North Korea – a Glimpse at the Railways and the Country

Seven steam locomotives and a some diesels in North Korea: 16/02 – 27/02/2020

Railway photo tour to North Korea

No tour to the DPRK has ever offered seven steam locomotives in use. That’s something just not possible since the state railway dropped the last fire in their last locomotive a decade ago.

North Korea is a place you hear about in the news almost every week. Some feel the need to express their views about this country, but only a very few have ever visited it. FarRail Tours has successfully guided six tours to North Korea, having stopped with the end of steam operations on the state railways in 2007 and returned in 2016, when three steam locos were available. Since then four additional steam locomotives have been restored and are operational. We are, again, able to add some new spots and events which weren’t possible until now.

North Korea, indeed, is quite an experience and a unique one at that! This tour is designed for curious and open minded people who want to experience North Korea as it really is. If you’re open to new horizons, this is your tour.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

North Korea is a really safe country for travellers. As long as you respect and follow their rules, you have nothing to fear. The officials will treat us with courtesy and our guides will ensure that you’ll see as much as they are allowed to show us. Photography is permitted, even from the air. And we’ll have two domestic flights on this tour.

On the rails, we’ll see the trams in Pyongyang and hopefully in Chongjin, both Metro lines in Pyongyang, probably Russian M62 diesel locos, four 2-6-2 tank loco and three 2-8-2 Mika class. And there’ll be more, especially when travelling by train as we’ll be able to see much more from the carriage window.

This tour was initiated, planned and organised together with Florian Schmidt from Singapore. Florian, as well as your tour leader Bernd, have been arranging FarRail’s successful North Korean ventures in the past and know most of the places we will be visiting, as well as the culture of our host country.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

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Itinerary

Date

Itinerary

16.02.

Individual flight to Beijing

17.02.

Connecting flight to Pyongyang, Air China leaves Beijing around noon, reception in Pyongyang and transfer to our hotel.

18.02.

Flight from Pyongyang to Orang with a chartered flight, charter bus to Chongjin. Travel with a chartered trolley bus and if agreed and possible by a tram. Evening visit to the seaman’s club. Hotel in Chongjin

19.02.

In the morning we’ll see four 2-6-2- steam locomotives outside of the Kim Chaek steel works in a small shunting yard. We are allowed to move the locos around by about 600 metres for some photographs in the shunting yard. Hotel in Chongjin

20.02.

Morning: steam charter with a 2-8-2- Mika from Chongjin to Ranam. This section is 13 km long, electrified and flat. The line offers two big and two smaller bridges and we hope to get permission to photograph them.

Afternoon visit to the monument of the leaders of the country. Hotel in Chongjin

21.02.

Continue by charter bus to Orang. On the way we may see and photograph a regular train passing by. Charter flight back to Pyongyang. In Pyongyang we’ll visit the famous Kim Il Sung Square. Accommodation and dinner in the Koryo hotel in Pyongyang.

22.02.

Pyongyang city tour: Mansudae Grand Monument, Arch of Triumph and a tram ride from Kwangbok supermarket to Pyongyang Railway Station. After lunch we’ll travel with chartered trolley buses, one built in 1960 and one which was built by Skoda in the 1970ies. Koryo hotel in Pyongyang

23.02.

Early morning bus ride to Kujang, packed breakfast. Charter train with a 2-8-2 Mika from Kujang to Hyangsan (electrified line) with a few photo runpasts. Here we’ll visit the Buddhist Pohyon temple.

Lunch in the marvellous Hyangsan hotel, later return to Pyongyang by charter bus for an afternoon visit to the Pyongyang Metro: both lines for several stations.

Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang

24.02.

Another early morning start will bring us to the West Sea barrage near Nampho. Steam charter train from the West Sea Barrage to Cholgwang where we’ll probably arrive by noon. This is the first train where we are almost sure to be able to offer some decent runpasts with good photographic opportunities.

Lunch at the Ryonggang Hotspa Guesthouse, afternoon return to Pyongyang. Late afternoon visit to the railway museum. Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang

25.02.

Charter bus to Songrim to visit three diesel locomotives, one Hungarian, one Chinese and one Korean-built. Afterwards we may have the unique chance to see a dumped steam locomotive in a cement factory. This visit is not confirmed yet and we also don’t know which class of locomotive we may see. But they have a steam locomotive.

Return by charter bus to Pyongyang. Visit to the Exhibition of the Three Revolutions with a plinthed, home made M62 locomotive. If our time permits we’ll afterwards visit the war museum and the American spy ship Pueblo.

Koryo hotel

26.02.

Departure from Pyongyang by international train to Beijing, departure 10.40 hrs

27.02.

Arrival in Beijing 08.38 hrs, transfer to the airport by metro, individual return flight home, arrival in the same evening or the next morning.

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Line description

Our visit to the capital city of Pyongyang includes a tour on the famous metro system. The Pyongyang Metro is reportedly the deepest in the world, more than 150m below the surface, and as such part of a huge undergroud system into which the two million people of the capital could be evacuated in case of an attack on the DPRK. The design of some of the stations is breathtaking, thanks to the lavish use of marble, chandeliers, impressive sculptures, carvings, mosaics and other murals. Many of the latter depict the founder of the country, President Kim Il Sung. The names of the stations like “Torch”, “Glory” or “Liberation” surely sound exotic to western ears.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Another important part of the mass transit system is the Pyongyang tramway. The cars originate from formerly countries of the European socialist block. A special ride through the grand city of Pyongyang with its monumental socialist architecture and beautiful parks will be a part of our itinerary. A visi to the Zurich trams is not possible on this tour, as the location is closed to foreigners.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Another urban transportation system is the trolley bus system. We’ll see one of the oldest survivors, a locally made round shaped trolley bus. Our charter tour needs to fit into the flow of traffic, and due to the overhead electric wires used we can’t perform runpasts when travelling by this vehicle, over 50 years old. The same applies to the modern, locally made trolleybus and the tram tour, but we’ll have photo opportunities while visiting the city, and before and after we board the bus/tram. If you are keen to take more pictures of the trolley bus you can “chase” the trolley bus using our chartered diesel bus.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

The short line, Chongjin – Ranam, is electrified and quite flat. The only photogenic spots are two large steel and two smaller bridges over a river. This is the only line where we can see the locomotive, as harbours and steelworks are rated as a secret, so we can’t use the locomotive within their former playgrounds. The train composition is not confirmed yet but we have asked for a freight train. Chasing the train by bus will be possible in this case. The other possible option is using Korean built passenger coaches. We declined the offer to use Swiss built coaches). The final train composition will only be confirmed a few days in advance. We expect a few wagons, as although the loco is able to haul a longer train,  the people involved do not want to risk anything. They will be responsible if something does not go to plan and for obvious reasons they want to avoid that.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

The four Japanese 1’C1’ tank locomotives will be shown to us in a freight yard next to the steelworks.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

The line from Kujang to Hyangsan passes along a river and through a mountainous area with good photographic potential. However, we are only able to stop at a few permitted locations for runpasts. The line is electrified as well, but power cuts are common, hence using diesel (and steam) was and is common in North Korea. The train will be probably formed of Korean built passenger coaches and will look like an ordinary, authentic train. So the few pictures we can take will look good. We’ve planned several runpasts with tunnels, mountains and bridges. The electrified line is about 20km long. The photos shown here are from this line, so you can see the potential. We’ll use the recently overhauled Mika 163. It has a beautiful outline with smoke deflectors. This type of locomotive was widely used all over the country so our train will be authentic.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

The line over the West Sea Barrage to Cholgwang is very interesting. The West Sea Barrage was one of the big national tasks to keep salty water away from the Taedong River which flows through Pyongyang. At the entrance to the dam is a revolutionary monument (first picture). After passing the dam and the with its watch and control towers the countryside is hilly. Pictures with the train and the sea in the backdrop are possible – if they allow us to access the photo location. Because of the strategic importance of the West Sea Barrage, military installations are all around which may prevent us from going to all the desired photo locations. However, we have already some very successful charter trains over this particular line and we’re pretty sure we can take some good pictures here.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

The An-24 is a very safe airplane, even under rough conditions. Our domestic flight will take about an hour and a half. It’s likely that we’ll not fly very high, so you can see the beautiful mountain scenery of North Korea at least from the air.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Our trip to Beijing will be by international train, surely an opportunity for priceless observations of this rarely visited country. Various types of the locally-built electric “Red Banner” class, as well as several diesels of the Chinese DF4 type or Soviet-made M62 “Taiga Drums” can be seen, some of them “electrified”. If we’re lucky we’ll see some East German built metro remodelled train sets in use on the main line. The train to Beijing is booked in soft sleeper class (four berth compartment). We’ll get on board at 10.10am and will reach Beijing in the next morning.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

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Small Print

The tour starts and ends in Beijing at the capital airport. You may need a double entry visa for China. In principle it is possible to travel with a single entry visa, but from experience it’s recommended to purchase a double entry visa. Some countries notably the US and the UK are now issued with multiple entry visas lasting no less than 2 years. It’s probably worth check the position in your own country.

The visa will be issued with confirmation from the North Koreans that you’ll visit North Korea via Beijing.

The visa for North Korea will be processed in Pyongyang. We’ll send you the visa form and instructions. With a booking we will need both a copy of your passport AND a passport sized photo. Both as jpg or pdf in a readable and sensible resolution (not a 5 MB+-file, 500 kB will do!).

Railway photo tour to North Korea

The North Korean authorities will check your identity carefully. To obtain the visa we have to give a fair amount of personal data and details may include employer and profession. Please be ready that they may call your employer and ask whether you have given the correct information about your job. Journalists, either “normal” or “investigative”, are not allowed on this tour if travelling for their work. As a tourist the chances are good they they’ll accept you. North Korea is very sensitive regarding published information. So please note that all images are for private use only. Of course it’s possible to publish videos and pictures in the railway related hobby press but If you plan to publish elsewhere please tell us beforehand. We must avoid any kind of trouble both on the tour (and afterwards!) and not slam the door behind us, or for other railway enthusiasts who might be interested in visiting the country on a later tour. We’ll find a solution, a compromise, which will not harm our partners in Pyongyang. Be very aware that those people who have helped arrange the trip will at least loose their job – maybe even worse!!). Please be honest when you state your occupation. They WILL find out and may cancel the full trip in the case of untrue statements.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

The Koreans will monitor us during the trip. If you want to take a photograph or a video outside the permitted places, please ask in advance. This is simply to avoid trouble. On train rides we’ll try to maximise the results (photo & video). Sometimes it’s a little difficult to go beyond the agreed and permitted arrangements but sometimes we can take a lot more pictures than initially permitted (as it was usual on our previous trips). We’ll try continuously to expand the opportunities and offer more than initially permitted. However, they don’t like us to photograph people, poverty and anything which may shed bad light on the DPRK.

You can’t leave the trains at stops if it is not a declared photo stop. We always need to wait for the advice of our guides/monitoring people. It is not possible to explore any place or town on your own. There will always be someone with you. Don’t even try to escape the hotel for a private visit. Unless you’re looking like a Korean and are fluent in the Korean language they’ll register your escape instantly and the rest of the group may need to leave the country  – while you may have to spend an extra couple of weeks in a not so comfortable “hotel”. We will see many places and also normal life with our guided group. You need to learn to read between the lines and interpret the signs and the shadows in order to understand the country better. You’ll definitely experience the country, even without unpermitted extra visits.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Charter buses and trains represent the standard of our host country, which may deviate from American and European expectations. While we will try to avoid long walks, some photo positions may require a bit of an extra effort. The itinerary is designed especially for photographers and video filmmakers.

Temperatures are expected to be in the range of plus 10 to minus 15 degrees Centigrade (50 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit). The late winter season is often dry and sunny. Please expect some snow and ice and wear warm winter clothes.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

The hotels are usually well heated, at least the parts we’re staying in. Some restaurants, however, might be a bit chilly. Except for Chongjin, our hotels are good four or five star hotels. Please be prepared, however, that food isn’t available in unlimited quantities as it seems to be in China. Full board is included, but lunches will sometimes be simple, not to say “basic”, especially during special train rides, while dinners are usually good. The Korean cuisine is somewhat different from the Chinese. Getting to know the highlights will be fun. Noodle soup served cold, (Kimchi,) is cold not because of a fuel shortage: this is Korean cuisine! Of course, if you wish you can take some muesli bars or chocolate with you but that will deny you the tastes of the local cuisine as. We’ll have some western food available, pizzas for instance. Beverages are not included in the tour price, but are usually available including good beer. On the Korean part of our train journey to Beijing are no meals available because there is no access to the dining car which is in the national part of the train.

Single bed compartments are not available on overnight train rides.

The regulations on bringing certain items to the DPRK change from time to time. On the internet you may find reports that laptops and camera lenses above 150 mm are not permitted. We have written permission from our partner that we can bring in laptops, telephoto lenses up to 200 mm, picture storage (external hard drive, discs) etc. Also mobile and smart phones are now allowed in North Korea. Voltage is 220V, 50Hz in both countries, North Korea and China. An adapter for the outlet is sometimes necessary. In the DPR Korea it is not guaranteed that the voltage will be sufficient to recharge batteries in the time normally needed. Please be prepared and consider taking extra batteries.

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Railway photo tour to North Korea

Environmental standards in North Korea do not conform to European, Australian or North American expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is always advisable, especially on the charter trains. Please bear in mind that accommodation and transportation in North Korea as well as China falls short of EU/US safety standards. It is not unsafe, but it follows a different approach. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. Neither FarRail Tours Club nor our local partners can be held responsible and will not accept any liability whatsoever in the case of any accident or damage. We suggest you take out a comprehensive over-seas accident and health insurance policy. Taking part in this tour is at your own risk. It’s not risky to our understanding from the world traveller’s point of view, but if you haven’t seen any Asian or African country before you might be a bit irritated that you will need to use common sense instead of relying on fully comprehensive protection everywhere and anytime. You need to use your eyes, ears and your brain – then it’s not dangerous at all.

Because we always try to make the most out of the opportunities we find we may change the itinerary without notice in advance. The itinerary given above is indicative, not a dogma.

North Korea Hyangsan

Railway photo tour to North Korea

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Price

DPRK - North Korea
State railway, steelworks steam and diesel 26 to 32 participants £3,270
16.02.2020 – 27.02.2020 15 to 25 participants £3,680
  Single room surcharge £435
Registration Deadline: 15.11.2019

The price includes:

Not included are

Railway photo tour to North Korea

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