Getting there & away
Beijing is now the only real transport hub for people entering North Korea, offering both regular trains and flights to Pyongyang. Traffic entering through Russia from Vladivostok –which is still a theoretical possibility – has fallen off to a trickle. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that tourists are often obliged to pick up their visas in Beijing, thus making the use of other routes impossible.
There are four trains each week in either direction between Beijing and Pyongyang via Dandong and Sinuiju, the border towns of China and DPRK respectively. They run Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. On each day, train No 27 leaves Beijing at 5.48pm and arrives at Pyongyang the next day at 6.05pm (about 23 hours). Going the other way, train No 26 departs from Pyongyang at 10.10am arriving in Beijing at 9am. The fare each way is €75 for a soft sleeper. In contrast to the plane, it’s possible to pick up your train tickets to Pyongyang without a DPRK visa.
The North Korean train is actually just two carriages attached to the main Beijing–Dandong train, which are detached at Dandong (Chinese side) and then taken across the Yalu River Bridge to Sinuiju (Korean side), where more carriages are added for local people. Non-Koreans remain in their original carriages.
The trains usually spend about four hours at the border for customs and immigration – two hours at Dandong and two hours at Sinuiju. You may wander around the stations and take photos, but ask permission first and obey the directives of signs and officials about going outside.
Sinuiju station will be your first introduction to North Korea and the contrasts with China will be quite marked. Everything is squeaky-clean and there are no vendors plying their goods. A portrait of the Great Leader looks down from the top of the station, and at all other train stations in North Korea.
Soon after departing Sinuiju, you’ll be served lunch. The food is excellent and the service is fine. Make sure you have some small denomination euro notes to pay for the meal (about €5), as this is not usually included in tours. There are no facilities for changing money at Sinuiju or on the train. The dining car is for the use of non-Koreans only.
Your guide will meet you on arrival at Pyongyang train station and accompany you to your hotel. Likewise, when you leave North Korea, your guide will bid you farewell at Pyongyang train station or the airport and you then travel to China unaccompanied. Be very careful taking pictures from the train in North Korea. While you’ll get some great opportunities to snap everyday DPRK scenes, do not take pictures in stations as this will cause big trouble if you are caught.
When leaving North Korea, you can link up with the Trans-Siberian at Dandong, China. To make this connection you need to reserve your tickets with CITS (China International Travel Company) or KITC in Beijing beforehand.
Immigration is rather severe, but straightforward, as the major hurdle is getting the visa in the first place. Your guides will take your passports for the duration of your stay in North Korea. This is totally routine, so do not worry about them being lost.
The national airline Air Koryo, running a fleet of old Soviet Tupolevs, flies to Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok. The most popular route is from Beijing, from where flying time to Pyongyang is just over an hour. There are three flights per week on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in each direction, and a return flight costs €300. The international flight codes are JS151 and JS152. The weekly flight from Vladivostok is the second most popular, going in both directions every Thursday, while there’s a flight to/from Shenyang on both Wednesday and Saturday. China Southern Airlines has also recently restarted flights from Beijing, currently on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays. Pyongyang’s airport code is FNJ.
Air Koryo (10-6501 1557/1559; fax 6501 2591; Swissotel Bldg, Hong Kong-Macau Center, Dongsi Shitau Lijiao, Beijing 100027) This building adjoins the Swissotel, but the entrance is around the back. You must have a visa before you can pick up your ticket, or Korea International Travel Company (KITC) can pick it up for you (it charges 10% commission).