Date Visited: May 2017
It’s been a few weeks since I departed North Korea and in that time I have been trying to digest all that I felt and experienced. Only now do I feel I’ve reached a point where I can write about my experience. North Korea (or DPRK – Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) was country #170 for me and to say it is unlike anywhere else that I’ve traveled is an understatement. DPRK is not a regular holiday destination – actually you would never come here on a holiday. During my eight day’s trip, I felt emotionally overwhelmed, confused and surprised.
What I experienced certainly challenged my assumptions about the country. Just as the North Koreans face a lifetime of propaganda through their government-controlled media outlets (all four of them), so too, we in the west are exposed to a very biased, exaggerated, negative view of the DPRK – the more negative and sensational – the better. Whenever a foreigner is arrested and detained in North Korea, it makes headline news around the world; foreigners are arrested and detained everyday in different countries for breaking the law but we never hear about those arrests. It’s only a headline because we view North Korea with such suspicion and mistrust, all of which is borne from complete ignorance and misunderstanding.
Propaganda works both ways and during our trip we were shepherded by our North Korean government guide from one dazzling monumental showpiece to another. For eight days, we visited one incredible museum after another and were led from a ‘model school’ to a ‘model farm’ to ‘model factories’. Whilst the government does it’s best to ensure tourists see only the biggest, brightest and the best that the country has to offer, there are plenty of cracks in the shiny veneer, which offer a glimpse of an otherwise ‘less-than-model’ reality. Like everywhere else, there are plenty of social issues affecting the DPRK, but it’s not all negative, as we are constantly led to believe in the West.
If you’ve ever had an inclination to travel to North Korea, then I would encourage you to do so. While the country is viewed in the West as an evil pariah state, ruled by extreme ideological policies (which I in no way support), there’s no greater way to gain a better understanding and put things into context than through your own first-hand travel experience.
Organising a trip is easy and straight-forward (see next section). Once there, you too might find your pre-conceptions challenged. If the hounds of war were replaced by tourist hoards, relations between the DPRK and the rest of the world could be very different.
North Korea is located in East Asia on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula. It shares a land border with China (separated by the Yalu river), Russia and South Korea (separated by the heavily fortified Korean Demilitarised Zone – DMZ). The country is largely mountainous (70%) with heavily farmed coastal plains.
Getting to North Korea
There are no independent travel options for North Korea – you can only travel here on a fully-escorted tour. I chose to travel with Young Pioneer Tours – a China based travel company established by some travel-loving expats to cater for people who would not usually do “group tours”. YPT specialises in budget travel for back-packers and older flash-packers, offering a variety of itineraries to the DPRK. YPT is always creating new and interesting tours, from the Pyongyang Marathon tour to Farming tours and even a Scuba Diving tour. Tour prices include transport, accommodation, all meals plus the services of a YPT guide and your DPRK tour crew. YPT also take care of the DPRK visa application. It’s completely hassle free, with everything being arranged online. You can view their current itineraries here.
One thing I would not recommend are their is short four day trips. People who do these trips often regret it because they only spend two days in DPRK with the other two days involving train travel between Pyongyang and Beijing. How often will you visit a country like North Korea? DPRK is a fascinating destination which deserves more than a couple of days of your time, hence it’s better to book a longer trip. I traveled with YPT for a total of ten days – two days in transit from Beijing to Pyongyang and eight days inside the DPRK. I felt eight days was the optimum amount of time to spend on a tour where you have no freedom of movement.
Beijing to Dandong
On day one of the tour, everyone met at the assigned meeting point in a hotel adjacent to the Beijing Railway station. Here we received a tour briefing from the YPT guides who would accompany us. The first part of the journey to North Korea was on a fast bullet train that departed from Beijing Railway station at 17:15 for the northern city of Shenyang. The 780km journey took six hours. From Shenyang, a bus drove us along a brand new six lane expressway to Dandong – completing the 252km journey in just over two hours. All of this would be a stark contrast to the slow journeys we would make in the following week on the crumbling, archaic DPRK infrastructure.
We arrived in Dandong at 2am where we checked into our hotel with alarms set for an early morning breakfast of Rice Porridge and Tofu at 7am.
After breakfast on day two, our group was led though the streets of Dandong to a very nondescript Chinese immigration building on the banks of the Yalu river. Here, we cleared immigration and boarded a North Korean bus for the short ride across the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge to the North Korean immigration post.
In terms of modernisation and development, there can be no greater contrast than that which exists today between booming China and the slumbering DPRK. In China, we sped through the countryside on newly built, impressive infrastructure, whilst in North Korea we trundled along on rickety, broken infrastructure. The two countries are not just worlds apart, they exist in different ages – one modern and one medieval. The stark contrasts are unbelievable and confounding at times and nowhere more so than on the banks of the Yalu river, which forms the border between China and North Korea. The river separates the bustling Chinese city of Dandong from the quiet, sleepy North Korean city of Sinuiju. Access between the two is via the restricted Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, which has a single lane for traffic and a rail line.
Just to the south of the bridge, is an old iron truss bridge, which was built by the Japanese during their period of occupation. The bridge was bombed and destroyed by the Americans during the Korean war and never repaired by the North Koreans so that the U.S. could not deny they destroyed it. Known today as the Broken Bridge, it spans 3/4 of the river from the Chinese side. Tourists can walk out on the bridge to a viewing platform where they can almost reach out and touch North Korea. North Korean tour boats pass directly below the viewing platform although the North Koreans are not free to travel to the Chinese side of the river.
Entering North Korea
After crossing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, you reach the North Korean immigration post, where the first thing you notice are giant portraits of the former leaders – President Kim Il–sung and General Kim Jong–il fixed to the exterior wall of the Customs building. These are the first of many images of the leaders which you see while travelling around North Korea, where the leaders are treated as gods. It’s interesting to note that there are no images of the current leader, Marshall Kim Jong-un displayed in public. Our guide explained this was due to the fact that the leaders are very humble people and as such their images are only displayed when they have passed away.
The immigration process was very straight-forward and hassle free. We handed over our passports, a completed Arrivals Form and our loose-leaf visa. Our passports and visa were retained by our guides throughout the tour. On the last day everything was returned to us prior to boarding the train to Dandong. The loose-leaf visa is retained when you exit the country, so there is no evidence in your passport that you ever visited DPRK – except for the Chinese stamps on the Dandong border.
The customs process was equally hassle-free. The only difference here, was that all printed publications had to be handed in for review (you can not bring any religious texts/ books or guidebooks which mention North or South Korea into the country – this is because the North Koreans believe there is only ‘one’ Korea). We were also required to hand over all electronic devices. A count/ inventory was made of all devices carried into the country by the group, which had to tally with the number of devices taken out of the country. It’s forbidden to leave any electronic devices in the country.
Touring North Korea
There are currently five different state-run tour companies offering tours of North Korea. You can not visit the country unless you join a tour with one of these companies. Like everything else in North Korea, they are all government owned but compete against each other. YPT uses the services of the Korea International Travel Company (KITC).
Currently about 4,000 to 6,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year, with everyone staying in the same few hotels, following the same sightseeing circuit and eating in the same restaurants. After a while, you start to notice the same familiar faces turning up in different places.
While on tour, all groups are assigned a Driver, Guide and a Minder who chaperone you the entire time. The Guide is always at the front of the group delivering a well rehearsed commentary and is the unlucky one who gets to answer all the inevitably sticky questions. The Minder is always at the rear – keeping a close eye on everyone. If you photograph the wrong thing, the Minder is the one who will ask you to erase the photo and she’ll check to ensure you do.
You will spend most of your day on the bus travelling to a handful of selected sights, stopping for meals at government-run restaurants, where you are fed an amazing bounty of local food (see Eating Out below). Your evenings are spent in large hotel complexes, which you are not allowed to leave (see Accommodation below).
There are certain subjects you can not photograph in North Korea – the most obvious being anything to do with the military. Currently 25% of the population (6,000,000), are actively serving in the armed forces so it’s hard to take a photo without getting someone in uniform in the frame. The one exception to this rule is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where you are allowed to photograph the soldiers. All construction in DPRK is performed by soldiers – often in record time using whole battalions. For this reason you are not allowed to photograph construction sites.
While in DPRK, you give up your right to freedom of movement. If you have a problem being told you can not cross to the other side of the street to take a photo then North Korea is not for you. You are that tightly monitored.
Order & Cleanliness
One thing you notice about North Korea, is how spotlessly clean everything is. Our guide told us that everyone is required to start their day by cleaning up public spaces around their home or office. Often you’ll see locals sweeping a footpath that is already spotlessly clean. This is a requirement that should be implemented in other countries. Strangely you can never find a bin when you need one. One day we passed a large work crew which was carefully arranging the track ballast underneath the railway lines so that not a stone was out of place. This is order and cleanliness on a fanatical scale.
Order and cleanliness extend to all aspects of life. Jeans and other casual ‘western’ clothing are not available in North Korea. While tourists dress casually in t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, North Koreans dress in smart elegant suits or traditional dresses. There are no messy or alternative hairstyles here as the state has approved 28 different ‘acceptable’ styles.
Are the North Koreans Brainwashed Robots?
Yes and no – but we are all products of our environment. We are all shaped by the ideology of the society we were brought up in. If you had spent a lifetime under an extremely repressive regime, isolated from the outside world, receiving your information from state-controlled media, then you too would be brainwashed. It is clear that North Koreans live in a vacuum and know of no other way of life or no other system of government. They are completely isolated from the outside world and hence totally ignorant so they can make no comparison from which to become despondent. They believe their world is normal and the outside world is full of aggressive enemies, whose only desire is to destroy North Korea. They are told the leadership will protect them and they honestly believe it. They have a genuine love for the Kim’s, with everyone wearing a pin badge bearing one or both of them. They line up to bow in front of grand statues of the leaders. On their wedding day, newlyweds lay flowers at the feet of statues of the leaders. The leaders are treated as gods. Is it a cult? Absolutely! But if it was all you knew and you had no means to find out anything different – how would you be?
Are they robots? At times you see them going about their business in a very robotic way. There were times when I felt I was on the movie set of ‘The Stepford Wives’. They don’t look at you – they look through you. They don’t smile, react or respond. They are somehow dis-engaged.
However – just as you think you can pigeon-hole them, they surprise you. Join them in a bar, in a park, at an amusement park, the zoo or anywhere else where they are celebrating or relaxing and you’ll see a more human side to them. Robots they are not! They are friendly, happy, kind, curious and love to party and have fun like anyone else on this planet. In the end, they proved that there are so many commonalities among humanity, no matter where you live or which system of government you live under.
How isolated are North Koreans?
One traveler in our group had purchased a cover for his smartphone, which featured a North Korean flag design. Naturally, it was a big hit with the locals and they wanted one for their phone (North Koreans are able to purchase a locally made mobile phone, which only allows communication within DPRK). When they asked where they could buy the cover, he replied “on the internet”. They looked puzzled and asked, “What’s the internet?”
Each of the eight days was exhausting, with early morning starts and late evening returns. This was no tour for slouches! Most of the tour was based in the capital Pyongyang – an incredibly clean, ordered, pleasant, un-rushed, city of 3 million inhabitants, who live in colourful apartment blocks. There is no denying that the capital is a big show piece with grand, imposing buildings in the communist style and the tour company ensures you visit as many of these sights as possible. Due to the absence of cars in the country, the streets of Pyongyang are very quiet, giving the city a relaxed (clean) air. Ample green spaces and the mighty Taedong river (which bisects the city) add to the relaxed ambiance. Following is a summarised list of the sights we visited:
In Pyongyang we visited:
- Kim Il Sung Square – the famous central square of Pyongyang and the place where everything happens (including the big military parades).
- Foreign Language Bookshop – Located a short walk from the square, this bookshop stocks a range of books about DPRK. If you every wanted to learn more about Juche or the history of the country then you’ll find your reading material here. Books on the DPRK are published in many different languages. The highlight is the selection of hand-painted propaganda posters, which you can purchase.
- Juche Tower – Located on the east bank of the Taedong river, directly opposite Kim Il-sung Square, is the world’s tallest (170-m) stone tower. Built from granite blocks in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party, the tower represents the eternally burning Korean Juche Ideology. You can pay 5 Euros to take a lift to the top of the tower from where you have spectacular outdoor panoramic views of Pyongyang. When we visited there was a local family enjoying the views.
- Monument to Foundation of the Workers Party – This monument was built to symbolise the 50-year anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush symbolise the workers, farmers and intellectuals.
- Victorious War Museum – This is a huge sprawling museum, which covers everything from captured US weapons, to locally used weapons, to an amazing diorama (the Battle of Taejon) and so much more. We were assigned an expert military guide for our visit with the highlight being a visit to the museum’s prize exhibit – the captured USS Pueblo – the only US Naval Ship still held captive by another country.
- Mansudae Art Studio – As you travel around North Korea, you can not help but be impressed by the monumental statues and works of art that adorn every corner of the country. Many of these works are created at Mansudae Art Studio. We had a studio guide assigned to us for a tour where we got to meet some of the resident artists and view new works being created. On the grounds is an impressive statue of the two leaders on horseback – the only one of its kind in the country.
- Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace – This is the largest of the various schoolchildren’s palaces in North Korea. It is managed by the Korea Youth Corps and is dedicated to extra-curricular activities such as singing, dancing, music, handicrafts, computing skills etc. It is definitely another show piece, featuring a 2,000 seat theatre where we watched an amazing performance by the children. It was all very perfect and you couldn’t help but think there is a lot of pressure on them to perform at the highest possible level.
- Korean Film Studio – This studio is the principal producer of films in North Korea. Here we had the chance to visit the various sets (Seoul, China, Japan and Europe) and some of the group dressed up in costume for photos.
- Pyongyang Metro – One of the trip highlights! We had the chance to join North Koreans on their morning commute riding between the only three stations currently open to foreigners. At each stop, we alighted to take photos of the incredibly ornate stations. The North Koreans are incredibly curious, friendly and polite and were always eager to give up their seats for us. Such interactions were a welcome change from the usual ‘rigidness’ of the tour.
- The Arch of Triumph – After the last stop on our metro tour, we surfaced next to the 60m high Arch of Triumph (2nd tallest in the world). Our guide was happy to point out that it’s taller than the one in Paris – and was built in just one year (like so many other monuments in DPRK). The arch was built to celebrate the victory over the Japanese and the return of General Kim Il-sung to his home city.
- Pyongyang Circus – another highlight of the trip was being able to attend a performance of the Pyongyang Circus, for which tickets cost 20 Euros. Thankfully there are no animals in this show, just an amazing line-up of incredible acts by acrobats, a strongman, jugglers, clowns etc.
- Kwanbok Department Store – this is Pyongyang’s largest department store and the one place where tourists can change their hard currency into North Korean Won and shop alongside the locals. It was wonderful to be able to take a break from the touring and do something regular like shopping and eating in a food court alongside North Korean shoppers. The store includes a food court on the top floor and a hot dog and waffle stand on the ground floor plus a supermarket where you can stock up on cheap but good Soju. You can view a Japanese news report on the store here.
- Pyongyang Zoo – We visited the zoo during the busy May Day holiday. The zoo is located on the outskirts of Pyongyang and houses all the regular exhibits plus a strangely impressive collection of dogs. A truly unique exhibit! All cages have a sign in English stating that the animal in the cage was donated to the zoo by either one of the leaders.
- Mt Taesong Amusement park – Another trip highlight! Finally we were allowed to walk around freely, mingle with everyday North Korean families who were at the park to enjoy the May Day holiday. All rides at the park are free, with a priority line available for tourists should they wish to ride a North Korea roller-coaster. The park is huge and it was packed due to the holiday. There were 1000’s of locals enjoying the rides, picnicking, singing Karaoke, dancing and playing sports (football, volleyball, tug-of-war, sack races).
- Moran Hill – (translates as Peony hill) is clearly the venue of choice for Pyongyang families when they want to kick-back, relax, picnic, BBQ, dance, sing Karaoke and enjoy themselves. This was another highlight of the trip and although our guides tried their best to keep us together, it was far too busy and congested to try exercising any sort of group control, with everyone eventually breaking off and doing their own thing. The Koreans love to interact with tourists, inviting you to join their BBQ, drink some Soju or dance with them. It was on Moran Hill that I realised the North Koreans definitely aren’t robots – maybe a little brainwashed. There were sparks in the eyes of the people on the hill that day and it is something i’ll always remember. It was a wonderful moment and a great day to be in North Korea!
- International Friendship Exhibition Hall – This massive granite palace showcases gifts that were given to the North Korean leaders from both North and South Koreans, world leaders and different organisations. It’s one big display aimed at legitimising the regime. The display halls are filled with works of art which span the spectrum from impressive/ incredible to cheap/ tacky. Absolutely no cameras or other recording devices are allowed into the hall. We were free to take a photo of the exterior of the building (included below) but we were not free to turn around and take a photo of the country lane which leads to the hall. When asked why, our guide could provide no explanation but told us the guards will not allow it.
- North Korean Science & Technology Centre – This massive showpiece was built in a year (of course!) by the The Korean People’s Army who were drafted in to speed up construction. This sight was not originally on our itinerary but when we learnt that we could see a life-size replica of the rocket that launched North Korea’s first satellite, we all wanted to visit. Arranged around the rocket are banks of terminals where local visitors can access the North Korean intranet – The Kwangmyong. Because the internet is blocked in North Korea, the government developed a local, sanitised intranet, which provides access to a few government-controlled sites. In the centre there are also scientific displays and a learning centre for children. During our visit there was a school group in attendance who were enjoying the interactive displays.
Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
In a week that was full of highlights, it’s hard to nominate the most impressive highlight but our visit to the DMZ is up there.
Understanding the DMZ
Technically speaking, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a 4km wide buffer zone that spans the border, running from coast to coast. The actual border is known as the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) and runs through the centre of the DMZ. In most places, the MDL is not accessible due to active minefields. We visited the Joint Security Area (JSA), also known as the “Truce Village”. The JSA is the only place where the two Koreas are accessible.
The DMZ is a two hour (180km) drive south of Pyongyang at the end of the (eerily quiet) Reunification highway. On the outskirts of Pyongyang, we passed under the imposing granite Arch of Reunification, which was opened in 2001 to commemorate reunification proposals put forward by Kim Il-sung.
At the halfway point, we stopped at a roadside service centre (Sohung Rest House) which consisted of a few outdoor tables and chairs setup in a car park. There was a kiosk selling tea, coffee and snacks and a few souvenir stands. This was purely a convenience for tourists with the only locals in attendance being the service centre attendants.
As you get closer to the DMZ, military checkpoints begin to appear in rapid succession. Strictly no photography is allowed around the checkpoints. Ninety-nine percent of visitors to the DMZ visit from South Korea – being able to visit from the North is something special. The first stop was at the main gate where we were assigned a young general who conducted the tour of the zone. Our bus parked on a sunken concrete section of road which is where the minefield is located. As the road is the only break in the minefield, it is lined with huge concrete blocks which are supported by wooden supports. In the event of an invasion, the wooden supports can be removed so the concrete blocks fall onto the road blocking it. Strictly no photography is allowed here.
After the guide explained the layout of the DMZ, we re-boarded our bus (along with our guide) and drove a short distance to the North Korea Peace Museum – the venue for the signing of the Armistice Agreement on 27 July 1953.
Next stop was the Joint Security Area (JSA) – where we were able to enter one of the huts which lie directly on the MDL. In the centre of the hut, is a table which sits on the border – this is used for any discussions between the two sides. A row of microphones on the table mark the MDL. Inside the hut, visitors are able to move freely between North and South Korea. Two North Korean soldiers guard the South Korean exit door, ensuring no one leaves through the wrong door.
After visiting the hut, we visited Panmungak Pavilion, where we were led to a balcony from which we had a view of the JSA, including the opposing South Korean pavilion – Freedom house. From here we returned to the main gate, dropped off our DMZ guide and continued north to the city of Kaeson.
JSA – the Movie
JSA is one of the most popular and highest grossing movies in South Korea. This moving story focuses on an investigation into the circumstances surrounding a fatal shooting incident within the DMZ and the friendship that develops between two soldiers – one from the north and one from the south.
After touring the DMZ, we back-tracked to the southern city of Kaeson (pop: 200,000). Kaeson is a provincial capital but previously it was the capital of Korea during the Koryo (from where the name ‘Korea’ is derived) kingdom.
The city is a short drive north of the DMZ and during the initial partitioning of the peninsula along the 38th parallel Kaesong was on the southern side of the line (within South Korea). However during the first days of the Korean war, North Korean forces captured the city. As part of the Korean Armistice Agreement, North Korea was handed control of the city.
Our stop in Kaeson was brief, with enough time to visit the Koryo Museum (Korea’s first university and now a museum of history and culture) followed by lunch at the Thongil Restaurant where we were able to try Dog Soup (see the ‘Eating out’ section for more on this experience).
While in Pyongyang, we made a half day trip to Phyongsong, which is located 32km northwest of the capital and is famous as a centre for scientific learning and education generally.
In Phyongsong we visited:
- Kim Jong Suk Middle School Number 1 – named after Kim Il-sung’s first wife, we toured this school with the principal who showed us a “model” of the model school and introduced us to an English language class where we had an “impromptu” interaction with the students. We were free to interact with them, ask questions etc.
- While in Pyhongsong, we toured the Paeksonri Foodstuffs factory – this factory produces a wide variety of goods, however – just like the mineral water factory – the production lines were idle at the time of our visit. We were able to buy food products from the factory shop.
Located on the west coast of the DPRK, 50km southwest of Pyongyang is the major port city of Nampo (pop. 366,000). While we didn’t get to visit any sites in the city itself, we toured the following sites in the surrounding area:
- Chongsan Co-operative farm – located halfway between Pyongyang and Nampo, this co-op has been declared a model farm by the state. The farm produces crops, vegetables, fruits, rice, corn and bean. We toured a number of green houses where vegetables were being grown. The farm has been visited by both former leaders and a massive monument at the front of the farm commemorates Kim il-sung’s 15-day stay at the farm in 1960, where he reportedly delivered ‘direct advice’ to the farmers. Often, when our guides mentioned that a leader visited a certain place, the reason for the visit was to give ‘direct advice’. The leaders are regarding by the people as being truly omnipotent.
- Kangso Mineral water factory – also located halfway between Pyongyang and Nampo, this is considered North Korea’s treasured resource. Hundreds of metres beneath the factory are large aquifers of pure water that have been naturally carbonated by carbon dioxide (CO2) trapped deep underground. The factory bottles this naturally carbonated water and exports it to China. At the time of our visit the production lines were idle but we were assured the factory had already met it’s daily quota (30,000 bottles) prior to our arrival. We were able to photograph the idle production line and sample a bottle of water which could be described as the ‘San Pellegrino‘ of North Korea.
- Located 15-km from Nampo city, the massive West Sea Barrage was built to separate the Taedong River (which passes through Pyongyang) and the West Sea, thus protecting the inland from floods and ensuring the fresh river water is not contaminated by salt water. The 8-km long barrage has effectively turned the river into a large lake, which provides a sustainable water supply for local agriculture. We visited the visitor centre, which is located on a nearby hill, where a guide showed us a model of the dam and then we watched a propaganda video on the ‘almighty effort‘ involved in the construction of the dam.
On the return journey to Pyongyang from Nampo, we visited Sariwon City where we toured Sariwŏn Folklore Street. The street was constructed during Kim-Jong-il’s reign with the aim to display an ideal picture of ancient Korea. It was one of the least interesting sights we visited during our 8 days. You’re able to walk up to a small hilltop pagoda, which provides a panoramic view of the city. Tourists are kept in one small enclosed compound and are not allowed to walk around the busy, bustling town.
During the 8-day trip we spent six nights in Pyongyang , where we stayed in two different hotels and one night on the outskirts of the seaside city of Nampo. You have no say as to where you stay while in North Korea. All hotel arrangements are made by the DPRK tour company. Each evening you are delivered back to your hotel after your day of sightseeing and you are required to remain in the hotel – no sneaking out.
Yanggakdo International Hotel
We stayed at three different properties, the most impressive was the Yanggakdo International hotel, which is located at the end of an island in the middle of the Taedong river in downtown Pyongyang. The view out of my window on the 23rd floor was incredible. With more than 1,000 rooms, the hotel is the biggest in North Korea and has the best facilities by far. On the 47th floor there is a revolving restaurant and bar. In the lobby there are more bars, restaurants, post office, mini-market, book shop, handicraft store and more. In the basement there’s a Karaoke lounge, ten-pin bowling lanes, swimming pool, ping-pong, gym, swimming pool, sauna and more. It’s surprising to see North Koreans (the privileged few) also enjoying these facilities. They are very competitive at bowling and ping-pong. Breakfast was served each morning in a huge Barbie-pink dining hall, which featured an immense wood paneled scene of a typical North Korean forest setting on one of it’s walls.
After returning to Pyongyang from Nampo, we stayed at the smaller (510 rooms) Sosan Hotel. The hotel is located away from town in the sports village so it’s popular with visiting sports teams (mainly African). Unlike the Yanggakdo, there are few facilities so evenings are quieter and more relaxed. Breakfast each morning was pretty woeful, consisting of a selection of overly-processed Asian breakfast options.
For our one evening away from Pyongyang, we stayed at a wellness hotel – Ryonggang Spa Resort, which is located 20-km northwest of Nampo. Upon arrival, we were once again advised that we had to remain on the hotel grounds, which (no doubt for our safety) are surrounded by a high concrete security wall with a guard posted at the main gate.
This wellness resort is set in a tranquil, natural setting with lots of trees, walking trails and a pond where some of the staff enjoy fishing. There’s a tennis court and night time activities include billiards, ping-pong and a video shooting game.
The decor is so retro its kind of cool and it all feels like you’re visiting grandma’s house. The bathrooms contain a private mineral spa, which apparently supply piping hot mineral water – I tried the spa but only ever got spurts of cold water. The rooms are centrally heated, with the heating dialed up to ‘sauna hot’. I could not find any control button in the room to adjust the heat so I slept with the balcony door open. This fierce heating is supplied to every part of the room, including under the floor and in your bed (these are as hard as a marble slab). I left my bag on the floor overnight, by morning it was cooked. It was here that we got to try Petrol Clams (see the following section).
What’s the issue with the Ryugyong Hotel?
While driving around Pyongyang it’s hard not to notice the towering Ryugyong Hotel. At 105-stories (330-metres), this pyramid-shaped glass skyscraper dominates the entire skyline. Construction commenced in 1987 and has been halted twice. At the time of my visit (May 2017) construction was still ongoing, which – in a country that’s obsessed with completing grand projects – is odd. I asked my guide when was the hotel due to be completed? She replied “In time for your next visit”. 🙄
From dog soup to petrol clams….
As with hotels, you have no say as to where you eat while in North Korea. Everything is organised in advance by your tour company. One day we had lunch at KITC Restaurant #1, another day we had dinner at KITC Restaurant #3. We always had plenty of food on the table – lots of fresh salads, ample meat, the ubiquitous kimchi and plenty of rice. Throughout the country you see people working by hand in the fields. All arable land is under cultivation and because it’s done by hand, every little corner or land is farmed. There is very little machinery involved, save for the odd tractor, all of which were relics from a previous age.
One of the odd things about dining in North Korea is that after most meals the restaurant staff dim the lights, turn on the mirror ball, crank up the sound system and perform North Korean karaoke hits. Koreans love to sing and often have amazing voices. Our guide would occasionally sing Korean folks songs for us on the bus while on the way back to our hotel after dinner – she had a beautiful singing voice.
Breakfast each morning was served at the hotel. Lunch and dinner were always served in a pre-arranged restaurant. During our 8 days we were treated to many fine meals. The one thing lacking in North Korea is fresh fruit- occasionally we were served slices of apple for desert.
Culinary highlights included the opportunity to eat dog soup at the Thongil Restaurant (Reunification Restaurant) in Kaeson. The soup was spicy, which hid the real taste of the meat and distracted you from the fact that you were eating a puppy. Everyone ordered the soup but I believe no one finished it.
Another culinary highlight was served at the Ryonggang Spa Resort in Nampo, where we were offered the chance to try Petrol Clams. What are these? Clams cooked with petrol of course – why steam or bake when you can douse them in fuel. It was a lot of fun and our driver of many talents – Mr Lee – was our chef for this experience. The clams were carefully laid out on a hot plate (with their mantles turned upwards so no petrol would seep in), then covered with petrol and ignited. More and more petrol is added until the clams have been cooked. They tasted very good, with not a hint of petroleum aftertaste.
North Koreans love their beer and on two occasions we had the chance to sample local craft beers (all excellent) at two different microbreweries in Pyongyang; Taedonggang Brewery #3 and the Rakwon Microbrewery. Pints cost just .50 cents and included ales, pilsners, lagers and stouts. While at the Yanggakdo Hotel, my nightly ritual included a pint of Yanggakdo Hotel Draught Beer (a very smooth golden blonde ale) each evening in the lobby bar. This was the perfect way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing. North Koreans love celebrating and will always encourage you to join in – whether it’s a wedding party, karaoke or dancing. They are not shy!
Everyone needs a visa to visit North Korea. If you apply at an embassy in a foreign country you will be issued with a visa in your passport and that visa will be stamped. If you apply through a tour operator such as YPT, your visa will be issued on a loose-leaf sheet, which will be stamped and retained when you exit, leaving no evidence in your passport that you ever visited North Korea.
International flights arrive at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, located 24 kilometres from downtown Pyongyang. It’s the hub for Air Koryo – the national carrier who, due to US and EU sanctions, maintains a fleet of Russian Antonov aircraft and has the unfortunate distinction of being rated the worlds only one-star airline by Skytrax.
The following airlines offer flights to/ from Pyongyang:
- Air China – Flights to Beijing–Capital
- Air Koryo – Flights to Beijing–Capital, Shanghai–Pudong, Shenyang, Vladivostok
- Train number K27 runs between Beijing and Pyongyang, departing at 17:27 from Beijing Railway Station every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
- Train number K28 runs between Pyongyang and Beijing, departing at 10:10 from Pyongyang Railway Station every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.
The 1,364-km trip takes about 25 hours.
The Pyongyang metro is incredible and a ‘must see’ sight and experience while in the capital. We were fortunate to be able to spend an hour riding to a few (selected) stops. Here you will get to rub shoulders with normal North Koreans going about their daily commute. It’s fascinating. Like metro systems in other former-socialist metropolises (e.g. Moscow) the stations on the Pyongyang metro are works of art- full of impressive, slogan-ed mosaics and statues of the dear leader. It’s propaganda gone wild.
As in any other country, there are public buses operating in North Korea but tourists don’t get to ride them. You will spend a lot of time on your private tour bus though.
There are many taxis operating in Pyongyang, but like the buses – tourists don’t get to use them.
Forget about renting a car! There is little private car ownership in North Korea, which means the streets are eerily quiet. Often we were travelling on empty 8-lane expressways when outside Pyongyang. The few cars that do exist tend to belong to the military, government-run companies and organisations.
There is an automotive industry in North Korea, with Pyeonghwa Motors (Korean for peace) in the city of Nampo producing 1,600 vehicles a year. It’s estimated there are just 30,000 vehicles in North Korea serving a total population of 25,000,000.
Author: Darren McLean
Owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer.
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