“Why would you ever want to visit North Korea?” is the most frequently asked question I get. That and “I didn’t even know you were allowed to go to North Korea.” Well, to answer both, because I can. The way I see it is that North Korea or the DPRK as the natives call it, is going to go one of two ways: it’s either going to go the way of China and open its boarders to the general public and become just another regular tourist destination, or it is going to completely, 100% close off to the outside world. I wouldn’t want to miss my chance if the latter comes to be nor would I want to miss the unique experience of seeing the “hermit kingdom” while it is still relatively closed off.
Also, I was tired of hearing about the country from people who had never been there and had no desire to experience it first hand. There is always two sides to a story and I really wanted to hear it from their point of view. “But they’re only going to show you the very best and not the true NK,” you may say. Well, not only is that not entirely accurate, but any tour you take in any country is going to highlight the best of the destination. If you take a tour to Thailand they are going to take you to beautiful beaches and on jungle excursions, not to walk through shanty towns. If you visit Los Angeles the bus driver isn’t going to stop and make sure you take photos of the homeless people scattered on street corners. No, every country has its spectacle and its skeletons.
Now, to set the stage: Yes, Americans and anyone else is allowed to visit NK. Well, they don’t tend to let South Koreans, Japanese or reports in, but if you don’t fall under any of those categories, then you shouldn’t really have a problem. There isn’t such a thing as independent travel in the DPRK; if you decide you do want to go on your own, prepare to fork over a larger sum and to be escorted at all times by guides. I, being a solo traveller, scoured the internet to find a tour that suited me best. I found a six day tour in the off season of November that seemed to tick off all that I wanted to do and more. Once I was locked in, I submitted all my visa documents (which the touring company totally takes care of for you) and waited for my departure date. The day my visa was approved was one of the most exciting days ever, that and the day my Mum & Dad accepted the inevitable truth that I was indeed doing this.
I flew into Beijing and met with most of my group the next morning. Our group was international to say the least. The group had British, Irish, German, and Danish people and more. We received our visas and got to know each other as we stood to get checked in. This was nerve wracking to say the least. Even with our visas approved, the Korean government can choose to reject you for any reason and any time. I held my breath as the airport worker glanced me up and down and stamped my visa. “Next!” She yelled and I stepped aside. The journey itself was quite pleasant considering we were flying Koryo Air (NK’s only airline) which is considered the worst in the world. Honestly, it was no worse than Delta or United. We were given a cold mystery meat sandwich and beer on board (free of charge, looking at you United.) November was the down season for tourism so there was only one other group on board. The rest were native North Koreans on their way home. For the entirety of the 2 hour flight they played a military concert on the small screens. Strange. Once we touched down we still had one final hurtle: customs. I had heard from so many people (remember the people who hadn’t actually been there?) that customs would be a nightmare. I was basically the only American, so the group joked about having me go first because they’d probably be extra harsh on me. But, turns out, it was probably the least painful airport experience I’ve ever had. Yes, I did magically end up being the first of the whole plane to go through customs, but the Korean workers were very friendly and efficient. They only desired to look at my DSLR and camera but quickly gave them back and waved me through. I was out probably a full five minutes before any of my other group. I did pack very light which I think helped me.
Once through that, I awkwardly stood alone for about 30 seconds, afraid that I would be arrested if I looked at anyone wrong, until a nice woman came up to me and asked which tour group I was with. Turns out, she was one of my guides and we chatted as we waited for the rest of my group. We had three awesome guides, a man and woman and student who was with us to practice his English and translation. I can’t say enough positive things about our guides. Not only did they have beautiful English and extensive knowledge, but they were kind and did their very best to answer all our questions. Other blogs and videos I had watched claimed that the guides could be icy and unwelcoming, but that was never the case for our guides. After introductions, we climbed aboard our bright green bus and sped off to pick up the rest of our group from the train station. It is possible to take a train from China, but Americans for some reason are not given that option so I had to choose a flight.
At the train station I went with two other ladies to use the bathroom and we were then allowed to sit by ourselves as the guide went to greet the new group. This was unexpected. I never, never thought we would be left alone, but honestly, as long as you don’t do something truly stupid, you’ll have a great time and the guides will be able to trust you more. They want you to have a good time, and remember, if you do something idiotic, they can get in big trouble. So please, realize that getting to visit NK is a good enough story in itself; you don’t have to try and pull some dumb trick to get a party topping story. It’s not worth it.
But, I digress. Anyway, we headed off to a dinner of traditional Korean hotpot. I had heard so much about hotpot before but hadn’t ever tried it. Essentially, everyone had an individual stove and pot of broth, along with an assortment of meats and veggies that you could add to your liking. Beer became a staple of each meal. I’m not normally a beer drinker and was quite sick of it by day two, but if you happen to fancy a beer with every meal then you should seriously consider a holiday in North Korea.
After dinner we went to check in at our hotel. We stayed at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, which is the most famous and popular hotel for tourists. Currently there are about 30 different hotels in Pyongyang that tourists can stay in, depending on your budget, but this hotel used to be the only option. We would probably use the word “retro” to describe this hotel. It kinda felt trapped in the 70s, but overall was very nice. It was clean and had four bars/restaurants and offered a western breakfast. We spent each evening at one of the bars chatting over what we had experienced the day before. It also featured a revolving restaurant at the top. The DPRK loves a good revolving restaurant. We were split into couples and led up to our rooms. This hotel also features what seems to be the world’s slowest elevator. The rooms were nice and offered a lovely view of the city below. The hotel is smack dab in the middle of the city, so there’s a lot to look at.
*Conspiracy theory time!*
Firstly, the hotel has 47 floors but is missing floors 5 & 6 on the elevator button panel. What could be going on there?
Secondly, there are six elevator shafts but only maybe two of them ever ran while we were there. Just saving energy, maybe? Maybe, but when we went to knock on some of the seemingly out of service doors it made a clearly solid sound. Not like an echoey, hollow sound of an elevator shaft. It sounded dense and thick. What’s going on there? Do they have faux elevator shafts to hide secrets?! Probably not, but whatever.
Moving on. We then all climbed aboard our bus and headed off to see the city. Pyongyang doesn’t seem all that different from other third world cities I have seen before. They have some impressive structures and also slums. We were asked not to take photos of the slum areas, buildings under construction (?), or soldiers but other than that it was pretty much free range when it came to photos and video.
Our first stop was one of my most anticipated destinations: The Palace of the Sun, better known as the place where Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il are preserved for people to see. Now, I’ve been to funerals and I’m aware that this is done in other Asian countries, but it doesn’t make it any less bizarre. Especially due to the fact that when we went in to actually view the bodies there were people weeping. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Palace of the Sun is a building on a massive scale. Massive. It was the former residence of Kim Il-Sung but was turned into a mausoleum after his death. I can’t imagine anyone actually living in this place. It would take half your life just to walk to the toilet. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside so this will have to be a purely written account. When we arrived we were taken to a waiting room to await our tour. The workers looked us up and down to make sure our attire was suitable. (We had to dress well for this occasion, no jeans or trainers allowed.) We were lined up in rows of four and we had to silently walk to the entrance of the Palace. Now, this was right at the beginning of the trip and we were all still afraid that we might accidentally do something to piss someone off and get shot. So, the tension was a bit high. Once we were inside we checked our coats and belongings and proceeded to ride about four of the slowest moving sidewalks on earth. Seriously, it probably cost us an extra 45 minutes. On either side of the walkways were dozens (hundreds?) of photos of the dear leaders in all their glory. Our guides proceeded to give us our first taste of what the leaders mean to them and answer any questions we had.
We viewed hundreds of artifacts and belongings of the leaders including the train car where Kim Jong Il died, a plane, and a car given to them by Stalin. There was also a huge map of the world showing where the leaders had visited. The group was kind enough to point out to me that America was conveniently missing from this world map. Who knows if that had any real meaning to it, maybe they were just trying to save space?
Once we passed through three sets of blowers we were led into a large echoey chamber lit with red light. Behold, the preserved body of a man who died 20 years prior. We once again got into rows of four and proceeded to walk around the glass coffin, bowing on three sides of him. Little did I know this was only the start of the bowing. We bowed on this trip about as much as we drank beer. The hall reverberated with the sounds of cries. They really, really loved this guy. As strange as this sight may seem to Westerners, it brought up thoughts of the hero worship we have in America. Are there not still people who cry over the death of Elvis or John Lennon? Did the world not stop when Robin Williams died? And after hearing the stories that our guides told us about the leaders later on the trip, this is who they believe their leaders to be and I could understand their despair. We may not agree with it, but it’s real to so many of them. I think that’s why I wanted to visit the mausoleum; I wanted to see the faces of the men beloved by their country and yet despised by so many more.
After viewing Kim Jong Il in a similar fashion we headed outside to grab some photos and take in the scale of the building. The leader’s portraits looked down upon us as we were surrounded by school and military groups and many women in the gorgeous, traditional, Korean gowns. Seriously, these are Disney princess level.
From there, we headed to the Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery. We had to drive up to a higher area of the city and got the first real view of the beautiful fall colors. I recommend visiting DPRK in November for just that reason. Upon arrival we were greeted with a glorious view of all of Pyongyang. Seeing the city from this vantage point showed how interesting the architecture of the city is.
The cemetery honors war heroes from the Korean war and features bronze, life-like busts. Our guides took us through and told stories of specific heroes including a mother who lost her sons and husband in the war but continued to champion for the cause and of a man who cut out his own tongue as to not be tempted to tell any military secrets. I was pleasantly surprised at how many women were honored here. The cemetery is also a monument to the most important military leaders and to the “Mother of Korea,” Kim Il-Sung’s wife. She died young but is a highly respected historical figure and her bronze statue overlooks all of Pyongyang. In The Palace of the Sun there is one main window that was located in Kim Il-Sing’s office which points to the monument so that the leader could look out on his wife’s grave.
Next, it was back to the hotel for lunch. We went straight to the top to the revolving restaurant and enjoyed fish and chips for lunch. Oh, and beer. Don’t forget. We snapped dozens of photos and noticed we had the entire place to ourselves. November is a great time to visit!
P.S. What’s that crazy looking, space ship thing on that photo?
Oh, you mean THIS?
This is a hotel that’s been under construction for something like thirty years! The outside is now complete but the Korean government is now looking for sponsors in order to complete the inside. Once complete, it will be able to house all tourists with 1,000 rooms and 5 restaurants. I must admit, it looks hella cool.
After lunch we headed to the Grand Monuments, something that I’m sure you’ve seen at some point, the huge bronze statues of the two leaders. This was another place that I was excited about seeing, but we had to hear the rules first. Firstly, we had to present flowers to the statues (yes, for real) and walk up in a line and bow. After paying our respects we were allowed to take photos but we had to make sure not to cut off any part of the statues in the photos. You wanted to crop the photo from the knees up? Think again. You wanted to get that cool angle where the statues are partially covered by the tree branch. You be trippin’. Things like that are what give you pause. This is a bit of a strange place. (Not to mention the whole bowing thing, but I’ll talk more about that in a future post.)
Then, we headed to take a ride on the subway with the locals. Pyongyang is home to the world’s deepest subway. After given instruction as to what to do if we got separated from the group we headed down underneath the pavement.
“Retro” comes to mind again, but in the best way possible. It was quite a lovely station complete with flower lights, mosaics, daily news, and ancient (but splendid) train cars. We went aboard and rode for a few stops. We got off and on at a few stops in order to appreciate the uniqueness to each place.
At this time I asked my guide if she had ever watched a Disney movie. Cause, like, that’s pivotal when it comes to international relations. Anyway, she said yes, and that they watch many western movies in school to improve their English. Cool beans.
When we emerged, we found ourselves at the Arch of Triumph. Not to get confused with the one in France; this one is bigger, they pointed out. This monument was placed here as homage to a famous speech made by Kim Il-Sung. They really love their monuments. It features two dates:
1925: When Kim started on his quest for liberation of Japanese rule.
1945: When it was achieved.
With two stops to go and the sun setting fast, we quickly drove to the Worker’s Party Monument. This statue stands 50 meters tall and features a hammer, sickle, and brush. Those three symbols are featured all over the country. This tribute stands in a line with the Grand Monuments and the space hotel; oddly enough it reminded me of the grand lawn in Washington, D.C. We then spent a few minutes looking at local art in the Cultural Center.
Our final stop of the day was the Juche Tower. It is so named for the “Juche” ideology created by Kim Il-Sung that preaches “self-reliance” and being “masters of your own destiny.” There is much, much more to it but basically, there is no religion in North Korea, but this is about as close as it gets. The tower itself stands 150 meter tall and after paying a small fee, you can go to the top and view Pyongyang from above. Unfortunately, it was getting very cold at this point so I didn’t stay up for to long, but it was definitely worth the fee.
An interesting thing I noticed however, was the lack of light. I had always heard that the DPRK goes dark at night and the power gets shut off. Try googling “space view of North Korea at night” and you’ll see what I mean. This was getting well on into the evening, and sure enough, it was ridiculously dark. Remember, I’m currently living in Hong Kong at this point, and I’m very familiar with the whole city situation. Take a look:
Yes, there were lights on here and there, but nothing like Hong Kong. Also, that bright spot you see in the second photo is the Grand Monuments. Those are lit up 24/7. Our hotel never experienced loss of power that I know of, but that may have been so as to keep the tourists happy. Yet again, I don’t know the whole story and this is just speculation, but I think it’s odd to say the least.
After all my detective work, we headed back to the hotel to get some rest. Our first day(s) was hectic but the best is yet to come. Be sure to check back for part 2 & 3!