Archive for May, 2014

Beijing to Ulan Bator

Posted: May 28, 2014 in Costs, Travel

Beijing -> Ulan Bator
Cost: S$240
Time spent travelling: 29 hours 15 mins

My highly anticipated virgin trip on the trans Siberian railway! The actual trans Siberian is not just a one way train from Beijing to Moscow. It can be separated into many different stops (and highly recommended). Stopping at multiple places allows you to have a breather from all the train rides and you get to see all these wonderful cities!

From the main Beijing railway station, the train departs at 08:05 in the morning to Ulan Bator.

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We tend to take little things like language for granted. It helps that you can read in both Chinese and English when it comes to train tickets!

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The cabin is quite like any other Chinese sleeper trains. At 4 a cabin, it is sufficient for us Asians… The same can’t be said for huge burly Caucasians!

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Sights are aplenty on the train. The landscape changes from the mountainous regions of northern China to the plains of Mongolia.

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An added bonus is the restaurant on the trans Siberian! With seats, hot food and water, it helps ease the pain of long train rides. They accept the main currencies like USD, GBP, EUR, as well as the local CNY/Mongolian Tugrik.

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At 8pm and a full 12 hours later, the train stopped at the border Chinese city of Erlian. It has a small supermarket and cleaner toilets as compared to the train. However, the 4 hour wait is annoying as they rearrange the train carriages. Some carriages stop at Erlian, while others like mine continue on to Ulan Bator.

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Border checks typically consists of big men walking into your cabin and going through your luggage. You can stay on the cabin the entire time as the passports are stamped separately and checks are all done on your bedside.

Almost 30 hours later, Ulan Bator!! The simple train station for a capital city with a little more than a few tracks. Simple, but cosy enough!

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Tianjin to Beijing

Posted: May 28, 2014 in Costs, Travel

Tianjin -> Beijing
Cost: S$11
Time spent travelling: 30 minutes

The trip from Tianjin to Beijing can take anything from a half an hour to a few hours. I decided on the high speed rail that goes up to 300km/h and arrived at Beijing in half an hour.

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A short intercity ride with a standard seat (no they do not have sleeper cabins for obvious reasons), you cannot expect anything more especially when it’s relatively cheap. The train does not go to the main train station in Beijing though. It arrives at Beijing south station and a short metro transfer is needed to go into the main city.

Much has been written about Beijing so I shall not dwell too much on it. Enjoy the pics of Beijing!

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It was certainly fun to travel on a day tour with an English speaking tour guide once in a while. As an added bonus, I get to ask my tour guide questions in Chinese as well! It certainly helps when a bilingual tour guide explains to you about the different emperors and the story about the monkey god. Beats learning all these in the classroom!

Military in North Korea

Posted: May 7, 2014 in Sidequest, Travel

From a military standpoint, the North Korean army is one of the more successful armed forces in the world. Esprit de corp, military might and propaganda all plays a part in the grand scheme of things. The history of the current North Korean army started when the Japanese war ended in 1945 and Kim Il Sung returned to Korea. When the war ended, propaganda was already in place and the first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was portrayed as a war hero. At the age of 33, he is said to have done wonders for the country by leading many victorious battles during the war. Detractors are skeptical, as the youth of Kim Il Sung belies the achievements that were completed by him. Nonetheless, most Koreans bought the story and proclaimed him as a hero.

The Korean version of the story

The Korean version of the story

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The westerners might not agree on this story, but it is without doubt that the country needed a strong and charismatic leader to unify Korea after the war. Installed as a communist leader by the Soviet Union, Kim Il Sung continued to play on this cult icon and cement his place in history.

War memorials, monuments and statues can be found all over Pyongyang. Some of which i can’t really keep track of so do enlighten me if you happen to read Korean!

Unknown propaganda painting in Pyongyang

Unknown propaganda painting in Pyongyang

Unknown monument in Pyongyang (i think it's something to do with reunification)

Unknown monument in Pyongyang (i think it’s something to do with reunification)

The Arc of Triumph

The Arc of Triumph

The interior of the Arc of Triumph

The interior of the Arc of Triumph

The most grand would probably be the War Museum. Massive sculptures line the path towards the main building. The courtyard itself is huge, spanning a good ten minutes walk from the entrance to the building. The interior of the building restricts any photography though.

Entrance to the War Museum

Entrance to the War Museum

Courtyard of the War Museum

Courtyard of the War Museum

Sculpture at the War Musuem

Sculpture at the War Musuem

Massive bronze sculpture at the War Museum

Massive bronze sculpture at the War Museum

Sculpture in front of the War Musuem

Sculpture in front of the War Musuem

At the side of the museum is a capture American vessel, the Pueblo. Disguised as a research ship, it entered Korean waters and was subsequently captured. The prisoners of war were returned, but the ship remains a mainstay the War Museum, reminding visitors of the war prize.

The USS Pueblo

The USS Pueblo

A visual description of the capture

A visual description of the capture

Plague of the USS Pueblo

Plague of the USS Pueblo

Identification of the US soldiers

Identification of the US soldiers

Bullet holes in the ship's hull during the battle

Bullet holes in the ship’s hull during the battle

Handwritten accounts of the surrender

Handwritten accounts of the surrender

Korean soldiers decorated for capturing the vessel

Korean soldiers decorated for capturing the vessel

A description of the capture

A description of the capture

Although it is known as the demilitarized zone, the DMZ acts as one of Pyongyang’s greatest show historical victories in war. The focus of the DMZ now might be reunification, but the effects of war lingers in the buildings located in the DMZ.

Reunification painting at the DMZ

Reunification painting at the DMZ

Reunification painting at the DMZ

Reunification painting at the DMZ

A guard giving an explanation of the DMZ

A guard giving an explanation of the DMZ

A larger scale view of the DMZ and its history

A larger scale view of the DMZ and its history

Stories told by the local military guide were in Korean and we had our tour guides to translate them. There were 3 groups during the visit, a Russian, Chinese and an English speaking group (us). I had the honour of listening to the Chinese and English translations. Startling enough, the words used in the English and Chinese translations were slightly different at times. The Chinese guide used terms such as ‘North Koreans would be ready for war if it starts again’, while the English guide mentions something along the line of ‘All the people in North Korea believe that if a war were to start, we would definately fight and give the Americans a crushing defeat. They will stand no chance against us’. It is interesting to see how propaganda affects everyone differently!

Korean war era rifles

Korean war era rifles

Korean war era rifles

Korean war era rifles

The official UN flag at the truce meeting

The official UN flag at the truce meeting

The table at which the truce was signed

The table at which the truce was signed

Pictures of the Korean war

Pictures of the Korean war

Pictures of monuments at the DMZ

Pictures of monuments at the DMZ

Pictures of the Korean war

Pictures of the Korean war

Newspaper articles about the Korean war

Newspaper articles about the Korean war

Pictures of the Korean war

Pictures of the Korean war

A view of the DMZ from above. At the point of visit, a US general and his wife were visiting the DMZ.

A view of the DMZ from above. At the point of visit, a US general and his wife were visiting the DMZ.

The story given by the North was that the US were the ones who started the war. North Koreans see the Americans as the enemy and not the South Koreans specifically.

The Japanese war had a huge effect on the North Koreans as well. At the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Un, 2 bronze sculptures flank them.

Koreans fighting during the war

Koreans fighting during the war

Koreans reuniting after the war

Koreans reuniting after the war

Another place of interest for the Korean Army is the War cemetery. Located on one side of the cemetery hill, the actual statues of the war dead at located at the top of the hill. Statues of the war heroes are placed staggered, as it symbolises how these statues can watch over the country without an obstructed view. It consists of war heroes that has died during the war and a few of their spouses/mothers, all of which has made a contribution during the Japanese war.

Flowers at the base of the cemetery

Flowers at the base of the cemetery

Bronze statues of the war heroes

Bronze statues of the war heroes

The sculpture at the war cemetery

The sculpture at the war cemetery

At the cornerstone of North Korean politics, war and economy is the Juche philosophy. The Juche translates into self-reliance and it claims that the Korean masses are responsible for their own well being. The calligraphy brush symbolises the intellectuals, the sickle for farmers and the hammer for the workers.

The party's monument

The party’s monument

The brush, sickle and hammer

The brush, sickle and hammer

The Juche Tower

The Juche Tower

The North Koreans might have a difference in opinions between them and the rest of the world, but there is no doubt that they honour their dead as they should. At least they have a sense of pride and something that they value. How many countries can have soldiers that are so enthusiatic about their country and know that they would die for her?

If a war were to start, historical sites and monuments would be gone. My opinion is that the North seems to be adamant on invoking war at times, but they still show that reunification is the way to go. They show their military might and posses nuclear weapons, but aren’t the Americans doing the same? Shouldn’t a small country have a sizeable defence force to deter enemies and protect themselves? The actual truth? Why don’t you ask Kimi the 3rd yourself?

Contrary to what most would believe, North Korea is not an entirely impoverished nation without tall buildings or proper housing. Transport in Pyongyang is rather accessible and can be compared to other parts of the developed world. Having said that, Pyongyang is the showcase city of DPRK and the same cannot be said about the rest of the country.

 

Transport

Flights into Pyongyang are rare, and the usual ones are from Moscow, Kuala Lumpur and Beijing. The most frequent flights are from Beijing, the nearest city to Pyongyang. Flights are twice a week on the semi-luxurious Air Koryo. It might be be famed as the only 1 star airlines in the world, but this is mainly due to the working relations (or lack of) between them and the main aviation authorities in the world. It certainly beats most other budget airlines with the excellent service and well maintained plane.

An Air Koryo plane to Pyongyang

An Air Koryo plane to Pyongyang

The interior of the Air Koryo plane

The interior of the Air Koryo plane

For the plane fanatics, this is a Russian TU (Tupelov). Might be a 237 but we can’t be sure either! Oh, and I’m certain they get the prettiest Korean ladies to be their stewardess, much better than what you would find from any other airlines!

Upon arrival, we were greeted by our friendly tour guides and our transport for the trip. The local tour buses are mostly imported from China and are fairly new. Names like Golden Dragon and some-other-colour dragons form up the main fleet of their buses.

KITC tour bus

KITC tour bus

Interior of a typical tour bus in North Korea

Interior of a typical tour bus in North Korea

Tours are almost always run by KITC (Korea International Travel Company), a government arm for the tourism industry. All tourists must be accompanied by a KITC guide at all times. On special occasions, there are other local tour companies but they host mainly sports groups and special envoys.

The locals have their own form of public transports too. Taxis are a common sight (not as abundant as major cities around the world) and cost on average 0.5 EUR per half a km. Though cheap by internationl standards, it is usually reserved for the middle to upper class of Pyongyang.

Taxi in Pyongyang

Taxi in Pyongyang

Taxi at a junction in Pyongyang

Taxi at a junction in Pyongyang

Trams are the more common form of transport for most of the residents in Pyongyang. It runs on electricity and the network is fairly extensive. Tram cables can be seen overhead on most major streets in the city. During peak hours,  queues for the trams can be as long as 100m!

Tram in Pyongyang

Tram in Pyongyang

For cross city transport, the locals would use the metro system. Lines are rather simple and the stations afew, but it is still a big milestone for a city. In comparison, 94% of South East Asians do not have metros/subways in their city.

Map of the subway system

Map of the metro system

The metro is built 100m underground. It is claimed that the metro is built after the city has been developed, hence the need to dig deeper to avoid the foundations of buildings. Seeing that this is the only city in the world that has this reason, I would suggest that this can probably be changed into a makeshift bomb shelter for the residents. It’s purely my speculation of course as the tour guides would never admit to it…

The escalator to the train platform

The escalator to the train platform

The train platforms are big and grand, with chandeliers and mosiac paintings found all around the platform. Trains are frequent at about 5 minutes intervals each during the non-peak hours. In replacement of blatant advertising as a product of capitalist nations, Pyongyang sports the latest local newspapers on the platform. It provides a form on information for the locals and yes, people do read them.

Train platform in a Pyongyang metro station

Train platform in a Pyongyang metro station

Newspaper at the local train station in Pyongyang

Newspapers at the local train station in Pyongyang

Painting of Kim Il Sung at a Pyongyang metro station

Painting of Kim Il Sung at a Pyongyang metro station

Artwork/lighting on the platform

Artwork/lighting on the platform

The interior of the trains are somewhat different. Lights are only at the entrace/exits of the trains but not in the middle. Doors close forcefully when it is about to depart, and must be manually opened by the passengers when alighting.

The interior of a Pyongyang metro

The interior of a Pyongyang metro

The semi-automatic trains of Pyongyang's metro

The semi-automatic trains of Pyongyang’s metro

As for the affluent, cars are the main mode of transport. They constitute a fair bit of vehicles on the sparse and vast roads of Pyongyang. At more than 10,000 USD for a simple model, these cars ranges from foreignly imported to the local made. European cars seems to be for the ultra rich, while the merely affluent uses the locally made cars.

A made in North Korea car

A made in North Korea car

The other main transport out of the country are trains. The Pyongyang train station is frequented by both locals and foreigners. Small by most international standards, the train station is a mix of locals bidding goodbye, foreigners accompanied by local guides and a dash of angry/loud Chinese trying to communicate with the ‘Korean-only’ local train staff. Sleeper beds are of Chinese standards and are fairly comfortable.

The Pyongyang train station

The Pyongyang train station

The train platform at Pyongyang station

The train platform at Pyongyang station

The international Pyongyang - Dandong train

The international Pyongyang – Dandong train

The interior of a North Korean train cabin

The interior of a North Korean train cabin

 

Tourism

Tourism is starting to become a big thing in North Korea. Hotels and sites of entertainment are springing up of recent years and they don’t seem to be slowing down. Hotels are found over some parts of the city. Normal tourists (like me) would usually stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel. The hotel is situated on a island that is surrounded by a river. Myth is that it would be harder for us to escape if we want to…

The 47 storey tall Yanggakdo Hotel

The 47 storey tall Yanggakdo Hotel

The lobby at the Yanggakdo Hotel

The lobby at the Yanggakdo Hotel

The Yanggakdo Hotel from the top of the Juche Tower

The Yanggakdo Hotel from the top of the Juche Tower

The amenities are better than what you would get at most hotels. They have a bar, a few restaurants, a hair saloon, a spa, a swimming pool, a casino and even a bowling alley located all within the compounds of the hotel. Service is good and they tend to greet you in your language (everyone spoke to me in Chinese but English to my tour mates).

There are theme parks, water parks and even a ski resort in North Korea. During the trip, we were brought to the local theme park. The rides are not extensive nor exhilirating and costs an average of 1-2 EUR per ride. Foreigners need not queue at any of the times, but are paying a premium to enjoy these rides. Locals pay a fraction of what we do.

Entrance to a North Korean theme park

Entrance to a North Korean theme park

Rides at the theme park

Rides at the theme park

Rides at the theme park

Rides at the theme park

A rollercoaster at the theme park

A rollercoaster at the theme park

The most exciting ride, aka the Vominator

The most exciting ride, aka the Vominator

 

Local Infrastructure

There are parks in North Korea, unlike what most would imagine. Locals go to parks like what we do, and picnics are popular during the national holidays.

A view from the top of a hill/park

A view from the top of a hill/park

North Koreans gathering for picnic and dance

North Koreans gathering for picnic and dance

A typical picnic sample

A typical picnic sample

Locals gathering for a dance at the park during their national holiday

Locals gathering for a dance at the park during their national holiday

The view at a local park

The view at a local park

On top of parks, the locals get to enjoy their holidays at performance halls and circus halls. The younger students attend a national group known as young pioneers. This group of students are recognised by the leaders themselves and is thought to form the backbone of future generations. Smart and wildly talented in all ways, these students have elaborate performances twice a week in front of large audiences. Circus acts are also a common form of entertainment for the locals.

A young pioneers performance

A young pioneers performance

My young pioneer guide

My young pioneer guide

A circus performance in Pyongyang

A circus performance in Pyongyang

The city of Pyongyang is a showcase city of the country. Like most major cities, they do have their fair share of roads, amenities and other necessities that would keep a country running. Roads are lined with shops and underpasses are more common than overhead bridges.

Street lights at a Pyongyang junction

Street lights at a Pyongyang junction

A local bar

A local bar

Cyclist pathways

Cyclist pathways

A rubbish bin. Yea i know, they have rubbish bins there, unlike most of the world.

A rubbish bin. Yea i know, they have rubbish bins there, unlike most of the world.

An underpass at a junction

An underpass at a junction

A camera/photography shop

A camera/photography shop

The famous North Korean female traffic warden. With the introduction of the street lights, they are becoming a less common sight at traffic junctions. Also, they have moved to the sides of the road as compared to the centre of the junction historically

The famous North Korean female traffic warden. With the introduction of the street lights, they are becoming a less common sight at traffic junctions. Also, they have moved to the sides of the road as compared to the centre of the junction historically

From the top of the Juche tower, the skyline of North Korea is fascinating. Monuments are parks litter the city, coupled by mid rise buildings and endless clear roads. Some travellers label this as Beijing 30 years ago, when the roads are not congested and the country is as ‘hermit’ as now.

View of the Ryugyong hotel from the top of the Juche tower

View of the Ryugyong hotel from the top of the Juche tower

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The monument in front of the Juche Tower

The monument in front of the Juche Tower

Although it is one of the most impoverished nations in the world, the capital of DPRK, Pyongyang, is a marvel to behold. The city has a decent transportation system, facilities can be located sparsely over the town and most parts turn out to be like how a city should be. Explore Pyongyang on your own, and compare it with other cities around the world!

Officially, it’s called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In a country where the voting form only states yes or abstain, the word democratic sure seems like a pun. Theoratically, every citizen gets to vote. And yes, everyone voted yes. This hermit kingdom has been reclusive, but yet wrongfully represented in the media. With the succession of the new leader Kim Jung Un (or Marshall Kim Jung Un as he would like to be known), the country is going through a major change since 2011. Personally, i would prefer to call him Kimi, sounds more affectionate doesn’t it?

1) With the succession of the new leader Kim Jung Un, there has been many changes in the political, cultural and infrastructure in the country. Rumoured to have been educated in Switzerland, Kimi the 3rd probably has a more western view than his father and grandpapa.

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Kimi and his grandpa

 Tourism seems to be on the rise in DPRK (as it is officially known), with a new water theme park and a ski resort opened in the last couple of years. Hell, you could even buy a SIM card at the airport when you arrive. There have been revamps in some of the important sites like the Mausoleum, War Memorial and the Kim Il Sung square since the succession. So yes, you get to see shiny new bronze statues and floors covered in marble.

Themepark in DPRK

Themepark in DPRK

Restrictions are getting more relaxed in recent years. Mobile phones and DSLR cameras are allowed. We are now allowed to take pictures out of the bus. I can stray a floor away from my North Korean tour guide and not get shot. Inspection at the airport is less stringent, and we are able to bring magazines and other ‘anti-propaganda’ stuff in. Shots of photos and videos are aplenty during the trip, and we only had a couple of incidents where we were told to delete the photo after it was taken.

2) The DMZ has a better view in the North than in the South. You get to dress in jeans and walk on the steps towards the main building in the North. You do not need a telescope or bino to look at the south, because it’s all in plain view at a stone’s throw away. You can literally throw a rock and hit the South Korean guard on the head, although it’s something best not to be done… Somehow, the South seems more intimidating and ruthless than the guards in the North.

DMZ view from the North

DMZ view from the North

To top it off, you get to go to the top of the North’s building and have a bird’s eye view of the area, all without the protective tinted glass. I have not been to the South’s side of the DMZ, but i’m certain that the view in the North is much better.

3) It is becoming more commonplace to travel to North Korea. Tour groups like Koryo (which i went with) have opened up tourism in DPRK. They were the first tour company to organise a marathon for foreigners in 2014. There are cheaper options, but it is always better to go with a well established company like Koryo. The guides are experienced and they have a wealth of knowledge about DPRK. They can provide you with answers or opinions to your questions that you wouldn’t dare to ask your North Korean tour guide. And yes, Americans can travel to the North. My tour guide from Koryo is an American who has been to North Korea for the 34th time. Myth Busted.

Me and my American tour guide

Me and my American tour guide

With only 3,000 to 4,000 tourists visiting the North every year, it makes places like Bhutan (28,000) and Sao Tome and Principe (12,000) sound like they are flooded with tourists. It is getting more commonplace, but still is a reclusive place to go to.

4) There are sights to die (pun intended) for in the North. You might be exposed to only the best that the country has to offer, but isn’t that what tourism is all about? The last thing i want a tourist to see when in Singapore would be where i live, duh. The monuments are huge beyond imagination. The very first advice I had was that no matter how you take the picture, it would make the monuments look small. Nothing beats being there in person in front of the Kim Il Sung statue, or the Arc of Triumph (as they all it). The War Memorial has bronze statues that makes the Merlion seem like a toy, and the towers can easily rival most of the western monuments. Ryugyong Hotel stands at 330m and 105 storeys, much higher than anything you can find in Singapore.

The war cemetery... i think.

The war cemetery… i think.

The Arc of Triumph

The Arc of Triumph

Juche Tower

Juche Tower

5) There are real, friendly and accomodating people there. Not everyone behaves like a militant bent on killing every caucasian in sight. We had laughs with everyday adults, frisbee sessions with kids, selfies at the monuments, dances at the mass dance (yes, we danced WITH them) and just about anything else you expect of a normal human being. My North Korean tour guide has a dog at home and no, arranged marriage are not commonplace. They get to eat at restaurants, hang out with friends at their houses, have a real job (unlike me), go bowling at the entertainment centre and even have a day off at the ski resort. Yes, there are restrictions in place but don’t every country have them? You don’t see couples holding hands or displaying PDA in public. You don’t see people littering or spitting in public. Theft is not common and vandals are usually foreigners (the daring ones). And unlike some countries, conscription is not even mandatory.

Mass Dance in DPRK

Mass Dance in DPRK

A crowd during their National Holiday, the Army Day

A crowd during their National Holiday, the Army Day

Typical picnic food

Typical picnic food

Propaganda is a huge thing and it does affect the people. Most believe in all the crap but those who do not rarely speak up. You can hate the country’s leaders, but you can’t hate every single one of the people living there because they are real human beings like you and me. If you were trapped in their situation, you would probably be doing the same as them. They are just people trying to make the best out of the situation they are in.

In the end, the trip to the North could bring mixed feelings, just like the mixed facade that they are trying to portray. You have huge hotels and wonderful monuments, but there might not be running water. The people in Pyongyang might be living the life, but there are millions that are starving further in the North. The thought of travelling to the North might bring ethical issues about contributing to the regime, but how much can a few thousand tourists actually do? The hotel itself would have cost much more than the tourist revenue it can bring in years. You can hate the leader, but you sure can’t hate the sights and friendliness North Korea has to offer.

The backbone of the Juche Philosophy. The brush, the hammer and the sickle

The backbone of the Juche Philosophy. The brush, the hammer and the sickle