An interview with Koryo Tours' General Manager Simon Cockerell on his recent trip across the DPRK by train and our newest tour from Pyongyang to Vladivostok!
Koryo Tours General Manager Simon Cockerell recently returned from back to back trips scouting out new tours in North Korea and farther afield. The Koryo Tours Blog caught up with Simon across the hall at the Koryo Tours office in Beijing to talk about his journey from Pyongyang to Rajin by local train.
You've been to North Korea 166 times now since 2002, how did this train trip differ from the 165 times before?
Basically in the level of access to the DPRK countryside and to the people also travelling on the train. I have travelled on this train route previously but that was by charter train which didn’t involve any local people (apart from tour guides), this time it was a very different experience as I rode all the way across and up the country, unaccompanied by guides, and with just the local travellers for company. As the train is slow it is a nice and peaceful way to see some great landscape, scenery, towns, villages, and cities. I found the local folks on the train to be very welcoming, curious about what I was doing there of course, and eager to say hello and chat a bit too. Very often tours are quite fast-paced, and this was a chance to simply take it all in and not just whizz past these remote areas.
The train starts in the capital Pyongyang and ends in the Rajin in the Rason Special Economic Zone (SEZ) on the border with China and Russia. Some may have heard of the Rason SEZ as North Korea's experiment with a free-market economy. How do these two regions compare in terms of the traveller's experience?
The tourist experience in both places is similar in that the same rules apply about having to arrange an itinerary in advance, be accompanied by guides, etc, but the vibe of each place is quite distinct. The landscape is different; Rason area having a lower population and being coastal as well as in the far north of the country, making it very scenic, hilly, and photogenic too. The air of what’s going on it different too – while it isn’t full of hustle & bustle there is an energy of commerce in Rason (especially in the Rajin market, which tourists can visit, unlike those in all other areas of the country) as well as some Russian port workers living there, Chinese businessmen driving their own vehicles, shops using RMB as the main currency, no barriers to foreign visitors changing and using local currency. Its hard to describe but it simply feels different to other places in the country, it is unmistakably the DPRK (apart from when visiting the Emperor Hotel Casino) but there is something different about the place. If anyone wants to know more than I can recommend a travel company to visit there with!
Since this blog enjoys obscure references and the occasional esoteric slant, Toronto musician Drake, formally of Degrassi, once said in a high school graduation speech: 'Sometimes its the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination'. Did this trans-DPRK train journey teach you anything about the country or make you realize anything new?
Certainly! It is a way of bringing the abstract to life a little bit. So I knew full well that there were a lot of small villages, farms, towns, etc along that route, but knowing it and seeing them, even from a train window is whole different thing. The same with the countryside in general; the mountains, rivers, valleys, and so on – its easy to be told over and over that Korea is a mountainous country but until you see some mountains there is a difference between knowing it and really knowing it directly. Also for me specifically I have long wanted to visit the city of Kim Chaek (an industrial city named after the right-hand man of Kim Il Sung during the early days of the republic), on the north east side of the country. It still remains closed to tourists and probably will for quite some time, but I did make the effort to get up at 3AM to have a look as we arrived at Kim Chaek station and to see what the city looks like. My report is that it is very dark indeed and not many cars driving around…at 3AM! I hold out hope of getting there during daylight at some time in the future!
Tell us about life on the train.
Most carriages on the train are seating-only, however foreigners are only allowed to use the sleeper carriage, so it is quite roomy, comfortable, 4 beds-per-room in the style so common in this part of the world. There is a samovar for dispensing hot water at the end of the carriage, and working (usually) electricity outlets in the corridor for recharging devices. The carriage is the last one on the train so there is a window looking back along the track that is a good spot for photos along the way. The carriage and the bathroom were given a quick cleaning every few hours and were more than good enough. You wouldn’t want to live on this train perhaps, but for a day and a half on an amazing journey I really couldn’t ask for much more! There was no restaurant though, so I had to be sure to take along enough food, which is easy enough to buy at supermarkets in Pyongyang. One of my carriage-mates was very keen on sharing the meals he had brought along with me, as well as some of the potent liquor he seemed to have a near-endless supply of
You always travel with a book, can you tell us what your read on the train this time?
Ha! This time I was reading Julian, by Gore Vidal, I highly recommend it but it really has not the slightest relation to this adventure at all. I know I should say I was reading something about trains, or Walt Whitman poems about landscape and mountains, but actually it was a historical novel about a Roman Emperor’s efforts to bring back the ancient gods to his society.I also played some chess, badly.
Do you plan to lead a train tour in 2018?
What a very well-timed question! Yes I do in fact, this one here which we are running as the first chance for our travellers to make this journey across North Korea by rail, up to Rason, and then to cross into Russia via a rail bridge and go on a tour of Vladivostok with me. I have been to Vladivostok quite a few times, starting in 1999 actually, and the program we have here is an excellent one which I am very much looking forward to. I encourage anyone interested in this to check out our new Pyongyang-Vladivostok train tour and I hope you can join me this March! I will bring the chess set along!
When is your next trip to North Korea?
My next trip is coming up very soon! It will be the Kimchi Budget Tour 4 between Nov 14 – 18/19, so in just a few weeks! (note; you can still sign up, if you do this before Oct 31st, so hurry!). I try to go on our November tour every year actually, as a kind of tradition. Until 2012 North Korea used to be closed to tourists from Dec 15 – Jan 15 every year, so this was usually our last tour of the year. Now though it is open year round so we also offer a group tour at New Year as well.
Any other hopes for expanding options for travelling by train in the DPRK?
We always have hope! I would like to see people be able to take this train and get off for a day or two at various points, would like to take tourists to Mt. Paekdu by train, and to the DMZ by train. The lines exist, but the permission doesn’t. Sometimes getting permission for such things takes many years, sometimes it is suddenly granted. We have worked very hard to pioneer this new opportunity for tourists to travel across the country in a whole new way for them, but anyone who knows our company and what we have done over the last 25 years knows that it will never be enough. For now though this is by far the best way to get from the capital up to the far north and to see a whole load of North Korea, some almost unseen by foreign eyes – so I hope some people choose to join me next year!
Interested in how Simon first got involved in North Korea? Read about his first trip in 2002. You can also follow Simon's most recent adventures on Instagram: @simonkoryo.