I Rode Kim Jong-un’s Bulletproof Version of the Napa Valley Wine Train
The Orient Express, the Golden Eagle, the Blue Train: luxury train travel is having a moment. We sent our reporter on not one of those trains at all.
Photograph by AFP for Getty Images.
Bulletproof, Slow and Full of Wine: Kim Jong-un’s Mystery Train: The train spotted in Beijing—21 cars painted drab green, their windows tinted to obscure the identities of those on board—bore the hallmarks of the bulletproof private transports preferred by the mistrustful leaders of North Korea.
—The New York Times, March 27th
I was very glad to accept Kim Jong-un’s invitation to ride his bulletproof luxury train to China. Not because I’m a fan of his (he’s actually a pretty terrible guy if you, like me, think human rights abuses are extremely bad) but because his special train combines some of my favorite things: excellent wine, moving slowly, and not being shot. As I always say, there’s nothing quite like the pairing of a rare, vintage Bordeaux with the sensation of chilling out and not having bullets in you. Obviously I would have preferred to take the trip solo, but I figured it was a once in a lifetime experience, and perhaps my only way out of North Korea, so I agreed to go with him. Not many people are allowed to ride the train, so I thought I’d write a little travel diary to share some snapshots of experiences I had during my journey.
I boarded the train in Pyongyang—it’s a really interesting place if you’ve never been. It has a sort of semi-deserted-post-Soviet-oppressive-dictatorship vibe that’s charming, but in a very horrifying way. Once we were on the train, Kim warned me that it didn’t go too fast because it was made of a heavy metal that’s bulletproof. “Sometimes it’s so slow that you’re like, ‘Someone shoot me!’ but that won’t happen,” he said. He introduced me to the staff, who all seemed to be happy to be there and not terrified of him in the slightest.
We sat down in the dining car and a waiter brought out a bottle of wine. “Hold on a minute,” I said. “It’s not even nine in the morning. I know you like to party, but let’s wait until this train has gone a few meters at least.” Silently, the waiter smiled and poured out a glass for me. That’s when I realized that the bottle didn’t have wine in it, but instead contained some kind of cold-pressed juice. “This is flown directly from the Juice Press store in Soho,” Kim said, “I can’t stand the juice from other locations. I put it in wine bottles because I that’s a thing that people do with water in Brooklyn restaurants sometimes. I’m very into kitsch.” I thought my opinion of him couldn’t get any lower, but I had been wrong.
After breakfast, I took a short run to clear my head—the train is slow enough that you can run along the tracks and come back about to where you left it.
Most of the rest of the day I spent reading in my compartment. Weirdly, most of the news sources in North Korea are super positive about Kim Jong-un, whereas everyone outside of the country thinks he’s terrible. I guess it just goes to show how important it is to get both sides of the story, and to read articles from media companies with a perspective that’s more conservative than you might usually read.
I woke up to a screaming voice. At first I thought it was my conscience, for hanging out with Kim Jong-un, but then I realized it was actually Kim’s voice. He burst into my room holding a newspaper. “ The New York Times described my train’s color as ‘drab green,’” he shouted, “can you believe that?” I looked outside the train window as people on bicycles and mothers pushing strollers zoomed ahead of the train. “Definitely not drab—I’d say it’s a tasteful muted green,” I replied. “Almost elegant.”
Kim was obviously unhappy for the rest of the day, and ordered the train’s staff to paint the train a different color. They went for what I would say is a kind of a mint green, which is definitely not drab, but crossed the line into garish, and kind of blew the whole “secretive train” thing wide open. I didn’t mention my thoughts on the new color to Kim. In fact, I thought it was wise to dress in mint green for the rest of the trip.
The speed of this train is why people take planes. Or, why people take trains that aren’t bulletproof and really slow. If you think it’s awkward being stuck next to a stranger for eight hours on an international flight, imagine doing that for multiple straight days, but with Kim Jong-un.
I should probably mention at this point that I was averaging about three bottles of vintage Bordeaux a day. And even though the kitchen was able to make almost any dish I could conceive of, I’d slumped into a routine of eating only grilled cheese.
I was finding it hard to live with myself. Or maybe I was just finding it hard to live with Kim Jong-un on his train.
We arrived! Can’t wait to check out Beijing!
I really hope that he doesn’t mind if I ditch him and sort of do my own thing.