Russian Diplomats Leave North Korea Via Hand-Pushed Railcar

Illustration for article titled Russian Diplomats Leave North Korea Via Hand-Pushed Railcar
Photo: Russia Foreign Ministry

I’ll be honest, among the vehicles I was expecting to write about in the Year of Our Whomever 2021 I did not anticipate including a hand-pushed railcar. And yet here we are, in an era of hand-held computer-camera-phone-navcomp-game systems and cars that help out with driving and we’ve somehow got diplomats shoving their kids and belongings out of a country on a crude, human-powered railcar. I guess this is how it’s gotta be, so, fine. Have it your way, 2021.


The diplomats are Russian, and they’re leaving North Korea due to Coronavirus concerns, though due to that same pesky, world-famous virus, all rail service out of North Korea has been suspended, leaving the eight diplomats and their relatives without conventional means of getting back to Russia.

The COVID-19 situation in North Korea isn’t well known to the outside world, but it must be pretty bad, as leader Kim Jong Un actually issued an apology to his people for the way the leadership handled the pandemic, a sort of move pretty much unheard of for North Korea.

So, their trip back home involved a 32-hour train ride from Pyongyang to the part of North Korea closest to a border with Russia, near the “urban locality” of Khasan, where they loaded all their stuff and kids onto a specially-built railcar that they had to push for about a kilometer, including over a rail bridge, to get across the border to Russia.

The railcart is essentially a platform on railroad wheels, with a railing around it to keep all the suitcases on board, and some nice red upholstered bench seats at the rear that seem to also serve as handholds to push the cart.

Even for something thrown together quickly, this solution feels pretty crude; I’m kind of surprised that something like one of these old vans converted to rail use couldn’t have been dug up from somewhere in Russia. This is a Volkswagen one, but there must have been some old Soviet/Russian versions of these things, right?

Illustration for article titled Russian Diplomats Leave North Korea Via Hand-Pushed Railcar
Photo: The Samba

But, maybe there wasn’t even time for that. And, really, for about a kilometer, human power seems to work fine. They even look to be having a bit of fun in that video!


Also, there’s actually a pretty rich history of human-powered railcars, even not counting those see-saw types of things that were all over American railroads from the 1850s on. I mean literal walking-person-pushing-a-car type of rail service, like this:

Illustration for article titled Russian Diplomats Leave North Korea Via Hand-Pushed Railcar
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

That picture there is from Japan around 1915, and similar sorts of human-powered rail networks were in use since the late 1800s until around 1920. So who am I to mock these diplomats?

Still, it’s a strange thing to see, and a good reminder that sometimes the absolute simplest solution works just fine.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!:


Is that a dual gauge track, for two different wheelsets?