North Korea have been having a rough couple of years as of late mostly due to harsh ongoing sanctions that prevents a majority of items being exported or imported from the DPRK. So, getting your hands on items that are easy to for us back home can be near impossible in North Korea. However, there are some items that are prohibited from bringing into North Korea that aren’t necessarily on the UN sanctions list. Oddly enough, one of them in bicycles.
It all started back in 2015 when I first approached our travel partners in Pyongyang to discuss the possibility of holding the first ever bicycle tour around Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Cycling tours had been previously arranged in North Korea but the only possible route was from the outskirts of Pyongyang to Nampo, a 60km bicycle ride there and back along the barren Youth Highway. I love a good cycle, but I’m not the one you’ll find wearing spandex and cycling for endurance.
Dedicated cycle lanes throughout Pyongyang’s districts were starting to pop up like mushrooms. It was well received by the locals as e-bikes were becoming more increasingly popular and affordable, making it both easier for riders and pedestrians to keep away and alert of each other.
My bicycle tour idea wasn’t initially received well by the North Koreans as they didn’t quite grasp the concept of why foreigners would want to cycle outside when they could sit comfortably on an airconditioned bus and be driven around. So, they weren’t much helpful but with my constant visits to Pyongyang, almost every weekend, I begun mapping out a cycle route around Pyongyang in my head.
I’d also take notes on the cycle nature of the locals. For example, it’s strictly forbidden to cycle on main roads. You must cycle on the footpath. When there is bicycle lane available you must cycle within that lane. When crossing the road, you must dismount your bicycle. If there is an under or overpass available you must use them, cannot simply cross the road.
If you try breaking any of these cycle laws you can bet a Pyongyang traffic officer will blow her whistle and give you a good lecture. One observation I found really interesting was when cycling pass the Mansudae Grand Monument, all traffic must slow down to 20km/h and again, cyclists must dismount. There’s a specific traffic officer to ensure this is enforced. This helped push the cycle concept further with the Koreans once they know there is total cooperation and understanding.
After nearly a year of back ‘n forth between the North Koreans, and constantly being told “no, impossible”. I almost gave up. However, that all changed one day when I randomly visited the Kwangbok Department Store and saw a row of North Korean made bicycles lined up neatly, ready for happy new owners. I gave one a test cycle around the store and at the front in the carpark as I gathered a crowd of onlookers watching a lanky foreigner doing figure eights. My first impression was the bike was sturdy and comfortable to cycle.
I called my North Korean travel partner and joked that I was going to buy a bicycle and use it to create my own spontaneous city cycle tour whether he like it or not. He laughed and then asked what type of bike was it. I checked the Korean model name and it was called May Day. He replied with “Oh! It’s Korean? Oh, it’s okay! Please cycle as much as you please!”. And then it all suddenly sort of made sense.
The North Koreans weren’t keen on the cycling tour because they didn’t want foreign bicycles being ridden around the capital. The best possible way for me to describe this to you is basically it is not in the North Koreans’ interests to have flashy, expensive, mountain or road bikes shown off in front of the locals as it would break what I call the ‘flow of acceptance’. These were the type of bicycles that were used by foreigners previously for the long-distance cycling route between Pyongyang and Nampo. Okay, cool. So now we’ve figured out a work around! Or have we?
I need to put this bicycle a thorough test. Is it durable for roads and casual cycling? Will it fall apart or have minor things breaking off? Will it hold my size? I’m tall and heavier than an average Korean. There’s only one way to find out. I need to ride this bike every day. I need to take this bike back with me to China.
I asked the sales assistant if there’s a bicycle that hasn’t been assembled yet and is still in the box. Easier for me to carry it home. She explained that the bicycles they receive are made and assembled at a bicycle factory in Pyongsong so the store receives them directly. No dice. My only way of getting a bicycle back to the outside world is by dissembling one of their stocked bicycles. It was 30 minutes before the store closed and I was leaving Pyongyang back to China the very next morning. I had to be quick.
The bicycle was 677,800 DPRK won. As high as that sounds it works out around 80 euros. Comes with a headlight and a basket, cute. I ran into the supermarket on the lower floor of the department store and asked for any leftover large boxes. I also bought a couple of soju bottles whilst inside.
I then dashed outside to the carpark with the bicycle, grabbed a security office in charge of making sure nobody sits on the front ledge of the department store (lol, wtf), gave him the shopping bag of recently purchased alcohol and used body language to explain I want to dissemble this bike. My Korean isn’t terrible but it’s not that great either. He got it.
A staff member walks out with two large boxes and a giant plastic bag. Within moments I had 4 Koreans helping me dissemble my bicycle. Single hearted unity! Each of the boxes and bags was loaded onto my bus and dropped off at the hotel. More gifts were purchased for the extra helpers. Everybody’s happy. We arrived back at the hotel and celebratory drinks were had.
The next morning, once arriving at Pyongyang Railway Station the reality of the moment hit me as hard as my hangover. Now I have to carry large and awkward packages on an overnight train back to China. That’s 6 hours on a North Korean train, then two immigration and customs, and then a 14-hour overnight train to Beijing. This was not ideal but I was game.
Once arriving at the North Korean immigration at Sinuiju the bicycle parts were met with thumbs up and a few high-fives. A North Korean made bicycle being exported outside. How cool? I’m sure the guards felt proud to see a happy foreigner with his new set of Korean wheels. The Chinese immigration were just confused. They needed to scan the packages with their equipment for custom purposes but it was simply too large. Once opening the boxes, they began to laugh. Sort of poking fun at me. Oh well, they were helpful, and certainly entertained.
Hauling around a bicycle frame, with two large wheels and let’s not forget the basket, was not an enjoyable experience at the hustling Dandong Railway Station. My train ticket had me sharing my train berth with 5 other Chinese. Mine was the top bunk. With all the luggage racks already full, and with nowhere else to store the bike for the overnight journey, I lunged it on top of my bed. Made my way to the dining cart where I remained until 10:00pm, sipping beers with the other locals who were enjoying the moment of sitting down before they went back to the seating compartment on their standing ticket. Once the moment was right, I stumbled back to my berth and slept on the floor between the two lower bunks.
There doesn’t need to be a breakdown of how terrible my sleep was that evening but before I knew it, I was back in Beijing. The train rolled up at 8:30am on the dot and I then began the process of finding a taxi at the front of Beijing Railway Station. Another unenjoyable step. Luckily for me where I had lived in Chaoyangmen area of Beijing, being so close to downtown there were bicycle repairs shops on almost every corner. The woman running her shop offered to reassemble my bike for 100RMB. No worries.
So, there you have it. The step by step process of how to export a bicycle from North Korea. For anyone interested in bringing a North Korean bicycle back to their home country I’d recommend finding suitable packaging (not just apple boxes) and sending it home via China Post from China. So hopefully the final step for you is a lot easier.
Needless to say, I was a very happy rider showing off my North Korean made bike to the Beijing expats. It was certainly the talk of the town for a week or two. I would like to make a note here that Shane Horan, former YPT guide but now runs a great travel company from Berlin, had my bike stolen whilst he borrowed it. This was only three months of having the bike in Beijing. I don’t blame him because bicycle theft in Beijing is as common as it is in Amsterdam but still waiting for that compensation beer mate 😉.