As a child in the 1960s, Mark Doran was fascinated by steam locomotion. In 1978, a decade after they were phased out of his native Britain, he went to East Germany to “chase steam” and also because it was a “forbidden land.”
But this last September, the retired British Railways manager took an even more obscure trip: from Pyongyang up the northeast coast of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, passing through towns and villages historically closed off to foreigners.
The route from Beijing to Pyonyang passes a quiet platform.
“I decided this was the ultimate railway adventure,” Doran told National Geographic Travel.
In September, his group rode from Pyongyang to Rason near the Russian and Chinese borders. The trip wasn’t possible for foreigners just a year earlier, according to the trip organizer, Beijing-based Koryo Tours. (Like everything in North Korea, though, the future of such trips is hardly guaranteed and subject to the whims of the government.)
Tourism to North Korea is still rare, though the fact that it’s possible at all is probably a surprise to most Americans, who are currently barred from going. [Related: These are the last Americans to visit North Korea]
South Koreans, whose country is still technically at war with North Korea, are also prohibited, but a few thousand tourists each year—mostly Europeans, Japanese, Australians, Canadians, and the occasional Russian, will choose to vacation north of the world’s most fortified demilitarized zone. [Related: See both sides of Korea’s heavily armed border]
Foreigners are not allowed to travel on North Korean domestic trains. But there is a caveat: one sleeping-car runs a couple of times each month from Pyongyang to Moscow via the "Friendship Bridge" on the Russian border, according to Koryo. On the way to Russia, the train makes a final North Korean stop at Rason, on the country's northeast corner, where visitors can disembark and continue to Russia or cross into China.
“Our little party of 12 intrepid travelers completed the 36-hour ride through wonderful scenery, unspoiled landscapes, and an amazing coastline,” Doran said.
Unlike a typical vacation, these trips restrict freedom of movement, rather than embrace it. Tours are closely monitored and accompanied by government minders. Foreigners see what the regime wants them to see.
Most tours are restricted to Pyongyang, the pristine capital in which the elite are allowed to live. They visit monuments and dine on abundant food (to counteract reports of famine and mass starvation). If it’s a year like 2018, tourists can take in the impressive spectacle of the Mass Games.
In September, the Games returned after a five-year hiatus to commemorate the country’s 70th anniversary. “Think Olympic Opening Ceremony on steroids and times a hundred, then you might get close,” said fellow train traveler and Briton Ruth Clark.
The multiday program features as many as 100,000 performers. It’s a pageant of gymnasts and dancers against a backdrop of Communist iconography, a massive human mosaic performed by thousands of synchronized students holding and flipping colored books.
The train through the Korean countryside is the opposite experience. Koryo founder Nicholas Bonner took the route in 2004 while filming State of Mind, a documentary profiling two young gymnasts training for the Mass Games. Such is the state of development in North Korea that not much has changed since that first journey, he says.
“No modern buildings, one of the most beautiful coasts in east Asia,” Bonner said. “Pristine beaches, little coves. It’s one of the most spotless seascapes you can see. It’s poor but it’s stunning.”
“It’s not the fastest train, if you fell off you could probably run and very quickly jump back on,” he joked.
Indeed, the state of the North Korean rail is, in a word, “embarrassing,” the current leader Kim Jong-un told South Korean president Moon Jae-in when the two leaders met in April. Discussions included connecting the two countries by rail. In contrast to its neighbor, South Korea has an internationally renowned high-speed rail service.
The first of these trains commenced an exploratory mission from the DMZ on November 30, 2018, with engineers from both countries examining the North’s railways.
The current train from Pyongyang, though, is rudimentary. “It was an old Soviet train from the 1950s or 60s and I don’t think much has changed since then,” said fellow Briton Ruth Clark, a 48-year old human relations manager. “But it was clean, the bathrooms were kept clean and always had paper, the compartments were fine, the bedding was clean, we all got some sleep.” [Related: See inside North Korea's retro soviet airplanes]
The international car contrasted with the domestic ones, which Doran called “filthy.” But all things considered, “It was a 34-hour journey, which sounds awful but the time went really quickly, there was so much to see out of the windows,” Clark said.
There was no café car, but the group had gone to a supermarket in Pyongyang ahead of the trip to buy snacks and beer (without machinery, they waited as the purchases were calculated by hand on paper ledgers).
The passengers saw North Korean workers from the train, and waved. “Many of them, especially children, waved back. We might have been the first foreigners they'd ever seen,” Doran said.
“The central highlands are unspoilt forested hills and valleys, with sylvan views as we progressed through scenery to match anywhere in the world. The fields were being harvested and teams of people were out working. Transport was mainly bicycles on dusty road with occasional bullock carts. There was little to show that this was 2018 and not a hundred years ago,” he added.
Doran and tour guide Ian Bennett spotted a surprise when the train stopped briefly at Chongjin: a live steam locomotive on the depot, “one of the last in the world in normal service,” Doran said.
As foreigners in the international car, they were isolated from North Koreans.
“We were locked in our carriage so [we] could not mix with many local people,” Clark said. “We had the guards and some Korean diplomats sharing our carriage. We were allowed off at the different station stops which initially we were told we would not be allowed to do, so that was a bonus as it did get very stuffy.”
As Doran recalled upon arrival in Rason, “There is an internal ‘frontier’ to prevent unauthorized travel by citizens and our passports were scrutinized. Several passengers were thrown off the train, but none of our group, as the guards didn't want to provoke a diplomatic incident by being too heavy-handed. They were clearly more nervous than us!”
Yet once in Rason, the westerners were surprised to discover they were allowed to wander a bit on their own. Rason is a Special Economic Zone, comprised of two cities, Rajin and Sonbong (RAjin + SONbong = RASON), close to both China's Jilin province and Russia’s Khasansky District in Primorsky Krai. Historically Rason has serviced both countries as a warm weather port, so it’s used to an international presence.
There’s a casino which caters to Chinese visitors, although it’s illegal for North Koreans to gamble. The country’s only market open to foreigners is in Rason. There’s also a fishing industry. It was meant to serve as an experiment for North Korean development in the early 1990s, but like everything else, has been stalled by geopolitical tensions.
Nonetheless, after the long train ride, there was an opportunity to wander unattended.
Clark chose to take morning walks around the square outside of their hotel. “It was a nice way to see local people going about their daily lives,” she said. She even got a massage.
Doran ventured to a local pub. “The bar woman was surprised to see me and to get a beer I had to point to another customer’s drink,” he said. Eventually three others joined him for a few rounds. “Finally, a minder arrived to join us, probably to socialize but possibly to make sure we hadn't wandered off.”
There were other interactions with locals. The group visited an orphanage and an English class for 16-year-olds. “We talked about families and hobbies, but steered clear of politics even though we were free to talk without being monitored,” Doran said.
It’s unclear how much of a future these train tours will have.
South Korea’s Moon has said he hopes to open two rail links to the North by year’s end, according to the South’s Yonhap news. It may be purely symbolic as sanctions persist. Yet, perhaps in the future, the citizens of the two Koreas could actually mingle on the train. There’s something inherently idyllic to trains, whether or not the reality proves crude.
“You can have exchanges. You’re all on a journey. You share food, you mess around together.” Bonner said. “Train travel has a wonderful atmosphere about it.”