Journal Highlights: Roads I Have Traveled ... Excerpt #3 DPRK from September 1995

(continued) Pyongyang, North Korea: September 8, 1995: At 4:15 a.m., the lights in my room came on. That was the North Korean version of a wake-up call. It seemed like it was awfully early, since I had stayed up past midnight trying to keep up with my journal writing. No hot water had been turned into the pipes, again, so the ice-cold shampoo and shower helped to wake me up quite completely. 

At a little after 5:00 a.m., a knock came on the door, and Mr. Rim said they were ready to take us to the train station. As I indicated before, no American to my knowledge had been allowed to go outside Pyongyang city. But we had found favor enough now for them to invite us to go on a train for a nearly four-hour trip north to the Mount Myohyang area in the county of Hyangsan. I was thrilled beyond belief. I had seen trains pull out of the downtown station when I had visited Pyongyang before and wondered what it would be like to ride on one of them. In fact, on that trip I had inquired if anywhere in their country they still might have steam locomotives in operation, and Mr. Chun had said that there were steam trains up in the northern part of the country. But at that time I never even dreamed I would ever leave Pyongyang, except by air to Beijing. 

The station was very neat and clean and mostly directed by military women in the station and out on the platform. We passed up the general open-seating cars and were directed to board the last passenger car, which was old but a nicely complemented wooden coach with private compartments. It was still dark outside, but the first rays of sunshine were beginning to crack through in the east. There were four berths in each compartment of the passenger car, two upper and two lower, with a small table set for tea located under the window and between the two lower berths. The beds were made up for sleeping, but at that hour we chose to sit. 

It was really strange. Jay and I had come to the station in separate Mercedes cars, and we were shown to two separate compartments. There was no effort to keep us apart once we were on the train, but it just kept pushing my paranoia when it was not clear whether the gesture was for their safety or for our comfort and as a compliment to us.

The train pulled out of the station on time, of course, and my eyes were kept busy drinking in the sights seen by so very few in the past fifty years. The sunrise was beautiful, but Jay and I had picked up the feeling that it would be frowned upon if we were observed taking a lot of pictures. We passed the port at Nampho, where the container would arrive, and about one hour into the trip. I looked out the train window and then turned to Jay and pointed to him and quietly told him to quickly grab the camera. About a half mile from the train tracks was a whole hilltop covered with antiaircraft guns, missile launchers, and other weapons. The missiles were in a defensive position pointed south, and I presumed they were protecting something on ahead to the north. Sure enough, up the track about five miles was a large chemical plant and refinery. It made sense that they would be defending the installation in case of an attack from the south. 

Having personally owned a real live steam locomotive and consist (all the passenger cars, the Pullman cars, the caboose cars, and additional rolling stock) that we used to lease to Hollywood movie makers, and still owning a small narrow-gauge steam train that today is on loan to the Forney Museum of Transportation in Denver, I had a great interest in locations where steam locomotives were still used. I was keeping my eyes and ears wide open in hope that I might catch a glimpse of some live steam power or the shrill sound of a steam whistle. 

Jackson on MGM movie set with Jackson Brother’s steam train, staring William Holden, Vince Edwards, Cliff Robertson and pictured here with actor Claude Akins. Train was featured in movies such as Cat Ballou, The Professionals, and The Devil’s Brigade.

 I kept moving from my compartment window out into the narrow-windowed hallway of the coach looking for telltale signs of steam power. As the train slowed, approaching one of the village stops, I thought I spotted an overhead water facility with a pipe and spigot about four inches in diameter. That has to be for filling a boiler, I thought. I couldn’t spot any live steam, but as the train slowed down, what I did see burned a hole in my memory. There on a siding was a passenger train that had pulled off onto the siding to let our fast train past. It consisted of about ten very old-style wooden coaches. The windows and doors were all open, and the people who were aboard were headed into Pyongyang for the national holiday celebrations. Most were clutching small colorful flower arrangements, which they were taking to place before the huge bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung situated in the city square. 

The people were so packed on that train that literally they were hanging out the windows and sitting on the steps of the coach entrance, hanging on to the handrails so as not to fall out. But what was so riveting was the looks on their faces—the sadness, the emptiness, almost as though they were confused or abandoned; no smiles, no chatter. As we slowly passed the many windows and doorways of the coaches and I studied the eyes and body language of the passengers, I myself felt drained. Then the train, once past the siding, picked up speed and raced on north. 

Just before we entered the next village, I spotted them! Yes, indeed, there they were … two old locomotives under a full head of steam sitting on sidings attached to a consist of freight cars. Steam was coming from the turbine generators on the top and hissing from around the main driver pistons in the front. It appeared to me that they were hand-stoked coal engines of either a 2-8-0 or 2-6-0 configuration. By the time I grabbed my camera to capture them on film, we were past them. 

Jay came out of his compartment and excitedly hollered, “Did you see that?”
I said, “Yeah … rats … I didn’t get a picture!”

Later he told me that he spotted another in a switching yard while I was out talking to Mr. Ri Su Kil and Mr. Rim Tong Won. Actually, Mr. Rim had asked me where I was born, and I told him Idaho. And he said, “Oh yes, I rike berry mush the story of Idenhoe; good story.” I didn’t have the heart to correct him, so I just smiled.

Next Week: North Korea (continued)

© Dr. James W. Jackson   

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