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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Riding the Rails With Kim

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VLADIVOSTOK, Far East — When you ride on the Trans-Siberian Railroad from this Pacific seaport to Moscow, you spend a week traveling more than 9,000 kilometers with strangers who haven't bathed since the day they lugged their suitcases to the station.

You share a compartment with three other passengers, sleeping on a mattress rolled out on a padded bench. Irritable conductors sometimes keep one toilet locked for their own use, creating lines at the other. Those who can't afford the dining car often end up surviving on flyspecked drumsticks or cabbage pies sold by vendors at stops along the way.

No doubt this is why Kim Jong-il, North Korea's "dear leader" and godlike head of state, decided to forgo the Trans-Siberian and travel in his own train during his state visit to Russia.

Kim is heading from Pyongyang to Moscow in a 21-wagon, Japanese-built armored train, preceded by two separate locomotives "in case there are mines or something," a Federal Security Service agent told reporters.

But as many foreign travelers over the years will attest, Russian trains offer a rare chance to glimpse the heart of a great nation. There is still time for Kim to reconsider and make the return trip on the Trans-Siberian.

Perhaps Kim recalls me. I was on the No. 8 rolling from Birobidzhan to Vladivostok on Thursday, and we pulled off on a spur south of Khabarovsk so his special armored train could flash by. We probably looked uncomfortable. It was a hot night, and children in their underwear were hanging out the windows. Most of the men, shirts off, were swigging from beer bottles. I was the guy with the farmer's tan who was swatting the mosquitoes that swarmed through the open windows, attracted by the reading lamps.

"What's the delay?" somebody asked.

The conductress said, "I just saw this armored train, and they say it's that Korean bigwig's."

But Kim should not be put off by appearances. Trans-Siberian carriages, though stuffy, are better ventilated while moving. There were no mosquitoes until we stopped. And the woman on the bunk across from me washed her feet minutes after Kim's train roared by, greatly improving the air in our compartment. I am sure I speak for other travelers when I say we all would have been happy to freshen up if told the general secretary of the Korean Workers Party would be boarding.

Kim is just the kind of person who would cherish a journey on the Trans-Siberian. He told Itar-Tass last week that his hobbies include "going among the people and soldiers and … talking with them and sharing their feelings. I also like reading and music."

A train offers opportunities for going among all sorts of people. At mealtime, you can share sausage, canned fish and a bottle of vodka with a Mongolian trader or a cheerful alcoholic, who turns out to be head of a regional anti-organized crime unit. Any second-class car is full of soldiers who would love to hear a foreign statesman's ruminations on Marxist-Leninist implications of hazing.

For a literary man, trains mean reading time. Possibly Kim — like two North Korean guest workers I saw at a newspaper kiosk in the Birobidzhan Station — might enjoy thumbing through colorful publications that are unavailable in Pyongyang, such as one featuring naked women in handcuffs and a policeman with a whip.

Kim's musical interests could also be accommodated. The train's loudspeaker system periodically plays pleasing tunes, including the theme to "The Godfather." Indeed, if he had been willing to share a bottle of Johnny Walker Red with the American oilmen I met on a train several years ago, he might have found himself joining in singing, "Wild thing/ you make my heart sing/ you make everything groovy."

Security, of course, is always a concern for heads of state choosing unconventional travel. When Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nassar trekked to Morocco by dune buggy in 1956, a camel caravan had to go ahead of him, clearing the Sahara of land mines.

And the French navy blockaded the North Atlantic of shipping traffic for the better part of a month in 1967 when Charles de Gaulle kayaked to Quebec.

But Russians are a gracious people, and I know the passengers in my train would have been willing to be inconvenienced if it meant they could share a compartment with Kim Jong-il. Just as long as he washes his feet.

Russell Working is a freelance journalist based in Vladivostok.