After visiting Antarctica I decided that it was time to start seeing some of those amazing, yet expensive to reach, places that had been on my bucket list for so long. North Korea had held an appeal with me for a long time ever since I had heard the murmurings of fellow travellers mentioning its beautiful scenery.
I had researched how to get there a few times and found that there is no possible way unless you book yourself onto an organised government tour through a western travel agency. The price of the tour put a lot of people off but at 1200 euro for 8 days including transport I found it very reasonable and thought that people pay a lot more for a cruise around the Med, I will be seeing something truly special instead.
Once I had researched the companies and their tours and decided who to book with it didn’t really take much effort to get to Pyongyang. The company arranged my visa for me and all I had to do was meet them the day before in Beijing and pick it up. I had more hassle in getting my Chinese visa as their regulations had become strict with the upcoming Olympics.
I tried my hardest to read and know nothing of North Korea, or the DPRK as I like to call it, as I wanted to see it for what it was and then research topics when I left to form my own opinion. Many people on the trip had already formed their own opinions of what was what before they had even left home and I found it quite sad that there impression, before and after, of the DPRK was that of a CNN broadcast.
It was hard to ignore any information about the country relating to its strict control of tourists and how we must always have two guides with us, we cannot wander off and will most likely have our hotel rooms bugged to make sure we are not saying things that we shouldn’t be saying. Many people hate this, I just think it is part of the experience and who are we really to judge others.
A big concern of mine was that the tour would be full of people coming to ‘study the regime’ and when it wasn’t and most people just wanted to have the experience of being there it looked like the trip was going to be a great time. We all joked about waiting to see exactly how strict they would be with us and what we could do and also as to who would be the first person to get into trouble
We boarded the Air Koryo flight and it was one of the most comfortable flights I have been on, the landing was superb and I have since heard that they have trouble getting new tyres for the planes and have to conserve them as much as possible. Most people also took as many photos as possible while on board as we were not sure when we would have our photo taking restricted.
We landed to a very desolate looking airport and all we could see were many security officials around the runway and heading for the plane. I was completely shocked when we were allowed to take photos from the runway, I got into trouble for trying this at Guernsey airport once yet in Pyongyang it is a free for all.
We headed inside to see immigration and no matter how much I begged and subtly tried to bribe the lady their was no way she was going to put a stamp inside my passport, we also tried the same thing on the way out but it just would not happen. Personally I thought they would love to have people travelling the world showing everyone that they had visited the axis of evil and lived to tell the tale, but apparently not.
After passing through Customs we would be met by Mr Kim who would be our guide for the next 7 days. Customs was a very strict affair and anyone with a mobile phone had it taken away and sealed up to be given back to them on the train as they left the country. Any GPS devices were banned and the customs had a confusing time trying to figure out what my external hard drive was for. They inspected it thoroughly, put it to their ears, pushed every part of it to see what would happen before finally handing it back at letting me through.
We jumped on our bus and headed off down the road with everyone beaming smiles that they were now in a country that only sees 300-400 western tourists per year. Mr Kim jumped up on the Mic and gave us a little question and answer about our trip and of course the Do’s and Do Nots. We were surprised about all the Do’s that we had as Mr Kim would reply to everything ‘Sure why not’. This reply got a little tedious later on in the trip when it came to mean ‘Let’s just hope you don’t ask to do that again and I’ll be fine’. I kept asking to be able to see a street vendor to buy some ice cream and always got the ‘Sure Why Not’ response but after days of trying and even offering to buy ice creams for the whole bus it never eventuated.
Our first stop was at a local school were the students were putting on a song and dance performance for us. It was definitely very Disney like in its choreography, Kim Jong Ils favourite, but also very entertaining and the talent of the kids at such a young age was unbelievable. How they do not win every possible gymnastic medal is beyond me.
As part of the tour we would receive breakfast, lunch and dinner each day with lunch and dinner including a bottle of beer each, just my sort of people. The beer was great and I found out during the trip from John, a veteran of 180 countries and a beer label collection of 400, that the country had purchased an entire brewery from the UK and had it sent over and rebuilt in the DPRK. I also enjoyed the food but felt guilty if I ate it all as I am sure whatever we left behind was a special treat for the staff that were working that day.
Our hotel was billed as 5 star and I am sure that it quite possibly was when it was new but age had taken its toll and it would be more of a very low 4 start nowadays. Whenever I took the elevator up to the 45th floor I was always very nervous of the experience, If they can’t afford to feed their people then how the hell can they maintain an elevator? I had a look at the cabling one day and was very surprised, and relieved, to see that they were actually of great quality and very well kept. I guess having tourists die in elevator cars is the last headline they want canvassing the world media.
After watching BBC world news in our hotel room, yep I got BBC in North Korea, me and my new roommate Giovanni switched off the lights and got ready for a big day tomorrow….and then it happened, My god could Giovanni snore! One night it was so bad that I had to go and sleep in the hallway and when he saw me he asked what was wrong, when I told him he freaked out and starting saying ‘No no no, oh my god, I thought it was over, I am going to have to see my doctor again’ He then seemed very subdued for the rest of the trip, maybe I should not have said anything, oh well.
Our first two days of the tour were spent seeing the sights around Pyongyang. It was enjoyable experience and not as restricted as we thought. We had all the freedom we wanted in taking pictures and saw many people living their day to day lives around the streets, passing all the anti US propaganda as they did. The one thing we were never allowed to do was to wander more than around 10-15 metres from our nearest guide. I am not sure of what they thought we would do but as soon as someone reached that imaginary boundary we would all be told that time was up and we would have to move along.
That is the one thing that bugged me about the DPRK and I had to mention it to the guide a t one point. Wherever we went we left on time, we took as long as was supposed to get there yet as soon as we arrived we were told that we would have to hurry as we were running late. By the second last day as we were visiting the Cooperative farm, Kim Il Sungs dream, everyone had had enough of all the restrictions and the way that the country was portrayed so perfectly and every site was like a museum, not a functioning factory or farm for example.
As usual when we got to the farm we were told that we were running late and would have to hurry, I told the guide that watches were a waste of time in North Korea as obviously no one was capable of reading the time. He found this a little amusing but it was his job to move us along swiftly so he could not be blamed. Once we began our tour of the farm it was sad to see that the place was deserted, not a soul could be seen except for our guides and the few random men dressed in black that always appeared from nowhere when we arrived and returned to nowhere once the tour was finishing.
As we were being shown the rice fields of the farm I noticed some people watching us from the windows of a shed, I asked the guide where all the workers were and he said they were on a lunch break. A little later a person walked from behind a shed and when he saw us he ran back behind as quickly as he had been seen. I asked how long the lunch break was for and that maybe we could plant some rice for the men so that they would have an easier time when they returned. I was told that this was not possible as the men would be upset with us if we got it wrong. As the tour progressed and we all got a little bit more bored by it I pushed again about the workers and how we would like to see them in action if possible and could lessen the time on the afternoon’s tour to allow more time here. The response now became that the workers all had a day off and were not even here, when I mentioned that I had already seen three people hiding near to, and inside, that shed I got some dirty looks and then of course we had run out of time and were running late for the next tour and would have to rush off.
I think that the farm may have been a prison camp or forced labour which is why we were not allowed to see the workers. I say this because as we entered and left the farm, around its boundaries were many soldiers with large guns standing watch. The one thing we didn’t see much of in the DPRK, which shocked us all, was a large military presence. So when we saw them here and also standing guard over the road workers that we were not allowed to take photos off I assumed that it must be forced labour.
It was a very weird thing to not see any military in the country that you expect to have them on every corner. Even the time we visited the DMZ bordering with South Korea, we saw no guards except for those at the actual gates. Either they stay very well hidden or the DPRK does not have such a big military as it say’s and brings its entire population out on display to march as though it is in their once a year event. We were told at the DMZ that we were lucky that there was a South Korean tour group that day as we would have guards on both sides of the border. When we asked why they were not there 24hrs a day the response came that the guards only come out for the tourist show and will leave once we leave. This very much surprised us all.
Our time on the tour was organised very well and allowed us to see most of the important sights of the country. The friendship Exhibition in the north was fantastic, it is a museum where the Eternal and the Great leader house all the gifts presented to them by foreign countries over the years. The place is huge and the gifts look priceless in value. Another highlight for me was visiting the Pyongyang subway. We had heard that it was only put on to run as a show for tourists but if you have ever sat alone on the steps of the subway beside an arriving train and then been trampled as hundreds of people suddenly made their way out then you would realise that the Subway is the real deal. I felt very proud sat on the train next to the locals wearing my DPRK badge on my chest.
A badge depicting either of the leaders of the DPRK must be worn by everybody in the country as a sign of respect. I was unable to get one with the leaders so I bought a pin of the flag instead and wore at all times. I asked the guide if people would think this was respectful and he replied that they probably wouldn’t even notice. The Eternal leader of the DPRK is Kim IL Sung, a dead man! When he passed away the country decided that he shall always be their leader and that his son, Kim Jong IL, will be the Great Leader and ruler of the country. It is a bit of a weird set up but once you visit the schools of the country you will see the whole story is done to put the leaders into a ‘God and Jesus’ style hierarchy. Their framed photos adorn the walls of every classroom and if you are ever lucky enough to read children’s fairy tales you will find that they are portrayed in the same way there also.
On the last day of our tour we drove back into Pyongyang from the country side and continued to be dumbfounded by the size of the roads and the lack of traffic. Our highway was 10 lanes wide and for a 2 hour drive we were the only vehicle on it. They say the road is like that to be used as a runway in case the country ever goes to war and that no matter how many times it gets bombed it is so long and straight that is will still function. On the way back to the hotel we actually hit a traffic Jam which caused cheers and laughter amongst us all, a traffic jam in Pyongyang of all places. The poor traffic lady who stands in the middle of the road and signals traffic must have been having a nightmare.
I really enjoyed the DPRK and hope to visit again someday, like most people on the tour we all wanted to go back but only when it is not as restricted as it is now. Our biggest disappointment of the tour was that we could not interact with the locals more and that we were unable to visit the truly local places and instead were just taken to the major tourist spots. It was exactly what we expected the tour to be and we got a lot more freedom than we all expected but once there and so close to everything good you just wanted that little bit more.
Before we left for the train back to Beijing I asked Mr Kim if the people of the DPRK actually wanted to leave or were genuinely happy being where they were, he responded quietly to me that most people just don’t know any different from what they have. This reminded me of a quote I had heard earlier and the one I use to sum up life in the DPRK ‘Is it better to live in the dark or to die in the light’