North Korean Stamps by Night Train

North Korea

After returning to his native country (PRC) to teach this past spring, one of my colleagues, Dr. Baiyin Yang, presented me with five folders of North Korean stamps. While all folders had the same cover (see Figure 1 for front cover, Figure 2 for back cover, and Figure 3 for inside cover), the stamps inside were all different. I will say more about the contents later. Knowing that there was an interesting story behind the acquisition of the folders, I asked him to share his story with the readers of KP. Here is his story. 

Figure 1: Front Cover of Folder

“I was traveling from Jinan (the capital of Shandong Province) to Beijing last spring. I took a night train in order to catch a morning flight in Beijing back to the USA. It sounds quite strange, but there are no early morning flights between major cities in China. I didn’t know why this was so, and only realized the reason after this travel experience. For most Chinese, traveling via airplane is still a luxury. In addition, traveling via train is a comfortable and convenient way to get from one city to another. Compared with the airplane, traveling via train means more space and more time to do some activities that would not be possible on the plane, such as socialization and even business. In fact, there are many train schedules that allow you to leave one city in the evening and arrive at the destination the next morning. Sleeping in the first-class cabin in a train is much more comfortable than taking a first class flight.”

Figure 2: Back Cover of Folder

“I got on the train and began to chat with my travel mate in the same compartment. I want to chat with people whenever I travel to satisfy my curious mind. Sometimes I find that I am more knowledgeable than some native people on some local social and economic issues, such as the price of vegetables and local unemployment status.”

Figure 3: Illustrations from Inside Cover Pages of Folder

“While we were talking, waiting to board the train, a service person came over who wanted to sell all kinds of goods, ranging from popular magazines to collectible items, such as coins and stamps. I do not collect any of these items, but I really wanted to have a conversation and to know more about local circumstances. So I looked at as many items as possible and even began bargaining the price on a few items I selected. I bargained a lot in order to extend the conversation. Finally, I selected a cute toy for my daughter and one Korean stamp folder. I knew that one of my colleagues has a tie with Korea and thought that he would love stamps from North Korea. The final price was almost half of the original one! That was a good deal. When we did the exchange, I realized that the stamp folder had been touched many times and did not look good. The sales person was more than happy to get a new one for me, and it took her only a few minutes to bring several new ones. As many were different, I bought five folders from her, and she kept the handled one.”

Figure 4: Folder Page with Souvenir Sheet

“I acknowledged that I should pay her for learning a lot about the local customs and some human resource practices (my area of expertise). So when she got back, I paid her the full price of all items I bought (as I recall, 150-200 RMB = about $20-25). She was very surprised and did not want to accept it. I told her my reason–that I had learned something during this business transaction, and it was all right for me to pay full price. She had already sensed that people who traveled by first class must be rich, either a business person or an intellectual. She asked an important question: ‘What could I teach you guys?’ I told her that everyone has certain kinds of knowledge, and that there is something to learn from every occasion; we develop ourselves as we learn.”

Figure 5: Folder Page with Assorted Stamps

Each folder contains a different souvenir sheet (but from the same set) (see Figure 4), but the twofold folder contained stamps that were randomly inserted and were not part of any set or year or any other rationale (see Figure 5). It was as if the sole goal was to fill the folder with stamps.

I am very appreciative of this thoughtful gift from my colleague and friend. How could one possibly come across such interesting pot-pourri of stamps without such serendipitous interactions?!

(Originally from KP August 2005, Vol. 50, No. 3. Graphics were originally published in B/W.)


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