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Spending just four days in North Korea left TPG contributor Daan van Rossum with enough memories to last a lifetime. These are some of the highlights of a government-controlled trip through one of the most hermetically sealed countries in the world. (All photos are by the author).
After an eventful flight on Air Koryo from Beijing to Pyongyang, we realized we had gained an extra half hour since North Korea recently instituted its own time zone, Pyongyang Time — separate from South Korea’s — giving us even more time to enjoy the country!
And enjoy we did. One of our most remarkable discoveries was just how incredibly beautiful this country is. As we were driven to and from the hotel and attractions all over North Korea, we were continuously treated to stunning views like this one, below. Mountains, fields, a bit of water here and there — the natural beauty was undeniable.
Our entourage consisted of about 10 Chinese tourists, a driver and two guides who all made sure we were never out of sight. Beyond making sure we didn’t run off — they had confiscated our passports immediately upon arrival anyway! — it was also our guides’ job to tell us the “real story” of North Korea.
The first story we heard set the tone for what was to come. Korea, the guides told us, was decimated during the war and Western media, never lacking an appetite to put down the country, said it would take at least 100 years to rebuild. Well, guess what? They did it in just 10! Bonus fact: The only road south to Seoul is aptly named Reunification Highway.
On our first night, we did a guided excursion to a larger-than-life set of statues for the President — a loving nickname that everyone uses to refer to beloved leader Kim Il-sung (the position, by the way, was actually abolished after his death) and the General — beloved leader Kim Jong-il.
It seems only reasonable to not show up empty-handed when you visit two giant bronze statues of such beloved idols of god-like status here in North Korea — note, ironically, that in his Juche manifesto, Kim Il-sung condemned any form of religion, as mankind is a conscious being, able to decide its own destiny. We were directed to a small booth selling plastic flowers that we could buy for about $5 each.
While the North Korean won is not to be distributed outside its homeland, they had no qualms whatsoever accepting any currency you may have on you. Paying in RMB for something that was quoted in won and getting your change in either USD or euro was a common occurrence. Sorry point earners but as you may expect, there are no credit card payments available anywhere in North Korea, although there have been recent reports of a local credit card system in place.
Sleeping happens in the tourist and guides-only Yanggakdo Hotel, which is built on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, ensuring tourists won’t be able to wander off on their own.
The hotel is clearly about 10 times too big for the number of people that its owner could possibly ever imagine receiving, which is in line with much of we saw and heard during our time in North Korea. Everything is about mass, greatness and scale.
While it didn’t provide us with the most comfortable beds or tasty breakfasts (yikes!), the hotel did treat us to stunning views of the river in the morning.
Even on a Monday, there was very little traffic as cars are almost non-existent in North Korea and the city coming to life mostly consisted of people starting to walk and bike everywhere.
In Pyongyang, everyone walks. For the lucky few, there are buses — without exception, the lines were dramatically long and the buses incredibly crowded.
Another key mode of transportation here is the bike. Living in Vietnam, I’m used to being surrounded by motor scooters but from what I’ve heard, it’s only been 10 years since bikes were the most common sight on the streets of Saigon. After having visited Pyongyang, I feel like I’ve gotten a sense of what that must have been like.
Spotted from the road: Band practice. Kids enjoy a mandatory 12-year curriculum where they spend the morning in the classroom learning and go outside each afternoon for extracurricular activities. That sounded quite exciting until we realized it was mostly for band practice, choir, marching and the like.
But hey, you have to be prepared for those massive Arirang Festivals, right? Our guide actually turned out to have participated in one of the mass games. It took her and her squad three full months to train for their routine — only 1,000 performers were professionals, others were volunteers like herself.
Just as we saw many employees walking down to the subway earlier that day, we now were treated to a train ride ourselves. Of course it’s easy to compare the station and its trains to other metro systems of this world, but that wouldn’t be all too fair, would it? Instead, the guides opted to compare theirs to the Moscow subway, but not without mentioning that many people in the world believe Pyongyang’s version is better, of course.
Each subway station has a certain theme linked to the country and its history. Our stop was at the reunion-themed station, where Chihuly-esque glass hanging from the ceiling represented fireworks.
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You can’t travel in Asia without obsessing over the food. Unfortunately, the meals in North Korea haven’t changed much from what we saw in the now-infamous VICE documentary about traveling to North Korea.
Again, it’s all about showing abundance. While the photo below shows off a very common table set-up in South Korea as well, it’s good to keep in mind that that’s a country where many people can afford this level of extravagance and no one is experiencing starvation. Of course we don’t know for sure whether the opposite is the case in North Korea, but it seemed obvious that food scarcity is an issue that at least some people still have to deal with.
While most of the food wasn’t particularly tasty, it always felt sinful even sitting down at a table decked out like this. So did complaining about the food. Or leaving dishes untouched, which I have to admit, we did. Of course we did finish the beer that was supplied with every meal. After all, you can’t be too rude, right?
We end with probably the most bizarre part of our entire trip, which unfortunately is a place where we weren’t allowed to take photos once we went inside. The International Friendship Exhibition Hall is about a two-hour drive from Pyongyang, and in 150 rooms on 70,000 square meter shows off a fascinating collection of presents sent to the Dear Leaders from pretty much every country in the world, or so we were told.
On closer inspection, it turns out those presents mostly come from the counties, but are not sent by anyone officially linked to those countries’ political leadership — with the exception of world leaders like Vladimir Putin, Robert Mugabe, and Fidel Castro. I don’t know if you remember the scene from the movie Goodfellas where the FBI is taking down license plate numbers of mobsters attending the wedding? This was similar in that it felt like reading a who-is-who of all that’s wrong in the world between all the gifts from oil companies, trade organizations and the above-mentioned dubious characters.
Among my favorite gifts were the basketballs and jersey that Dennis Rodman presented to the Marshall (current ruler Kim Jong-un) on his visit to North Korea. Our guide was quick enough to tell us that while Dennis Rodman was already famous in the US, it was his friendship with Kim Jung-un that made him a worldwide phenomenon. It has also helped them tell the real story about the DPRK and communicate their leader’s long-cherished wish of a peaceful reunification with South Korea.
With that sight we came to the end of our tour and jetted back to Singapore via Beijing. It was certainly worth the investment in money, time and stress — we just couldn’t get used to being so restricted for days on end. That being said, I would still recommend the trip to anyone who has the chance to take it.
Have you ever been to North Korea? What has your experience as a tourist been like?
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