The Forbidden Railway - a train trip to Pyongyang
April 5, 2009 8:56 AM   Subscribe

In September of 2008, two Austrians traveled 13,000km by rail from Vienna to Pyongyang - without asking permission and going through the official Koran travel agency.

Travelling via Slovakia, Ukraine and Russia, they chatted up North Korean border officials, were invited to eat lunch by North Koreans on the train, spent 36 hours without a guide, reaching areas not normally accessible to tourists.

Travelogue with photos:
Vienna-Moscow : Moscow-Barnaul : Barnaul-Irkutsk : Irkutsk-Skovorodino
Skovorodino-Khabarovsk : Russia-DPRK : Tumangan
Kilchu-Pyongyang 1 : Kilchu-Pyongyang 2 : Pyongyang & Mt. Myohyang
Arirang Games, &c. : The Demilitarized Zone
posted by dunkadunc (36 comments total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
Exceptionally cool, thanks.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:11 AM on April 5, 2009

Very cool!
posted by Xany at 9:13 AM on April 5, 2009

posted by xmutex at 9:13 AM on April 5, 2009

Mesmerizing- best of the web. Thank you!
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:16 AM on April 5, 2009

-1 Point. Writing this on the internet has quite probably stopped anyone else from doing this and given that the precise date and time is given, has quite possibly had extremely serious consequences for the customs official concerned. Possibly including punishment camps and death, but quite probably including never being promoted again. Irresponsibility is fun!

It is interesting, just inconsiderate.
posted by jaduncan at 9:20 AM on April 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm only a couple of pages into the travelogue and I'm engrossed. Thanks!
posted by sektah at 9:21 AM on April 5, 2009

Lest I appear overly handwavey, my personal limit was the customs form that contains the signature of the relevant customs officials. That's just unnecessary, and makes it extremely easy for even the most lazy secret police.
posted by jaduncan at 9:25 AM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Gatecrashing North Korea is admirable but I wonder who will pay for this infraction (what jaduncan said)
posted by stbalbach at 9:26 AM on April 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

jaduncan: yes, but their disclaimer at the bottom of the page describing their entry implies the damage had been done before they published things:

Alltough we succesfully entered North Korea via Tumangan, we were later via e-mail told by our travel agency, that our trip caused serious troubles at KITC (the governmental "Korean International Tourist Company") and that they have enforced new regulations to avoid any not agreed (with KITC) entry via Tumangan in future.
I can therefore - untill KITC officially accepts this border point for tourists - not recommend to repeat what we did, as trying to do so might end up with another result...

posted by squishles at 9:31 AM on April 5, 2009

I must admit that I originally clicked on this post assuming that it was a travelogue about how to travel while adhering to Islamic teachings.
posted by googly at 9:41 AM on April 5, 2009 [10 favorites]

My fave story about the DPRK rail network not being quite as Juche as it might.
posted by Abiezer at 9:52 AM on April 5, 2009

One time I heard someone describe North Korea as "technological Mordor". Those pictures really make clear just how accurate that is.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:52 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sharing jaduncan's concern...I cringe at the thought of potential bloodshed that such public posting may cost (in addition to what may have already been implied in the disclaimer as squishles points out). Any coolness factor of such public posting is far far far outweighed by the consequences. This is beyond inconsiderate; this is horrendously irresponsible. Have we not learned enough about how N.Korea operates? Poster should at the least remove all pictures with identifiable faces.
posted by MD06 at 9:57 AM on April 5, 2009

Great post!

I wonder if jaduncan could elaborate about his/her subject-matter-expert status regarding the North Korean security apparatus. Best overreaction of the web.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:18 AM on April 5, 2009

Having not seen a lot of pictures of North Korea, I'm really surprised (but probably shouldn't be) at how beautiful the countryside is. Looks very peaceful, very tranquil, the mountains and the sea and fields of rice and corn. Too bad it's such an insane, backwards place to live. Heartbreaking to read the story of the NK conductor who talks to the Austrian guy, says, "Someday I'd like to travel to other countries, too..."
posted by billysumday at 10:19 AM on April 5, 2009

of course, foreigners wanting to take pictures of trains would have no problems in the US...
posted by geos at 10:28 AM on April 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've met a few people who've gone to NK that stuck me as oblivious as these guys. My theory is that most media reports on North Korea as if it's one huge prison, with soldiers pointing guns at the citizens at all times. They visit the country and see that, hey, lots of people are walking around just fine and they're even buying things. Their guides let them walk around a bit. Then they somehow jump to the conclusion that all the western reports are just propaganda. They seem oblivious to the fact that they're projecting their own experience onto the other people, oblivious that they are insanely rich tourists passing through, while the people they see have to live there (along with the risks to selves and family from police).

I see the same thing with some people living in China. It can be a great place to live. It's almost always awesome for expats. They then begin thinking China is actually freer and a better place than the west. It's easy to fall into that. But people are jailed for years because they didn't bribe an official. Jailed because some official thinks you might write something harmful.

I seriously doubt they fully understood the risks they were taking. I'm certain they didn't understand the risks they were putting on others. When I was traveling along the NK-China border, local Chinese were always warning of getting too close to the border. NK guards have a habit of nabbing anyone who gets too close (e.g., the latest female journalists who were likely still in China). Tourists are always within sight of their guides. A country that puts the efforts to do all this is not going to just be okay with you sneaking in.
posted by FuManchu at 10:29 AM on April 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's interesting how from the photographs this starts to take on the appearance of a trip backwards in time, at least until they reach their destination.
posted by FishBike at 10:34 AM on April 5, 2009

"Fools rush in...", but it was totally worth it.
posted by gallois at 10:55 AM on April 5, 2009

+1 for the obvious transport geekery and stamp collecting.
posted by Sova at 10:58 AM on April 5, 2009

+1 for the obvious transport geekery and stamp collecting.

Indeed. As I was reading, I wasn't thinking "I wonder how they're going to manage to get across the border without being on an official tour?"

I was thinking: "I wonder how they're going to deal with the change in rail gauge at the border?"

The point about the danger posed to people by putting this online is well made in my opinion, though.
posted by FishBike at 11:21 AM on April 5, 2009

Perhaps I missed it - it's a long, long blog - but just how "unoffcial" was their trip? I understand they slipped through a Russian entry point off-limit for tourists (and I can see that justifying some of the hand-wringing WRT those guards and customs offcials) but then they were met by official DPRK guides in Pyongyang. They clearly were expected, and the traveler dudes didn't consider it a surprise interception.

So: does the N. Korean travel agency not keep tabs on how tourists enter the country? Something doesn't add up (or more likely is explained but I skimmed over it).
posted by werkzeuger at 11:24 AM on April 5, 2009

My impression is that it was an officially booked trip through official channels which was perhaps booked against regulation but perhaps in accord with a new era of official openness between Russia and DPRK. It was something which shouldn't have happened, although it was approved every step of the way. One of the comment streams talks about how the author has been led to believe that people got in trouble, starting with the travel agents who sold him the tickets, and then all along the chain of visa issuance, border checks, etc.

Just two little hobbits , slinking in through an unexpected gate under darkness. Thank goodness the efficiency of the North Koreans had already wiped all the giant demon spiders out!
posted by hippybear at 11:34 AM on April 5, 2009

Writing this on the internet has quite probably stopped anyone else from doing this

I was struck by how very lucky they were that it didn't end in an international incident. Had some more zealous North Korean soldier decided that all of these photographs of their transport network actually meant they were probably Western spies, they could have been spending rather longer there than they'd originally intended.

And from a N. Korean point of view, I'm not at all sure how what they did actually differs from spying anyway. Although they may not have been formally employed by a Western Intelligence agency, presumably once this stuff goes on the net, North Korean analysts everywhere will be studying it with great interest.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:00 PM on April 5, 2009

Looking at this part makes me wonder: What do you think would've happened if one of those 40,000 children in the background had had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the performance?
posted by limeonaire at 12:28 PM on April 5, 2009

"I wonder if jaduncan could elaborate about his/her subject-matter-expert status regarding the North Korean security apparatus."

How ad hominem of you. However, while I would not claim to be expert in the security forces specifically, I have a personal and academic interest in DPRK issues. I am currently reading law with a particular interest in international human rights law, and work in the University of Cambridge branch of the International Criminal Court Student Network. I am not a specialist in DPRK law, but I think it is fair to say I have at least a basic understanding of DPRK legal requirements, and of various cases where they have been apparently ignored in purges.

Although you may consider it biased (many of the people in it are US foreign policy academics), the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea have what is in my opinion an excellently sourced report on political prisoners - note the pertinent point that this, as in Stalinism, includes fairly randomly purged civil servants - that is available at

The point isn't that it would automatically get you in a camp, the point is that if one is an ambitious secret policeman all of the evidence is there for an easily justifable arrest. I would for instance wager that it was not previously known that the customs officer stated that he'd like to visit other countries, and DPRK law requires a filing of an encounter report when a DPRK national meets a foreigner. Either the attitude or the failure to mention this in their report is easily enough to justify detainment even assuming a fair reading of DPRK law (such as is known, or can be seperated out into de-facto rules). This is compounded by the fact that the officer then allowed unaccompanied foreginers from a non-friendly country into DPRK territory.

My point was simply that it's better to be cautious when people are at justifable fear of state retribution, and the DPRK is probably the world's most paranoid government in this regard.
posted by jaduncan at 12:59 PM on April 5, 2009 [5 favorites]

If you censor yourself in fear of what the North Koreans will do...
posted by smackfu at 1:31 PM on April 5, 2009

If you censor yourself in fear of what the North Koreans will do...

It's a tough call. If it was just about anywhere else, I'd be thinking well, if people are going to get in trouble for not doing their job properly, it's not really the fault or responsibility of some tourists who revealed that to be the case.

But in the case of a regime that seems to have unreasonable definitions of both the job and the trouble one could get in for not doing it right... I find myself thinking of it more like journalists protecting the identities of people who have appeared on camera in various documentaries I've seen about North Korea (and specifically about people trying to sneak out of it into China).

How much to conceal though? Obscuring identities and removing dates and times might be enough, but on the other hand enough official records probably exist to determine all that anyway. As enough records probably exist without even the appearance of this story on the web, if the right people start to look. Which it sounds as though they already have.

Anyway I still enjoyed reading it and looking at the pictures, and can't think of a credible way that just reading it now that it's out there would make things any worse for anybody.
posted by FishBike at 1:49 PM on April 5, 2009

If you censor yourself in fear of what the North Koreans will do [to people who were nice enough to not throw your ass in jail]...

then, what, exactly?
posted by FuManchu at 1:54 PM on April 5, 2009

A couple impressions....

And we saw less factories than expected considering our experiences in other former Socialist states. The main economic activity in North Korea seemed to be still agriculture.


It was visible that the people are relatively poor. We often saw people washing their clothes in rivers – many houses don't seem to have water supply, let alone electricity.

I'd imagine this is the real reason they are unwilling to let foreign travelers roam the country unescorted. Must be pretty embarrassing, what with all the lofty talk about the "spirit of self-reliance."

"What are the other passengers of our car doing now?"
"How did they get home from the station?"
"What was inside the boxes?"
"Are the passengers happy to be at home now or would they prefer to stay in Russia longer?"

Man oh man, what a lousy country you would have to live in for Russia to look like a luxurious wonderland of freedom.

Anyway, all of that aside, I too am curious as to what rules exactly were broken here. It looks like they had legit visas, and their guides were clearly expecting them. WTF?
posted by Afroblanco at 8:22 PM on April 5, 2009

I actually read the observation about not seeing any factories and marked the authors down as not very useful guides - there's plenty of train trips you could take round the UK and not see much industrial infrastructure; i.e. it could have just been the route. Plus the villages looked cleaner and neater than many in rural China, which is an industrial powerhouse.
Not that I think the DPRK is some model of success; just that their evidence from looking out the window wasn't particularly damning.
posted by Abiezer at 11:47 PM on April 5, 2009

Abeizer, I read that as being naive rather than un-useful per se, which I thinks lends an element of credibility to his observations: ie. he's both telling the truth and reporting what he sees. Obviously it's not a sophisticated travelogue but the wide-eyed attitude and idiosyncratic translational minutiae make it a charming project. Kudos, too, for the amount of work in getting it all together online. Thanks duncadunc.
posted by peacay at 12:29 AM on April 6, 2009

That's probably a better way of putting it: I certainly did enjoy the read.
posted by Abiezer at 12:54 AM on April 6, 2009

Aside from the actual part in North Korea, I was (very naively, of course) surprised how European and well.. normal.. the far east of Russia looks.
posted by Harry at 3:05 AM on April 6, 2009

The author responded to an accusation of putting North Korean lives at risk (similar to those made above) with the following:

Regarding potential "bloodshed" - the people of the travel agency, with which we booked the stay inside North Korea, know of this travelogue on the internet, they read each part carefully and didn't ask me to remove anything. I think they have more experience with North Korean and they know about the potential risks of such travelogues, but they just asked me not to publish details about the relationsship to the guides.

I'm also in contact with Leonid Petrov (a NK-expert at the Australian National University, see , he also read the travelogue and I'm sure he would have warned me, if he had considered it too dangerous for someone.

However, I will double-check with the travel agency and Mr Petrov again.

posted by Busy Old Fool at 7:39 AM on April 6, 2009

Great post. I thought a lot of the pictures of the North Korean countryside looked just like parts of rural China, although Chinese train stations are not quite as uniform as their North Korean counterparts.
posted by pravit at 7:02 PM on April 6, 2009

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