My four day tour was really a two day tour with two days spent going back and forwards to Pyongyang. As with the first day, most of day four was spent travelling.
We went to Pyongyang station at about 9am. The Chinese-Korean guide told me that he paid the required tip to the tour guides. The tip should be 20RMB per person – for our group of seventeen, 340RMB. This is to be split three ways between the driver and two guides. But one of the guides told him to only give 60 yuan to the driver, so that she could have the rest of his share. Very money focused.
Sitting opposite me on the train was the guide of a different tour group. She gave tours in Chinese but was learning English. I looked at the North Korean English book she was studying – a seemingly random list of words with ‘Ku Klux Klan’, ‘prostitution’ and ‘United Nations’ on the same page.
I spoke to her and she seemed keen to practice her English. She said she’d been studying for a year. I was shocked because her English was excellent. Her pronunciation was a little off but her vocabulary was extraordinary for a student of one year.
She told me that her father is an army officer and her mother a music teacher. She always brought the conversation round to relationships – was I married? did I have a girlfriend? what kinds of girls did I like? would I marry a Chinese girl? It was hard to be honest with my answers. Other than a few mentions of the leaders, she seemed just like a young Chinese or South Korean woman.
Back at Sinuiju station, we had another bag check, again with some people getting thorough checks with every picture on their camera being looked at and others, including me, getting just a cursory check. We said goodbye to the guides. As the train pulled out of the station to return to China, people shouted and applauded. There was a palpable feeling of a weight being lifted, of a return to some kind of freedom.
I said goodbye to the Chinese-Korean guide. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I’d have enjoyed the trip as much as I did. He always did his best to help me out.
After the five hour train journey from Pyongyang to Dandong, I had two hours to negotiate a partial refund with the tour agent (a measly 400RMB) then I took a train to Beijing (14 hours) and, after another two hour wait, a train to Fuzhou (34 hours). So I’ve spent 53 hours on trains over the past three days and travelled around 3,680km. My back aches and my stomach is very uncomfortable but, after a shower and a shave, I feel OK and I’m sure the trip was worth the cost and time, despite its flaws.