The reasons to visit somewhere new are obvious, but to many around me, the reasons for visiting North Korea were not so clear. For the first time in my life, I had friends and family questioning me about whether or not it was safe to travel somewhere which I suppose is not all that surprising given the daily news reports we see and hear about the world’s most secretive country.
I’ve been fascinated by North Korea for years but I never thought I would get the chance to go there. I mean, how do you even gain access to a country that has done everything in its power to cut itself off from the outside world? A country who’s idea of international diplomacy involves sticking its middle finger up to the rest of the world like some sort of defiant teenager. Yes, this is the same country that I wanted to visit and from the moment I learned that it was possible, I was full on obsessed with making it happen.
About a year and a half ago I flew to Beijing with a friend in the hope of flying to Pyongyang the next day. I couldn’t have been more excited. I checked into my hotel room and turned on the local news (my favourite thing to do when in a non-English speaking country) and as luck would have it, every news station was running a top story about tensions between North and South Korea being at an all time high, there was even a mention of nuclear subs being deployed. Usually, I rarely flinch when faced with problems on the road. I’m not like some sort of bad-ass bitch or anything but I’m of the opinion that most places are safe to visit if you’ve got your head screwed on however there was something about the threat of actual real-life nuclear fucking warfare that didn’t sit well with us.
The final nail in the coffin was when a friend who works for the United Nations no less, contacted us to say that we would be idiots to venture any further on our jaunt to the lesser known Korea so we decided not to travel. Complete and utter devastation ensued which only eased when we changed our plans to fly to Chengdu to hang out with the pandas. Yes, it’s probably the most cliché thing you can do in China but talk to me when you’ve seen a baby panda in the flesh.
After I got home, I found myself constantly thinking about the trip to North Korea that never was. I don’t know about you but when I’ve already decided on one of my must-visit destinations, I have to do everything in my power to get there asap. I’d gotten so bloody close to getting into North Korea once but not close enough, so my only option was to re-book onto another tour.
So after a very slow year and a half, I finally found myself back in Beijing sitting in the Koryo Tours office where my tour will start and end. Serious life moment alert, being briefed on all of the do’s and do not’s when in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (important to get that right), DPRK for short. Do respect the great leaders, don’t disrespect the great leaders. Do bring enough cash as there are no ATM’s, don’t bring any literature that may offend. Do what your tour leaders tell you to do, don’t ever leave the tour group etc. There are a few tour operators operating tours to the DPRK but I chose Koryo, simply because they are the most experienced.
The next morning we made our way to the departures lounge in Beijing airport to board our Air Koryo flight (the world’s only one-star airline) direct to Pyongyang. I hadn’t even left China yet and I was already having another serious life moment just looking at the aircraft who’s final destination is the capital city of the DPRK, the very same aircraft that I’m about to board, holy fucking shit.
All I really knew at this point was that I had five days ahead, no mobile phone or internet, completely disconnected from the outside world. There were North Korean businessmen and sports stars casually sitting all around me and I just felt like screaming “I’m going to North Korea” but I decided to play it cool instead. Read all about my flight here.
I would be lying if I said my heart wasn’t racing with nerves and excitement when we landed in Pyongyang, there really was no turning back at this point. Walking through the airport was a strange experience as it was so quiet. We had been told that we would be screened on arrival so having caught the first glimpse of the authorities waiting for us in the baggage hall, we all quietly proceeded one by one for a gentle pat down and bag search. All literature and electronics were thoroughly checked before we were allowed to proceed into the main arrivals hall which felt like any other arrivals hall in any other airport, the only exception being a lonely ATM machine sitting in the corner that has never been turned on, the first reminder that we were out on our own.
Once on our tour bus, we were greeted by three tour guides who would mind us for the duration of our stay and by mind, I mean never ever leave our side. It was dark by the time we left the airport making our journey to the hotel an interesting one. Our tour guides were doing their best to introduce us to their country but all we wanted to do was stick our faces up against the glass to witness North Korean life pass us by and that we did. Even through heavy condensation, the DPRK already felt different to anywhere that I had ever been. The most noticeable difference being the singular blue light being emitted from every house and apartment and the obvious lack of street lighting. Peppered through the darkness you could make out the faint silhouettes of people walking and cycling on the side of the road. At the risk of sounding repetitive, this was life moment number 3 – seeing North Koreans going about their daily business.
We arrived at the 30 story Sosan Hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang and along with a few Taiwanese tourists, we were the only people staying there. My room was pretty mod and comfortable and more importantly, there were no signs of it being bugged which is always a bonus I suppose.
At some point in the middle of the night I woke and sat up in my bed and thought, how the fuck did I get here? Exactly which turn in life led me to sleeping on my own in a hotel room in North Korea? Travel is a constant reminder of how privileged I am and this was the first time on this trip that I would feel just that. Thankfully, waking up so early meant I caught this insane sunrise over Pyongyang city.
The next few days were spent traveling north and south of Pyongyang by bus. Ordinarily, the thoughts of sitting on a bus for a few hours every day is my idea of a living nightmare and goes against everything I believe being a traveller is all about. However, given that we were constantly being supervised, it soon became apparent that sitting on a bus in the DPRK is the only real opportunity you have to witness real North Korean life go by so it fast became my favourite part of the day.
First impressions of Pyongyang in daylight left me flabbergasted. Expectations of crumbling architecture and infrastructure soon vanished having seen a commanding skyline more impressive than many other modern capital cities I’d been to but one thing stood out – it’s as if somebody loaded the entire city into Photoshop and decided to take the colour saturation down by about 40%. The same can be said for everywhere we travelled to in the DPRK. Vibrant colours like blues, reds, greens and yellows all had a grey wash to them with the only exception being the national flag. I’m unsure as to whether this is down to the buildings needing a fresh lick of paint or if the North Korean colour palette just doesn’t allow for vibrancy. Along with it being a communist country with absolutely no advertising whatsoever, it makes for so many incredible vistas. Btw, the no advertising situation is glorious.
Pyongyang is a city of 2.5 million people so it’s big and busy. It has all of the characteristics that you would expect from a city that size except for the lack of congested roads. Cars are not only expensive to buy but expensive to run in the DPRK so most simply cannot afford the luxury. The vast majority of people choose to travel by foot, bike or metro.
Getting an opportunity to ride the subway was one of the things I was most looking forward to as it allowed us to get up close and personal with the locals. The weird part was the closer we got to the locals, the less they would acknowledge us. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for a fanfare welcoming party every time I step foot in a foreign country but I would have thought that being the alien that I am in this current situation, i.e being a westerner sitting in a subway carriage surrounded on all sides by North Koreans, I’d have gotten more than a second look once or twice. This is a country that has only 3,000 western visitors a year, surely I deserve more than a slight glance? What about me North Korea, me…! I jest, but strange all the same. Side note; the subway stations we travelled through were immaculately clean and all had an over-the-top feel of grandeur, chandeliers and all, that just felt wrong given the country’s economic problems.
Driving through any capital city you would expect to see bars, cafes, restaurants and an all round general buzz on the streets but Pyongyang is mostly lacking in all of those things. The general mood is subdued and people just seem to go about their everyday lives with little interaction. We did visit a shopping mall which seemed to sell just about everything from the “best hot dogs in North Korea” to rowing boats.
A few weeks before we arrived in the DPRK, I received a mail from my tour company asking if I would like to avail of a helicopter tour over Pyongyang in a soviet era military helicopter for an additional 180 euro. Clearly my answer was always going to be a big fat YES. A few of us traveled to an empty Pyongyang airport to catch our flight. Empty, as in no staff at the check-in desks, nobody checking in for departing flights and no flights due to arrive.
There was however staff members manning the three or four shops in the departures area, aptly named ‘clothes shop’ and ‘children’s shop’ etc. I have no idea who the staff were waiting for.
While standing at the entrance of one of the shops, I could see a staff member going through the motions of using a calculator and cross referencing the numbers she was adding up with whatever was being displayed on her till screen. After leaving, I walked around the back of the shop to rejoin my group and noticed there was a small glass panel in the wall closest to the till which allowed you to see into the shop, a bespoke design feature if you will. A quick glance through the window revealed that neither the till or the calculator were turned on.
Was the staff member trying to look busy, I suppose so, however this encounter only added fuel to the theory that North Korea is willing to put on a show when it comes to painting a picture of a functioning society, a theory that every traveller visiting the DPRK is already aware of. In fact, it’s probably one of, if not the main reason, why most people choose to visit the world’s most secretive country. There’s also a perception that this type of thing happens country wide and that everything a traveller will see on a visit to the DPRK is completely fabricated, which in my opinion is total bullshit. How could a country of 25 million people possibly put on a front to convince a few western tourists every year that their country operates like any other, simply not possible.
Seeing Pyongyang from above was pretty special, even in poor visibility. The highlight for me however was the helicopter interior, resembling that of my granny’s living room.
I can’t really remember when or how it happened, but at some point during our tour while passing through Pyongyang, I was presented with a rare moment. That moment being one that was away from the eyes of my official tour guides, which as an outsider on a heavily supervised tour is a rarity. Even though it was only for a couple of seconds, I got the chance to walk approx 100 metres away from our group (freedom!) to take the following photo, delighted with myself clearly.
Seeking out the weird is part of my daily travel routine, especially when traveling in Asia – a whole continent that produces other levels of non-western weirdness, the best kind in my opinion. Visiting the mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on the outskirts of Pyongyang has to be one of my weirdest travel experiences to date.
We were forewarned to dress appropriately (shirt and tie) and when we arrived, we were asked to line up in an almost military style configuration. The group was then led into the main building where all coats, cameras and anything else that might make a noise in your pocket is confiscated so that you are ready to pay your respects and not make a racket. Two by two you step onto a flat escalator, the type you find in most airports, where you spend the next 15 minutes moving about half the speed of a casual stroll along what is probably the longest hallway I have ever been in. On your left you can admire photos of Kim Il Sung and on your right, Kim Jong Il which acts as a slight distraction to what seems like an absolute eternity standing in complete silence.
All in all, it took approx one hour from the time we arrived, to the time we reached a long grand room where two giant gold statues of the two great leaders stood. After bowing and paying our respects to the statues we entered a wind tunnel (yes, a wind tunnel) designed to blow any impurities off your body. Once free from any dirt or dust, we were allowed to proceed into a large dark room where the perfectly preserved body of Kim Il Sung was lying peacefully in a glass coffin, perfectly lit by one spotlight directly overhead.
Nothing prepared me for that sight or the overcoming feeling I would get standing just feet away from one of the main characters in every North Korean documentary I had ever seen. Terrified to put a foot wrong, we cautiously approached the glass coffin in regimented lines of four and paid our respects by bowing on all four sides. Is this actually happening? The absolute production of it all, immense. After leaving the room we were led to another room containing the great leaders train carriage which he used to travel all around the DPRK. On the wall there was a kind of interactive map that visually displays all of the journeys the great leader once took by train.
On leaving this room you proceed into another dark room containing the perfectly preserved body of Jim Jong Il followed by a room containing his train carriage. Interestingly, resting on Kim Jong Il’s desk inside the train carriage was a MacBook laptop, food for thought considering the nation’s eternal hatred for all things USA.
It really is a lot to take in, not only seeing two dead bodies perfectly presented but the overall journey from start to finish that you have to take in order to pay your respects. Regardless of what your opinion is of both leaders, it is an incredibly moving experience which showcases the level of respect and control that these leaders had / have over their people. The level of which is far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before. The intensity of the entire affair had me feeling faint. Thankfully I didn’t pass out even though that would have made for an incredible story but one of our group members wasn’t so lucky and fainted on the slow moving escalator just as we were about to exit! I happened to notice his gentle swaying and caught him before he hit the ground. We lifted him off the escalator (I’ve never seen somebody so green) and positioned him against the wall. One of our tour guides showed me how to perform acupressure to get his blood moving again. Sure enough, it worked and he was somewhat relieved to be told by the North Korean guards that fainting is a regular occourence.
The DMZ is one of the most heavy militarized areas in the world. It stretches for 250 kilometres and was once described by Bill Clinton as the “scariest place on earth”. It stands as one of the most important reminders of a nation divided. Here, and everywhere else you visit in the DPRK, you will learn about the North Korean version of the Korean war.
One of the days we traveled around 30km north to visit Pyongsong city and as North Korean cities go, it has the same grey wash to it as every other city we had passed through. I’d even go as far as to say that at this stage, my eyes had acclimatized to the dullness which bodes well for anybody living there I suppose.
We were in Pyongsong to visit both a privileged preschool and middle school. We were told that students attending both schools were gifted and came from all over the Provence to board and study. Do I think these schools were in any way reflective of other schools around the country, absolutely not.
However like most tourist experiences in the DPRK, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed with intrigue, especially when it meant I got the chance to briefly converse with living breathing North Koreans! The only downside to this was the internal angst I felt knowing that probably all of the students sitting in front of me would never get the opportunity to travel or converse with other cultures in the way that I was doing with them.
Here is some interesting art that caught my eye, it was hanging in the middle school’s entrance hall. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s Kim Il Sung riding a monorail surrounded by children while Kim Jong Il watches on. If someone could explain to me what is going on I’d be very grateful.
It’s hard to give my opinion on whether or not the food was good or bad because I don’t believe I got to experience the type of food that most North Koreans eat and if I’m being honest, that’s the type of food I want to experience when visiting a foreign land. The food that we did get served was impeccably presented and always came with a side of kimchi, which is a great addition to any meal in my eyes, but I couldn’t help feeling that we were tasting the best of the best. Simply put, I would have preferred to seek out local cuisine which is just not possible on a trip like this. I came away as intrigued about the food as I had been before visiting.
Seemingly, alcohol is widely available in North Korea although I struggled to spot one bar or shop where one can actually purchase it outside of our hotels. We did however visit a tourist bar in Pyongyang which sold 7 types of beer named 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, number 1 being the lightest and number 7 having an overpowering hop taste with a hint of dark chocolate.
The trip had come to an end, our group was driven back to Pyongyang airport. All I needed to do now was get my passport returned to me and pass through security before getting on a plane bound for Beijing. As normal as that sounds, there is nothing normal about visiting North Korea. I had read loads of blogs that said cameras, laptops and phones were all re-screened when exiting the country. I won’t say I was on the edge of my seat, but I was definitely nervous approaching the security staff. What if I had taken a disrespectful photo or video, what if something had accidentally fallen into my bag in the hotel and I would be arrested for stealing? Thankfully, security decided to wave me through with a smile and I was on my way.
When travelling through the DPRK, I always felt somewhat on edge and as childish as it sounds, this did excite me. People always ask me why I would want to visit somewhere like the DPRK, I always wonder why it is that they wouldn’t want to visit. Visiting places unlike anywhere else is probably my biggest goal in life. Travelling through North Korea was lots of things, but to me it was the biggest reminder that I come from a country of serious privilege. Experiencing other cultures, albeit heavily censored in this case, should be compulsory for every one of us. Would I recommend visiting North Korea? It’s another big fat yes from me.
All in, my 4 night / 5 day tour cost me approx 1,200 euro incl. food, hotel and flights to and from the DPRK from Beijing, note that you will need to make your own way to / from Beijing. You will need a little extra cash for some boozing and shopping, two things there are plenty of opportunities for. I also can’t imagine visiting the DPRK with any other tour company other than Koryo Tours given their knowledge and experience working with people on the ground.
FYI, I did not receive any payment or discount from Koryo Tours for my review. If you do decide to book through them be sure to tell them that The Travel Two sent you and I’m sure they will sort you out.