Peace Train – Part 2 / More impressions - by Ann Ng

Beijing was an interesting beginning to the trip as I landed there after 11 at night. Getting a taxi to the hotel was a nightmare; my Chinese wouldn’t perform and if you’ve ever encountered the citizens of Beijing grabbing their taxis close to midnight (or perhaps they’re like that at all times), you will know why I didn’t stand a chance. After some 15 minutes of not really knowing where to go, despite having the hotel address all neatly written in Chinese, one chap offered me what he claimed to be a ‘very cheap’ fare – something like 420 RMB (equals A$70) to go to the hotel (he even showed me a card stating all the fares). Fortunately I felt something was amiss and turned him down as inoffensively as I could (of course he made me feel guilty that he had wasted time on me trying to be helpful) but the final fare proved to be 120 RMB, only twice what Nina later paid. She had utilized her GPS on her mobile which had international roaming to tell the driver exactly where to go. Maybe next time I’ll be as resourceful but I’d been ‘bitten’ twice before on roaming charges and couldn’t bear the ordeal of talking to another ‘customer service officer’ who was all insincere and keen to help me but who accomplished nothing after half a dozen phone calls and an hour or more of my time.

The hotel had no booking for me that night, so it was also interesting negotiating with them for a room that turned out to be quite expensive (since they wouldn’t allow me to sit overnight in the lobby).

Nina arrived the next morning as did Johnny Thonipara and Paul Oppenheim. These two people from the German Evangelical Church (Hessen and Nassau) turned out to be our firm friends as we journeyed on. The other 90 or so people who had been on the Irkutsk to Beijing train told us stories about how it had been a fairly basic, even primitive ride. The train, though not being a steam train, had used steam to heat up the facilities and it had been smoky and dusty and after four days of zero-shower they all admittedly felt somewhat beleaguered and dying for a shower. They were happy, excited, elated to get to the end of that part of the journey and wanting to collapse into their beds. Little did they know that the next week was going to be early rising and going to different churches and being taken off to sightseeing spots in Beijing and lots of eating and eating, and having to realize that entering Pyongyang was going to be impossible.

Waiting in line, for toilets, passports, fellow travelers, queuing for breakfast food, ensuring you got the last fork available … these were some of the things accompanying our days. Beijing felt very different from Dandong. I couldn’t help feeling harassed by the Chinese environment in Beijing – the pollution didn’t help – seeing is believing but I swear the sun was this strange pinkish globule behind these dense clouds and why would one think it was the sun and not the moon when it was such a peculiar glow at 4 pm in the afternoon?

What was also striking were the number of people who came from country A and lived in country B, conversations were constantly showered with “I am from the Ukraine but yes, I am working as an intern in Korea” or “I am from India but I have lived in Germany for a couple decades now”; I recall that in 1980 at the WSCF General Assembly the only people who fell in this category were the WSCF staff workers based at the central or regional headquarters but from a neighbouring country. This time round, the participants of the Peace Train (the international contingent) really felt to me like there were some 60% of them who were no longer based in their own countries.

I had also never in my life been surrounded by so many pastors, and of course, to them the visits to the churches were especially interesting. The Chao Yang Church which was in the district that our hotel was in was very big and modern, the roof/celling was very high and they were doing more renovations/expansions on the second floor. I appreciated that the Christian pastor (he was the most important official of the Chinese Christian Council) came and addressed us and answered some of our questions though he appeared unwell. The woman who also spoke at one point told us how the Christian community were personally morally honest and unlike others could be relied on to pay their bus fares on public transport. The church had these huge old paintings like in Greco-Roman times and I couldn’t help feeling how incongruous they were. On the other hand, at the hotel we stayed in Dandong the lobby boasted a gorgeous painting of what looked like Korean nymphs washing clothes together at a well.

In Beijing the participants also visited Tian An Men Square (a week before the car drove into it) as well as the Summer Palace. There were many lunch and dinner banquets but I couldn’t understand why the food served was always cold (the Chinese priding themselves on always consuming piping hot food so it retained its nutritional value). One day we were also taken to a monstrous (in size and content) war museum heralding the bravery of Mao and his comrades against the Japanese; everything screamed liberation but it was hardly convincing. To top it off, our tour guide proudly announced to us how much she still hated the Japanese. In Dandong, we were also ushered to another war museum where China displayed its role during the Korean War, but by then I knew better to stay away. Naturally, I couldn’t help wondering how the South Koreans felt.

Let me say a little more about Beijing and Dandong. The first you know something about, the second (if you are like me) you would probably never have heard of before. This city of 3 million is situated on the Yalu River, smack between China and North Korea. As a Primary 6 student in Singapore, I had stumbled upon a novel about one of Korea’s patriots and simply loved the story and that was about the only time I had ever heard of this river, so 50 years on to actually come and stand by this river and look across it repeatedly from land and on the boat that drifted down for more than an hour to look upon what North Korea was like was quite surreal. In its widest part, the river might have been a kilometer or more but at its narrowest it was perhaps 200 metres at most. But maybe what hit me most was how the South Koreans with me waved and waved to their North Korean brothers and sisters and the emotion that accompanied that. That night, one young Korean pastor who did the closing prayer was so overcome that he broke into tears and it was quite a few minutes before he could go on.

Dandong was also special for me because of the Chinese North Korean tour guide who had many stories to tell, about Pyongyang where she had grown up, about Kim Jong Il statues and how they are permanently lit, about mountains stripped bare because of starvation and the need for fuel. It was important to learn that North Korea was not always poor, that its current circumstances have come about as much from its own government’s wrong policies as the pressures brought to bear on the country by external forces like the US and South Korea. Guess which country of all the OECD ones has the highest suicide rate in the world? And guess who sells the most arms to that country?

I learnt that South Koreans can enter Pyongyang but as tourists they are accompanied the whole visit by two ‘guides’ who literally chaperone them around. They cannot make any contact with their relatives or telephone of try to find out if they are still alive. With 60 years passed since the Korean War, many of the South Koreans think their grandparents are no longer alive, but there are still old brothers and sisters and for some of the younger people, cousins and maybe uncles and aunts. On this trip, their sincere hope had been that because we were a church delegation that they would be permitted to contact or meet some of their relatives. As I said in my earlier article, this was not to be. I gathered that South Korea had previously developed an industrial complex in North Korea that had not ‘taken off’. That government had provided funding towards our trip and had indirectly (I think) used this as a bargaining chip that North Korea should agree to ‘reopen’ this complex. So, in short, there was just not enough goodwill on the part of the South Korean government to facilitate our entry into Pyongyang. North Korea too had some strange request that we enter Pyongyang by train but that we fly back out to Beijing rather than train to Seoul, so it was stalemate.

The issues that beset these two countries that was one before were as ridiculous as the way in which Israel and Palestine got divided. Behind closed American doors in 1953 after the War, some armistice agreement was concocted followed by a civil war that claimed 3 to 4 million lives. The Cold War has come and gone but there is still no peace in this part of the world. North East Asia remains a pawn geopolitically, and it doesn’t seem to serve either American or Chinese interests to allow these people who have suffered long and hard (under Japanese colonial rule for decades, and then the Division into 2 Koreas) to reunite and move on with their lives. I learnt that Barack Obama talks about peace but during his ‘reign’ there have been more nuclear strikes in North East Asia than ever before. “Embargoes and punishing North Korea only makes the lives of the locals difficult, as if they are not suffering enough already” was the repeated cry.

On a lighter note, in the tourist shop diagonally across from our hotel in Dandong which also hosted numerous weddings the Sunday we were there (huge inflated plastic balloons and ribbons, and purple and red elephants to match) I walked in to see a counter on my immediate left just by the door proudly displaying an array of hand-guns for sale. I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of this and wondered how the conversation would transpire if I asked to purchase one. Instead I ended up buying a short string of pearls for my daughter (how many shops in the world can claim to sell guns and pearls and tourist knick knacks all at the same time?).

In Dandong we went to walk on the Yalu Broken Bridge, one that had been built by the Japanese ages ago (same as they built the hydro-electricity dam at one end of the Yalu). Within eyeshot we could see the other unbroken one which carried the train from Beijing into Pyongyang once a day, and once in the reverse direction. The two bridges looked very similar, just that one was broken and the other not, and at night there were both starry-lit and quite beautiful.

Interestingly too, there was a third one … this time linking China to North Korea because of a new industrial site that had not quite taken off. Proudly the sign said “Singapore on the Yalu” and being ex-Singaporean I had actually thought “Good God, all these apartments look just like Singapore” minutes before I saw the sign. However, the development has not taken off. An article in the “Globe Mail’ jokes about how if you were to lie down in the middle of the 12-lane freeway for half an hour, you can expect no vehicle to knock you down! It was quite pessimistic about any such industrial complex taking off, and frankly-speaking if I were Kim Jong Eun, and I wanted foreign currency very badly, I would still think many times before agreeing to send my citizens to work in such an area (the temptations would be too great and too rapid).

Our first morning in Dandong saw us in a North Korean restaurant. North Korean in every sense of the word – staffed by North Koreans, North Korean food, and they put on a sing-and-dance show as well during our sumptuous lunch. Six very young women played the accordions and drum, danced, sang in Korean and English and wore the most kitsch ‘western’ dresses and outdated tap (or some sort of dance) shoes imaginable. Some friends couldn’t help commenting on how forlorn they looked, and the more they put on their pretty smiles, the sadder it was.

Christina, our English interpreter in Dandong, was a PhD student studying the development of new cities. South Korean but born in the US, she was on a scholarship and working a little to supplement her income. Like all repressed countries, she told how the first time you meet a North Korean, s/he says everything about North Korea is close to perfect. The second time, there might be a few rumblings of ‘maybe, there were some things that could be improved’ but the third when you knew them and they felt they could trust you was when one got told the ‘real story’. She narrated about a North Korean businessman who had been sent by his grandfather to find his sister; the old man still had some of her precious things from days gone by in a little trinket box that he now gave his grandson. I think he never found her, maybe she had migrated to the US.

There were a few South Korean women on our trip who had ‘been sent’ by the Korean government to Germany to work as nurses (the men went to work as construction workers) and over the years they had married German men. They spoke some English (and lots of German) but because they did have some English it was easier to hear about their lives compared to our less vocal Korean sisters on the trip. One of the major drawbacks on the trip was that the Korean group was in one bus and the ‘internationals’ in another. Next time (if there is a next time), we need to mix the two groups up and ensure that we have more interpreters/multilingual people among us.

Sang-nim and Sook-ja were the oldest Koreans in our group. 78 or 77, depending on which calendar you choose to use … but at the World Council of Churches Assembly, I saw Sang-nim dressed in traditional Korean clothes and drumming and dancing around with such gusto that I started to understand why she was so physically fit. There were others: a Malawi man who was 75, Rilma, Uruquayan by birth but living in New Zealand, Fay and Sandy, to name a few and each of them deserves a medal for completing the relatively arduous trip.

Rebecca, Lucas and Nazar seemed to form a team, the Ethiopian and Indian women who were missing from the China segment (couldn’t get visas to come in) but who joined us in Seoul were clear favourites with everyone, Frank and Johannes who were photographers and journalists (how hard they worked) and Daniel who, like Nazar, was another intern who’d worked the whole year on the project to help bring everything together for us. Among the Koreans there are too many to be named: Chang Hwie, Rev Cho and others; they too worked relentlessly into the night hours sorting out the logistics for each day’s travel plans.

We had worship on Sunday morning in the local South Korean church and everything was in Korean (no translation that morning), so I was happy when Rilma finished up the service with a blessing in English. In Seoul, we visited one of the old Korean palaces before we caught the last train (only 2.5 hours) to Busan where we had our closing worship. Karl, the Korean pastor from Canada, wrote a wonderful triumphant-sounding Korean song and Paul Oppenheim preached about how sometimes what we hope for might not eventuate, yet God is in our midst and we need to open our eyes to see what He is doing. The WCC angered me by not sending a representative or even a message to welcome the Train back (at our closing service), and later I learnt that they did not even bother to use the Candle that had been brought back all the way from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin at such a momentous event like a WCC Assembly. Shame!

If you’re interested to hear about the other legs of the trip from Berlin (Oct 6th) to Moscow, then Irkutsk, email me at and I’ll refer you to other links. Check out The Peace Train trailer gives a great overview, only 4 or 5 minutes long it captures the trip – the seriousness of it as well as the fun. Lake Baikal is simply stunning and the Peace Train guide book told me about this vast lake that I had again not heard of before. So many species of everything and so beautiful and remote.

There is no real conclusion to this trip. Like the trailer said, “The End …. To be continued”. I have a hope. If the National Council of Churches in Korea is interested in repeating this event, perhaps two years from now, I am more than willing to offer my services to help them with the international component of the trip – publicity, registrations, bookings, logistics, etc. And if you might be interested in coming along, to help highlight the issue of reunification for our Korean brothers and sisters, do start saving now. Cheers!