyelashes to your existing ones, one by one. It looks great and they stay on for a month or so but the process takes a little over an hour. I decide to tag along for a foot massage (30 yuan for 30 minutes) and it’s a good decision. A pretty little girl wearing a breathing mask thoroughly rubs my feet and calves in every conceivable way for the next half hour, niiice…

Some even more shopping later we decide we’re done with Ya Shong and head back. Anna still has a couple of errands to run and I go with her to Pearl Market. Anna knows this place there where they almost have fixed prices and it’s so nice not having to haggle that I end up buying some underwear and a sweater as well.

We rush back to the hotel to have time to freshen up before the planned sort of goodbye dinner (last one with the entire group together) before splitting up. Anna and Karina have arranged for a traditional Hotpot meal at a nearby restaurant. A hotpot is the Chinese equivalent of Swedish “Pytt i panna” really, you get a pot of stock and a bunch of plates with different meats and vegetables. Then you put whatever you like into the pot and boil it for a while, when you’re satisfied you fish it out, dip it into sauce and eat it. Boiled veggies (or boiled anything really) isn’t my cup of tea though, but it’s nice to have tried it.

Anna and Karina ask the staff if we can get any dessert as well. At first they’re very distressed but then they get an idea and in comes the strangest dessert I’ve ever seen, tasted or even heard about. It’s like a bowl of snow with some sort of snow tower in the middle. Over the snow is a cover of brown beans and to top it off it’s drenched in sugar as well. It tastes about as bad as you’d imagine but it sure was fun eating! =P

After dinner we move on to a tiny little bar across the street from the hotel. It’s barely large enough to fit us all and they probably sell more that evening than they normally do in a month. I try their entire selection of umbrella drinks (not too many) and Jacob treats me to his own recipe; a sewage pipe (recipe pending, but it has Bailey’s and Blue Curacao). Looks horrible but tastes nice. In the wee hours one of the staff announces that she’s making meat- and celery dumplings for us – what a place! They’re delicious and the perfect late night snack before heading home.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

I have a cock in my throat

Having set the clock one hour late we almost miss breakfast. We’re just in time to hook up with Elin, Sanna and Anna-Karin though and decide to go to Tiananmen Square first. Getting there we notice there are x-ray stations for bags at every entry point. It probably has something to do with the impending 60-years celebration held on this Thursday (Karina told us that last Thursday was some sort of rehearsal day for the celebration and that the _entire_ town had been shut down. Not a car or a person in sight!). We accidentally drift into the line of people going to to see Mao and get shooed away with shouts of “Bag!”, “Bag!” We mill about on the square for a bit before finally deciding to go see the old corpse.

There is a place across the road where you can store bags (no bags allowed in the mausoleum) so we do that and get in line. Entry to the mausoleum is free but bag storage cost 8 yuan I think. There is a booth where you can buy flowers but we don’t feel like honoring the bastard any more than necessary. Inside Mao lies in a glass box (inside a larger glass box with two guards) and you get to see his waxy profile as you walk by for 20 seconds. There’s no spending quality time with the man in other words.

Next on the menu is the Forbidden City (it’s forbidden because only the emperor and his staff had access). The place is absolutely huge and you get a bit bored after a while, highlights include the Emperor’s garden at the far end and the smaller houses along the side.

Feeling rather spent after three solid hours of watching epic history stuff we split up since it’s only me that’s going to the Kung Fu show later this afternoon (this was yet another optional scheduled event like the acrobatics show). So I head back to the hotel and since I’m short on time I find some vegetable dumpling/pirogue-thing in an alley behind the hotel.

This show was much more artistic than the last one and they did fewer really cool things. A flip-flop directly on the head (on a hard surface) was pretty nice though. Outside the sun had just gone down and we walk back toward the subway. Right next to the station is the famous Pearl Market (one of those places where they sell Nike and Puma knockoffs and every store is at most two square meters) so a bunch of us decide to head over there. Turns out that they close as early as 7 on weekends so Kerstin suggest we go to Donghuamen Night Snack Street, a place where you can get _really_ exotic foods…

We take the subway to the start of Wangfujing street which is a large, quite famous, American style shopping street. After a bit of walking we arrive at the snack market which is a row of stands, each one selling something nastier than the next. Luckily we are a few guys able to spur each other on and we start off feasting on a little sea snake. The texture is soft and spongy, but the taste is quite actually quite nice (all these things we ate were cooked in oil and seasoned before serving, so there’s probably not too much left of the real taste to be honest). Next up is some sort of crayfish; quite good, tasted like… crayfish really. Then the first really nasty thing: Silk worms, these guys are brown grubs about the size of a thumb each. The texture is like oatmeal with a crunchy exterior and the taste (seasoning really) is very nice.

Jacob find some oysters and we try those as well, they’re ruined by too much garlic though and not very nice. Somewhere in between we have some sheep’s testicles. The texture is weird and there’s something tangy about the taste. Other than that they’re pretty much like pork fillet. I also find some snake skin, but that’s probably the worst one of the lot. The texture if just too much and the taste isn’t nice either.

Peter finds scorpion and we try that as well. It’s quite good actually, but mostly shell and not much meat. There’s also sheep’s penis at the same stand and of course we have to try that one also. Really tough to chew but it’s not bad, one of the better ones actually. Toward the end there is a stand with water beetles, bee cocoons and centipede (the 30 cm kind). Jacob buys some bee cocoons and they’re pretty good, mostly crunchy. I get a centipede and water beetles. The centipede tastes like the outermost part of spare ribs, the beetles have an incredibly hard shell and have to be peeled before eating but are otherwise nice. We finish up with some shark meat in the very last stand (very good, but probably bad for you since it’s at the top of the food chain and has lots of accumulated poisons, it’s also somewhat endangered and we really should have skipped it). The lady claims that she has dog and cat meat as well but we don’t really believe her and leave it.

About to finish up for the evening we take a cab to Sanlitun, an area my friend Miro recommends with a bunch of nice bars. We sit down at “The Den” and have a beer. We also had a tip for finding some decadent pole dancing but couldn’t find it (turns out we had the wrong district, should have looked in Solana, near Chaoyang park for “Sex and da City”). We did find a Hooters though and popped in for an almost midnight snack. Not much of a place though, way too much makeup but a decent dessert.

That about sums the day up, we took a cab home after that (26 yuan for a 15 minute drive, cabs are ridiculously cheap in Beijing).

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea


We’re up early since Anna has promised that we’re going to see some of the great wall from the train. It’s really hazy weather this morning though so we don’t see much of anything. The landscape is much more interesting than yesterday and I spend a fair amount of time hanging out the window. It’s mostly farmland with antiquated equipment such as donkey-pulled plows.

Before reaching the outskirts of Beijing we travel alongside a beautiful river valley where we all just gawk at the scenery. At about half past two we reach Beijing station and get bussed to the hotel. Observation: Beijing has certain lanes dedicated to u-turns (as well as stop lights), really neat!

We get asked if we want to go to an acrobatics show this evening and most of us sign up (tickets are 280 yuan, approx 300 sek). At the hotel we’re met by Karina, the Pink Caravan guide who will accompany us to North Korea. We’re assigned rooms and meet up to get briefed about Beijing, those of us going to North Korea are held for an additional briefing about that part. This means I miss the dinner train and have to find something to eat on my own withing the hour that’s left until the show. I find a nice back alley not far from the hotel, which is at Xuanwumen subway station. It’s the kind of alley where they sell carps out of a bucket and I find a guy selling some sort of fried bread filled with vegetables and lots of chili out of a window. I buy a piece for just over two yuan and continue on, munching happily. I also find a pomelo the size of a bowling ball for 11 yuan.

Back at the hotel we gather to go to the show. We’re led by a Chinese guide and take the subway right at rush hour, it’s just as hectic as you’d imagine. The Beijing subway system is excellent though, especially after the olympics, with signs in both English and Chinese. It’s also a steal at 2 yuan, with as many changes as you like. It’s a good idea, just as in the Moscow metro, to carry your backpack on your chest. You might look like a retard, but at least you get to keep your stuff.

The show is good, but not great (seeing Cirque de Soleil in Vegas has ruined me for life). They do some really cool stuff, mainly jumping very high (and very high flip-flops as well) through very small hoops. After the show Matilda, Johnny, Henrik and me break off from the rest to find a bite to eat before going back to the hotel. We wander aimlessly and finally find ourselves in what seems to be a Japanese restaurant. Johnny and Matilda go for the Chinese speciality Hotpot (Matilda explains that she’s made a list of local foods that she wants to try in each country we pass through and Hotpot is one of them), I go for a simple fried rice. The food is excellent and we end up paying 60 yuan each including beer, a bit on the steep side to be Beijing really.

We decide to do some additional wandering after dinner just to get a feel for the city. So we look up a subway station on the map and start walking towards it. Turns out it’s a bit farther than we expected since a lot of little streets (as in only 4 lanes) are omitted on the map, and we probably walk for an hour before getting there.

We see a bunch of interesting things along the way though, such as an outdoor exercise yard (just a bunch of workout equipment along the sidewalk really), lots of funny signs like “meat patty make your stomach explode” and generally a lot of neat little shops and restaurants. It’s weird how few people are out on the town though, considering that we’re out at about eleven in the evening on a Friday night, but maybe we’re just in the wrong part of town.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Bogie Woogie

Everyone get up in time and we’re treated to a breakfast buffet likely consisting of everything that’s left in the stores since the Mongols close up shop tomorrow. A bus ride later we’re on the train to Beijing. The view is anything but inspiring; desert and the odd shantytown every now and then. After catching up on lost sleep we head for the lunch cart which seems like it was plucked right out of the Transsiberian golden age and hooked onto our train. The service though is below even Russian standards the heat is turned up to eleven, so we’re left there waiting half an hour in the sweltering heat for our orders to be taken and another half hour for our food to arrive (which is, to be fair, very good).

The afternoon passes much in the same manner. We reach the Mongolian border at sixish and move on without much fuzz. At the Chinese border it’s time to change the undercarriage though since China has a different track width. Why they don’t have adjustable bogies is beyond me, but the process is really cool so I don’t really mind. =P

The carts are wheeled into an assembly hall with several hydraulic lifts in it. Then the carts are separated and hoisted 1.5 meters up into the air, leaving the bogies on the track. Then the new bogies are rolled in all at the same time, pushing the old ones out of the way. The train is then lowered again and put back together. The whole process takes about 45 minutes, the other 3 hours we’re stuck here is spent moving the train back and forth.

Afterwards we get an entire hour to indulge in the taxfree border shop on the station. I go nuts over the pistachios and buy an entire kilo for 35 yuan (~40 sek), 60 cl beer for 3 yuan, some chips, what I hope is dried mango and some other assorted goodies. At the register there’s a girl packing all the stuff and a guy just standing about doing next to nothing. Neither of them are using the cash register and when done packing the girl just quotes me the total. I realize that she’s been summing it all up in her head, and consequently remembers what every item in the store costs since there are no price tags, impressive! A bit less impressive is the guy next to her whos’ job seems to be to accept payment and give us change. He doesn’t even get the amount of change right…

The station itself is kind of fun as they play classical music in large loudspeakers. Imagine our delight when we suddenly realize that they’re playing a classical rendition of “Punschen kommer” (I’m probably showing my ignorance here not knowing that “Punschen kommer” is a classical piece to begin with or something). We pull out of the the station at 1 am and are scheduled to reach Beijing around 14.30 tomorrow.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Galloping hard on the plains

Our last day on the steppe is even better than the previous. Clear blue skies, hardly any wind and about 10°C. Following breakfast we get to see the ger being built, quite interesting, but not in a way worth writing about. A cute kid running around sporting a new breed of mullet stole the show though. He had short stubble all over except for two long pigtails.

Then we’re free until lunch to I read a bit in the sun until just before lunch when we all gather for a group picture. After lunch it’s time for our second stint on horseback, this time for three hours instead of just one. I get a different horse this time, and boy is there a difference! I hardly have to kick at all for him to set off like a rocket. So me, Johnny and Andreas set off like Zeb in the opening of the Macahans over the steppe, it’s unbelievable fun!

The tour is a bit is a bit on the slow side with many stops. Mainly because Batu has to dart back and forth between the two groups. After two hours or so we reach the monastery that was our goal and we climb up to catch the view (it’s situated halfway up the mountainside). The walking party beat us by by a good 45 minutes though. It’s a great view of the whole valley that we rode through to get there.

From up there we discover that we missed a really cool suspension bridge on the way up so we make sure to walk it on the way down. It’s a bit scarier than it needs to be since many of the planks are in an advanced state of disintegration…

On the way home we split up and get our own guide so that we won’t have to wait for Batu so much. He’s the silent type and only communicates through an occasional wave. We keep a rather brisk pace and get to take an alternate, shorter, route back as well, so I get my fill of both galloping and scenery.

Back at camp Batu says he’s impressed with us since tourists normally don’t handle horses that well. I guess the Pink Caravan isn’t your average bunch of tourists though…

We proceed with some cold hanging in the afternoon sun, eating chips and having some beer. After a while the rest door neighbor comes home with his herd of Yaks and we head over for a photo-op.

I was surprised over how small they are, almost like a large Berner Sennen. There are some awesomely cute calves in a pen nearby as well (the grown ups are roaming free). Another surprise is that they’re virtually odorless! I couldn’t discern even the slightest hint of smell from any of them, weird!

While we’re oogling the Yaks the owner and his wife step out of their ger with a milking bucket. They proceed to get one of the calves out and it sprints over to its mommy and starts drinking. After a while the calf is pulled away and they start milking. Interesting process really. The milking gets old real soon though and we head back to catch dinner.

Since it’s both ours and the Mongols last day on the steppe there is a bonfire after dinner. We take turns with the Mongols singing songs, they treat us to a couple of Mongol ones and we respond in kind. There are a couple of Japanese there as well and they sing what I think is their national anthem. Matilda brought her guitar and brings out cheers and marriage proposals from the Mongols (too bad she’s taken already). The camp owner announces that he’ll keep the dining ger open until midnight if we want to sit there and sing, probably forgetting that we’re supposed to leave at 5 am the following morning. Andreas also entertain with his uncanny ability to remember every song text ever written. The Mongols seem especially taken with ABBA.

As the bonfire die down we head back to camp. Everyone is eager to run off to bed but me, Peter and Jacob decide to take some more long exposure pictures before calling it a night.

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Lazy ass horse!

Morning brings a clouded sky but by the time we’re done with breakfast, a piece of blue sky is peering through. It’s rather windy though so we put on lots of clothes for the horseback ride scheduled at 10.

I opt for the faster group and get assigned a horse. The stirrups are really high up so I sit like a frog but don’’ pay it much mind. When we start riding I have a really hard time getting my horsie to do what I want, it seems like every chance he gets he starts walking and I have to kick him in the sides again. Both me and Sanna seem to have gotten slowpokes and we lag behind considerably. Batu rides back to get us (at this point we’re mingled entirely with the slow group), and after a lot of maneuvering we finally manage to break out.

We keep straggling though since even getting the horse into a trot is a constant struggle. The parts of the tour when we do get them to trot (I never managed to get mine to gallop) are great though and I hope I get a less lethargic horse for tomorrows, longer, ride. I think the short stirrups might have something to do with it as well, since when I tried to kick with my heels it was mostly my calves hitting the horse which I don’t think he minded that much. They also made it difficult standing up in the saddle, which seemed like one of the tricks for getting them to pick up speed.

During the ride all the clouds disappeared, leaving an unreal blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon. Coming back into camp we learn that the planned ger-raising is postponed until tomorrow due to too much wind, resulting in the whole afternoon being free. So after a delicious lunch, me, Jacob and Peter go back up to our hangout cliff to read, write and just relax.

Up top we spy some mountain goats down below and Jacob heads down again to get some pictures. They jump around on vertical cliffs like mountain goats do most and are really entertaining to watch.

After a good 40 minutes or so it gets a bit windy and we decide to switch to another spot, so we walk some more and find a really cozy spot atop the mountain north of camp. There we sit down and read and write some more until I’m done with yesterday’s account in the journal.

Back down in camp we get a serious craving for chips and buy a Pringles clone (tomato flavored) in the dining ger. Then we find Elin and Sanna sitting by their ger drinking some beer and catching some sun. The only thing missing are our chips and we fetch some beer left over from the railroad and join them. Soon almost everyone has joined up and we sit there enjoying life until the sun goes down.

At dinner I get to spend some time to know Renee, Inger and Ann a bit better which was fun. We also split a bottle of Chingis vodka and things go downhill from there. We end up in Johnny and Matilda’s ger, singing once more. I even attempt some improvised harmonizing with Matilda. Being tipsy really helps with the “don’t mind if I’m off-key” part and we pull off a few really nice harmonies. I also speak a bit with Batu at dinner to get some tips about Mongolian music (the guy also works as a DJ at Mongolian radio), he tells me that the Mongolian music scene doesn’t have any metal bands worth mentioning, but lots of crappy HipHop. If he is to recommend anything it would be the folk rock band Altan Urag who incorporate traditional elements such as throat singing into their music. Sounds like something I definitely will have to check out!

Transsiberian Railway to North Korea

Into the wild

Monday morning after an unimpressive breakfast at the otherwise nice hotel we hop on the bus to go out into the national park. Barely out of town the gravel road starts and we are forced to drive at a leisurely 30 km/h. After a while it’s paved once more and we can go faster again. Curious to see just how fast I lean over to look at the speedometer only to realize that it’s broken…

We make a stop at one of those towers/rock piles you might have seen in Tintin. Batu explains that you’re supposed to throw three rocks onto the pile and then walk three times around it in a clockwise fashion and you’ll get rich. You should also tie a blue ribbon to the pole in the middle to please the gods.

There’s also a guy with a hunting eagle there that you get to hold on your hand for 2000 tgr (15 sek). It’s really a bigass bird, weighing in somewhere at 2-3 kg. We’re almost at the park at this point and we cross a rickety bridge over Mongolias longest river into the park.

Driving deeper into the park we pass no less than three golf courses. It’s kind of hard to tell it’s a golf course though since the only green thing about it is the actual green, the rest is as brown as the rest of the landscape. Apparently there are several semi-luxurious hotels in the park, which I guess explains the excellent 3G coverage throughout the park.

We reach camp Mirage at about 11 am and I share a ger with Jacob, Peter and Andreas. Apparently ger and yurta are the same thing, except that yurta is Russian and Mongols aren’t too fond of Russians anymore.

Seeing as there is a good hour until lunch is served we immediately go about climbing one of the nearby mountains. Sitting up top provides a great view and we decide to climb another peak. The weather by the way, is excellent, about 8°C, tiny clouds and very little wind. Couldn’t have asked for better!

Lunch is served in a very large ger, easily seating 50 people. Imagine our delight when we realize that lunch is a four course meal. It’s also delicious btw, those Mongolians sure can cook. Camp is really out in the sticks even if it doesn’t sound like it, but there are still real toilets and even hot water so that you can shower (not very long though). You can buy beer and snacks in the large ger as well. But in spite of all these modern amenities you still get the wilderness feeling. It truly is a grand place to be!

After lunch we make a short excursion to turtle rock. It’s a large rock formation that really looks like a turtle, not terribly exciting but fun nonetheless. Afterwards we get to meet a real Mongolian nomad family. They live in a ger all year round and move to and fro on the steppe with the seasons. During the summer they don’t have any means to store meat, and as a result are practically vegetarians. Wintertime they live off the herd. Batu tells us that eight years ago 75% of all Mongolians were nomads, today it’s down to 45%. He blames television for glorifying city life, sending nomads into the city with a skill set largely useless in the city. The sad fact is that many of them end up as homeless pickpockets.

We also get to sample some traditional Mongolian nomad cuisine. First up is fermented horse milk, tastes like apple cider vinegar with a hint of dairy at the end. It also has about a 3% alcohol content, hence the popular name “horse beer”. Next is dried curd that tastes more or less like really old cheese with a hint of dried yoghurt. Finally there’s some sort of dried cream that you put on a piece of bread. It tastes like cream really and is quite good.

After the nomads we get the rest of the day “off” and immediately go climbing again. We go for the highest one, west of camp, but it proves a bit too hard to get to the very top. Andreas and Rickard get up with a helping hand from me and get a few aerial shots of camp and surroundings.

On the way down we split up and me, Peter and Jacob find this fabulous lookout spot where we just sit down and play the “silent game” for half an hour. Sitting there we see a couple of ravens playing and everything is just bliss, definitely the best cold hang so far.

Going down I finally find what I’ve been looking for all day: an untouched patch of snow, just large enough to make a snow angel! The fact that it’s on a 45° slope presents a problem, but I manage to make a half-decent snow angel. In September. In Mongolia. Life is good.

Back at camp it’s dinner, and this time it’s only three courses, scandalous! It’s a traditional Mongolian dish with homemade pasta, strips of beef and various vegetables. Dessert is a water melon no larger than an orange! After dessert we hook up with Sanna and Elin to go out stargazing. But first we play around with Jacob’s camera setting it to long exposure and drawing stuff with flashlights (just like Dali did). We get a bunch of really cool pictures and resolve to do some more tomorrow.

Then we head up the hill a bit to get away from the lights in camp. Light pollution is so low here that you can see the entire Milky Way! It’s really hard to pick out constellations since you see so many more stars than usual. They’re also all turned about compared to home, making it a bit trickier. We just lie down on our backs and play the silent again, counting shooting stars. This is how it always should be.