My recent visit to North Korea was with the cheapest North Korean tour company out there – YPT also known as Young Pioneer Tours (through my travel blog you get 5% off). The tours to North Korea have options of either flying or taking the train (except for US citizens who have restrictions and can only get the flight in and out).
I had a fascination for both methods of transport, I wanted to see Pyongyang Airport and experience a flight with Koryo Airlines, BUT I also wanted to get the border train between North Korea and China, so I’m delighted that I could do both! It was fly in and train out! If you read my report on how to get into North Korea by plane, then here’s a report on my exit…I took the train out. Pyongyang in North Korea to Dandong in China. It was yet another magical journey from my travel archive and I was hyped, buzzing and inspired.
Booking the train from Pyongyang to Dandong
Unlike a lot of my travel organising, this one is all sorted for you by the tour company. YPT will get your tickets and your place on the train, which is a sleeper train despite being normally a day time journey. You get a bed! You might just need that bed as well, as the North Korea trip is an action packed and busy one, as obvious from my recent post on 99 things to do in Pyongyang.
If you read my website and want to hook up with YPT, don’t forget I’ll get you 5% off all North Korea tours! SO get the tour booked and they will book you a spot on the train out.
How much does the train from Pyongyang to Dandong cost?
In theory, it costs pittance. North Korea is an extremely cheap place, especially if you compare the price of this train to say one in South Korea – you’re talking about one fifth of the price. Although it’s all relative and still seems dear for the locals (as they earn considerably less than South Koreans) – tourists pay a bit more obviously and don’t question that.
However the train out will be included in the entire tour price, so you don’t actually have to individually queue up and buy your ticket in Pyongyang. Your tour company YPT will have the train tickets for you. You’ll get allocated a bed number and a carriage and be told your departure time and estimated arrival.
What time does the train from Pyongyang to Dandong leave?
Again these types of formalities will be looked after by the experts at YPT. Basically you will probably be on an early train out of Pyongyang main station and before it’s dark you should have arrived in Dandong, including the whole passport and cross border procedure. There is also a night train, but it will vary depending on the tour you book.
The exact times of our train (September 2013) were:
Train Number 51 –
10:40 am Leaves Pyongyang
13:09 pm Arrives in Jongiu
13:16 pm Leaves Jongiu
14:09 pm Arrives in Chongkang
14:15 pm Leaves Chongkang
15:21 pm Arrives on the edge of the border town of Sinuiju
(Visa formalities are carried out and the train may stay for periods)
17:13 pm Leaves Sinuiju, North Korea on the bridge across the river to Dandong, China
16:23 pm Arrives in Dandong, China (an hour earlier – so put your watches/clocks back an hour)
Leaving Pyongyang for Dandong
The departure from Pyongyang is actually a sad one, as you will have to rush fast to the train and wave goodbye to your North Korean guides. It all happens really quickly. From this point on, you’ll be backpacking in North Korea without a local guide. Most tours though, still have a guide from the tour company. Our tour guide was Rowan, from Australia who is an awesome guy to have a beer and chat with! There’s no real restrictions – the “western media” will try to fool you otherwise. This is just like any other train backpacking experience. In fact – it’s better as it’s less touristy.
Five minutes after finding our carriage, seats and beds, we leave behind the city of Pyongyang. It’s a slow train which is great as you get your last glimpses of the city on the way out. And that was that. It was a goodbye to the city of Pyongyang. I did savour my last glimpses of it.
Can anyone book the Pyongyang to Dandong train?
No, Citizens of the United States cannot. They must get a flight in and out of the country. There may also be issues for South Koreans and a few other nationalities. The tour company will know the score with this. But believe me, North Korea is a great country to visit and they are not really many restrictions put on you as people think, you’ll be surprised. It’s also one of the safest countries on the planet.
An Overview of the journey from Pyongyang to Sinuiju, North Korea
The first part of your train journey is through somewhat sparkling countryside. This is a great chance to nonchalantly stare out at the fields you pass with the hard working North Koreans busy on their endless farms. The train is that slow at points you can wave to them, and they might wave back.
Here is a quick overview of the journey:
Jongiu, North Korea
We arrive in the town of Jongiu just after 1pm. The journey up has involved staring out at endless pretty fields and farms with the odd wave from a busy happy worker (yes really).
Chongkang, North Korea
The next stop between Pyongyang and Sinuiju is called Chongkang, apparently. Even the internet doesn’t have much information on this place so it’s cool to have a look out when you’re stopped here for 6-7 minutes. I went by the names of the station translated into English on the information board on the train. Our guide confirmed it was Chongkang, but I have no idea what happens in Chongkang, nor if it is famous. At a guess I’d say it will be farms and factories!
On route you will also pass through some remote towns and villages, but not stop before you reach the border town of Sinuiju, this is the last town in North Korea before you cross the bridge to Dandong in China.
On this part of the journey I enjoyed some beers – a tip is to buy your own in one of the shops in Pyongyang (or the hotel) and bring them onboard as the only beer sold on the train is Heineken and it’s dear (and yuk!) at 22 RMB.
I met a few Chinese guys though and they sold me some of their cold beers for 5 RMB – much more realistic and a bargain. The beer brand was called Yaluriver and was cold!
I was the only cheapskate in our carriage who went hoking for cheap beer and the others (including Rowan and Irish Robert) were gobsmacked and jealous when I returned with my beer, 25% cheaper than theirs. We still drank it all together none the less!
Food, from the restaurant is also not cheap so you should bring your own. However it is quite nice. We didn’t buy any food, but a few in our group didn’t finish them so we munched some of the left overs. A range of good typical Korean and Chinese meals are available.
Leaving North Korea at Sinuiju
Let’s just say that North Korean soldiers are relaxed, curious and cool as fuck. They’ll sit down and have a chat with you on the way out, in broken English or Korean. They will have a quick look at your belongings. Our soldier sat beside us playing with Rowan’s iPhone for about 20 minutes as a few other dudes took our passports for checking. This was one part of the journey where photos were not allowed – but then again – photos of soldiers and passport officials is banned in most countries so nothing strange there. The photo below the lady working on the train blocked out her own face with her hand.
All of the departure checks for North Korea, and the entrance checks for China are done on board the train. You are not allowed to leave the train at any point. Oh there’s also the filling in forms bit…
Filling in the North Korean Departure Forms
This is easy, basic and nothing to worry about. Just be honest about the stuff you have – they rarely check it all and it’s no different to any other border or customs forms. They’ll take your passport and tourist card off you. (Yes there are those based in Europe or with time to play with in China that were able to get a visa inside their passport and not have a tourist card – our group had Tourist cards as most will).
They’ll only return your passport. This means they keep your tourist card and you will have no proof on your passport that you have ever been to North Korea (unless as mentioned you had time to play with and requested the physical visa in your passport). Depending on your stance, this will either be a good thing or a bad thing. I personally fill up my passports too quickly these days, so another full page for this visa would have been a bad idea.
One thing to note, when filling the form in – put as little information as possible when it asks about what items/bags you have. If you puts lots on there they will check your bags. Because of this they checked my bag and my Japanese mate Yoshi’s bag. My girlfriend’s bag didn’t get checked as she put only a few items down. Yoshi had a Japanese book confiscated as it seemed to make fun of the North Korean regime so be aware that this can happen.
Crossing the Bridge into Dandong
There’s no doubt that the crossing of the bridge from North Korea into China is tinged with a hint of sadness. North Koreans cannot ordinarily leave their own country by this route – even the soldiers know that. North Korea is still quite a closed and restricted communist country and you are aware of this on your trip for sure.
Sinuiju in North Korea is a small border city with a population of 340,000. Across the bridge, the city of Dandong in China’s Liaoning Province houses 2.4 million, is huge and its industrial too. The North Koreans must glance over each day as a new skyscraper or advert goes up and wonder what the hell is going on. In essence China take one step forward each time, and North Korea is left behind. There was a hint of sadness attached to this as the North Koreans are really cool sincere people, it’s a shame they live an enclosed existence.
Arrival into China at Dandong
Once you leave the bridge by train, Dandong is straight in front. The border is pretty small as is the distance between the two cities. Firstly, you will need a China entry Visa in order to arrive in China at Dandong. Visas on the border are not permitted. So it’s important to make sure you have your China entry visa WELL in advance of your trip. I’ve been based in Hong Kong for a brave while so Chinese Visas were easy to come by there. How to get a Chinese Visa in Hong Kong.
Once you are on the other side of the bridge you are in China. The Chinese immigration officers will get onto the train. They will take your passports off you as well as the immigration forms you have filled in and check them, stamp them and give them back to you. Last minute China visas CAN be got from the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang by the way, but do you really want to waste a day of your backpacking adventure in North Korea getting a visa? No, you don’t. Trust me.
Once you have your China entry stamp and get the go ahead, you can leave the train and you are now in the city of Dandong. Some tourists hang around in Dandong for a few days, others head on a train out. For us, we’d be getting a second sleeper train from Dandong about 2 hours later, heading down to Beijing.
As far as world borders goes, this ran smoothly. As far as world train journeys goes, this was one of the best. I simply loved it and totally recommend it.
My videos from the Pyongyang to Dandong train:
Pyongyang Station in 3 parts:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 1:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 2:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 3:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 4:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 5:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 6:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 7:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 8:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 9:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 10:
Pyongyang to Sinuiju Train Part 11:
Sinuiju to Dandong border bridge part 1:
Sinuiju to Dandong border bridge part 1:
Arrival in Dandong, Liaoning Province China: