Monday, February 28, 2005

Pyongyang Metro

The PM is where two of my favourite interests reunite in one glorious symphany. As both a North Korea watcher and a trainspotter, it is thrilling to see and travel upon this feat of modern engineering. Apparently I'm not the only fan of this fine mode of transportation - this unofficial site for the PM tells you plenty more than I ever could.

The PM is deeper than almost any metro system anywhere in the world. Due to a combination of paranoia and the 'cos we can' factor, the PM is a hundred metres below ground. On regular occassions, Pyongyangers will participate in emergency drills which will see them rush to their nearest metro station and hide down its cavernous tunnels. Whether this would be particularly effective in the face on a heavy South Korean/US arsenal is hard to tell, but I guess it can't hurt.

The station at work


As tourists, we were only aloud to visit two stops on the PM, and travel between them - from Puhong (Rehabilitiation) to Yongwang (Glory). We entered one weekday morning with a rush of Koreans subtly eyeing us as they headed into the station. On the wall to one side was a map of the Metro system, with a rather ambitious feature where the commuter pushes a button corresponding to their desired destination, and the appropriate Metro path is illuminated. With only two lines operational it was perhaps a little unnecessary, but would not doubt be a major source of entertainment were it actually working.

Where do you want to go today?


We ventured toward the escalator and was waved through by a stern looking woman checking tickets at the entrance. Apparently our guide had made the necessary arrangements. Koreans headed to ticket checker with their 2-won paper ticket in hand, issued by the understaffed ticket booth to the side. We then headed down the longest escalator (presumably, if we were going down, it should be a de-escalator) which covered the full hundred metre vertical drop. It is difficult to convey in pictures just how exceptionally long this flight was, but it took several minutes to get to the bottom.

Bright lights, big city


The station we ventured into - and the one we soon exited at - were sites that Pyongyangers obviously take great pride in. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling, some formal, others attempting to represent fireworks exploding above us, whilst to the sides, behind the tracks, were majestic murals, at one station depicting life either side of the Taedong River in Pyongyang, whilst at the other depicting KIS in all his deceased glory. Perhaps the most famous image from the Pyongyang Metro is the mosiac of KIS guiding the workers of the Metro in their endeavours. Is there anything that man couldn't do?

Kim Il Sung... the engineer


Finally we boarded the train, a clean, simple vehicle with several carriages along the length of the track. It was late in the morning, and whilst most seats were taken, the train was not at all full. The train moved smoothly along the track, and apart from the very occasional glance from a Pyongyanger surprised to see us aboard, there was little remarkable about the trip. As all tourists must, I befriended a few local commuters, spoke to them in a language they don't understand, had a photo taken, and then walked out of their lives.

Catching a ride with some friends.


As we emerged at the other end of our epic journey, we took some time to admire the architecture and sheer beauty of the scene - not something metro stations are known for. Slowly we sauntered toward the escalator, staring wide-eyed at all around us.

All Aboard!!


There are also rumours floating around about PM, some as truth, some as muckraking.

The suggestion that the PM network as on the map does not exist, and only the two stations open to tourists do, is complete crap. On our trip, there were plenty of ordinary people doing their daily commute, and the openly publicised map was not simply for our amusement. As we pulled out of the second station, there will plenty of people still on board continuing on their journey. True, around town you see few signs indicating subway entrances, but nor was the one we visited particularly well sign-posted. Perhaps just another bout of paranoia in keeping them hidden a little. More likely is that the other stations are less ornate than the one we visited, and that's why they are not available to foreigners.

Another suggestion is that there are additional, unpublished lines which exist to serve the military and government elite as a link between various important buildings in Pyongyang. Quite possibly some truth, with nothing I saw confirming or denying. The third suggestion is that there is some sort of underground city below the depths of the Metro, quite possibly where important military infrastructue and equipment is held. Again, nothing to confirm or negate, although an interesting story backing this up was told by a frequent NK visitor.

Clearly the PM is an important part of how ordinary people move about the city, and it was fun to be a part of it. Would hate to be trapped down there if the bombs start dropping, though.

8 comments:

Petra said...

hey ari, have slightly random comment to make. the interior and exterior pics
of the Metro trains are, apart from the colour (exterior is yellow and seats are patterned not green) are exactly the same as the metro
trains on my underground train line in Berlin! 'cos i live in the old
east, we are still using the old GDR trains, (in the west they have
their own old trains) but... do you want to bet that kim and Erich (Honecker) bought them
back in the ol' USSR with the last of their communist roubles??
keep well!

Anonymous said...

Peter S wants to know
a) did you have permission to take the photos?
b) if there was no express permission did you feel you were being watched in taking them or did you try to sneak them?
c) anyone on the trains wearing footy scarves/beanies?

David said...

Petra,

According to the unoffical Pyongyang Metro website (http://www.pyongyang-metro.com/metronews.html), the current trains were actually bought secondhand from the Berlin U-Bahn in 1999. They are West Berlin D-series units built in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of them were sold to East Berlin in 1988, which is why you recognised them as "old GDR trains".

Just to complicate things, in 1996 the Pyongyang metro bought some old East Berlin trains (built in the GDR), but these have now disappeared from Pyongyang and are reportedly being used elsewhere in North Korea. Another possibility is that they're on the secret military lines that may or may not exist under Pyongyang.

Anonymous said...

If the tunnels are as deep as you say they are then anyone in it would be fairly safe if nuclear bombs did start falling.

-A. said...

In response to Peter S's interesting questions...
a) We had permission to take all the photos in the collection, both from our guide and from the people who appear in the photos.
b) There was no need to sneak them. One of the members in the group took a video camera with him, and openly filmed several hours of footage without any problems.
c) Not a Collingwood supporter in site, I'm afraid.

True Urbanism said...

I notice that the subway photos have disappeared. Any chance they will return?

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Anonymous said...

Is there any chance we can hear the story about the military installations? As for the other stations less ornate, Koryo Tours occasionally do five-station rides. Could it be worth asking them?