Trip duration: 1 week | Approx cost: £500 + flights to Beijing | When: All year round
Doinit factor: Be one of a handful of visitors to this surreal and unusual country!
It is 9 am and I find myself standing on a platform in Asia. Surreal. I had never been anywhere near Asia yet somehow I found myself standing, waiting for a train in Dandong, China with what I hope was a return ticket to Pyongyang, North Korea. The trip I had been planning for, the trip I had longed to experience and hoped would not be a true reflection of Western portrayal, the trip I can safely say would be a once in a lifetime opportunity was a mere train ride away.
Arriving in Pyongyang
The day started with meeting our fellow travellers that would accompany my friend Ryan and I to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) also known as North Korea. I had always seen myself as a bit of an outsider when it came to my fascination with North Korea, especially at my age, but I was pleasantly surprised to be surrounded by enthusiasts of similar ages from all around the World who were all as fascinated with the Hermit Kingdom as I am. Everyone had the same question on their lips, “…why are you travelling to North Korea?” and without any thought the answers were unanimous. “It’s different…it’s North Korea!” Then everyone broke out into discussion about the literature they had gone through and the hardships the North Korean people experience on a day to day basis.Standing at the platform it became apparent that the famines of the mid 1990’s which at had wiped out at between 600,000 to 3.5 million North Koreans have left a lasting effect on today’s population. The North Koreans boarding the train were un-mistakable.
Standing at an average 5 foot tall, wearing the clothes of a 7 foot individual, malnourishment had clearly stunted their growth. It was unbelievable still to be standing in the company of this nationality. We boarded the train and found ourselves bunched together with the other foreigners, 10 in the same carriage and the same number of compartments. With no seats, everyone jumped into their bunk and gazed out the window as the train pulled away. Within minutes, we were crossing the Sino Bridge, over the icy Yalu River. To our surprise, running parallel, a bridge was carrying traffic. We could only assume this was bringing in trade in an apparent lifeline to North Korea. Traffic between nations is not something that would usually arouse interest or suspicion but I couldn’t help but wonder what was being transported and what would happen should a westerner try and cross in their personal vehicle.
Above: Sino Bridge over the icy Yalu River | Dan about to board the train to DPRK | The Chinese side of the bank is well developed
Before I had time to pass judgement, the train had passed a water park which was visible from the river banks on the Chinese side of the Yalu River. Today, there were no children, no sounds of laughter and no sign of any life. Sure it was the middle of February and temperatures had dropped to -15 degrees, but signs could tell this was not a waterpark that had ever seen any use. In fact, it was nothing more than something you may see in a Hollywood set, a façade. Hollow frames and rusty swings invisible to the naked eye from a distance had tried to disguise the harsh reality of life inside the DPRK. It was then when one of our compatriots had pointed out a line of villas along the river slightly further afield. Another façade, as she took out her camera and showed us zoomed in pictures she had taken from the Chinese river banks.
Just five minutes after leaving the station at Dandong, the train grew to a halt and we had reached the North Korean border post. We were now for the first time on North Korean soil – a feat in itself. It seemed to be built around a small village or town and we could for the first time see the lifestyle of the North Korean people. Wearing thick winter coats, their faces wore the expressions of hardship yet maintained blank appearances. They stood in groups, huddled around each other completely ignoring the cluster of westerners gazing at them.
I couldn’t help but think they would be non-the-wiser if we had filled it out with quotes from a Harry Potter book…
Border guards engulfed the train and went about their business. We were given immigration papers in Korean to fill out. I couldn’t help but think they would be non-the-wiser if we had filled it out with quotes from a Harry Potter book, but with some luck and help from two Chinese students who were accompanying us on the trip we filled out the forms. Systematically (how else in DPRK), the guards made their way through the carriages until they had reached us. Surely, we were now in line for a thorough search. A bulky officer sat next to us and tried his hand at interacting. He spoke no English but after a few nervous laughs and giggles, the ice was truly broken and the mask of authority and order disappeared. He prodded our bags with a hunch of curiosity rather than purpose and stumbled across my friend’s iPad. He eyes gleamed with anticipation and without knowing what he was doing; he started tapping the screen with his finger. It was astounding to see that in the 21st Century; here was an individual who was amazed with what this was. Rather amusingly an image of a primate popped into my head which quickly vanished to the theme of Justin Timberlake. In his quest to explore the tablet he had reached Ryan’s music selection and was now smiling and laughing as Western pop filled the compartment. Satisfied that this wasn’t anything suspicious, he returned it, raised his hand into a salute and came out with the only words you want to hear in North Korea, “…thank you”. In the compartment adjacent, the follow Brits weren’t having the same luck we were. There bags were being picked apart and every detail was examined. One had been escorted of the train and into an official building without any idea of what was happening. We mumbled to each other wondering what could be wrong at such an early stage of this trip. Anguish grew on the faces of his friends and I can only imagine what he was feeling like in this scenario. Had this happened at any other border, a second thought wouldn’t have passed but we knew anything was possible here. 10 minutes passed and we saw him being escorted back to the train, his eyes focused on the carriage, not making eye contact. We never got the full extent of what had happened however to our understanding, he was questioned about the western DVD’s and music he had been carrying in his suitcase – a crime punishable by imprisonment and hard labour should it fall into a North Korean’s hands.
Above: Our first glimpse into North Korea, we see what appears to be a ‘fake’ amusement park | Beers on the train as we travel towards Pyongyang
Having fulfilled the criteria that we weren’t spies or journalists, we were returned our passports they had earlier collected. I was to be the only one who had a physical record of ever being in North Korea. A visa is required to enter the country, however, I was the only one who went to extra efforts to have mine issued in my passport at the North Korean embassy in London – rather than a piece of paper that is collected at the border. After a two hour wait at the border, we breathed a sigh of relief as the train made its way through the countryside towards Pyongyang. The journey would take a further six hours so we took the opportunity to explore the train and take advantage of not being in the clutches of our minders yet. We were amazed to find a dinning cart in one of the middle carriages. Having entered it seemed we had transported back in time, back when WW2 was still at the forethoughts of everyone. Loose table and chairs filled the space and there was a linger of smoke in the air. Flags drooped on the wall and there was a stale appearance of everything. The sides of the carriage had been stained a yellowish colour from the sun and there was a true dated feel. We sat down, hoping to enjoy our first North Korean Beer. Disappointingly it wasn’t to be. Not because they didn’t have beer, or because they wouldn’t serve us, but because there was only an array of western beers – clearly someone had spilled the beans that this journey would compile of a group of westerners who thought this was what we would want. Sitting and talking about what we were expecting from this trip, we noticed numerous officials in elaborate uniforms making their way to and from the carriage further on. Conveniently for them, the entrance was behind the bar, forming an instant barrier from the rest of the carriage, but we decided to take our chances and see what was further down the train. One step behind the bar and we were already stopped. An official in a bright blue uniform and the size of someone who would clearly still be deemed ‘a brick wall’ back home appeared and gestured we are not to go any further.
Curiosity was clearly not going to get the better of us this time round. We returned to our bunks as not to cause any further trouble and gazed out the windows. There was not much to see apart from the occasional village consisting of a handful or traditional bungalows but it was worth noticing the lack of vehicles on the road. In the entire journey, I could count on one hand how many motorised vehicles we had seen. People scattered the most remote fields without purpose it seemed and soldiers stood watching over them as if waiting to see who would be the first to try and steal something out of the ground. Expressionless just as they had been on the border, the faces bore no smiles or emotions as we waved from the carriages. Whether this was out of fear for reprisal from the on-looking population or hate towards the West I couldn’t say. I suppose in a society where it is encouraged to ‘snitch’ on your friends and neighbours, it is better to be safe than sorry and not react.
Above: Traveling through North Korea before finally arriving at the Pyongyang station
As we arrived in Pyongyang, the sun was setting and there was a stark contrast from the rest of the country. Vehicles were abundant; we saw a taxi service, public transport busses and the general hustle & bustle you get with most capital cities. For the first time we saw tarmac in the country and people who were dressed affluently. Tower blocks littered the skyline and people were going about their business rather than standing without purpose. The streets were grand and there was plenty of space – there was clearly more money here than I had been expecting.
The train pulled into the main station in Pyongyang and without a second to wonder of and explore, we met our two minders for the first time who would escort us everywhere for the next couple of days. A minibus stood waiting for us directly outside the station and we were made to board it to make a direct trip to the hotel. The only sightseeing we would be doing today would be the pre-approved route towards the hotel which was conveniently placed on an island, with escape impossible should there be an urge to do some urban exploration.
The Yanggakgo Hotel was grand but very dated. It was something you could imagine being at the top end in the 1980’s. Marble laced the large open reception area and footsteps echoed throughout. Light from the energy saving bulbs reflected an office like light and porters stood either side of the entrance and lifts. We handed over our passports and checked in to our home for the next three days. We received our keys and made our way to the 35th floor of the hotel where surely we would be greeted by a spectacular scene in the morning. For now, the sun had already set and darkness and misery gloomed over Pyongyang.
Taking in the sights of Pyongyang
Opening our curtains on the 35th floor was a surreal experience in the morning. Just to sit, gaze and let the mind wonder about everything I had heard about North Korea was amazing. The sky line was somewhat higher than I expected, but there was the distinctive grey that is associated with misery. This was no day for misery however. Having put on our smartest trousers and shirts (this was compulsory) we trudged down for the buffet style breakfast that you would find in any western hotel around the World. I couldn’t help but feel a tad guilty gorging on rice, noodles and even fried eggs for breakfast whilst next door the local population was probably starving. No time to dwell on this and as with everything in the DPRK, we had a schedule to uphold. Today was the late Kim Jong-il’s birthday, a celebration that we would be taking part in by visiting the mausoleum where he and The Dear Leader, Kim il-Sung are lying in state.
Above: The view from our ‘island’ hotel | Like many cities Pyongyang also has an Arch of Triumph
Upon arriving at the mausoleum, we were quickly patted down for any electrical devices and personal objects. Security here is much tighter than any airport I had travelled through. Everything apart the clothes we were wearing were deposited in a cloakroom and even our shoes were inspected and polished. Long escalators that you would find at airports filled the marble hallways lined with portraits of the Great Leaders. It must have been a good 40 minutes door to door until we reached the room in which Kim Jong-il was lying in state where we were not allowed to walk, merely stand on the moving walkways (travellator) and wait to be transported to a square room lit in a dark red glow with a glass chamber in the middle. Here lays Kim Jung-il. In each corner stood a soldier with a watchful eye ensuring no disrespect passed unnoticed and our respects were paid by bowing to the late leader from all sides. We walked around the chamber gazing at the man, the man who according to North Korean was more powerful than God himself, the man who still looked so life like, so peaceful. The man who was dead but still being worshipped.
We had clearly overstayed our welcome and it was not a few minutes after we had entered the room that we were being ushered out of the room, not physically but with the immediate intimidation of a 6 foot North Korean soldier making his way towards us. We could tell it was time to leave. Outside, soldier were gathering and celebrating by taking pictures of their units with the backdrop of the leaders, something we were not permitted to do.
The rest of the day was spent more leisurely visiting pre-approved sites of Pyongyang, the first of which of course was the 30 metre bronze statues of the leaders that are famous around the world. Less know is the fact that every individual who comes to visit here must buy a bouquet of flowers (stands conveniently placed at the bottom of the monument) and place it at the feet of the leaders and follow it with a 90 degree bow. Do not do so and you show disrespect and I can only imagine what may happen as I found myself in a spot of bother attempting to conceal a picture I had been trying to capture holding a Doinit card. Now anywhere else in the world, even in the middle of the Sahara, it would be easier to explain and reason with someone about what Doinit was – a travel blog, not here. How do you explain blog to someone who’s never used the internet? Promptly I was told to delete the picture of the business card posing in front of the statue and a watchful eye on myself from now on I considered myself lucky, if not a little paranoid perhaps.
Above: The bronze statues of Kim il-Sung (left) and Kim Jong-il (right)
Our second stop was another frequently televised part of North Korea. Mostly likely unknown by name, though perhaps able to be guessed, Kim il Sung Square. Accordingly to our guide this is the largest city square in the World. In reality it’s the 30th.
Nonetheless the size is impressive and plays host to the numerous military parades North Korea has been known to run as a sign of power. White markings line the floor indicating the exact distance between steps a soldier needs to make in order to remain in perfect unison. Today there was no sign of the military might and instead had been replaced by the sound of laughter and screams from children roller blading the streets. If it hadn’t been for the white marking reminding you of where you were, it may have been anywhere else where democracy rules. Able to walk around the 75,000 square metre plaza, we took the opportunity to try and engage with some local children taking a keen interest in us. As we approached, sweets in hand, Ryan managed to take a picture with them and attempted to give them some sweets. A sense of nervousness seemed to have swept over them and after giving them the look over, they forcefully pushed them back into his hand and sped off. Having been brainwashed against the Imperialistic West, it seemed that kids had forgotten to be kids and from there on in, they continued to take interest, even followed us as we walked, however maintained a healthy distance as not to be accused of fraternising with the enemy.
Above: Kim il-Sung Square hosts numerous military parades. The white marks show where the soldiers march
Our penultimate stop took us to a flower exhibition dedicated to the birthday of the late Kim Jong-il. Even named after him, as is the trend with everything, the two storey building was filled with thousands of red flowers all arranged strategically. Not even the flower show could escape the propaganda that we had been accustomed to by now and there were frequently references and models of warheads and missiles. In all honestly the exhibition was rather dull however I did take interest in just walking around and wondering around the people soaking in the atmosphere.
Above: Dan meeting the local girls at the flower show to celebrate Kim Jong-il’s birthday
Our last stop for the day took us to the monument of the Workers Party; a symbol for every North Korean demonstrating the ‘working intellectual’ and reinforcing the Juche philosophy of self-reliance. Here we were not only to ‘admire’ the monument but to part take in another celebration to Kim Jong-il. A mass dance had been organised and there were hundreds of university students dressed in elaborate clothing waiting to take part in a synchronised dance. This to our surprise included us. Volunteering as cameraman and photographer, I line myself up next to state run TV to avoid having to take part; I have two left feet when it comes to dancing. I watched on as everyone paired up with a North Korea dance partner. International language of dance took over and despite not knowing any of the moves, everyone found themselves laughing and enjoying.
Even with the appearance of happiness and fun, conformity was screaming out and I guess it can be said that this was a true insight into North Korea. Even the haircuts of the students varied between only two styles and individualism shunned. I do not mean that the entire country is singing, dancing and having a good time, but the dance did show the big brother society. Everything was highly orchestrated, conformed to, and of course, watched.
Above: A mass dance by the monument of the Workers Party
Daytrip to the DMZ
A 2 hour minibus trip on the most deserted motorway I have even been on takes us to the DMZ. There was nothing much to take notes on with the roads only taking us through empty fields but the vast emptiness of the roads. Inter travel between cities is highly prohibited without the relevant paperwork and whilst taking a quick break on the Reunification Highway, we were able to stand and pose mid highway without any danger of being run over. In fact in a 20 minute stop, we saw just one motorised vehicle and that was filled with military personal. With all the hatred between the two Korea’s it still seemed strange to see road signs indicating the direction and distance from Seoul on the side of the road but I guess this road would have the potential to become one of the busiest in the World if ever the two Korea’s reunited and people would still need to know the way and distance.
Upon arriving at the DMZ, we were greeted by one of the chief soldiers who would essentially be another chaperon and give us some information on how the DMZ was formed. He spoke no English and therefore everything he said had to be translated by our guide, from the “hello’s” to the “if the imperialist Americans want to provoke another war we will smash them from the face of the planet” – I couldn’t help but hold in a subtle snigger, as did my travel companions.
Ironically named, the De-Militarised Zone is actually the World’s most heavily militarised border and North Korea was not shy in showing this. No matter where you looked there was a sea of green uniform, all brandishing pistols and other weapons. There was definitely a sense of tension in the air. We were given a brief history of the moving boundary and taken to the huts on the border where talks between the USA and North Korea were held. On either side of the hut were doors to the opposing Korea, guarded by soldiers and with the border passing directly through the huts, we were effectively able to stand on South Korean soil – albeit very briefly as once again we had clearly overstayed our welcome and ushered out by soldiers only after a couple of minutes.
There was so much to take in but there was no better vantage point then the building that overlooks the border. From here we could see the entire operation of the Panmunjom Truce Village. What surprised me was that there seemed to be no physical obstacle, apart from the soldiers of course, to crossing the border. No barbed wire, no high wall and no border control. A simple, slightly elevated line constructed from bricks between the huts was the only visible boundary between the two Korea’s. It was however unmistakeable to distinguish between the two sides for South Korea equivalent building was doused in CCTVs, compared to North Korea’s which was patrolled by soldiers. Whilst watching it was funny to see how far the World of selfie’s had reached as we were treated to three US soldiers marching from the South Korea counterpoint to the border and taking a picture of themselves.
Above: The DMZ. Blue buildings belong to North Korea, white buildings to the USA | We are treated to a North Korean history lesson
That evening we were treated to a visit to Pyongyang’s only bar, conveniently placed in the diplomatic quarters were only the western diplomats are permitted to go. Though it was more of a room with a distinct lack of atmosphere, we were still privileged enough to be in the presence of some Nigerian diplomats and undersecretaries, sharing a few glasses of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, which once they left the remainders were poured back into the bottle.
Return home and final thoughts
The next morning we were taken to the train station and the same routine as on arrival ensued. The train departed at 10am and a long journey with a hangover brought us to the same border we had entered through. It was now that paranoia really set it. So close to the ‘freedom’ of China, freedom being said very loosely, yet a major obstacle stood in the way. It was now or never that we would be dragged off the train and accused of being spies or smugglers. But luck was on our side. The same border guard who had waved us off with a very British “Goodbye” when we arrived greeted us once more. He made his way through someone’s camera and came across footage of me filming the synchronised dance in celebration of Kim Jong-ils birthday and hysterics followed. The guard was so amused at the apparent un-coordination of the Westerns that all of a sudden, there was no need to worry about the hidden memory cards, the smuggled bottle of North Korean beer for my brother, and the customary North Korea bank notes we had exchanged in the hotel as a souvenir in our wallets. This time the process was much quicker and once again the officer put on his best accent and waved us off with “Goodbye”.
I had never expected to see the true North Korea however the glimpses that I had seen with my own eyes is not what I had been expecting. Having watched documentary after documentary and read countless books I had been told to expect the worse and of course I would not argue with testimonial of any defectors about the hardship that North Koreas endured on a day to day basis, however, in Pyongyang, people generally seemed happy – smiling, waving, roller blading, playing volley ball and having fun. That is of course because they know nothing else and therefore why should they not be happy. As far as they are concerned, North Korea is the greatest country in the World.
There were also numerous other contradicts to the popular beliefs brought about from the westernised documentaries and wealth is one of them. There is a lot of money in Pyongyang these days and it is a fully operational capital city with its own taxi services and public transport systems. Electricity is more widely available and brightly coloured neon lights now illuminate the impressive Pyongyang skyline. The only visible thing missing seems to be shops and advertising. From what I saw on my trip, Pyongyang is almost entirely built up of residential buildings and therefore there is still a strange feeling about this city. As all the food is rationed by the state, there is no need to advertise products as there is nowhere to buy them. The state controls the food and you are to be happy with what you are given. There are still clear glimpses of the regime though and the hostile feelings to the rest of the World. The run in with our guide and the picture was a real heart raising moment as too was another incidence in which a follow companion had been taking pictures of a neighbourhood we were not supposed to see. Shouts and threats followed and the inevitable deletion of pictures occurred. Still, a definite recommendation for any enthusiast.
WHERE TO STAY
As part of an organised tour you will have very little control over where you can stay. You will likely be accommodated at the Yanggakdo International Hotel.