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North Korea, a once in a lifetime experience

North Korea, a once in a lifetime experience

Known as the most isolated country in the world, North Korea is commonly imagined to be filled with propaganda, grey communist buildings and general unhappiness from the constantly watched public. Those impressions were not far from the truth, but I realised caveats, exaggerations, underestimations and interesting revelations. I experienced six days filled with intensity, learning visits and human interaction. It was fascinating to observe a country that continues to resist exposure to modern development- for six eventful days on a North Korea tour.




Arrival Day 0

Briefing at Beijing airport

I had previously received instructions through email and went through them with our guide from Koryo Tours. He emphasised strongly what was and was not allowed as well as an idea of what to expect. Their license to conduct these tours would be revoked if our group caused any trouble.

Boarding and flight to Pyongyang

The check-in counter for Air Koryo was unmarked, and the boarding pass was printed on Air China paper. As always, security was tight at the Beijing Airport and each member of our party was manually searched. We were informed that guides appreciate gifts as a symbol of gratitude, and thus bought a bottle of whiskey, some chocolates and a packet of cigarettes as our symbol of thanks. We were to be accompanied by two guides and one driver, a standard rule regardless of group size. Each guide was to watch over the other.

No signs or boarding announcements were made, nor was Pyongyang displayed on the gate’s screen. We boarded late but no in-flight announcements were made either, and the security briefing was a muted video. The plane was not a new model but in decent condition.

Another once isolated country that has recently opened its doors is Myanmar – visit magical Bagan with us here!

Arrival and immigration

We were briefed again in extensive detail regarding the procedures upon arrival, there were no surprises. Books and electronics were removed from our bags and individually checked by a member of customs. Each laptop was switched on and searched for movies, but it didn’t take long and we were swiftly sent through the doors to our waiting guides. Although we had no names or tags displayed, our guides recognised us simply because we were the only tourists emerging alone.

Arch of triumph

We stopped at the Arch of Triumph to take some photos before stopping at our hotel. The arch was erected on the land where President Kim Il Song greeted the people after returning from the Japanese War.

Check in at Koryo Hotel

During our morning briefing, we were told without explanation that our hotel has been changed. We checked into the Koryo Hotel, one of the first to be constructed in 1985. Like North Korea, the hotel was designed with old fashioned grandeur. Thick marble walls accompanied sparkling chandeliers, with large and stately common areas. The room looked straight out of a 3 star hotel from the 1980s. The bathroom was fitted in as an entirely pre-fabricated unit, and the walls and floors were made of plastic. The bed and sofa were uncomfortably hard with no mattress, as were all the seating in the country. There was a higher luxury room to lounge in with a TV that screened BBC World, Al Jazeera and RT TV.

Beer at the lobby and review of itinerary

Our guides Han and Pak encouraged us to look over our given itinerary to see if there were any changes we would like to implement. We discussed our preferences and expectations over a beer in the lobby bar.

Dinner at the hotel

We had a pre booked dinner at the Hotel restaurant located in the basement. We ate what would become the staple meal: kimchi, sprouts, salad, soup, omelet and a meat dish. All tourists spend their first evening at the hotel.

Day 1 in North Korea

Mansudae Fountain Park

We spent a foggy morning at the Mansudae Fountain Park. ‘We would appreciate it if you could buy flowers for the Leaders’ said our guide. Reading between the lines, we understood it was an order and dutifully obeyed.

Mansudae Grand Monument

The Mansndae Monument is made up of bronze statues of Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il surrounded by sculptures representing the anti-Japanese struggle, the Socialist revolution and reconstruction. This stands as the grandest monument in North Korea. After offering flowers, we had to stand in a line in front of the sculptures and bow. From The Mansudae Grand Monument, we could see the Chollima statue, a mythological horse that can gallop up to 400km in a day.

Grand People’s Study House

The Grand People’s Study House is a huge library. The books are retrieved in an hydraulic conveyor belt linked to a computer. ABBA was played in the Music and TV room, and students studied English and computer skills in other rooms using the Windows XP program. This building is said to hold 30 million books, and can host 12000 people. Standing on the rooftop, we witnessed young Pioneer children rehearsing for the upcoming Liberation Day celebrations. Dressed in navy trousers, white shirts and red scarves, they formed various shapes and letters on the grand square.

Mansudae Art Studio

The Mansudae Art Studio is where the displayed sculptures, paintings and monuments are created. Unfortunately, we could not see artists ‘busy discussing the Party’s ideology’ as they do not work on Saturdays.

Pyongyang Metro (5 stops)

The Pyongyang Metro was built entirely with Korean materials and under the guidance of President Kim Il Song. The metro is huge and looks extremely similar to the metro in Moscow. We visited five stations decorated with gigantic mosaics and sculptures, including the famous Glory Station with firework chandeliers. Carriages were bare and doors opened manually. Stations are said to double as bomb shelters and are buried one hundred meters underground on the “self-reliant” escalator.

Lunch

Mangyongdae – Birth place of Kim Il Sung

The birth of the Founding Eternal President happened in the outskirts of Pyongyang. A local English-speaking guide brought us on a solemn tour of his house. Kim Il Song’s family had lived there in exchange for taking care of the property and cemetery of a rich family. Photos of his family and his childhood decorated the house. This was the first look of extreme cult adulation that would eventually become the underlying theme every time the Eternal Leader was mentioned.

A supermarket

At our request, we stopped at a supermarket to observe what they had for sale and buy some soju. Packaged products from Vietnam, Thailand, and Europe were available, as well as hard liquors and wine from France. We saw many internationally branded goods, such as Oreos.

Korea Stamp Shop

Postcards and stamps from a stamp shop near our hotel definitely made interesting souvenirs. Other than propaganda messages, a large number aggressively displayed anti-American images of missiles being dropped on the White House and American soldiers being stabbed.

Juche Tower

President Kim Il Song’s Juche Idea philosophy undermines his socialist thinking. As it revolves around ‘self’, it is more of an ideology than a socialist theory. The Juche Tower was decorated with plaques sent by various institutions from around the world who support this ideology. We rode the elevator to the 130th floor for a panoramic view of the city. This was the first place we were actively sold to by a local guide.

Taedonggang No.3 Micro Brewery

Beer is popular and easily attainable. Microbrewery No. 3 is located in front of the Juche Tower and serves a variety of rice and barley beers. This bar was decorated to mimic a German bar, so playing along we ordered chewy pretzels with our drinks.


Day 2 in North Korea

Gumsusan Palace of the Sun

Both Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Song were on display at The Manusoleum, in separate red granite red-lit rooms. The most iconic visit in North Korea was an official and formal affair. We had a strict dress code, long sleeves, closed shoes, in a shirt and tie for the men. ‘You made me proud, you are the best dressed in the entire group’, said our guide when I asked if we were appropriately dressed. I was afraid of not looking good enough after her threatening comment the day before. “I would dress better tomorrow for the Mausoleum.”

The building was accessible only through a series of orderly travelometers. Security checks were thorough and cameras were not allowed. We had to bow three times in front of each leader, once at each side and once at their feet. Their many qualifications, medals and honorary awards were displayed, hundreds of these from known socialist and communist countries. The cars, trains and boats used by the Leaders could we seen as well, on an interactive map that showed the routes used by plane or train. A Macbook sits on Kim Jon Il’s train table.

Martyr’s Cementery on Mount Taesong

Martyrs of the North Korea Independence struggle were buried on Mount Taesong. Busts of several fighters were made and displayed in various rows on the way up the hill. Bowing was compulsory.

Lunch

Kim Il Sung Square

The square was filled with children rehearsing for Liberation Day, which falls on the 15th of August. The square is the heartbeat of the city, and large enough to host military parades.

Foreign Language Bookstore

The propagandistic ideology of North Korea’s leaders have been compiled into written paraphernalia and available for purchase. Condensed biographies are available as well as twenty-five volumes of his entire philosophy. Posters, memorabilia and the works of Kim Jong Il are also sold here.

Walk in Morabong Park and dance with the locals

Pyongyang consists of mainly primary socialist buildings and numerous parks and trees. A walk in Morabong park is a refreshing change from the monotony of the dominantly gray city. A group of locals were dancing to music under a pagoda. Upon spotting me, they grabbed my hand to the centre of the circle and taught me how to dance.

Drive to Kaesong (160km)

We drove for three hours to Kaesong using what felt like the world’s most potholed road. We spent the night on hard mattresses and heated floors, in Kaesong’s folk hotel.

Day 3 in North Korea

Walk in Kaesong traditional town

Kaesong is the heritage center of North Korea. From the 10th to the 14th century, it was the country’s capital. Carefully avoiding the hordes of bicycles, we walked to a centenarian city wall bell.

Koryo Museum

The Koryo Museum is a UNESCO site and houses an interesting collection of art, artefacts, maps and manuscipts from the Koryo Unified state.

Kaesong Stamp Shop

Another store in North Korea selling stamps and postcards.

Panmunjom and DMZ

The Demarkation Line and Demilitarized Zone is heavily secured. We were escorted by unarmed soldiers who sat in the car with us. Our guides informed us of the Armistice Talks and the Signing and Negotiations. Various Halls are filled with documents, photography and items that explain the process and years of Armistice Talks. The DMZ is flanked by two kilometres of buffer zone where farmers live and grow their crops.

Like the rest of North Korea, the area looked peaceful. Soldiers were pleasantly friendly and open to discussion.  I asked our soldier-custodian if he thought South Koreans wanted peace and unification and received an enthusiastic, ‘yes!’ Signs of land mine claims by the South were dismissed by the soldier who insisted it was a ‘demilitarized zone’. Animals grazed quietly inside the neutral area.

Pansanggi special lunch

Lunch was served in small golden bowls, and we were presented with various dishes. This included spinach, bean sprouts, pickled radish, egg, potato, vegetable stew, fried tofu, seaweed chips, acorn jelly, steamed rice, dried fish and anchovies, beef broth, kimchi soup, fried potatoes, and glutinous rice balls with red bean paste for dessert. A shot of pine tree liquor ended the meal.

Concrete wall (21km from Kaesong)

Soldier posts, tanks and defence mechanisms dot the wall built along the 240km demarkation line. Near Kaesong, you can see the concrete wall with telescopes just two kilometres away. We were so close, phone signals from South Korea were picked up! Although The US and South Korea claim the wall doesn’t exist, it is clearly visible from this viewpoint. We were escorted by a Colonel of the Army on our visit.

Drive back to Pyongyang

Reunification monument

A woman from the North and a woman from the South hold hands as a representation of Korea’s unification.

Dinner of bibimbap

We enjoyed Korea’s most traditional dish, bibimbap! Meat, vegetables, pickles and chili sauce topped a warm bowl of rice.

Day 4 in North Korea

Victorious Fatherland War Museum

This is a war museum like no other. The 4 floors of boundless rooms could take 3 full days to complete- we were given a mere 2 hours. The museum displays all the spheres of the Korea War and the many struggles against Japan. A captured US boat – The USS Pueblo is on display. The USS Pueblo had their sailors and officers held for 11 months in their attempt to infiltrate Korean waters in search of military data.

Captured enemy weapons such as helicopters, tanks, gun machines and many military items were laid out next to the photographs of captured soldiers. A revolving panorama diorama of one of the many battles was a must-see masterpiece. We sat through a selection of movies, including one on the USS Pueblo and one on the breakout of the Korea War. Stories of war were told from the North Korean’s point of view, filled with American bashing and extreme levels of propaganda.

Metro Museum

The Metro Museum emphasised how much of an engineering feat the metro in North Korea  was. The Leader’s name was mentioned countless times, telling us how the Eternal President gave instructions on how to blow a hole faster, how to get rid of water, how to design the stations- it seemed he knew everything. We were treated to many models showing us the many stages in construction. Due to North Korea’s isolation, the Koreans had to build their own machines and use only local materials to construct the stations.

Lunch

We had delicious bibimbap again!

3 Revolutions Exhibition

This was a dated version of the Universal Exhibition Halls, filled with what looked like everything  North Korea had ever produced. This exhibition was interesting in a perverse, voyeuristic manner, although awfully uninspiring as well.

Pyongyang School Children’s Palace

There are two Children’s Palaces in PY where talented school children may attend. We visited various rooms and heard children playing instruments, embroidering intricate art pieces, and singing. Our visit concluded with a performance from the most talented children in the grand theatre. It was entertaining, although extremely socialistic.

Paradise Microbrewery Beer Bar

We enjoyed another beer at this Microbrewery.

Dinner of cold noodles

The second most famous dish in Korea is a variation of Bibimbap. The toppings are similar, but are instead served with cold buckwheat noodles in broth.

There’s great Korean food in Singapore too – we’re talking about Big Mama Korean in Tiong Bahru! See our Tiong Bahru neighbourhood guide here.

Day 5 in North Korea

Drive to Nampo (40km)

Nampo is a coastal town and harbour. It the most important maritime link into China and an export channel for North Korea’s natural resources.

Wau Islet (beach)

We requested for a trip to the beach in North Korea and it was fulfilled. Nampo Islet is a brown-green reservoir by the sea, popular with both day trippers and locals. Men, women and children wore the same swimsuits, a blatant example of soviet manufacturing.

Picnic lunch

The plan was to have a picnic in the mountains. However, we ate our food in a room at the cooperative farm.

Chongsanri Cooperative Farm

Although we were supposed to visit a proper farm in North Korea, we only received a quick explanation on the female figure in charge of the Cooperative model. We had to buy more flowers to offer the Leader’s statue before making a quick stop to the rice paddies.

Kongso Tomb

The Kongso Tombs were discovered in the 70s, but have been largely forgotten. Although listed with UNESCO in the early 2000s, they received only a small number of visitors. Upon our arrival, the manager arrived to greet us and kindly waived our 100 euro fee. A British tour had not visited in the last ten years, and he was excited to finally see some tourists. We entered the well-preserved chilling tombs and observed the wall murals. It was one of the most fascinating parts of our entire trip! We had gotten lost in the countryside when making our way to and from the tombs, in a part of the country we feared we should not have seen.

Walk in Dragon Mountain (Ryongak)

We trekked up the Dragon Mountains, tired from bumpy roads and lack of proper sleep. We were happily rewarded with a beautiful green park, a wonderful escape from the city.

Drive back to Pyongyang

Duck barbecue Dinner

We enjoyed barbecued duck for dinner. The guides finally warmed up to us and shared scenes of everyday life.

Kaeson Youth Park Fun Fair

We visited one of Pyongyang’s two fun fairs. I jumped the queue and rode a few thrilling attractions, paying a high fee of 5 euros per ride on top of the entrance fee. Locals queued for their turn in an orderly fashion, laughing and enjoying their evening at the fair. Having attended quite a number of amusement parks all over the one, the Kaeson Youth Park Fun Fair did not feel any different.

Day 6 in North Korea

Departure

It took us an hour to get to the airport from the hotel. We were efficiently checked in and on the way to Beijing in no time.

What we would skip in North Korea

If I were to go a second time, I would skip the Metro Museum and the 3 Revolutions Exhibition Hall. I would also pass on Nampo. Although interesting, the road full of potholes were extremely unpleasant. I would instead visit the mountain parks in the north for an insightful visit of the beautiful countryside.




How to get to North Korea

North Korea is hard to reach, you have to get to Beijing or Vladivostok first before flying to North Korea. Visas can be a pain to get as you need to double entry flying back and forth through Beijing and it’s necessary to stay the night in Beijing  in order to receive a brief from your travel agency before travelling to North Korea.

The rest of the process is a breeze really, requiring just an email exchange with the tour company. I used –Koryo Tours, an established tour company and sent my passport photo via email. This visa application needed to be submitted approximately a month before the trip and depended on our itinerary.  I paid about SGD $3200 at the time for a 7 day long private tour which includes the flights from Beijing. The costs will vary based on your itinerary.

Other things to note in North Korea

Tours

You won’t be able to do any independent travel in North Korea and there’ll be plenty of surveillance while you’re there. As long you’re part of a guided tour and do things as you’re supposed to, you’ll have a once in a lifetime travel experience unlike any other.

Be respectful

When around the images of North Korean leaders, be respectful. Tour groups are usually asked to bow or present flowers as a form of respect and disobeying leaders is a punishable offence in the country.

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