The world’s most secretive and isolated country is the focus of many a story. We all imagine days filled with propaganda billboards, a sad and brain-washed population, grey communist architecture and Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother watching over one’s shoulder.
The truth? Very much as the expectations I had built with some caveats, some exaggerations, some underestimations and some interesting revelations to one of the least visited countries in the world. Six days packed with intense moments, fact-filled visits and lots of human interactions. A trip back in history, to the 40s or 50s, to a country which was frozen then and has not been exposed to modern developments since. This is my itinerary for a six day and six night trip to North Korea – world’s most fascinating country.
Briefing at Beijing airport
We met the representative from Koryo Tours for a run through of the instructions that we received via email. We were reminded of what we can and cannot do and of what to expect. This is mainly an administrative hurdle but one that is important for the agency. If we caused any troubles their license could be revoked.
Boarding and flight to Pyongyang
The check-in counter for Air Koryo was not marked and there were very few passengers checking in save for a group of children coming from the Asian Games and a group of deaf-mute passengers. The boarding pass is printed on Air China paper. Security at Beijing airport is always strict and we were manually searched. We were told that the guides appreciate gifts as a sign of gratefulness so we proceeded to the Duty Free to get a bottle of whiskey, a box of chocolates and a packet of Marlboro. There were going to be three people with us, two guides and one driver. This is standard for all groups, regardless of size. The two guides are supposed to watch over each other.
There were no boarding announcements or signs and Pyongyang was not mentioned at the gate’s screen either. We boarded late and there were no in-flight announcements by the cabin or the pilot. The security brief was done via a muted video. The plane was dated but in good shape.
Arrival and immigration
We were briefed in detail about the arrival and customs procedures and everything happened as we expected. Our electronics and books were taken out of our bags and individually checked by a custom’s staff member. He turned on the laptops and searched for movies. We were through in no time and our guides were waiting for us outside. The process was efficient if cumbersome. There were no name signs, our guides recognized us straightaway, we were the only two tourists coming out alone.
Arch of triumph
Check in at Koryo Hotel
We were advised in the morning briefing that our hotel had been changed. There were no explanations about the reasons and our guides and liaison did not know why so we ended up at Koryo Hotel, one of the first to be built in 1985. The hotel was dated and both grand and old fashioned in the way the entire country is. There were sparkling chandeliers and thick marble walls, floors and ceilings and the common areas were large and palatial. The rooms looked like a 1980s 3-star hotel. The bathroom had been fitted in, as an entirely prefabricated unit, after construction, and the walls and floors were made of plastic. The beds and the sofa were extremely hard, much like all the seating in the country. There was no padding or mattress. We had a higher luxury room with a lounge area and a TV that showed the BBC World, Al Jezeera and RT TV.
Beer at the lobby and review of itinerary
Han and Pak, our guides, advised us to go over the itinerary and discuss whether we wanted to change anything on the same night so we had a beer at the lobby bar while we compared itineraries and expectations.
Dinner at the hotel
Dinner was booked at the hotel restaurant, a few feet away from the entrance, in the basement. We got what would become the staple meal: kimchi, sprouts, salad, soup, omelet and a meat dish. All other tourists arriving spent their first evening at the hotel.
Mansudae Fountain Park
The morning raised foggy and hazy, much like every morning would. The fountain park was exactly that. We took the opportunity to buy flowers for the Mansudae Grand Monument. “We would appreciate it if you could buy flowers for the Leaders”, were the guide’s exact words. We read through the lines and understood it was an order.
Mansudae Grand Monument
This is the grandest of all monuments to the leaders and the various wars North Korea endured. The Monument depicts Kim Il Song and Kim Jong Il bronze statues surrounded by sculptural groups representing the anti-Japanese struggle and the Socialist revolution and reconstruction. We had to bow after offering the flowers, standing in line, in front of the sculptures. From there we could see the Chollima statue, a mythologic horse that is said to be able to gallop 400km in one day.
Grand People’s Study House
A good old library which was an interesting part of the day. We visited several rooms and were shown the way the books are retrieved, in an hydraulic conveyor belt linked to a computer. In the music and TV room we were played ABBA. Students learned English and how to use a computer in some of the rooms, the iconic Windows XP logo dancing on the screens. The building was so large that it is said to house 30 million books and be able to host 12,000 people. From the rooftop we got a first hand view of the rehearsals for the celebration of Liberation Day later that week. Hundreds of Young Pioneer children were forming the various shapes and letters on the grand square below, dressed in their navy blue trousers, white shirt and red scarf.
Mansundae Art Studio
This is where all the sculptures and paintings displayed across all the other buildings and grand monuments are created and artists could be seen at work. Since it was a Saturday, we could not see the artists who were “Busy discussing the Party’s ideology”.
Pyongyang Metro (5 stops)
Looking very similar to the Moscow metro, the Pyongyang metro, I later discovered, was built entirely under “The guidance of President Kim Il Song”, as the guide announced, and made entirely with Korean materials. Engineering skill set aside, the stations were huge and decorated with gigantic mosaics and sculptures. We visited five stations, including the famous Glory Station with firework chandeliers. The carriages were bare and the doors opened manually. The stations were buried one hundred meters, or two minutes, under ground on the “self-reliant” escalators and are said to double as bomb shelters.
Mangyongdae – Birth place of Kim Il Sung
Located in the outskirts of Pyongyang this is the birth place of the Founding Eternal President. A local English-speaking guide provided a solemn tour of his house. Kim Il Song’s family was living there in exchange for taking care of the property and cemetery of a rich family. There were photos of his family and his childhood. This was the first bit of extreme cult adulation that would become the background theme of all mentions of the Eternal Leader.
Shopping at a supermarket
We asked to stop at a supermarket to see what was on sale and buy some soju. The supermarket had much of the usual packaged goods with several international brands from Vietnam, Thailand and even Europe. Hard liquors like Chivas or wine from France were easily available, as were Oreo and other well-known brands.
Korea Stamp Shop near the hotel
One of the most interesting souvenirs one can take from North Korea are the postcards and stamps. The most common ones portrayed propaganda messages and aggressively anti-american images with missiles being dropped on the White House and American soldiers being stabbed.
President Kim Il Song’s Juche Idea philosophy undermines his socialist thinking. It is more of an ideology than a socialist theory and it revolves around the self. The Juche Tower was decorated with plaques sent by various institutions from around the world who support the ideology. We rode up on the elevator to the 130th floor for a 360 degree 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 available, more so than water. Microbrewery No.3 was in front of the Juche Tower and served various blends of rice and barley beers. The bar was made to look like a German beer bar so we ordered chewy pretzels to go with the beer.
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
This is the most iconic visit in North Korea. The Mausoleum where both Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Song were on display, in separate red granite red-lit rooms, was a rather formal and official affair. We were specifically told to dress properly, long sleeves, closed shoes, shirt and tie for the men. Basically, we had to wear our best clothes on the day. “You made me proud, you are the best dressed in the entire group”, celebrated our guide when I asked if we were appropriately dressed. I will admit it, I was afraid of not looking goof enough after she had threatened the day before that she hoped “I would dress better tomorrow for the Mausoleum”. You can read a more in-depth review here.
The building was huge and only accessible via a series of travelometers, in an orderly line. Several security checks were in force and cameras were not allowed in. We had to bow three times in front of each leader, once at each side and once at their feet. The building also displayed all of they degrees, medals and honorary awards. There were hundreds of these from all the known socialist and communist countries from East Germany to South American economies and even small counties in the UK or France. The vehicles, trains and boats used by the Leaders were also on display as was an interactive map showing the routes each traveled by plane or train. Watch out for the Macbook on Kim Jong Il’s train desk.
Martyr’s Cementery on Mount Taesung
Following from the Palace of the Sun was the Cemetery where the martyrs of the Independence struggle were buried. Busts of some of the fighters were designed and displayed in various rows going up the hill. Bowing was a must.
Kim Il Sung Square
The heartbeat of the city, filled with children rehearsing for Liberation Day celebrations on 15th August. The square is massive, large enough to host military parades.
Foreign Language Bookstore
The fascinatingly propagandistic ideology of the leaders turned into written paraphernalia. Posters, memorabilia and the works of Kim Jong Il available for purchase. There are condensed biographies or, if you feel like it, the twenty five volumes of his entire philosophy.
Walk in Morabong Park and dance with the locals
Pyongyang is a very green and grey city. Aside from the primarily socialist buildings there are numerous parks and trees. A walk in Morabong park is a welcome respite from the pavement and the monotony of the city. I also got to dance with a group of locals who were enjoying music and dancing under a pagoda. They took no time in grabbing my hand and taking me to the middle where a lady showed me the moves.
Drive to Kaesong (160km)
We drove all the way to Kaesong, a far 3h away, on the world’s most potholed road. We slept in Kaesong’s folk hotel, on thick hard mattresses and heated floors.
Walk in Kaesong traditional town
Kaesong is a medium city and the heritage center of North Korea. It was the capital from the 10th to the 14th century. We walked along its streets among hordes of bicycles to a centenarian city wall bell.
A UNESCO site and a most interesting collection of art, artifacts, maps and manuscripts from the time of the Koryo Unified state.
Kaesong Stamp Shop
Another opportunity to buy stamps and postcards, which will sow that you actually visited the country as your passport will not receive a stamp as it’s kept outside the country until you return to your point of departure.
Panmunjom and DMZ
The Demarkation Line and Demilitarized Zone was a heavily secured area. We were escorted by one of the soldiers, unarmed, who rode with us in the car. Explanations were given on the Armistice Talks and the Signing and Negotiations. The various Halls are filled with documents, photographies and items explaining the process and the years of Armistice Talks. The DMZ is flanked by two kilometers of buffer zone where farmers still live and grow their produce. The area was peaceful and looking like the rest of North Korea. The soldiers were friendly and open to discuss their views. When I asked if he thought South Koreans wanted peace and unification, our soldier-custodian replied a vivacious, “Yes!”. Signs of land mine claims by the South were dismissed by the soldier who insisted it as a “De-militarized zone”. We saw animals grazing inside the neutral zone. Here is my full review of the DMZ tour.
Pansanggi special lunch
A lunch served in several small golden bowls with a variety of foods including spinach, bean sprouts, pickled radish, egg, potato and vegetable stew, fried tofu, seaweed chips, acorn jelly, steamed rice, dried fish and anchovies, beef broth, kimchi soup, fried potatoes, and dessert of glutinous rice balls with red bean paste. We also got a shot of pine tree liquor.
Concrete wall (21km from Kaesong)
The wall built along the 240km long demarkation line is dotted with soldier posts, tanks and other defense mechanisms. From this point, near Kaesong, one can view the concrete wall, two kilometers away, thanks to a couple of telescopes. We were escorted by a Colonel of the Army on our visit. Mobile phone signal from South Korea can be picked here. The US and South Korea claim the wall does not exist but it is visible from this viewpoint.
Drive back to Pyongyang
Two ladies, one from the North and one form the South holding hands as a representation of Korea’s unification
Dinner of bibimbap
The first, but not the last, time that we enjoyed Korea’s most traditional dish: bibimbap. A base of rice topped with condiments of meat, vegetables, pickles and chili sauce.
Victorious Fatherland War Museum
An epic war museum like no other. A collection of 4 floors of never-ending rooms that would take three days to cover. I attempted a summary in less than two hours. The Museum depicts all spheres of the various struggles against Japan and the Korea War. USS Pueblo, the captured US boat that sought to infiltrate Korean waters in search of military data and whose officers and sailors were held for eleven months, is also on display, as are various captured enemy weapons including helicopters, tanks, gun machines and all sorts of military items shown next to the photos of the captured soldiers. The stories of war were unequivocally told from the Korean side, obviously, but were nonetheless fascinating. A revolving panorama diorama of one of the battles was a masterpiece worth a visit. I had to sit through various movies, including one on Pueblo and one on the breakout of the Korea War. The American bashing and propaganda reached its climax.
A large building relating the entire engineering feat that the metro was. This was the time when the most paternalistic side of the Leader was shown. His name was mentioned countless times in the hour I was there and I had to sit through various rooms and models of all stages of the construction of the metro, and hear of every time the Eternal President gave instructions on how to blow a hole faster, how to get rid of the water, how to design the stations…A serious effort of socialist propaganda. As the country was largely isolated, Koreans had to built their own machines and use local materials for the construction of the various stations.
3 Revolutions Exhibition
A dated version of the Universal Exhibition Halls with pretty much anything that Korea ever produced, from foodstuff to heavy machinery. Uninspiring, yet terribly interesting in a perverse, voyeuristic manner.
Pyongyang School Children’s Palace
Talented school children can attend any of the Children’s Palaces (there are two in PY) to further enhance their skills. I toured the various rooms to watch and hear children playing instruments, embroidering beautiful art pieces or singing. The visit was completed with a one hour performance of the most talented children in the grand theater. Cute and entertaining, if extremely socialistic in the way that only China and the Soviet Union could be.
Paradise Microbrewery Beer Bar
Another microbrewery to enjoy one
Dinner of cold noodles
The second most famous dish in Korea is a variation of bibimbap substituting rice with cold buckwheat noodles and broth with similar toppings.
Drive to Nampo (40km)
Nampo is a coastal town and a harbor, the most important maritime link into China and the export channel for North Korea’s natural resources.
Wau Islet (beach)
We had asked for the beach, and we got it. Nampo Islet is a brown-green water reservoir by the sea very popular with day trippers and locals. The most obvious revelation of soviet manufacturing and textiles was in full swing as men, women and children wore the exact same swimming gear. A sight to behold, of only for the first ten minutes.
We were supposed to have a picnic at the mountains but eventually we simply ate our lunch in a room at the cooperative farm.
Chongsanri Cooperative Farm
It was supposed to be a visit to a proper farm but we only got a brief explanation about the female figure that is in charge of the Cooperative model, had to buy flowers to offer to the Leader’s statue and then went on a very short trip to see the rice paddies.
This was one of the most fascinating parts of the trip. The tombs were discovered in the 70s but have been largely forgotten. They were listed with UNESCO in the early 2000s but receive very few visitors. The Manager arrived quickly, a few minutes after us, when the local guard called him upon our arrival. He was excited to see tourists and admitted the last British tour did not come for the last ten years. He waived the 100 euro fee thanks to our rareness. We got inside the well-preserved chilling tombs and observed the wall murals. On the way to and from the tombs we got lost in the countryside, in a part o the country we feared we should not have seen.
Walk in Dragon Mountain (Ryongak)
Exhausted from the bumpy roads and the many night without sleep, we trekked up the Dragon Mountains with visible fatigue. The park is beautifully green and a wonderful escape from the city.
Drive back to Pyongyang
Dinner of duck barbecue
Farewell dinner of duck BBQ. The guides finally opened up a bit and we shared many scenes of common life.
Kaeson Youth Park Fun Fair
The last night was topped with a visit to one of the two fun fairs. I rode a few of the scary attractions, jumping the queue, after paying an exorbitant 5 euro fee per ride (after the entrance fee). Locals queued, orderly, for their turn. They laughed and enjoyed the evening, much like in an amusement park anywhere in the world.
In what is possibly the most efficient check in and departure procedures I have ever experiences, even better than Singapore’s Changi, we traveled to the airport 1h before departure and made it on time for our flight back to Beijing.
If I would do it again, what would I change? I would avoid the Metro Museum and the 3 Revolutions Exhibition Hall. I would also skip Nampo, fascinating, but not worth the terrible road. Instead, I would visit the mountain parks in the north, much more beautiful and providing insights into the countryside.
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