(I posted this one over at Voyages on the Left, but thought I would post it here too.)

‘Where are you from?’ I asked.

‘Syria’, said the young man.

‘Do you speak English?’ I asked.

He smiled and shook his head. Some minutes later, his friend arrived and they asked me about their train ticket. Or rather, they showed it to me, with quizzical faces. Their final destination was Kiel, in the north of Germany, which required a change in Hamburg. I promised to help them when we arrived in Hamburg.

I noticed that they had a small backpack each and that they looked weary, very weary. Holidaymakers hereabouts usually carry much more. And they usually stay in hotels with comfortable beds, or perhaps – like me – they stay with friends and acquaintances. These two young men were not holidaymakers and they had clearly not slept in a comfortable bed for quite a while.

My thoughts went back to the crossing of the border between the Netherlands and Germany, an hour or so earlier. I was on my way from the small town of Alphen aan den Rijn to Copenhagen, a journey that should have taken twelve hours. At the German border crossing, an unusual number of police patrolled the station and the train itself. The open borders of the European Union were not so open any more. In my carriage, they stopped to speak with another young man.

‘Where are you from?’ The police officers asked.

‘Tunisia’, he said.

‘May we see your passport?’ They asked. Upon perusing it, they said: ‘You do not have a visa. Please come with us’.

He followed them off the train, where a number of people had also gathered. Soon enough they were led off by the police for processing.

At that time, I had not yet made the connection. But with the two Syrians on the later train, it hit me: I was experiencing first-hand the European refugee ‘crisis’ of late 2015. Or rather, it was only the first, very small taste.

By the time I arrived at Hamburg, I realised I was in the midst of the greatest movement of people in recorded history – from countries destroyed by foreign intervention, such Syria, Afghanistan, Libya … It is one thing to see stories on the television or read about it in a distant newspaper, with the usual distortions and sensationalism. It is another thing entirely to experience it directly.

The train on which I was travelling arrived late, having left Osnabrück late. Hoping that in Hamburg my connection to Copenhagen was also late, I raced to find the platform. The train had already left. After rescheduling my travel at the Deutsche Bahn ticket office, I had an hour or more to explore the station. As an ancient centre, Hamburg always bustles. But this was no ordinary bustle. It was packed full of people.

In the toilets, many Syrian men were having a wash. The cost of entry may have been one euro, but the attendant was letting them in for nothing. On the stairs, in the passageways, on the platforms were group upon group of tired refugees. A family sat in a corner, with the mother quietly breastfeeding the baby. A man from Afghanistan spoke with a women next to me, saying he and his group had been on the road for four weeks. They would stay in one country for a night, perhaps two, and then move on. All of them – families, groups of young men and women, occasional older people with someone to help them – had nothing more than a small backpack and perhaps a smartphone in order to keep up with what was happening.

Finally my train arrived, although now I had to go via Jutland and around to Copenhagen. The German railway system was straining, with all trains running late. My train was soon full to overflowing with refugees. I sat next to a German woman from Flensburg.

‘I never expected this’, I said, ‘although I should have’.

‘There are so many’, she said, ‘even more this month’.

‘Where are they going?’ I asked.

‘To every city, town and village in Germany’, she said.

‘How do they get there?’ I asked.

‘The German government provides them with tickets’, she said.

‘In the Netherlands’, I said, ‘people were saying, “it is what you do”’.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘this is what we think too. However, we cannot do it alone’.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Other countries need to help’, she said. ‘This is a global problem. But Denmark, Norway, Hungary … they refuse to take any refugees’.

‘Really’, I said. ‘But they are rich countries, with many resources to share’.

She smiled ruefully.

At Flensburg, in the midst of one of my ancestral homes by name of Schleswig-Holstein, we had to change trains. For many, Flensburg was the end of their journey for now. Arabic-speaking Germans were ready on the platform. They wore ‘Welcome Refugees’ jackets and guided people to the station centre. There they provided some food, drink and arranged accommodation for those who were staying in Flensburg.

Yet again, I had missed my connection, so I had to wait for the next train, now in the middle of the night. I did not expect anyone to board the train to Denmark, given that country’s less than welcoming reputation. The barriers on the platform for Denmark reinforced this impression. However, when the train arrived, a large group of refugees were led onto the platform. The station personnel at the barriers did not request passports – only valid tickets. Soon the train was full.

Now I became fully involved.

One young man spoke English, so he became the interpreter and de facto leader of a train full of anxious refugees. They were constantly keen for information in a foreign country with strange customs. At the Danish border, I expected them all to be hauled off the train.

Instead, a Danish police officer came through and asked, ‘Anyone seeking asylum in Denmark?’

One by one, everyone responded, ‘Sweden’.

He walked on.

An Arabic speaking woman followed him, checking to see if people had understood. One or two had further questions. By her shrug and sour look, one could tell immediately that she didn’t care and had no desire to help.

At Fredericia, in Denmark, the train stopped for some time. An announcement stated that we would not have to change, for the train would now go through to Copenhagen. Obviously, the authorities feared some might disappear on their way to another platform. A large group gathered around me as the interpreter asked what was happening. I explained the change in plans in detail, answering further questions.

Soon enough the last toilet on the train stopped working. I advised those whose bladders were about to burst that a corner on the platform was a good place for such purposes – having done so myself. A couple of women were not so keen, so I asked some station attendants of they could fix the toilets. They did so – with much relief.

After yet another delay, we departed. A weary train soon fell asleep. Children slept on seats and on the floor between seats. Old people were given the best spots. Young people did the best they could with the remaining space.

By 3.00 am we finally arrived in Copenhagen – five hours later than my original schedule. Everyone disembarked and asked me – through their translator – whether they had to take a ship to Malmø. The train will take you there, I told them.

‘I wish you all the best’, I said. ‘I hope you find a welcoming country and a place to make a new home’.

They thanked me profusely for the little help I had given, shaking my hand one by one. We waved farewell.

Walking out of the station and into a rainy Scandinavian night in mid-November, I found I could barely imagine what such a journey must be like for them, fleeing a home engulfed in war. Their towns and villages were being destroyed, people around them were being killed, mostly by foreign forces. They did not know what lay ahead.

Yet I was struck by the way everyone was very helpful. No-one pushed or shoved to get on or off a train. Instead they assisted each other. People constantly made room for anyone else, offering seats and places where needed. The feel on the train was far from any sense of danger, but rather a sense of weary and hopeful collective will.

The situation went beyond politics and propaganda. It boils down to a simple question: if someone is in dire need, you either turn your back or you help. For you never know when you will be in such a situation.

On a recent rail journey around Australia (stories here and here), I checked my email once in two weeks. For some reason, the removal from my daily life of one significant source of consistent interruption meant that I could relax in a way I have not done for a long time. Of course, on return home, I began to check my email many times a day – until today. As part of my semi-retirement, I will check my email again only on Thursday next week, and then at most weekly after that. However, I did find that when you get in the habit, another day or two extra makes little difference.

On our recent 9,000 kilometre rail journey, on one of the trains we were given a little bag with lost of interesting items. One such item had this on the back:

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The long list of items are fair enough, but ‘positive energy’? I couldn’t help wondering if it too is organic.

We’ve begun a journey on the largest rail circuit in Australia and will disappear for a couple of weeks from any regular internet or telephone networks – still possible in the vastness of Australia. This entails The Ghan from Adelaide to Darwin, driving from Darwin to Mt Isa (no rail for this part), The Innlander from Mt Isa to Townsville, the Spirit of Queensland from Cairns to Brisbane, and then the XPT back to Newcastle.

In a long and important piece on the Stakhanovite movement, Stalin has this to say about the speed of trains. Keep in mind that the movement was part of the extraordinary and rapid transformation achieved through industrialisation and collectivisation:

We shall have in the first place, to persuade these conservative elements in industry, persuade them in a patient and comradely manner, of the progressive nature of the Stakhanov movement, and of the necessity of readjusting themselves to the Stakhanov way. And if persuasion does not help, more vigorous measures will have to be adopted. Take, for instance, the People’s Commissariat of Railways. In the central apparatus of that Commissariat, there was, until recently, a group of professors, engineers, and other experts – among them Communists – who assured everybody that a commercial speed of 13 or 14 kilometres per hour was a limit that could not be exceeded without contradicting “the science of railway operation.” This was a fairly authoritative group, who preached their views in verbal and printed form, issued instructions to the various departments of the People’s Commissariat of Railways, and, in general, were the “dictators of opinion” in the traffic departments. We, who are not experts in this sphere, basing ourselves on the suggestions of a number of practical workers on the railway, on our part assured these authoritative professors that 13 or 14 kilometres could not be the limit, and that if matters were organised in a certain way, this limit could be extended. In reply, this group, instead of heeding the voice of experience and practice, and revising their attitude to the matter, launched into a fight against the progressive elements on the railways and still further intensified the propaganda of their conservative views. Of course, we had to give these esteemed individuals a light tap on the jaw and very politely remove them from the central apparatus of the People’s Commissariat of Railways. (Applause.) And what is the result? We now have a commercial speed of 18 and 19 kilometres per hour. (Applause.)

Works, vol. 14, pp. 107-8.

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.

If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.

I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from governments like those of Australia, the United States and Canada did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.

Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.

I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’

He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.

That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.

‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.

‘So where could I travel?’ I said.

‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.

Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.

‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.

‘What about universities?’ I said.

‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.

‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.

‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.

‘What do you teach?’ he asked.

‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’

I gave him my email address.

But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.

Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.

Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.

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