As the train came to a not so gentle stop at Sinuiju station, we took the opportunity to survey our unfamiliar surroundings. The station platform stood to the right of our carriage, on which, a row of soldiers lined up single file along the entire length of the platform. Each standing to attention, two meters apart. They formed, unbeknownst to me at the time, an invisible ‘do not cross’ line separating the occupants of the train from the town on the other side. To the left of the station, was a small rail yard from which mountains were visible in the distance. Much of the northern part of North Korea is mountainous, one specific mountain, Mt Paektu, plays a very important part in the country’s mythology and the current dictatorship’s propaganda. Yet the variation in the landscape topography wasn’t the only fascinating change that had materialised over the course of the short journey. The infrastructure was significantly different, it was a tribute to an early cold war era. The trains and carriages in the yard screamed Soviet, circa 1950’s, as did the rail worker’s uniforms. Correspondingly, the apparel of the adjacent soldier’s also appeared trapped in a bygone period. Loose fitted wide legged pants, oversized olive jackets, short ties and astonishingly large bowl like hats, that would make the mad hatter blush at his own tea party.
The doors to our carriage unlocked and in marched two North Korean military officials. The first, a short angry looking man with a head so big his hat only looked slightly preposterous. A few steps behind him, stood a much more approachable looking official. It was a relief when the little man paraded off down the carriage, leaving his associate with the task of processing our entry visas. Given the circumstances it wasn’t entirely unwarranted for us to be feeling a little unnerved. The gentlemanly official spoke fluent English and was extremely cordial as he took our passports, checked our electronic devices and rummaged through our luggage. He had a surprisingly good grasp of technology. He flicked through my photo library, admired my (meme free) Iphone 6 and even complemented me on my Kindle. Our original unease subsidised as it became apparent the immigration process was more a theatrical exercise than a genuine attempt interrogate, find contra and subversive material. That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty of fanfare; pointing, shouting, clothing and underwear strewn about. It was only the early afternoon but the officials had put on a respectable matinee performance. It was nice to see that in spite of it all, they haven’t lost their sense of drama.
Feeling entirely relaxed we disembarked the train and strolled across the platform to a temporary food stall that had suddenly appeared. Here we got our first taste of North Korean beer, having enjoyed a few warm yet unexpectedly appetising beverages. In hindsight, I may have enjoyed one (or two) too many by the time I decided to wander across the aforementioned invisible line of soldiers. A soldier’s booming disapproval had me scurrying back to the safety of the train.
Back on board the train (and two hours hence), the officials finally finished the administrative checks and balances, and we again set off towards Pyongyang. The journey into Pyongyang unfolded at pedestrian pace, taking another five hours to complete. For the most part, the view comprised of small rural villages the inhabitants of which feverishly worked the adjourning farm lands. Crops of rice, wheat, maize and soybean were being meticulously farmed with an astonishing lack of machinery or draft animals. In fact, after having traversed half the length of the eastern side of the peninsula, we had not seen a single tractor and only a few draft animals.
From the vantage point of a train, food crops certainly appeared plentiful, however, one couldn’t help but suspect a deliberate correlation between the location of the irrigation and the major transportation artery. After all, this was a country where an estimated half a million people died from famine between 1993–2000. The minister of Agriculture at the time, in classic Stalinist style, was accused of being an anti-revolutionary saboteur and sent to the firing squad. The farmlands eventually gave way to the urban sprawl of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea and home to 2.5 million people, 10% of the population of North Korea.
As we disembarked at Pyongyang Central Station a feeling most surreal took hold. The surrounding buildings were painted in almost pastel colours of green, pink and reds. The fresh paint barely able to hide the crumbling concrete beneath. Loudspeakers blared out propaganda music to the peak hour crowd. Men dressed in a uniformity of olive and grey tunics, exuding 1950’s military-chic; parried almost exclusively with a short back and sides hair do. The women wore mostly plain coloured blouses and skirts to the knees, paired with stocking and low heels. A large screen simultaneously projected imagery of Kim Jong Un, military parades, launching rockets and the military orchestra responsible for the propaganda music ringing in my ears. Keeping an eye on proceedings were two enormous portraits of Kim Jung Sun and Kim Jung Il, which sat atop of the clock tower. I half expected their eyes to move. I felt as if we had stumbled through the space time continuum and into different dimension; a parallel reality akin to a Salvatore Dali illustrated adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. “Fuck me!”, I thought out loud, “we’re not in Kansas anymore”.