“entering DPRK” by rail


On my upper bunk bed of Sleeper Car Nr.12 I kept my camera rolling from the Chinese-North Korean border to the capital Pyongyang.

DPRK Railway, from the Chinese border to Pyongyang

These are some shots from my film “entering North Korea”.

Photo from my upper bunk bed in Sleeper Car Nr.12

We are traveling at 30-50km/h, the railcar window is dirty and locked but the landscape is fascinating.

My eyes are glued to the window

Huge rivers, bridges, rice fields. My eyes glued to the window, oxen pass by pulling carts and ploughs, people with shovels cultivating  the field right up to the rail tracks and roadside preparing for the planting season. I see no mechanized help beside one tractor. I keep to myself while I’m filming, the two Chinese business brothers in our compartment are sleeping.
“entering DPRK” was shot on DPRK Railway Sleeper Car Nr.12 from my upper bunk bed and shows uncensored footage from the Chinese border to the capital Pyongyang of North Korea.

He is tilling the soil with his ox close to the rail tracks

It is a train journey full of thought-provoking “Langsamkeit”.

Dry riverbed - view from my upper bunk bed

NO!…NO’s!… recorded!


Every day it happened several times that I was reprimanded or hindered in taking photos or shooting a video. Sometimes it was physically made impossible by our guides to take pictures  or – when they did not succeed – they tried to interfere, stood in my way and blocked my view.

To shoot a farmworker woman in Mount Kuwol area - "No! No! It is NOT allowed!"

To get me in line, they also threatened me openly that everything would be confiscated at the airport on my departure. I knew that this could be the case since it had happened to another traveler at Pyongyang railway station upon his arrival by train from Beijing. He had taken photos in the train and somebody had informed against him. All his shots were deleted by a security official when he passed the exit checkpoint at the railway station in Pyongyang. I felt inevitably reminded of the former Sovietunion where we had traveled in the 1960s extensively by car and two times with the Trans-Siberian-Railway, once on our way to Japan in 1969 and the second time in 1987 from Zurich through the Sovietunion, Mongolia to China till Hongkong. Photos of the locomotive with the red star of the Trans-Sib-Train, shots of the typically wooden houses and their backyards, of people and countryside, just about everything got me in trouble in Russia at that time. Time has not only not changed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Actually it is worse than I initially thought. Controls were tight and severe restrictions were imposed. I could not leave the Hotel in Pyongyang on my own and not in any other City we traveled to. I could never freely walk the streets of Pyongyang, Sariwon, Kaesong, Wonsan or any other place we visited. In Sariwon, two girls dancing to the singing and clapping of their parents were told to stop when the local guide noticed that I was filming. In Pyongyang we tried to go by tram or bus, but though we insisted, we couldn’t even get close to public transport.

Public transport like tram or bus in Pyongyang was out of reach for us.

Friendshipstores were the only shops foreigners could enter and buy goods –  with one exception. In Wonsan City, though my guide tried to hinder me I went in a local cloth shop and bought some tights for my wife. Unofficial contact with people in the street or countryside was cut immediatly. Only with a good portion of “Zivilcourage” I could get my way… sometimes.

Drinkingwater turned into a state secret

But often I could not like this picture shows in the streets of Pyongyang at a little kiosk where I wanted to buy a cup of drinking water like everybody else. Most trivial undertakings turned suddenly into state secrets.

a KAFKAESQUE LAND with aspects of BRUEGHEL and a BUCOLIC touch, DPRK

prime PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.–21. April 2011

Tool of the land

A bucolic touch...

As THE TRAIN pulled out of the Korean border station two hours late – the customs inspection had taken over four hours all in all – it suddenly became clear to me that we were on our way to a KAFKAESQUE land with aspects of BRUEGHEL and a BUCOLIC touch.

...as far as the eye could see...

As far as the eye could see: groups of farm workers, schoolchildren moving by foot to the fields, a few on bicycles, detachments of soldiers with shovels, some on military trucks, farm workers with ox carts, men ploughing the field.

men – women – soldiers – children

Men and women of all ages hacking and working in the water channels and the rice fields with almost no mechanized help beside an old tractor here and there, cows pulling the plows, the rest all handwork. Cooperatives and villages dotted the land.

A Cooperative Farm in the background

Farm workers

But the BRUEGHEL and BUCOLIC touch soon gave way to the harsh reality of a hermetically sealed of population with no exit out of the cooperatives, the villages, the cities, the country without official permission. If the desperate and the hungry flee over the border to China, Big Brother shows no pity. He sends them back to North Korea where they end up in labor camps or are shot dead as it had happened during the horrible flooding catastrophe in 1974 when 3 million people died and starvation followed.


End of China - we cross over the river to DPRK - attraction point for the Chinese

iPHONE PICKINGS from my NORTH KOREAN DIARY 11.-21. April 2011

FOUR AND A HALF HOURS it took us to pass customs control from China to North Korea.

DPRK customs official comes to railcar Nr.12

It was not a pain in the neck, not at all, it just took time.

As we entered Dongan border station, there was a load of Chinese business men flooding our two railcars each with a mountain of luggage. We got two brothers into our compartment, both double my weight (I’m 95 kilos). They filled every corner with packages of all sizes.

Railway station in DPRK with portrait of KIM IL SUNG - Military hardware on a rail car

Then the maneuvering of our two rail cars took about 30 minutes, I counted 17 times back and forth till they were positioned on the right tracks to attach them to the North Korean train and move the train to the North Korean Customs.

iPhone wrapped in brown envelope and sealed with transparent tape by Dongan Customs, North Korea. Text by Customs official: GPS 2011.4.21

A Korean war photo in the "Korea Handbuch" aroused the suspicion of our French speaking customs official much more than than my professional video camera, my three photo cameras or my computer

The Chinese business guys had kind of a “Schlepper“ who immediately made contact with the customs officials but for the two brothers in our compartment it didn’t help much, because, as we soon found out, the customs official wanted to practise his french with Ursula. “Brosse à dent“, “nécessaire de toilette“ etc, she had to repeat every item in French.

He finally got to my iPhone, which really perplexed him. Several times he made a sign with his hand to the sky, meaning “something“ could descend from the clouds at any time and reveal top North Korean nuclear secrets. He wanted to learn all sorts of things about this hellish machine till his superior came and told him to finish, so he wrapped my iPhone in an envelope, wrote GPS on it and sealed it about ten times with transparent tape and gave it back to me.

In between French conversation he cut open the small, medium and large packages of our two Chinese businessmen with a Swiss! “Victorinox“ army knife, a present from a Swiss traveler.

The four hour long check was rather superficial, it was all more about the curiosity of our customs official to learn as much as possible about the items we carried he had not seen before and brushing up his French. Computer, 3 cameras, Sony professional video did not arouse much interest. But a historical photo or two from the Korean war in a travel book aroused his suspicion and made him turn the book leaf by leaf for a full hour and also got his superior involved.