by Andrew Holloway
Copyright Ross Holloway 2003. All Rights Reserved. email@example.com
For weeks the prospect of going to Hong Kong for a holiday had been dangled before me like a dream of resurrection. I originally planned to go at the end of March, but there came a point when I could not stand to wait any longer. I finally made my half-term escape from Pyongyang on Monday, March 7th. Just before noon, I settled into a comfortable sleeping compartment on the international train to Beijing, armed with my Chinese transit visa, my Korean re-entry visa and my Korean exit permit - yes, you even need official permission to leave the country. Among other things, I was looking forward to a rare, uncensored view of the Korean countryside. I had yet to be taken on a weekend outing, but other foreigners had told me that when the North Koreans took you on a trip, they usually arranged for you to travel at night. There may well have been an innocuous explanation for this but it naturally gave rise to the theory that they wanted to transport you in the dark to stop you seeing anything you were not supposed to.
What I saw en route on the four-hour journey to the border town of Sinuiju was neither particularly prepossessing nor anything to be ashamed of. Orderly fields, drab and colourless at the end of a long winter, co-operative farm villages of identical whitewashed tiled cottages, the same as the ones that proliferate between the apartment blocks in Pyongyang. Some more industrialised townships where the train sometimes stopped. It all looked pretty dreary, but then things always do in winter and there were tractors to be seen as well as donkeys and bullock cards. Technical advisors whose tasks had necessitated that they were taken off the tourist track assured me that the countryside was much the same wherever they went. People who had been to South Korea as well told me that the countryside there looks quite similar, although obviously the level of development in urban South Korea is in a different league entirely.
The town of Sinuiju on the South bank of the Mnok River, which constitutes the border between China and Korea, looked to be one of those places on the planet like Rushden, Northamptonshire, or Grantham, Lincolnshire, best to be seen from the windows of a passing train and almost certainly unhealthful to the soul to grow up in. The train stopped there for two hours. I stepped outside for a few minutes. From the platform I could see the town's outstanding feature, a giant statute of the leader facing southwards, his arms extended as if to embrace his devoted subjects. Every town of any size or significance has at least one big bronze statue of him set up in a prominent place. I went into the sad little souvenir shop on the platform. It was unheated. All it contained were a few unappealing handicrafts. A stoical young lady huddled in an overcoat and pale blue headscarf, stood behind the counter in the cold. I wondered how often she made a sale: once a week? once a month? I did not hang around long. The cold soon drove me back to the warmth of the compartment. The long delay at the border is partly incurred by the need to uncouple the Korean engine, buffet car and local passenger carriages from the international portion of the train, which is then shunted across the river by an old steam locomotive. I saw several of these in Sinuiju. DPRK propaganda has it that the railways are more than ninety per cent electrified and steam trains are never seen in Pyongyang. On the basis of what I saw in Sinuiju and other provincial towns I visited later, I would not be surprised if in reality steam did not account for as large a proportion of the freight transport of North Korean as it does of China, where steam engines are still being manufactured. In Hamhung I saw a steam locomotive pulling a passenger train. The other reason for the long halt is that the customs officials, who never seem to trouble foreigners at all, go through the belongings of their fellow countrymen with a fine tooth comb. The list of articles not to be taken out of the country includes unprocessed animal products. I smiled when I saw this, but it is evidently meant to be taken seriously. A few minutes later I noticed a customs officer going down the platform with a carton of eggs. Would he have been within his rights to confiscate them if they had already been boiled?
Alongside the railway bridge that links Korea to China, the ruins of the former bridge have been deliberately left in place as a memento of the American bombing. There is not much of it to see. The bridge is intact for about fifty yards out from the Chinese bank. All that remains after that is the damaged pieces.
After all the excitement of the river crossing there is another two-hour wait at Dan Gong on the Chinese side of the border for one to recollect one's composure. I again left the train to take a brief turn on the platform. Except that, being Chinese, it is less clean and tidy-looking, Dan Gong seemed to have as little to recommend it as Sinuiju, but, like Sinuiju, it has its monument, an almost identical statue in scale and pose to the one on the southern bank, only this one of course is of dear old Uncle Mao. I wonder which was erected first. There is a shop on Dan Gon station, too, and it offers money-changing facilities so I was able to purchase some yuan. Like the shop in Sinuiju station it was unheated, but the goods on display were more attractive and the assistants carried an air of optimism that they might make the occasional sale.
Half an hour or so before the train was due to leave, I was visited in my compartment by three customs officers. They had not come to harass me. They had noticed my British passport and wanted an opportunity to practise their English on me. They were all young men in their late twenties. Each was married. Each had the statutory one child. They would have liked to have more children, but they understood and accepted the reasons why their government was imposing restrictions. They had lived narrow lives. None of them had ever been to Beijing. One of them had, while serving in the army been able to visit the Great Wall. They were minor officials working a forty-eight hour week with, one imagined, little realistic hope of significant advancement. Yet they were striving assiduously in their spare time to master a remote European language. They were learning it from the television. When I mentioned this to Jean-Jacques, he told me that Chinese television not only broadcasts daily lessons in English and Japanese, but in the evening one channel goes out exclusively in English from 9 pm onwards, the news read in English followed by English or American films or TV programmes.
These young customers officers were not making bad progress with their English, either. We were able to have quite a reasonable conversation. I felt quite moved by them. Imagine the average working man in England going home to learn Chinese at the end of his day's labours. It is symptomatic of China's current determination to drag itself out of its backwardness into the modern world that it is encouraging the whole population to master the international language of technology and commerce. One could make out a case that it is symptomatic of a socialist country that the ordinary provincial working man feels that this challenge has some relevance to him.
The need for a better knowledge of foreign languages, particularly English, is something the North Koreans are only just waking up to; for years they lived in a dream in which the technical revolution would be carried out by the Koreans themselves using their own techniques and experiences, as if a small underdeveloped country could attain world standards in science by its own researches alone. They have now made it the rule that technical and scientific students must also learn a foreign language, and that foreign language specialists have to study at least two languages. But for the moment linguistic limitations are a serious impediment to economic progress. Some technical advisors, frustrated at having to try and communicate with technicians who only had a flimsy command of English, or else at having to communicate through interpreters who had no idea about the subject under discussion, went so far as to state that poor language skills constituted the major impediment to the country's advancement. Although I met plenty of Koreans who could hold a conversation in English there were few indeed, including the translators at the publishing house, with whom I could converse as easily as I could with educated Swiss, Swedes, Germans et cetera, and be understood without speaking in a consciously slow and deliberate manner - and, remember, I was talking to their English language specialists.
When the train finally left Dan Gong, what little I saw of the Manchurian countryside before darkness descended seemed to differ from Korea only in that the cottages were of red brick and the villages were less tidy. It was only when I went down to the restaurant car for dinner that I experienced a real contrast between Korea and China.
Shortly after the train let Pyongyang station, a beautiful, immaculately turned-out Korean girl came to my apartment with a menu in four languages plus pictures of the dishes for anyone who did not understand Korean, Chinese, Russian or English. I ordered a dish of meatballs, chicken and fried potatoes. This turned out to be a bit on the greasy side but by Korean standards quite palatable. My lunch was served in a bare but immaculately clean and tidy restaurant car, with flowers on the tables, by another very attractive and graceful girl in a black crushed velvet frock. As there were not many foreigners on the train, there were few diners. The meal was cheap by international standards, about five dollars with a couple of beers thrown in, but this was beyond the price ranges of ordinary Koreans who had to take their own food to eat on the journey.
The Chinese restaurant car was a very different story, a tatty affair, the tables covered with greyish plastic cloths. My travelling companion and I were presented with a greasy menu several pages long. However, when we tried to order from the vast array of dishes that were advertised, the Chinese waiter just kept shaking his head until at last we asked him to point to the dishes that were available. This made our selection process simple in the extreme. The food turned out to be quite good. Even with a couple of beers included, the meal only came to about two dollars. The low cost offered a singular advantage to the local population. The Chinese could afford to eat in the restaurant car too.
I could not class Beijing, apart from its great tourist attractions the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City, among the most attractive cities I have visited, but it was wonderful to be back in the real world again. As one would expect in such a populous country, there were plenty of people on the streets although I did not encounter the same crush of humanity as in Cairo or an Indian city. There was traffic on the roads, just like in a real city, and of course lots and lots of bicycles. The bicycles were for some reason exempt from traffic light regulations, which made being a pedestrian in Beijing a hazardous experience. The fact that some of the drivers of motor vehicles seemed to think they should be exempt too made matters even worse. It was all very nerve-wracking after Pyongyang, where there is little traffic and hardly any bicycles at all. Only people who need a bicycle to go about their business, e.g. electricians employed to maintain the streetlights, are allowed to ride on in Pyongyang. In spite of the low volume of traffic, pedestrians in Pyongyang are governed by strict regulations. Except on side streets they must cross either by pedestrian underpass or by zebra crossing. The zebra crossings confused me at first because although pedestrians must cross at them and can be fined for crossing elsewhere, the cars are not required to stop! Pedestrian underpasses are located at every major crossroads. To somebody coming from urban Britain, they are remarkable because they are entirely free of graffiti and perfectly safe at all times of the day or night.
Beijing boasted busy, modern hotels. The shops were teeming with produce. There were cafÈs and restaurants catering for both tourists and locals. Maxim's of Paris has set up a Beijing branch. It was lovely to be surrounded by so much vitality, but the loveliest thing of all was to be able to walk around without being stared at all the time. China's open door policy has been in operation long enough now for foreigners to be no longer objects of curiosity. The only unwelcome attention I received was from a young man stopping me on the streets and furtively enquiring if I wanted to change-a-money.
High-buttoned Mao suits were still in evidence but the younger people's clothes were more in line with world fashions. But if the youth of Beijing looked less old-fashioned, they also tended to look shabbier than their counterparts in Pyongyang.
In spite of Beijing's new-found cosmopolitanism and the evidence of burgeoning prosperity, I did not have to venture far from the main thoroughfares to be reminded that the country is still firmly entrenched in the third world. This fact was brought home to me more forcibly on the train to Guangzhuo. To travel by the highest class, the soft sleeper class, cost me the princely sum of two hundred and thirty-five yuan. The rate of exchange at the time was 3.79 yuan to the dollar. If I had been Chinese, my fare would have been fifty per cent cheaper. Tourists on Chinese railways are charged double fare. The fares are still beyond the means of most Chinese. Many Chinese, I suspect a majority even of the urban population, never stray far from their native towns and cities because of the cost. Nevertheless, demand for transport is high. Chinese trains are nearly always full and it is virtually impossible to buy a ticket on the same day that you wish to travel, and by no means certain that a ticket will be available for the following day.
I expect it is the novelty of travelling that makes the people get a bit over-excited. As soon as they opened the gates at Beijing station to let us onto the platform, they all rushed down it in a noisy melee, like war-whooping Red Indians in the cowboy movies. This is in spite of the fact that there is no need to compete for prime places. Each ticket is clearly marked with both compartment and seat number.
It was a fascinating journey from Beijing to Guangzhuo, but not an unmitigated joy. The sleeping compartment was reasonably comfortable but it was less spacious than the compartment on the Korean train had been and all four bunks were occupied. There was not an empty seat or bunk throughout the whole train, which must have been twenty carriages long. If the accommodation was satisfactory, the state of the toilets left a great deal to be desired. They were nastier and smaller than anything I ever encountered on Indian railways. What was even more annoying was that the tap water kept running out. I soon picked up that the train took on more water each time it made a protracted stop at a major station. I learned that this was the time to grab my soap and towel and join the milling throng that surged outside the washroom waiting for the guard to unlock the door once the train had left the station. In spite of such inconveniences, it was wonderful to be journeying across vast tracts of China. What made it particularly wonderful was that the train was heading South. All the time the weather was becoming steadily warmer, and the iron grip of the Pyongyang winter was receding into the mists of memory. China's new prosperity was visible in the countryside too. Everywhere spacious new two-storey red brick houses were springing up, which the peasants are now able to afford since the institution of economic reforms.
I shared my compartment with a young Japanese student couple who spoke only a little English and a Chinese lady who spoke none at all, so our conversation was limited. However, I had been invited for lunch by a Chinese whose acquaintance I had made while queuing to get onto the platform at Jailing.
There was no restaurant car on the train. I had been forewarned of this probability by Jean-Jacques and had stocked up with bread, biscuits and fresh cheese, an item unobtainable in Pyongyang, at Beijing's excellent International Friendship Store, a supermarket and department store nicely calculated to induce foreigners to part with their dollars, with the like of which Pyongyang has nothing to compare. I also knew to bring a jar of coffee and a plastic mug. Tea and coffee are not sold on Chinese trains, but each compartment is provided with a thermos of hot water which is periodically replenished so that travellers can make their own. The boiled water also comes in useful for cleaning teeth.
Xiao Zhenya was in his early thirties and spoke excellent English. At noon he came and collected me from my soft sleeper compartment and led me down the train to his hard sleeper compartment. The carriage was not divided into compartments with doors and walls. There were just rows of bare bunks, three tiers high, facing each other the length of the carriage. Ladders were provided for the convenience of those unfortunate souls to whom fate had dealt the top bunk. At the next station Xiao Zhenhya's friend, Mr Li, slipped out onto the platform to purchase our lunch. He returned with three cans of beer and a freshly cooked chicken in a polythene bag.
My friend was the sales manager of the import-export division of the Hunan branch of the China National Non-Ferrous Metals Import and Export Corporation. This seemed to be as important a job as it sounded. His work had taken him on several occasions to the States and the Europe, including Britain, where, like the good communist he was, he had paid his respects at Karl Marx's tomb in Highgate Cemetery. He was on his way back from a business trip to Beijing. I expressed surprise that someone in his position should be travelling in such poor circumstances. He showed some amusement at this. He reminded me that China was a communist country where all men are equal. Naturally, he explained, if he went abroad he enjoyed the comforts and accommodation that were necessary for meeting foreign businessmen on equal terms. If there was no such necessity, it was only fitting that he should share the lot of the common man. "Besides," he added, "we want you foreigners to fill our first-class carriages and give us your hard currency in exchange." He explained that the system in his country now enabled people who studied hard and worked hard to build the country's economy to gain material benefits for themselves but, in contrast to the capitalist system, it was by far the greater portion of the wealth that any individual generated that went to the state and only the smaller portion went to the individual.
So I sat and conversed in my native tongue with this friendly, intelligent and articulate young man amid the squalor of a second class third world railway carriage. Mr Li and I exchanged the occasional nod and smile, and the train headed into sunshine and warm weather, as we pulled our chicken apart and devoured it with our fingers. I was not sure at first what to do with the bones. Then I caught on that the thing to do was to chuck them on the floor among the empty beer cans and cigarette ends and sheets of toilet roll with which we wiped our fingers. For dessert we had little pastries filled with syrup. They tasted nice but they made our fingers sticker than ever. We did our best to clean them off with sheets of toilet paper but it would have been good to give our hands a proper wash. However, by the time we had finished eating, the train had run out of water again.
Still the grain-fed, free range chicken was delicious and the good company more than made up for the surroundings and, to be fair, a lady did come round during the afternoon with a big mop and shovel to clear the debris from beneath our feet. It was also a welcome change to be in a free country again. Here I was in a second class carriage of a Chinese train, having a totally uninhibited conversation with a Chinese citizen, and nobody was showing the slighted curiosity about us. It was the sort of situation that would have been impossible in North Korea.
Something else that would have been impossible in North Korea was the sort of music that was being piped through the train, Chinese adaptations of western pop music. When I commented on this infiltration of capitalist culture, my friend laughed and said something to the effect that China today wants our western technology and is no longer averse to some of our culture but, as for our unjust social system, we could stuff that up our backsides.
If I had spent much longer with him he might have made a communist out of me yet, but in the late afternoon the train pulled into his home town of Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. We said our farewells and I made my way back to my compartment.
Changsha is a grim industrial city in South-central China. It has little to recommend itself to the casual tourist but during the cultural revolution, when Mao's personality cult was at its height, Changsha was the Chinese equivalent of Mecca for millions of dedicated disciples. For it was the city where the late chairman studied as a young man and where he first embarked on his revolutionary activities. Although the cultural revolution is now dismissed as something of a national disaster, and Mao is ascribed his share of the blame, he is still honoured for his earlier achievements. And so, as the train pulled out of Changsha, all the Chinese occupants of the carriage left their compartments and stood in the corridor to gaze reverently out of the window upon the river where he used to swim. Very picturesque it looked too, in the light of the setting sun. I continued to look out of the window until the last light had faded from the sky. By that time I was the only person left in the corridor. Once they had dutifully paid their respects, my Chinese companions were not long in resuming their naps or their interminable card games.
Thirty-six and a half hours after leaving Beijing, the train pulled into Guangzhuo station at seven thirty in the morning. I had read that Guangzhuo has a population of three million. It seemed as if every single one of them was crowded onto the station and the square outside at that hour of the day. None of them, unfortunately, spoke enough English to direct me to the China International Travel Service office. When I passed through Guangzhuo again on my return journey, I discovered that if I had only arrived later in the day I would have been positively besieged by offers of help because, with its proximity to the capitalist decadence of Hong Kong, Guangzhuo has acquired since China's liberalisation almost as many hustlers to the square yard as Tetuan or Tangier, although as yet they have little to offer except currency exchange. Nor do they as yet indulge in the relentless pursuit of unwilling targets. However, hustlers as a race are not early risers and so I found myself floundering helplessly through the throng for several minutes. Eventually my brain became sufficiently clear to point out to me that there was a big hotel called the Liuhua on the other side of the square. All I had to do was go there and ask directions from the staff. The only problem was getting across the main road. Compared to Guangzhuo, the traffic in Beijing is disciplined. In a few years' time, when with increasing affluence a large proportion of today's cyclists become motor vehicle drivers, the streets of Guangzhuo will become as big a nightmare for the pedestrian as those of Cairo. As it was, the only way I could get across the rush hour traffic was to adopt a tactic I had developed in Cairo. I paid no attention to the cars and bicycles. I simply stood beside some locals who were also trying to cross. When they moved I moved, when they stopped I stopped, and I prayed that they knew what they were doing.
Thus it was that I finally made my way safely to the China International Travel Service office. There I booked my return journey to Beijing and was pointed in the right direction to buy my ticket to the city of boundless delight which I had been dreaming about almost continuously for the past three months. Unfortunately at this ticket office they would not accept yuan, only Hong Kong dollars. I had in fact been to the bank in Pyongyang before setting out to try and buy a small quantity of Hong Kong dollars for precisely this sort of contingency. I was informed by the International Trade Bank of the DPRK, a country of twenty million people, that it had temporarily run out of Hong Kong dollars. It is the sort of thing that happens in Juche Korea. Luckily by this time there was one hustler up and about. He led me back into the seething main concourse of the station to a counter where you could buy a ticket for the Hong Kong train in yuan. I was so grateful to him that when he moaned that five US dollars was a paltry reward for ten minutes of his invaluable time, I gave him a pack of Korean cigarettes as well, a gesture he seemed to find so insulting that he stalked off without another word.
Within the hour I was through customs and on my way on a train of European standard, tired and grubby but bursting with joy, back to the delights of late twentieth century civilisation. And the sun as shining! Only a few days ago it had been unsafe for me to step out of doors without my two overcoats and a scarf. In Beijing it was sufficiently warmer for me to shed a layer or two. Now I was down to my shirt sleeves. Although it was still early in the day, I poured myself a Scotch and looked out of the window at the peasants in their straw hats guiding their wooden ploughs in the wake of their water buffaloes and felt jolly pleased that I had been born a bourgeois in an advanced capitalist country.
We returned to the twentieth century as we passed through the Shanzhen Special Economic Zone which the Chinese have sensibly located on the Hong Kong border to act as a buffer zone between China's third world penury and the affluence of Hong Kong. And then I was back on British soil once more and civilisation was just a routine customs check away.
Hong Kong proved as idyllic as I had hoped. The weather was fine. The people spoke English. The traffic moved on the correct side of the road and obeyed traffic signals. The streets of Hong Kong were as safe and clean as those of Pyongyang, only these streets were teeming with life and prosperity. The spectacle that Hong Kong presented to me was of an ultra-modern consumers' paradise in a setting of great natural beauty. There may be an underside to life in the territory but I did not go looking for it. I only had a week and I was determined to enjoy every minute of it. I never strayed from the tourist beat. I was as curious about the underlying social realities of my holiday environment as a typical bottom-of-the-price-range package tourist on the Costa Brava. Hong Kong is renowned throughout the world for the excellence of its oriental cuisine. Personally I ate nothing but western food all week. I was sick of the sight of rice. Through those dreary weeks of January and February in Pyongyang I could feel my sanity ebbing away from me. After a week in Hong Kong I felt like a normal human being again.
I shared a compartment on the train back from Guangzhuo to Beijing with an Englishman who was returning home after working in Hong Kong for eight years. He had decided to send his family back by plane and have a little adventure by travelling home via the Trans-Siberian railway. I asked him if Hong Kong was truly the fully developed society that it had appeared to me to be. He assured me that it was. The shanty towns of the Suzie Wong era have all gone, he told me. Even in the less developed parts of the New Territories people are living at levels well above third world norms, while the sampan dwellers in Aberdeen harbour were by and large continuing their traditional way of life by choice and they owned the basic electronic gadgets, colour televisions and cassette recorders, which contribute so much to our daily lives.
I was fortunate in that the train that took me back from Guangzhuo to Beijing was in a different class from the one I travelled down on. The toilets on this one were quite tolerable, the supply of water uninterrupted. It even had a restaurant car which served good, cheap meals. It was not really big enough though to accommodate all the diners. What you had to do to get a table was to calculate which table of diners which had not already been staked out by others was going to finish eating first, then hover over them while they ate, ready to dive into their chairs before they were halfway out of them. Chinese tend to be messy eaters. There was always a pile of spilled food on the table after the plates were cleared away, but each table was covered with a plastic cloth and the waitresses had the knack of wiping the debris off the table into a waiting bucket with a couple of deft sweeps down to a fine art.
It was on the whole a very pleasant journey, but I could not help being conscious of moving back up a class when I climbed into a Korean railway carriage again at Beijing. When the following day, back on Korean territory, the beautiful girl in the tailored uniform came round with the menu and the lovely girl in the crushed velvet dress served the meatballs and fried potatoes in the spotless restaurant car, I had a similar sensation as when leaving China and entering Hong Kong that I was returning to a civilised country. Only this civilised country was an extremely poor and threadbare one. And likely to remain so.