Trip to North Korea in 2016. - Part 1
Hello and welcome back If you watched my previous videos about visiting Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, you saw that I like exclusion zones. This time I wanted to make a full recount of a visit to another exclusion zone - North Korea. Officially called Democratic People's Republic Of Korea, it is also known as the "hermit kingdom" and is infamous for being one of the most isolated countries in the world. Visiting it was on my travel list for a long time. I made a decision to make it a reality in 2016.
Getting in the country was actually far easier than I thought. Standard protocol dictates that there can be no "individual guests" in North Korea. Every tourist coming into the country needs to go through the main North Korean travel agency. They are at all times aware where all the foreigners in the country are. Couple of international agencies cooperate with the agency and in that way I booked my trip through Lupine travel from the United Kingdom. Trip to North Korea is just a part of their offer as they specialize in tours to unusual and often dangerous destinations.
On their list they have Chernobyl, Kazakhstan, Antarctica, Iran… Even Croatian neighbour Albania used to be on their list. At that time, they organised tours approximately once a month during the whole year. They try to make every tour centred around some of the holidays or events held in North Korea at that time. Like May Day, Victory day and others.
In February you could even go and ski there. That tour included a two day trip to a ski resort up north in the country. The tour I selected was pretty standard and included the usual - attractions in Pyongyang and a couple of day excursions. I sent them all the required information, got the confirmation and the instructions to meet with the rest of the group on the other side of the world, at the Beijing train station.
After flying from Dubrovnik to Zagreb and from there to Vienna and to Beijing, I covered the last part of the journey by train to the centre of Beijing. Local representative of Lupine travel gathered us and boarded us in the overnight train. When I was reserving the tickets, there was an option to upgrade my train ticket to a "soft sleeper" without any further explanations. Luckily I did upgrade it so I got a bunk in a four bed compartment with doors to the hallway.
Regular version of the ticket got you a bunk in a six bed compartment with no doors to the hallway. One guy from our group got stuck on the top bunk with five older Chinese guys who were cooking, smoking, laughing, drinking and playing cards under him the whole night. We needed to travel from Beijing to the border town of Dandong.
As non-American tourists to North Korea we had a choice to travel to Pyongyang by train or by plane. American tourists MUST use a plane to get there. They fly with Air Koryo, North Korea's only airline which operates old Soviet planes. In my opinion, travelling by train was a better choice as we got to see more countryside in China and Korea.
Also, we all got a chance to meet other people from the group. There were people from all over the world. I was the only one from the Balkans but there were people from Slovakia, France, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Finland, Brazil, India, South Korea, Australia… All of them were drawn here by the appeal of the "country which is most difficult to visit". Most of them did this tour as a part of their travel through Asia. In the morning, we arrived at Dandong. The city is situated on the river separating the People's Republic of China and North Korea.
At the time, it was the main hub for North Korea's foreign trade. After coming to power in 2011., Kim Jong Un started to implement economic reforms to improve the economic situation of his country. North Korean merchants started to travel to China much easier and they started bringing back more goods.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un also resumed the development of nuclear weapons and got more sanctions. Still, trade continued through Dandong. When Covid epidemic became too big of a danger, the border was closed to stop the spread of the disease to North Korea.
Their already strained economy and health system suffered a major hit and will again take a long time to recover. We met the Chinese guides of Lupine travel, two young girls who will travel with us during the whole stay in North Korea. Usually there was only one, but this group was unusually large so they sent two.
There were about 40 of us in total. My part of the group was led by a very young Chinese girl who said that we call her Sicily. This was her first time ever abroad. I was a bit worried in the beginning as we were going to North Korea, after all.
However, in the end she sometimes turned out to be more resourceful than the other guide to which this was her third time to DPRK. We needed to wait a couple of hours for our train to North Korea. Together with us there were various Chinese and Korean businessmen travelling to Korea. They were taking bags full of goods with them. We could see food, shoes, clothes and various cheap plastic toys. I examined the tickets for the train we were given.
They contained a very unusual combination of languages - Korean, Russian and German. Probably from the times of communist East Germany. At the start we were delayed because of one Brazilian from our group - Roberto Rodrigues. He is a world traveller and already had a ton of exciting stories. One of them was how he even got there. In short, and if I remember correctly; he was travelling through Africa and met a guy in Mali who was an honorary Chinese consul there.
He befriended him and the consul said he must visit his country, China. He opened a temporary embassy and issued him a visa for the trip. While Roberto was in China, he decided to drop by North Korea as well and joined our trip. The issue was that we all needed a double entry visa; one for arriving in China and the other to return back from Korea. As Roberto had only a single entry visa, he would have to stay behind in North Korea.
It took him about 45 minutes to negotiate the thing with Chinese officials but in the end they let him go through and promised that they would allow him back. The entire train to Korea was in “six beds in a compartment” configuration. We finally set off across the “Bridge of friendship” which is built across the river which separates the two countries. We entered North Korea and stopped at a train station about 200 metres after crossing the bridge.
We needed to go through an inspection which took about two hours. We were warned in advance about what we are not allowed to bring with us. Actually, the list was not big. Any publications in the Korean language are prohibited.
Most likely because the majority of the population is not speaking any other language. So if we brought something in English, not many people could read it. Another thing that was prohibited were any religious materials. The last prohibited items were any pornographical materials. We were allowed to have books, magazines, smartphones, cameras...
We could take pictures without limitation, just not of the military personel, officials or official buildings. We soon found out that that posed a bit of a challenge and we needed to be careful. The thing is that in North Korea we did not see any police, traffic control, customs officials, border police… All those roles were done by soldiers and officers.
One soldier went through the compartments and collected our visas and passports. After him, an officer was assigned to each compartment and started the inspection. They were all very kind and polite, and were smiling. But they were very thorough.
They didn’t speak English and none of us spoke Korean so communicating was a bit challenging. The officer made a list of all the publications we had with us. He also wrote down all the devices we had with us that could take pictures or video or record locations. One of the guys from our group had visited South Korea before going on this trip. While there, he got a package of tissues with quotes from the Bible written in Korean. The soldier found it in his pocket.
He became petrified as he obviously forgot about it despite warnings. We also felt uneasy as we didn’t know what would happen next. Soldier just said that it was not allowed and that he had to take it. We were all relieved as it all went through without problems.
That was actually the only thing that they confiscated in our group. They also took a toy drone from one of the Chinese merchants that was travelling in the same train with us. After the control, we started the ride to the capital, Pyongyang. Through the windows we observed the countryside. Next to the tracks we could notice that they tried to plant trees. Maybe it was done to try to limit the view from the train.
In the distance we could see numerous villages. Mostly, the roads were not paved and the few vehicles were travelling through the dirt. People from those villages were going around mostly on foot. Very few of them had bicycles and used them to transport their belongings around. We often stopped at local train stations and observed the surroundings.
It seemed that they were heating local trains by burning fires under the floors. When it got dark, we saw that whole villages stayed in the dark. During the journey, a trolley with refreshments was making rounds. We could buy some chips, drinks and even local beer. We later saw that these are the only two varieties of beer available in the country; number one and number two. Difference was the number on the label and the percentage of alcohol they contained.
When we arrived at Pyongyang central station, it was already evening. A very large station looked under-utilised. We arrived with one of the few train lines operating and the only international one.
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, there were connections all the way to Moscow, but at the time of our visit, Dandong was the only regular one. We met with our guides and were boarded into buses. As we were such a large group, we were divided into two smaller groups of 20 people each. Each bus had three guides that were with us at all times. The group I was in was entrusted to miss Lee, mister Kim and mister Sung. Miss Lee talked to us the most.
Mr. Kim spoke on a couple of occasions. The older mr. Sung was mostly chilling at the back of the bus. They were all very friendly during the whole stay.
Miss Lee welcomed us to Pyongyang city and her English was quite good. She said that everything is extremely safe and that there is nothing to be afraid of. The three of them were there with us every moment of the tours just to make sure everything was going as smoothly as possible. She also said that we can ask any questions we might have. She also added that they know there are a lot of misconceptions about their country and that they would be happy to disprove them. We did our best in the coming days.
She gave us some general information about the city and the country and said that we are going to have dinner. We drove through the streets of the city which were mostly dark. Only some intersections were illuminated. We drove to the other side of the river and stopped in front of a restaurant. From what we could tell, it was located on a small hill.
Across the river there was a street which was brightly illuminated. Miss Lee asked us if we had noticed it. She explained that that is Scientist street. Those were new apartments which were built by the order of Kim Jong Un for the brightest minds of the country.
They gave the apartments to them free of charge so they can live there. Roberto asked her “Wouldn’t that be dangerous? What if something happened?” She did not understand. “What if some accident happened, like fire, or flood or an earthquake? Wouldn't it be dangerous to put all those smart people on one place?” She assured us “No! No accident ever happen.” We went into the restaurant and sat down by the tables. The decorations of the restaurant reminded me of wedding saloons of Balkan region.
Our hosts were all young ladies and they said they were very happy to see us. They even spontaneously sang us a song, with an accompanying dance routine. Name of the song could be translated as “Nice to see you” or “We are glad (to see/meet you)”.
It was their megahit from 1995 and became a regular thing in every single restaurant we visited during our stay. The food we had was also a typical representation of our meals in North Korea in the days to come. Every meal consisted of a large number of micro-meals. Just a couple of spoons of soup, or one chicken leg, or one piece of tofu.
Portions were small but there were a lot of them so we weren’t hungry. Still, it was an usual situation that there were 4 of us sitting by the table and we would get a potato sliced into 4 pieces. So, for example, if I would take one more, somebody would be left out. Seconds were out of the question. After the dinner we went by bus to our hotel.
The name of the hotel is Yanggakdo and it is isolated on the island in the middle of the river which flows through the city. We all got a roommate as we all got twin rooms. My roommate was a cool British gentleman and we got along nicely. Officially, the hotel is categorized as having five stars. Sometimes, it is even boasted as being the best hotel in the whole of the DPRK.
I must say, never before or after did I have the privilege of staying in the best hotel in the whole country. Also, I must say that every country has its own standards. Still, rooms were comfortable and filled with furniture from the early nineties. That first evening we all went for a drink to the advertised rotating restaurant on the top floor.
This technology of rotating restaurants is very popular in these parts of the world but was new to me. While looking at the city under me, I realized I was in the middle of one of the most notorious countries in the world. I felt like I was standing on the surface of some foreign planet.
PART TWO COMING SOON