Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Days 74-76: Trans-Siberian Railway, Part 2 -- Irkutsk to Moscow

This train ride was a lot quicker than the Kharkov train. For one, it was an express train, and a much newer one, too. It was called "Baikal -- Irkutsk-Moscow." The route was a popular one, so the prices were high, but I managed to secure a ticket for only $110 in an open sleeper car (platskart) for a departure on November 5.

What surprised me most was how this car, a platskart at that, was better in all aspects than my more expensive 4-person private berth (kupe) on the previous train. And the people were different, too: for one, there were few noticeable alcoholics. The train conductors were much more polite, too, and didn't sell any bootlegged vodka from Ukraine to the alcoholics at a huge mark-up. :)

Cities we passed through on this train included Ekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, Nizhniy Novgorod, Vladimir, and others, although I forgot the exact order. What was surprising is that some cities, such as Nizhniy Novgorod (Gor'kiy) and Ekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), the station names were the ones listed in parenthesis above, even though the cities have been renamed since the Soviet Union collapsed.

The highlight of this trip was, believe it or not, meeting and talking to 5 North Koreans. I saw them loading several boxes with the imprints "D.P.R. Korea" on them when the train got going, which surprised me. Then I noticed that two of the five men had jackets with pins of KIm il-Sung on them. I ended up striking a conversation with them, but only one of them spoke very good Russian. The others barely spoke Russian at all, so they must have been in Russia for only a short while. The fluent Russian speaker said that he has been going to Russia since the 1980s to work, and explained that all of these were workers who were here legally. They are allowed to return to North Korea and all have families there, he said. He also said, upon my inquiry, that Kim Jong-il is alive and well and didn't know where I heard the rumor that he had suffered a stroke. He also explained that all of them were from Pyongyang.

I don't know what to think. When another woman asked him what North Korea was like, he said that it's a very poor country, and that is why the workers came here. This candor surprised me. But then he said that foreigners like to visit North Korea and don't want to leave it, because it's so safe (true) and clean (also true). But it's not like that for the right reasons, so his words were definitely well-picked and I could tell that he was educated (he was even reading a Russian newspaper for a while). He was also surprised that I didn't visit North Korea, since I was so curious about it, but then I explained that Americans can't go there for many reasons. He was surprised, but not too much. When someone asked him about reunification with South Korea, he replied that this question has always existed and does so to this day--and added that South Korea is much richer than the North. Since normally a North Korean would not either know or admit this information, his candor surprised me again. Then I noticed he got off before the other North Koreans did, so he was either their escort, translator, minder, or something like that. Oh, and he warned me that if America ever wanted to attack North Korea, it would be a big mistake and that the Koreans would respond with all their might.

I showed my North Korean money, stamps, and cigarettes that I managed to purchase in Dandong, and the remaining four migrant workers were all very surprised. And once the North Korean described above got off the train, they suddenly became lukewarmly interested in looking at my video and photos of life in South Korea, which they didn't want to look at before. They still insisted that North Korea is the true Korea and truly believed in Kim Jong-il's wellbeing, etc. -- and one of the soldiers, in perfect Russian, uttered "Death to the U.S. Army." Surprising, perhaps, but definitely a strong comment.

One of them showed me a photo of his wife and child back in North Korea, so it's too bad that I didn't have a photo of my family or house to show them. I just didn't expect to meet North Koreans anywhere on this trip, but it just so happened that I met them on the Trans-Siberian. ...

1 comment:

Vitaly said...

nu konechno, a chto im eshe' ostae'tsy skazat' ih navernyka posle etogo budut pitat', i vsu' oni pravdu skajut a esli oni chtoto protiv severnoi' korei' bi skazali to do glavanogo bi tutje bi doshlo i libo uval'nenie grozit ili blin tu'r'ma. no v nutri seby oni ponimau't chto proishodit prosto vida nebudut podavat'