We are currently underway on Young Pioneer Tours’ Eurasian Adventure. Having made an epic 6 day crossing of the snow covered steppes of Mongolia and Russia on the Trans Siberian Express, I am now in Moscow after a week with no Internet or news from the outside world since Beijing.
For YPT founder, Gareth Johnson, several returning customers making the trip, and myself, the adventure started 16 days ago as we completed all the trip prep-work and obtained visas in Beijing. The YPT apartment turned into a frat house with men sleeping on every available couch and vaguely comfortable surfaces (I spent a few nights hot bunking with the intern), ordering massive amounts of pizza delivery, and getting up to general shenanigans (people who didn’t watch their backside got tasered!). We visited top end night clubs and proudly avoided all things cultural, but in the mornings we were busy working: making consular visits for visas, setting up trip logistics to unrecognized countries, and having lunches at a secret North Korean embassy restaurant.
I made 7 visits to the Belarusian Embassy, in the end sweet talking my way in and picking up my visa and passport on a day the consular was closed. The visa I finally received wont cover the time of my needed stay – I still need to visit the Belarus Embassy in Moscow to try to get the visa corrected.
With everything close to being sorted, on the early morning of Oct 6th we brought 5 customers to the Beijing Main Station, boarding our 2nd class Chinese sleeper compartments on the K3 Trans Siberian Express. Being a group of 7 delinquents we promptly headed to the dining car and drank 5 bottles of Chinese Great Wall wine. I snuck off for an afternoon nap, returning later for more wine until we got kicked out of the dining car for being drunkards.
We reached the Chinese side of the Mongolian border around eight thirty at night. Largely due to having to change the rail gauge Chinese border formalities take about 3 hours to complete. Passengers are usually let off and herded into the station, but we remained on board, our passenger car taken to a hanger and lifted to change the wheel assembly units – a fascinating experience.
Changing the rail gauge at the Mongolian border.
With the car rail gauge changed we waited for immigration. The attractive female officials of the Mongolian side, dressed up in fur hats, military outfits, and black leather boots were far more preferable to the dudes on the Chinese side. With customs finished, the bathrooms unlocked, and with the train heading north into Mongolia, I snuck into my top bunk for a sound nights sleep.
New day and new scenery; we are now rolling northbound across Mongolia with yurt dotted hills, pastures, and mountains passing our train windows. The temperature has dropped and shallow snow drifts cover the terrain. We still have our Chinese carriage but the food car has been changed out, now a Mongolian rig with intricately carved woodwork decorations, and an elaborate menu with only one meal available – nothing like the picture, but still tasty.
We hit Ulaanbaatar in the mid afternoon far a one hour stop. Our mission was to split up and buy bread, cheese, sausage, beer, vodka, mixers, and any other available treats. Ulaanbaatar is an ugly city with a certain charm that makes me want to return for a one week summer stay; I find the girls here attractive.
Despite warnings that Russain customs is intense and that we would need to be on our best behavior, our search for vodka was so successful that by the time we reached the 5 hour Mongolian/Russia border ordeal we were all excessively drunk. somehow they let us though without any major incident and we rolled on into Siberian Russia.
Mongolian dinner car.
Mongolian rail car detail.
Ulaanbaatar street life.
Woke up early (we are now on Moscow time) to the view of Lake Baikal out our window. With dark storm clouds on the horizon, and ferocious breaking waves on the shore, the largest fresh water lake in the world is truly impressive. Our passage along its southern shore took three hours. We seem to have settled into life on the train. The smells of 7 men sharing two cabins: cigarettes, stale beer, and spilled tins of Russian sardines has turned the cabins quite rank. I use baby wet wipes to “shower” with, I don’t think the other guys even try. The two Chinese compartment attendants don’t really do much other then watch DVDs and cook their meals in the wash room – we seem to be here fending for ourselves.
New sobriety laws have been passed in Russia and buying alcohol at the various stops is difficult but possible. We make our hushed requests for pivo (beer) and vodka at the station snack kiosks, with the attendant checking to see who is watching and advising us to hide he bottles in our jacket until back on our carriage.
The days roll by; it has gotten cold! The carriages are toasty, warmed by coal burning furnaces – we find it fun to get drunk, sneak past the attendant, and feed coal into them ourselves. It’s only early November but the Siberian air mass is already frigid, making our food and booze runs at station stops a test of endurance.
I try to pass the time by reading books, but this only raises ridicule from the other travelers who want to get drunk or simply find it amusing to mess with me. We found on our new 2nd hand iPad an app called Star Girl. A game whose demographic targets prepubescent girls, Star Girl has given us hours of entertainment as we go on dates, receive gifts from virtual boyfriends, and build our wardrobe with new outfits to increase our attraction points. The fact that we spend a lot of time in the virtual underwear shop is admittedly rather creepy – but a game that teaches young girls that having lots of boyfriend whose sole purpose are to give you gifts is even more disturbing then us enjoying the game.
Russian Siberian countryside.
Russian Siberian countryside.
Passing a Russian tank.
A station stop in Siberia.
Truck load of coal to warm the carriages.
Truck load of coal to warm the carriages.
North Korean guides and authorities frown on tourists taking pictures of the wood powered trucks. Of the many I have seen I only have three pics in my archives. The photo above was taken from the open windows of the tea house on the way to Kaesong.
Wood gas powered truck rumbling through Hamhung’s main square.
Passing a wood gas powered truck on the journey from Pyongyang to Wonsan.
Update: S. Kleine-Ahlbrandt just posted a picture of a North Korean wood gasification truck on her Twitter with the following caption:
“Answer to fuel shortage: “steampunk” wood-burning trucks. They pollute like crazy.”
I have never herd of steampunk; Wikipedia has the following on it:
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Therefore, steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Such technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or the modern authors Philip Pullman, Scott Westerfeld, Stephen Hunt and China Miéville. Other examples of steampunk contain alternate history-style presentations of such technology as lighter-than-air airships, analog computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
Steampunk may also, though not necessarily, incorporate additional elements from the genres of fantasy, horror, historical fiction, alternate history, or other branches of speculative fiction, making it often a hybrid genre. The term steampunk’s first known appearance was in 1987, though it now retroactively refers to many works of fiction created even as far back as the 1950s or 1960s.
Pyongyang traffic girl at the intersection near the foreign language bookshop – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Exciting news from Young Pioneer Tours:
The DPRK has announced that they will be restarting cruises from Rajin Port, to the Mt Kumgang resort on 3 night, 4 day cruises starting from April. Singaporean cruise ship called the Royale Star has a capacity for around 800 paying passengers, offering monthly trips from April until October.
We have been given the confirmed dates for this cruise, and most excitingly that we will be able to sell foreign places (non-Chinese) on these trips. We are still waiting to have prices confirmed on this, but are hoping to have this done within 48 hours.
As a Master Mariner I have vowed never to take a cruise. Seven months a year on the ocean for my professional job is usually enough for me, but for a North Korea Rason cruise I will make an exception!
With this breaking news I’m already in touch with the office and developing a tour for May 30-June 3 (I guess Mongolia will have to wait until next year).
Get in touch with me if interested, plenty of time to customize the trip for a few days exploring the Rason region before sailing the North Korean waters with me, your very own maritime expert.
North Korea watchers will remember that this isn’t the first attempt North Korea made at launching a cruise route. Below are pictures of the Mangyongbong cruise ship. Back in 2011 YPT was the only Western tour company to take the cruise from Rason to Kumgang. Unfortunately it stopped operating after Western Journalists gave it too much stick.
Our lovely guide Shan with North Korean guides in front of the M/V Mangyongbong cruise ship.
M/V Mangyongbong gangway.
DPRK flag on the M/V Mangyongbong’s stack.
This fall I will be helping out on YPT’s Eurasian Adventure Tour!
Beijing – Moscow – Minsk – Kiev – Chernobyl – Transnistria – Chisinau – Bucharest – Sofia – Macedonia – Kosovo – Tirana
Group 1 (Beijing – Moscow) = €695
Group 2 (Moscow – Minsk – Kiev)= €255 / 950
Group 3 (Kiev – Pripya – Kiev) = €349 / 1299
Group 4 (Kiev – Odessa – Transnistria – Moldova – Romania) = €249 /1548
Group 5 (Bucharest – Sofia – Skopje – Kosovo – Tirana) = €350 / 1898
Quite frankly one of our favorite tours, our third annual Eurasian Adventure Tour!
The tour starts in Beijing, with an overnight stay and optional visit to the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, before embarking on the 6 day epic that is the Trans-Mongolian, or the “party train” as it also known. We already have a number of people signed up for this part, so if you are considering taking the train anyway, why not join us fun young people?
Following our arrival in Moscow we start to fully embrace Soviet nostalgia, by visiting all of Moscow’s top sites, before taking the train to the most Soviet of all republics Belarus, and it’s capital Minsk, where we will be seeing such treasures as the former residence of Lee Harvey-Oswald, as well as staying in our own little pimping apartment.
This leads us on to group 3, our big group, where we will be visiting not only Pripyat (Chernobyl), but also doing the extreme missile base tour, as well as sampling the night time delights on a bar crawl. Accommodation? Old style Soviet Hotel, complete with rude staff, peeling wallpaper, and more corruption than you can shake a sickle at.
After group 3 leave us in Kiev, group 4 continue firstly to Odessa, then onto Tiraspol, capital of the breakaway republic of Transnistria. If you do not know anything about the place, Google it. And if you want off the beaten track this is it. There is one hostel in the whole country, and we are the first group to ever inquire about going there. A true Soviet Time-warp. Following a few nights here, we visit Moldova, the only ex-Soviet republic to vote the communists back in! Before taking the overnight bus to Bucharest, which as a flight hub, and will make it easier to arrange onward flights.
Group 5 completes the full communist chic element, with us visiting the former homes of Ceausescu, Tito, and Hoxxa, via Romania, Macedonia and Albania, as well as visiting the contemporary hot spots that are Mitrovice, and Kosovo, before finishing in Albania, which has ferry, road, and air links to aid your onward journey.
YPT are all about budget, and this tour is by no means any different, many companies, charge over 1000 Euro just for the trans-Mongolian, or 250 Euro just for a day at Pripya, we have managed to budget the whole thing, Beijing – Tirana, over 26 barmy days, to just €1898, all in. With the tour being split into 5 manageable parts, each part is completely optional, with guests having full autonomy to do any part they fancy, from just 1, to all 5
Join me for one leg, or for the entire crazy journey – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a trip discount!
Tirana, Albania – from my travels 10 years ago.
Woman pushing a bike in Kaesong, a picture I took in 2011 during the brief time when it was legal for women to ride bikes.
Women on Bicycles Banned Again
By Kim Kwang Jin of Daily NK
A source from Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK today, “The use of bicycles by women was officially allowed last year, but was prohibited again on the 10th. There have been local People’s Safety officers patrolling since the day after that.”
The source continued, “Before the ban was lifted last year, if a woman was caught riding a bicycle she was fined just a bit of money, no more than 5,000 won. But now they are confiscating the bicycle instead, and this has been causing a bit of upset.”
As the source also noted, if the ban is widespread and lasts any length of time, it will have a deleterious effect on the functioning of North Korea’s markets. Bicycles have been a critical factor in helping to spread commerce as a means of survival over the last ten to fifteen years, with women at the forefront of the trend.
“Bicycles are essential in North Korea,” the source explained. “They have no cars, motorcycles or other means of transportation. Bicycles are very useful; women can not only go to and from the markets on them, they can also give their children lifts and carry as much as 50 or 60kg.”
“Women used to ride early in the morning to avoid getting caught,” the source recalled. “During the squid fishing season, women from fishing towns even use bicycles to carry the catch to inland regions.”
It is said that Kim Jong Il initially banned the use of bicycles in the 1990s after the daughter of a high-ranking official was killed in a traffic incident in Pyongyang. The North Korean state media subsequently justified it by saying that the image of a woman riding a bicycle runs contrary to socialist morals.
The view of the Pacific Ocean from my stateroom porthole this morning reminded me of the calm seas off the city of Wonsan where this traditional North Korean fishing boat works.
After 4 months of duty as a Chief Mate on a scientific research ship voyaging on expeditions from Chile, Galapagos, and out of Southern California, I made my final arrival this morning and have officially started 3 months of vacation! I fly back to Maine to visit my family for two weeks, and then start the real adventure: two and a half months traveling around the Netherlands, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Malta, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, Turkey, and Lebanon.
North Korea isn’t in the itinerary this time around, maybe in 2013, but I’m excited to make a visit to Iran. A little less strict than the DPRK, Americans are still required to have a guide there. I’m going with the owner of Young Pioneers, a tour company that specializes in trips to the DPRK and other hard to reach places. This is their 2nd trip into Iran, and after hearing stories about their first trip over beers at the Pyongyang micro brewery, I decided this trip was a must if my schedule could work it.
Expect a page here in the future with pics and a travel log from this Fall 2012 adventure!
No tool is too humble in the struggle for self reliance – from my own interpretation of Juche Idea.
Locals get by with what they have; transportation by hand cart in the small North Korean city of Hamhung – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
More rare photos from the North Korean countryside: road construction, transportation, industry, and farming in Hamhung/Wonsan region.
Please note that tourists are not generally permitted to take photos such as these due to the government’s fear that they could be used to portray the country in a negative manner. Our guides gracilcly permitted me to take photos of the “beautiful countryside”, which I post here with total respect and in appreciation for the DPRK rural way of life.
- Working for a Bountiful Harvest in the North Korean Countryside (americaninnorthkorea.com)
Cell phones may have arrived in North Korea, but apparently public service announcements teaching the dangers of texting and driving haven’t.
Hamhung, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Southbound to Nampo on the 10 lane Youth Hero Highway.
Navigating small country roads on the way to the Nampo hot spring hotel.
A wood gas generator is a gasification unit which converts timber or charcoal into wood gas, a syngas consisting of atmospheric nitrogen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, traces of methane, and other gases, which – after cooling and filtering – can then be used to power an internal combustion engine or for other purposes. Historically wood gas generators were often mounted on vehicles, but present studies and developments concentrate mostly on stationary plants.