Punctually at 9:05 (16:05 local time) train 966 left. The train uses the Transsiberian main line along the Ussuriy-river for the first kilometres…
…before it branches off at Baranovskiy and crosses the Ussuriy river:
So, now we were already leaving the usual tourist-routes – North Korea, we are coming!!!
The speed on this branch line is also slower than on the main line and the train stops more often. The 260km-trip from Ussuriysk to Khasan therefore takes 7 hours…
Two hours after leaving Ussuriysk I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life:
In the background Vladivostok could be seen:
Train 965/966 is the only passenger train on this route, but we saw quite a lot freight trains at the stations we passed.
The landscape here is beautiful and nature seems untouched. And the whole area seems quite unsettled.
Sunset was at about 20:15. Three more hours in the darkness till Khasan, the last Russian village before the border to the mysterious "Hermit Kingdom"…
Finally at about 23:00 (local time) the train arrived at Khasan. There were only a few passengers getting off. The station building was brightly illuminated. It's a strange, quiet atmosphere at an interesting place. It's not only the fact, that North Korea is only 1600 meters away. Also China is very close.
Russia and North Korea only have a 17-km long common border along the Tumen-river. Only a railway bridge, the so-called "friendship-bridge", opened on 9th august 1959, crosses the border. The point, where Russia, China and North Korea meet, is only 200 or 300 meters west of the bridge in the middle of the river Russia….
A Soviet military map (1:100.000) of the area:
So, it's quite an exciting place in a geopolitical sense…
See for more maps at http://img442.imageshack.us/img442/8302/k5217xm6.jpg
(scale 1:200.000, please note the remark "secret") and http://img122.imageshack.us/img122/6442/500kk522gl2.jpg
(scale 1:500.000). There is no legal way to cross the Russian-Chinese border near Khasan, so it is indeed an very isolated village.
Some photos I found at Google Earth:
The border between Russia and China:
View from the Russian side:
..and from the Chinese side:
Shortly after arrival a female Russian railway employee came to the Korean sleeping car, together with an – obviously – Korean men. They sat down in the conductors compartment.
After some time we were called to come there. Together with the conductors they were filling out a list with all passengers, who would cross the border the next day. The Korean man seemed to be a translator, he spoke fluently Russian and Korean. All were very friendly.
However, they were quite surprised to meet Austrian and Swiss citizen. They wanted to see our passports and asked whether we have documents to enter the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. We answered that we have valid DPRK-visas and showed them in the passport. They were content with it and wrote our names and passport details on the list…
The woman said, that we can now walk around at the station, but that taking photos is not allowed.
So we left the train. The Korean sportsmen were sitting on the stairs from the platform to the station building. There were several video-cameras, so taking photos was indeed out of the question.
Most of the station building was dark. Only the most northern part was accessible, the other doors were closed. We entered the station building. Inside there were some waiting benches, a ticket counter and a police office. There were also some people – the train back to Ussuriysk leaves at about 1:00 (local time) in the night.
The timetable listed – beside train fom/to Ussuriysk – also two so-called "working trains" (rabochnye poezda) to/from Gvozdevo, maybe better translated as mixed trains. Trains over the border were not listed, but I knew that there is not only the twice-monthly sleeping car Moscow – Pyongyang, but also twice weekly a local cross border passenger train Khasan – Tumangan.
While we were looking around, a policeman came out of his offices. He asked us for our passports and what we were doing here. We answered that we were going to Pyongyang.
I should tell, that access to border areas in Russia is limited and usually requires a special permit. No permits are of course required for people living in this area and for those who are only in transit – like we…
The policeman was satisfied with our explanation. I asked him, whether and how often he met foreigners here. He said, that he has been working here for about one year and that we were the foreigners (except North Koreans, of course), he met.
We went back to the sleeping-car. The woman and the Korean translator just left the sleeping car. I also asked them about other third country citizen crossing the border. The answer was that usually only Russian and Korean citizen cross the border, but that there have been a few third country citizen here, but they didn't remember when that was the last time...
They also said, that among the passengers of the sleeping car to Pyongyang there are usually not even Russian citizen. Russian citizen crossing the border only go to the so called "Rajin-Sonbong Special Economic zone", setup by the North Korean administration in cooperation with China and Russia. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rajin-Sonbong_Economic_Special_Zone
There are travel agencies organizing trips to sea-resorts in this zone. See http://www.parallel-dv.ru/607823777/6157108086
(Russian travel agency offering trips) and http://blogion.ru/fomenko/2008/07/17/o-tom-kak-my-pobyvali-v-severnojj-koree/
We went back to our compartment. Meanwhile the platform was empty, the Korean sportsmen disappeared somewhere. The train back to Ussuriysk had already left, it was totally quiet. Now we are really at the end of the world, or at least of the world, too which we are used…
Now I could take two photos out of the train window:
After some time we decided to went to bed. There was just one problem – I needed a toilet, but the toilet in the car was locked, as were the doors of the car. However, the front doors of the car were not locked, so also this problem was solved…2008-09-19
We woke up at around 8 in the morning. Today the "songun-era" begins, we were joking… After breakfast we left the sleeping car for a walk on the platform. The sleeping car was standing alone on track 1. Track 2, 3 and 4 were empty, on the other tracks there were some freight cars. But they were already out of service and waited for better times. We also noticed one track with 4 rails – Russian broad gauge (1520mm) and Korean standard gauge (1435mm). But the standard gauge rails seemed to be unused. This station had already seen better times with more traffic…
The only activity were some workers removing grass growing between the rails.
At about 9:00 the mixed train from Gvozdevo arrived on track 3. It was pulled by a TEM2 and consisted of one "obshchiy"-car and some freight cars. We saw no passengers leaving it.
From the distance we took this photo of the station:
We went back to the wagon. After some time a Russian man in civilian clothes came and collected our passports. He then disappeared in the station building.
Alltough we bought some bread at Ussuriysk, we now thought that it might not be enough for the further trip to Pyongyang. So I asked some Russians for a shop. It was close to the station on the main-road of the village.
After some time the man returned to us. He asked me for my Russian registration stamp on the immigration card (which I received when I entered Russia). I explained that I have only travelled across Russia without long stops and showed him the entry-stamp of Bryansk.
He gave us our passports. It seemed as this was not the real, final passport check, as we also received our immigration cards back. They have been stamped, but the passport wasn't.
After that I could take two more photos out of the vagon:
At about 10:15 the real border check began. Uniformed men and women entered the sleeping car. They again took our passports with them.
After some time the customs official came. We had just to answer the usual questions regarding alcohol and cigarettes, whereas the Korean conductors and passengers had to open all their packages. I don't know whether they had to pay a fine, but I assume that also the customs officials get their share of the profit generated by this kind of trade…
Then another soldier came, he removed all kind of coverings and also the backrests of the beds to check whether there is something hided behind...
After about one hour the passports were returned to us. With the exit-stamp in our passport we passed the "point of no return"…
My Russian visa…
Already the Khasan-stamp was a trophy for us, let's see whether we will get something more interesting…
The scheduled departure time was at 12:00 (5:00 Moscow time). Still nearly one hour. The TEM2-locomotive of the train from Gvozdevo moved to track 1 together with the "obshchiy"-car and these two vehicles were coupled to our sleeping-car to form the cross-border train.
Soldiers surrounded the small train and the rest of the platform was fenced off with barrier tapes.
Then one of the doors (which had been closed the evening before) of the station building opened and in intervals of about one minute about 15 Russian passengers for the "obshchiy"-car came out and went to the train. Apparently the southern part of the station building is used for passport and custom checks for other passengers than those of the direct sleeping car. After the Russian passengers also the Korean sportsmen (they were 17) came there one after each other and boarded the "obshchiy"-car.
Whereas all Russian citizen entered at the front-end, all Korean passengers entered at the rear-end of the wagon. And all passports were double-checked at the wagon-door by a Russian border official.
Finally, at about 11:50 all passengers seemed to be on-board. Some minutes later the engine started and a Russian soldier boarded our wagon at the rear-end. At about 12:05 we left Khasan station…a very exciting moment…
The distance from the station to the bridge is about 1,5 km. The train went slowly with about 30 km/h. The rails were surrounded by fences.
Just in front of the bridge there was a small platform and the train stopped here. The Russian soldiers left the train. There were some military buildings around – of course not a good place to take photos. However, at http://udaff.name/mir/zvukorezh_dvr/
I found a photo of the sign "Rossiya – KNDR" (KNDR = Koreyskaya Narodnaya Demokraticheskaya Respublika" = Democratic People's Republic Korea), which I have embedded to this Google-Earth image:
Also this photo of Kim Jong Ils special train was taken here:
(in 2001 Kim Jong Il met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, as Kim Jong Il is afraid of flying, he travelled with his special train…)
Some more photos of the bridge, which I found on the internet:
Photos taken from China:
View from China towards Tumangan:
Again the bridge:
After a few minutes the train rolls on... we are approaching the "Friendship Bridge" to North Korea…
The gate, which can be seen on this photo, is now open….
Slowly we run over the bridge... what will happen on the other end of it? How will the border guards react? Will there be problems? We don't know it really..
To be continued...