Sunday, November 16, 2014

Travelogues: Berlin U-Bahn to Pyongyang Metro

Circa 1989 East Berlin D-Series Carriage -- Pyongyang Metro 2013 
Photo: Tong Lam
Contemporary D-Series Carriage -- U-Bahn Berlin 2014 
Photo: Tong Lam

We are in error when we imagine the DPRK as a place that is resolutely frozen in the past. Despite synchronizing the calendar to ideology, no place is immune to the process of change and entropy.

Pictured above are two Berlin D-Series subway carriages. The top image shows a late-model carriage currently operating in Berlin, while the bottom image shows an earlier make of the D-Series operating today in Pyongyang.

The North Korean carriages were manufactured in West Berlin in the late 80's, originally purchased by the GDR for use in East Berlin.  After the Berlin Wall opened, the units were operated in the newly reunified Berlin until 1999, at which point they were sold and delivered to Pyongyang.

Since that time, these carriages have operated in Pyongyang's Metro, serving the population of approximately 2.5 million and frequently ridden by tourists who visit to the country.

For most readers, the carriages in Pyongyang might be the most remarkable, notable for their austere interiors, adorned simply with the ubiquitous Kimagery which forms the habitual backdrop synonymous with North Korean daily life.

For those who rode these U-Bahn carriages in the newly unified Berlin of the 1990s, the image from contemporary Pyongyang might feel strangely familiar.  Exteriors were repainted, but except for the removal of adverts and maps, the interiors remain mostly untouched (including the graffiti scratched into the windows!)  For some tourists, the distinctive slam of the doors has triggered familiar memories surprising to recall in a place so far from home.

The juxtaposed images of the carriages in Pyongyang and Berlin come together to form something of a gestalt image, which allows to us to see the present in dramatic, familiar contrast with the past.  We are afforded an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the enormity of changes in political, social and economic organisation since then.

Having regrettably never traveled to Berlin, we find the contemporary D-Series carriages most surprising.  Here infotainment and Microsoft imagery -- the ubiquitous, habitual backdrop synonymous with our own daily lives -- appear at once familiar in content but in striking contrast with our time spent aboard the Pyongyang metro carriages.

The image of the iconic Berlin TV Tower, itself once a ubiquitous symbol of life in East Berlin, is here set against the backdrop of the modern Berlin carriage.  We are given pause to consider Pyongyang's own iconic TV Tower, and reflect upon the passage of time in a place which many of us wrongly imagine impervious to its workings.

We wonder what the irrepressible process of change will bring to the future of Pyongyang, and the D-series metro carriages silently bearing witness one-hundred and two metres underneath the city each day.


Photos were taken by Professor Tong Lam, a photographer who traveled with us to the DPRK in 2013.  His book Abandoned Futures is an attractive collection which marvels at the beauty of change and the effects of entropy.

An extended tour of the Pyongyang metro, trams and trolleybuses are offered on our Retro DPRK tours to North Korea, operated by Koryo Tours.  We also offer a tour which travels across the country from Pyongyang to Chongjin by train, traversing routes closed to westerners since the 1950's.

Message christopher [at] for more info. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Travelogue -- Exploring the North Korean Railways

North Korea has an extensive railway network, first built during the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the early twentieth century.  Much of the system was destroyed as the Japanese fled Korea following the end of the Second World War.  After the founding of the DPRK in 1945, the rebuilding the railways became central to the reconstruction of the nation's economy, and the dramatic power of the railways became a powerful ideological symbol within the North Korean narrative of socialist reconstruction and economic development.

Today North Korea's railways are the principle means of cargo transport, while the passenger railway network connects the largest cities in the country with the capital Pyongyang -- and indeed the outside world.

North Koreans require permission to leave the country, which is granted almost exclusively to perform state business or visit relatives in China or Russia.  For the few that do traverse the incredible divide between "The Socialist Xanadu" and the outside world, there exist very few paths of travel, and the railways are by far the most economical.  Thus the railways are a fascinating microcosm of life in-between the divide.  

For the tourist, the railways are one of the rare opportunities to interact with everyday North Koreans, and see life as it exists in the countryside and far away from the glimmering capital city of Pyongyang.    

Trainspotting in the DPRK is truly unique.  Locomotives and carriages are of mostly of North Korean make, but a mix of second-hand Chinese, East German and Soviet rolling stock can also be found.  Photography is of the railways is very sensitive, but with permission from your guides it is possible to capture some incredible shots -- especially on our rail tours to North Korea.   

All photos below are by Retro DRPK curator and Koryo Tours tour leader Christopher Graper, except where noted.  I am particularly grateful for the many photos shared by former tourists with whom I had the pleasure of traveling.  Simply email me if you would like to have your photo credited.


Pyongyang Central Railway Station.  August 2013.  

Pyongyang-Beijing KS28 awaits departure from Pyongyang Central Railway Station.  April 2012.  Tourist photo.

Pyongyang Central Railway Station March 2012
KS28 rolls through the North Korean countryside.  April 2012.  Tourist Photo.

Beijing to Pyongyang international carriages indicate KS27/28 route in Korean and Chinese.  International carriages are operated on alternating days by Chinese and North Korean railway carriages and crew. 

KS28 pauses around 03:00 in Shenyang, China. Photo Sam Glover

Train KS28 arrives at Beijing Station after traveling 24 hours through North Korea and China. Tourist photo.  


North Korean locomotives are emblazoned with revolutionary banners and slogans.
All railways are operated by the state. 

Korean locomotives on display at the Three Revolutions Exhibit in Pyongyang.  August 2012
Korean locomotives on display at the Three Revolutions Exhibit in Pyongyang.  August 2012

Korean locomotives on display at the Three Revolutions Exhibit in Pyongyang.  August 2012

Korean locomotives on display at the Three Revolutions Exhibit in Pyongyang.  August 2012.


North Korean domestic carriages.  2013 Tourist photo.
North Korean dining car.  Tourist photo.

Shop talk on the North Korean railways.  Tourist photo.

North Korean countryside between Pyongyang and Sinuijiu.  Tourist photo.

North Korean countryside between Pyongyang and Sinuijiu.  Tourist photo.


Grade-crossing near Wonsan, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train between Oranj and the Mount Chilbo region, North Korea.  Tourist photo.

Domestic passenger train traveling north from Chongjin Central Station.  Chongjin DPRK September 2012.  Tourist photo.

Railway maintenance vehicle with hitchhikers.  Chongjin DPRK. September 2012.  Tourist photo.

Way in the background -- Hamhung Commuter Narrow-gauge Railway connecting Central Hamhung with industrial areas in Hungnam and the seaside town of Majon.   

Cargo train south of Wonsan traveling towards the Kumgang region.  September 2013.  Tourist photo.

Cargo train south of Wonsan traveling towards the Kumgang region.  September 2013.  Tourist photo.


Massive diorama depicting the construction of the railways at the Museum of Railway Construction in Pyongyang.  August 2013.

Mural in the Museum of Railway Construction

Tile mosaic in the Pyongyang metro depicting railways and steel production.  August 2013.

Japanese steam locomotive at the Wonsan Revolutionary Museum.  July 2013.

 Our rail tours to North Korea -- Read more!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Retro DPRK Tours -- See the "Socialist Xanadu"

2014 Tour Schedules

City Tours!
Exclusive specialty tours to the DPRK (North Korea) which explore the lost history of the "Socialist Xanadu".  We go deep inside the country, traveling to remote Chongjin, Hamhung and Wonsan by rail.  We'll enjoy city tours in Pyongyang on vintage Korean and Czech trams/trolleybuses, and get exclusive access to venture deep inside incredible architecture rarely seen by foriegn tourists.  

All tours are operated by Koryo Tours and accompanied by expert Western staff including Retro DPRK curator Christopher Graper and/or Professor Daniel Levitsky.   

2014 October 2/11 
North Korea by Rail -- Pyongyang to Chongjin
Full Itinerary and Booking Details

Travel by train across North Korea from Pyongyang to Chongjin!
seasideKoryo Tours is proud to announce a new stunning travel opportunity that crosses North Korea overland by train from Pyongyang all the way to the rarely-visited East and North-East Coast, and the major industrial city of Chongjin. As this area was previously only accessible from Pyongyang by a special charter flight, you will be the first foreigners to experience the spectacular scenery between the capital and the remote North-East Coast as travelling this route by train has never been possible before. The long journey northwards from Hamhung to Chongjin will reveal entire parts of the country never before seen by foreign eyes, as our train meanders its way through remote mountains and along the pristine coastline of the DPRK’s far North East, stopping at as-yet-undiscovered cities such as Sinpho and Kimchaek and passing by isolated beaches. This special tour also includes full tourist itineraries in all the cities of the East and North East of the country. We will be travelling in vintage 1970s carriages with Korean diesel locomotives and fully-functioning restaurant car, and will be the first foreign tour group to travel overnight by train within the DPRK, as we make our way non-stop back from Chongjin to Pyongyang at the end of the trip. As a final bonus, we will take a ride on a local tram and trolleybus in Pyongyang on the final afternoon, rounding off what will be a truly ground-breaking tour! This tour is designed for those who enjoy intercity adventure travel by rail, and would suit anyone with an interest in a new and exciting new way to travel around and discover uncharted regions of North Korea. 


  1. Overland by train (Pyongyang - Wonsan - Hamhung - Chongjin - Pyongyang)
  2. First foreigners to experience the spectacular scenery between the capital and the remote North-East Coast as travelling this route by train has never been possible before.
  3. Undiscovered scenery while riding the train
  4. Pyongyang, Wonsan, Hamhung and Chongjin sites
  5. Travelling with vintage 1970's carriages.
  6. Local tram and trolleybus ride in Pyongyang
  7. Adventure travel

Full Itinerary and Booking Details

2014 October 25/November 1 Architecture in North Korea

Full Itinerary and Booking Details

Architecture Tour October 2014

architecture tourThe architecture of Pyongyang is one of the DPRK’s highlights. In any socialist regime, architecture plays a key part in the process of building up a new social and political environment following revolutionary events. The total destruction of Pyongyang during the Korean War gave Korean architects and construction workers a clean slate from which to build a perfect socialist capital anew, and they seized upon that opportunity with relish. We will have access to many buildings not usually open to tourist groups, and will listen to lectures from Korean architects and interior designers at many of the locations we visit, learning a tremendous amount about both the functions and the history of Pyongyang’s remarkable buildings. As well as this, this tour will be the first opportunity for foreign tourists to visit the interior of a Pyongyang apartment, not only in order to appreciate the interior design of North Korean living space, but to meet the family living there and speak to them about their home. This will be a truly ground-breaking moment in 
october tourengagement with the residents of Pyongyang, one which will allow our tourists the first ever glimpse inside Pyongyang’s mass socialist housing. This will be both an architectural and a historical journey through North Korea’s socialist development like no other and to experience all the celebratory activities held to mark the 102nd birthday of President Kim Il Sung.


  1. Detailed tour of the magnificent Kim Il Sung Square and its neo-classical surround, built 1954-5
  2. Grand Monuments to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, built 1972, 2012
  3. windowsVisit to the new residential district around Mansudae Street, with a possible visit to a flat interior
  4. A full tour of the interior of the April 25 House of Culture, built in 1975 and one of the best examples of 1970s socialist monumentality in the city
  5. Moranbong Theatre, Pyongyang’s first socialist theatre, featuring classic post-war neoclassical design, built 1946
  6. architecture tourExterior and interior tour of Pyongyang Grand Theatre, one of Pyongyang’s landmark buildings, built in 1960 in a mixture of modernist and traditional styles
  7. Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, built in a grandiose neoclassical style in 1946 for orphans of heroes who had perished in the anti-Japanese struggle
  8. Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, built 1977. The former seat of government of Kim Il Sung and now the mausoleum where he and his son lie on display. One of the DPRK’s most impressive neoclassical buildings
  9. A full tour of the Grand People’s Assembly Hall, built in late-socialist neoclassical style in 1984, and featuring sumptuous, atmospheric interiors
  10. Pyongyang Architecture Institute, featuring fascinating architecture tour in October 2014paintings, plans and photographs which tell the story of Pyongyang’s post-war reconstruction
  11. A full tour of the Chongnyon Hotel, a striking 1980s Pyongyang hotel built for the World Festival of Communist Youth and Students, held in Pyongyang in 1989
  12. A full tour of the campus and buildings of Kim Il Sung University, the DPRK’s highest seat of learning, with buildings opened between 1945 and 2009
  13. The iconic Ryugyong Hotel. A chance for a close-up view of the newly-completed 104-storey pyramid-shaped hotel, incomplete for many years
  14. Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace, opened in 1989 and featuring one of the most striking post-modern designs in the city
  15. A full interior tour of Pyongyang’s distinctive Ice Rink, completed in 1981 and consisting of a conical modernist eveningstructure
  16. Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, opened in 1974 and preserving its austere, grandiose exterior and huge exposition halls
  17. Pyongyang International House of Cinema, built in 1989 in a striking circular style and housing three theatres
  18. A full visit to the brutalist Pyongyang Metro Museum, established soon after the opening of the Pyongyang Metro system in 1984
  19. All the celebratory activities held to mark the 102nd birthday of President Kim Il Sung
  20. The first ever visit to the interior of a Pyongyang apartment for foreign tourists.

Full Itinerary and Booking Details

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