A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Wednesday 8 July 2015
“Hey, do you want to ride on the metro?” Maria asked, turning to us with a conspiratorial grin.
We were in Moscow, on a week-long project to film a documentary about urban exploration in the Russian capital. By now it was day three, and almost every site we’d tried had been a wash-out: the company who’d commissioned the program – our employers – were used to dealing with extreme sports, activities that bore some kind of certainty and either could be done or couldn’t. They hadn’t been prepared for a pastime like this, where successful infiltration was never guaranteed and a list of immaculately researched, high-profile, high-security sites was still worth nothing without an incredible amount of luck on the ground.
This particular evening, we’d just had moderate success at getting to the rooftops of a semi-derelict office complex… and as we rode the metro back to central Moscow we were buoyed up on a heady, post-infiltration euphoria.
“Do you want to ride on the metro?” Maria, our local Russian contact asked; but it made no sense, as we were already sat inside the empty, rocking carriage of a late-night metro train.
My British colleague, Pat, smiled at the question. I looked about for a moment, confused, and she laughed.
“No,” she interjected before I could speak, “ride on the back of the metro.”
Of course I’d heard stories before of the crazy Russian youths who make a hobby of ‘surfing’ on the back of metro trains. Around six of them get killed each year in Moscow alone, although on closer reading you’ll find that most fatalities occur when the rider tries to ascend to the top of the carriage – only to meet low hanging cables, pipes and signage. Many trains however are designed with hand- and foot-holds on the back, to offer a passing lift to metro workers and track cleaners.
So in theory: hold on, stay put, and you ought to be alright.
I had never trespassed in a metro system before, though I had always been curious. I’d seen photos of the ‘ghost stations’ lurking deep beneath cities such as London, Paris and New York… and they had left with me an itch, a yearning to venture inside such spaces for myself.
The carriage was slowing down as it approached the next station. I glanced out the window briefly, and made out a rushing cavern lined with wires and cables, fuse boxes and signal lights. A hidden, underground world.
“Quick,” she said, “it’s stopping. We have to do it now.”
Surfing the Metro
I’m fully aware of the risks involved in doing what I did… and while I might sometimes encourage people to get out of their comfort zone once in a while, try something new, I’m not about to recommend ‘train surfing’ to anyone.
Metro trains hurtle through concrete tunnels not much wider than themselves, at top speeds – in Moscow, at least – of up to 50 miles per hour. Wave your arm out to one side then, any further than the edge of the carriage, and it’s liable to be amputated. Try peeking over the top of the train and there’s a reasonable chance you’ll lose your head.
Then there are the dangers of falling. If the high-speed tumble onto metal tracks doesn’t kill you, then the next train might. There’s also the third rail to worry about, that additional metal conduit which buzzes with electrical power – even just to touch it would mean death.
So yeah, it wasn’t the safest thing I’ve ever done. Some readers might not understand the appeal, but I guess I’m just one of those try-everything-once kind of people… and train surfing had been on my list for quite a while.
The train stopped in the station. We disembarked, stepping onto the platform amongst the sparse crowd of floating passengers; some got on, some got off, while we lingered, the three of us, milling at the platform’s edge and trying to look normal.
We approached the final carriage, and stood to one side of the door as passengers alighted. We waited. Someone behind jostled me forwards but I declined – pretended to look at my phone, checked the time on my bare wrist, tried desperately to look natural as I stood still beside the waiting train.
There was a metro worker nearby: he glanced at us once, before turning to walk back up the steps towards the exit. In reality, there was nothing suspicious about our behaviour so far – but with the knowledge of what I was about to do, came a deep and unsettling sense of paranoia.
We waited a moment, a moment longer, until the doors closed and the last passengers were just shuffling out and up the steps. Somewhere, a whistle blew.
That’s when Maria made her move.
“Come on,” she hissed, taking hold of the bars that jutted out from the rear of the last carriage, and stepping nimbly across from the platform edge onto a narrow metal footplate on the train. I followed her, my hands freezing like clamps around the bars while the breath solidified in my lungs.
For one agonising second, nothing happened. I closed my eyes. The train wasn’t moving, and I wondered if something was wrong – had we been spotted?
I glanced around the platform, clean, spacious and set with lime-green tiles. My eyes fell across a couple who stood back in a far corner, watching us with concern. But it could have been no more than a second before the train kicked jarringly into life – slowly, at first – dragging us past the platform, past the marble and chandeliers as we began to pick up speed. Seconds later the darkness swallowed us, puncturing the tunnels with a roar and rush of wind; the station was reduced to a blur of yellows and greens that shrank quickly to a pinpoint of light retreating rapidly into the distance behind.
The journey to the next station lasted a matter of minutes; but it felt more, like a wormhole outside of normal space and time as we flew headlong through a smoking, flashing abyss. The ribbed patterns of the concrete spiralled past us like the tracks left behind a corkscrew, accompanied by the flickering of signal lights, blasts of smoke and steam, sparks that exploded like fireworks and the clammy, hot smell of oil.
It’s hard to relate that experience, of moving at rapid speeds through a space never intended for human eyes; a steampunk roller coaster perhaps, or an industrial fairground ride as designed by H. R. Giger. Wind and steam, electricity and trembling metal. Combine that with the heightened adrenaline of trespass, the thrill of very real danger. Suddenly I understood why messing about with metro can become – for some – like heroin.
The train pulled up at the next station and we stepped dizzily to the platform. My head felt upside-down, the adrenaline pumping hard… and so I almost didn’t notice the giant of a man in a high-visibility jacket, slumped across a hard wooden chair set before us. Whether he had been posted there by chance – and this was just our rotten luck – or if, perhaps, our trespass on the tracks had been reported to security, we’d never know.
The guard was overweight, and slow to his feet; so much so that the three of us were complacent in our ability to outrun him. Maria sprinted past along the platform. Pat dodged left and I dodged right – but with a movement faster than anyone might have expected, this tank of a man shot out two crab-like pincers, one of which fastened tight around the muscles of my upper arm. I could see that he had Pat too in his vice-like pinch, and the more I struggled the tighter those chubby fingers closed around my flesh.
We probably could have kicked him in the nuts. Two boots at once, swinging hard into the poor guard’s gonads might well have caused him to release his grip. Pat and I locked eyes as we wriggled, each silently urging the other to go first… but we couldn’t do it.
“Khuligany!” the man was bellowing to his colleagues around the station. “Pomoshch! Khuligany!”
It was the first time I’d ever been called a hooligan before. Less than a minute of struggling, and then more hands were grabbing at me; soon Pat and myself were being marched down the platform held between two burly metro guards each. Maria had stayed with us out of choice. She flitted about the guards, yelling at them in Russian to let us go – but she went largely ignored as we were frogmarched to the police duty office.
These young security guards were rough, handling us hard enough that I’d be bruised for a week after. Rough handling though, I could cope with. As they pushed us through a wooden doorframe at the end of the platform, into a brick-lined chamber built into the very walls of the metro station, I was dreading the beating that I was sure would most likely come next.
At the Mercy of the Russian Police
The guards bundled us into a small, thick-walled office, where we were placed under the watchful gaze of a female police officer. Not a lot was said, at first. The metro staff who’d manhandled us on the platform exchanged a few words with the desk officer, a call was made, and all the while the guards eyed us with undisguised suspicion.
Five minutes passed in this fashion before there was a knock on the wooden door. More uniformed police – they spoke quietly with our captors, occasionally nodded in our direction, then, turning, the lead officer barked a couple of words at us in Russian.
“They want you to go upstairs,” Maria explained. “To the main police office.” She had fallen quite quickly into the role of translator, despite being almost entirely overlooked by the guards. It was us, the two foreigners, who appeared to be the big prize here.
And so the walk of shame: we weren’t handcuffed, but with a mob of six armed police about us as we rode the escalators from the platform level, up to the police office located on the ground floor of the metro station, I suspected that resistance would have been a very poor idea. We passed the turn-style, stepping into the ticket foyer and tantalisingly close to our freedom; before turning (or rather, being turned) and stepping through a reinforced door beneath a sign that read, Politsiya.
Here we were brought into another office – this one larger, and featuring an ominous cage that occupied around a third of the space inside. This was our destination: we were half ushered, half pushed into that cage, to sit behind bars on a splintered wooden bench that ran the length of the room.
Interesting to note, however, that at no point were we searched. Instead, the man who sat at the desk in this new office – an older man, with less hair but more badges and stripes on his crisp police uniform – simply asked us if we carried weapons. We said No, and apparently that was good enough for him. We had three cameras between us, which were never checked or confiscated. Our phones stayed in our pockets. We weren’t restrained, and our guards didn’t even bother to shut the door to the cage; though with two armed police still blocking the corridor to freedom, perhaps the latter was an empty gesture at best.
We still had very little idea what was going on. We were in trouble, that much was clear – but whether we’d be arrested and imprisoned, or released on caution, was an absolute mystery. On the face of it, we hadn’t done much wrong; we’d broken the law, certainly, but it appeared to have been a victimless crime. On the other hand however, Russia was then in the process of quietly invading Ukraine, while fending off revolutionaries, terrorists and extremists within its own borders. Perhaps we hadn’t picked the best time to raise alarm on the Moscow Metro.
Questions kept coming, which Maria answered on behalf of Pat and myself. It quickly became apparent that our new interrogator was cut from a different cloth to his colleagues; he spoke quietly, and yet with a quiet authority. He was polite, civil, and not altogether unfriendly.
He watched me for a while with his sharp little eyes, before leaning towards the bars and throwing us a dangerous smile.
“Tell me,” he purred in Russian, “about 221b Baker Street.”
The question caught me entirely off guard.
“Um.” I said. “Chto?” (What?)
“221b Baker Street,” he repeated. “Offices of famous British detective Sherlock Holmes.”
I watched him as he watched me. This had the feeling of a spy movie, as if the enemy officer were grilling me for British intelligence secrets. But… Sherlock Holmes.
I told him the address was real: that it was a museum dedicated to the fictional detective; and that a man dressed as Sherlock Holmes sometimes lurked around the Baker Street tube station handing out business cards to advertise the museum.
This seemed to please our captor, and he chuckled with delight. It turned out he was a big fan of Conan Doyle, and as the next few hours rolled by he would proceed to quiz us on a number of other topics close to his heart.
What’s your favourite tank?
Unsavoury politics aside, our friend most admired the fine engineering of Germany’s WWII-era armoured vehicles… although the British won points for style. He asked us how many hours in a day the typical British police officer worked; and how much they got paid for it. On hearing our best estimates he frowned in disgust.
“These are not real men,” he concluded. His subordinate staff smirked at that, from where they stood guarding our exit.
Finally the officer asked us what we thought of the situation in Crimea.
“It’s – ah – very complicated…” I attempted. He seemed satisfied with this though, nodding sadly in agreement.
Our pleasant tête-à-tête was to be short-lived. We’d been detained sometime after midnight; we’d been put into the cage at roughly 1:30am and by 3:30am we were, apparently, being moved again… though where we were heading, for now, not one of us had a clue.
Russian Transport Police HQ
While the officer had been more than courteous, even going so far as to promote a cultural exchange of sorts, his underlings would not make eye contact with us. They were younger, perhaps less sure of their positions, and they stood to attention or handled us roughly, maintaining a level of distance from their prisoners. At around 3am however, we’d met a new breed: two young men dressed in Italian shirts and pointed leather shoes, who’d swaggered into the office with only the briefest of glances in our direction.
Detectives, I guessed, or undercover police. There was something about them though, that made me uncomfortable. The one who spoke had a cruel look about him, hard to place but deeply disconcerting from a prisoner’s perspective.
People started moving before we’d been given an order, but soon enough we were being marched out of the office. The metro station was closed by now, so we ducked out beneath the descending barrier to a waiting police van.
That journey seemed to take forever. The undercover agents – or whoever they were – sat across from us, looking through us but never at us as they conversed in subdued tones with one another. A part of me was growing paranoid, wondering if we were being driven out to some remote stretch of forest. The arresting officer had been friendly enough, but what if it was all just a ruse? A civil gesture to keep us from guessing at what came next. I kept on thinking that the sharp-faced plain clothes agent right in front of me looked like just the sort of person who probably enjoyed kicking prisoners to death with his pointy shoes.
I was exhausted, stressed, my imagination was getting the better of me and I even realised it at the time – but there was little enough to give me hope as the van sped through the subdued streets of Moscow in the early hours, taking us from one police cell to who knew what; and on charges that hadn’t yet been explained to us.
I was almost relieved when we rolled up in front of an armoured gate, the entryway through a concrete perimeter fence topped with razor wire. We had arrived at the headquarters of the Russian Transport Police.
After we’d passed the security checkpoint, the two plain clothes agents hopped out and left – thankfully, we didn’t see them again. Meanwhile the three of us, Pat, Maria and myself, were herded out of the van and into the largest building inside the compound. As before we were afforded the respect of walking freely: none of the violent grappling that we’d experienced when they first arrested us. If resistance might have been futile back then though, then it was ever more so now – hemmed in on all sides by eight-foot concrete barriers and with machine gun carrying guards stood at the gate.
The staff at the desk were friendly – more off-season holiday park, than detention camp – and they motioned us to wait on benches that lined the hall. Uniformed police drifted by from time to time, beneath safety posters and emergency checklists. There was a holding cell built into the wall opposite, with one sole resident. He looked up at our arrival, shuffled to the bars and reaching out, asked in Russian for a cigarette. None of us had one and so he returned quietly to his corner.
Once again, there was no indication of what we were to expect – only that one repeated word: “Podozhdi.” Wait. If not exactly hell, this was at least a fairly convincing vision of purgatory.
Some time later, a tired-looking man appeared and mimed us through the routine of taking fingerprints and mugshot photos.
“Welcome to Hotel Moskva,” he said in heavily accented English, beaming through a thick Uncle Jo moustache. We took it in turns to stand before the white screen as he took our pictures. Fingerprints were recorded the old-fashioned way, applying thick ink to our hands using a miniature roller before pushing and squashing thumbs and figures down hard against the paper of a ledger book. When it was finished we were invited to clean our hands, in a grimy staff washroom at the end of the corridor; and then, our host pointed towards an adjacent room and gestured that we should sleep.
I immediately assumed he was pointing towards the cells, and I wondered who we’d be sharing that space with tonight. As he opened the door and waved us on through, I was mentally preparing myself for the worst.
I stepped tentatively through the doorway into what I imagined would be a grim oubliette… but instead, as my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I realised we were stood in some kind of meeting hall. There were simple benches arranged down either side of the room, some with bodies on them, huddled figures sleeping under their coats. At the far end stood a wooden lectern, and above it a series of framed portraits: Vladimir Putin placed centrally and flanked on either side by the heads of the police and military services.
Shuffling to an empty bench I took off my coat, and bunched it up to make a pillow. That’s when I got a closer look at the figure sleeping beside me, and made out the police uniform. I glanced around the room, looking closer at the sleepers – they were all police officers, sleeping in the station overnight between shifts.
After that, we simply had to wait. Maria curled up on a double bench nearby. Pat sat, or paced, for almost the duration of the night. I couldn’t sleep, and as the hours dragged on I pondered our fate. There was no saying whether we’d be staying here another hour, another day, a week, or more… even Maria, who had the benefit of speaking fluent Russian, was left more or less clueless as to what the police had planned for us. It was a blessing that she had volunteered to stay with us at all, and I was glad the police had not objected to us providing our own translator for the proceedings.
We were called out at 7.45am, and within minutes the hall was beginning to fill up with people. The police officers who had slept beside us were already on their feet, queuing up for the washroom, the automatic coffee dispenser, or flicking through notebooks. The three of us were ushered out of the hall – apparently not welcome – as the Moscow Transport Police prepared for their morning briefing.
In the hallway, we saw familiar faces. Still with us, then? joked the officer who’d been asking about Sherlock Holmes the night before. The fingerprints and photos man who’d welcomed us to Hotel Moskva winked at me across the sea of heads. Meanwhile the other officers – perhaps a hundred of them in all – poured past us through the corridor, without so much as a second look at the red-eyed foreign hooligans trying (and failing) to make themselves comfortable on the lobby benches.
Time rolled on, and by 9am we had the first text message from our colleagues and fellow documentary makers – with everything that had happened so far it was easy to forget that we were here in Moscow on work, after all. Up until now, the rest of the team had likely assumed we were still sleeping off the previous night’s adventures – they had no reason to guess we weren’t in our respective rooms. By 10am, however, and with still no end in sight, we realised we were going to have to tell them what had happened.
Rather than contact the project manager though, we sent a message to the cameraman.
WTF is going on? he wrote, and offered to send a lawyer. As it turned out, the film company had been thorough; given the subject matter, they’d already established contact with local legal teams in case of worst case scenarios just like this one. We realised, however, that asking for expensive legal help would very likely mean our own dismissal from the project, so we decided to wait – and if at all possible, to get ourselves out of our own mess without their help (ideally, even without their knowledge).
Another hour passed without event, and we were just debating whether or not to make that dreaded call… when a woman in a navy blue business suit approached us, suggesting that we follow her upstairs.
It was another office we were lead to, another clerk. Paperwork. Release forms. I could only guess that this was the reason we had been made to sit and wait all through the night – to sign a few signatures under the supervision of staff who didn’t start work until regular office hours. The night would have passed far easier had we known we were only waiting on the admin team to arrive… but then perhaps the confusion, the suspense, had been factored in as part of our psychological punishment.
The thin, spectacled man flicked through a stack of forms, never once looking up to make eye contact with us. They took our names, started to take addresses – though the process of converting English place names into legible Cyrillic proved challenging, particularly as both Pat and myself did our very best to complicate the details. I saw what the clerk had written down beneath my own name, and let’s just say I won’t be expecting anything in the post from the Russian Transport Police.
“They’ve finished with you now,” Maria said. Pat and myself breathed a deep sigh of relief.
“So we can go?” Pat asked, and the man behind the desk shook his head.
“No,” she said. The bureaucrat said something else, and Maria went quiet.
“They’ve finished with you now… so they’re giving you to the FSB.”
On Meeting the FSB
The Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation – or FSB – is the successor to the USSR’s notorious KGB. They’re based out of the same building as their predecessors, and they share a lot of the same staff; it’s probably safe to think of them as the KGB with a 21st century facelift.
With that in mind, the prospect of being ‘handed over’ to these people did not appeal to me. I had mental images of black bags over heads, darkened rooms, dripping water… and by this point, Pat, equally panicked, was already on the phone to our colleagues.
“Yes,” he was telling them, “get that lawyer here now!”
And so began a waiting game: would it be the KGB who came for us first, or a lawyer (hopefully) able to secure our safe release?
We were sent back to the meeting hall downstairs, to await our fate beneath the benevolent face of Vladimir Putin. I wondered if I should try saying a prayer to him.
Twenty minutes went by. Thirty. After an hour we called again – He’s on his way, they told us. Just hang in there. They sounded just as worried as we were, though; it wasn’t reassuring.
It was another hour after that – now 2pm, over 12 hours since we’d be arrested – that our salvation finally arrived. First we heard voices in the corridor, then the door was opened and a little portly man came blustering in, with his faux-leather briefcase and a secretary in tow. He took a seat at the head end of the hall, beneath Mr Putin, and proceeded to spill a stack of paper forms out onto the table.
Maria was going through some kind of checklist with him;
Something-something-something. She nodded her head.
I tried to follow the Russian conversation as best I could, though it wasn’t easy given the man’s breathy, soft-spoken voice. Eventually the exchange stopped, the man lowered his eyes, was silent a moment then turned to look at Pat and myself. When he spoke, Maria chimed in with a phrase-by-phrase translation (if he knew English, then he wasn’t happy speaking it).
Don’t do this again, he said, or words to that effect. Behave yourselves. I don’t want to hear about you in tunnels, on rooftops, or anywhere else. I know your type. Just go, and stay out of trouble.
That’s when it suddenly dawned on me: this was not our lawyer. As the little man tutted and wagged his finger at us over the table, I realised I was in a meeting with an agent of the former-KGB.
It was all over before I’d really had a chance to process the situation; the agent swept up his papers as quickly as he’d dropped them, and gave us a prim nod as he swanned past and through the hall back toward the reception.
I’d later learn that due to a heightened terrorism threat in relation to the situation in Ukraine, the Russian capital had been placed on Red Alert. Should a foreigner be caught messing about with the metro then (historically, a popular target for terrorist bombs), the regular traffic police were no longer authorised to let them go; it was the job of the Security Services to assess the level of threat, and to make the final decision on whether or not the prisoner might be safely released.
Later, a Russian friend would stare at me in disbelief when he heard we’d only been kept inside for 14 hours. “Anyone gets caught on metro now, it’s 10 days. No questions.”
I’d hear stories about other Russians, urban explorers, who’d been disappeared into FSB cells, 10 days of solitary confinement and not so much as a telling off until day number eight. From my own experience, I’d already got the idea that Russian authorities used boredom, confinement, as a punishment in itself. They like to waste your time – to make you wait. But if 14 hours of silent treatment had been tough, I didn’t dare to imagine a whole 10 days.
“You guys,” my friend kept on saying, “you fucking lucky guys.”
And so we walked straight out of the police station, waving goodbye to a few of the friends we’d made during the course of our stay. Across the yard we reached the checkpoint, and the armed guards stood aside to let us through. We were lost, of course, on unfamiliar streets in an alien corner of the metropolis. We were hungry too and so we ate, found a metro station, began to make our way back to the hotel.
Stood on the platform waiting for our train, I looked at the murals in the station; at my own feet; the other waiting passengers; the cuff of my shirt; anywhere, to keep from gazing into the yawning abyss at the end of the platform where the tracks disappeared into the flashing, sparking bowels of the city.
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